Christian Apocrypha: The “Lost Gospels”?

Apocryphal texts and early Christianity


The 27 books of the canonical New Testament were settled in Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria’s annual Easter letter (the 39th Festal Letter) in 367 C.E. It was once believed that this pronouncement, alongside his denouncement of the Christian apocrypha, was enough for believers to abandon all noncanonical texts. This belief is now questioned by scholars. Photo: Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY.

Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria wrote in the fourth century C.E. that the Christian apocrypha—texts that refer to the life of Jesus and his followers that are not included in the New Testament—“are used to deceive the simple-minded.” It was once believed that after the Church had determined the contents of the canon, all of these additional (noncanonical) texts were abandoned, hidden or destroyed. In “‘Lost Gospels’—Lost No More” in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Biblical scholar Tony Burke challenges this assertion.

“Today scholars of the Christian apocrypha are challenging this view of the loss and rediscovery of apocryphal texts,” explains Burke. “It has become increasingly clear that the Christian apocrypha were composed and transmitted throughout Christian history, not just in antiquity.”

Burke explains that after the invention of the printing press, scholars began to travel the world in search of ancient manuscripts that they could bring to light again with the use of this new invention.

Another modern “invention” has also aided in the scholarly understanding of the history of Christian apocrypha: archaeology. At Egyptian sites such as Oxyrhynchus and Akhmîm, archaeologists have unearthed texts or works that were previously known only from their mention by other ancient authors.

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.


The Tchacos Codex, which contains the apocryphal Gospel of Judas, came from the antiquities market.

Other texts, such as the Nag Hammadi Codices13 codices that include complete copies of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip—have come from the antiquities market.

“It has become increasingly clear that Christianity began as a multitude of voices, each one declaring itself right and others wrong,” states Burke, who rejects the idea that these gospels were “lost” through intentional suppression by the “winning” tradition, the Roman Church.

All this leads Burke to conclude that the Christian apocrypha “were valued not only by ‘heretics’ who held views about Christ that differed from normative (or ‘orthodox’) Christianity, but also by writers within the church who did not hesitate to promote and even create apocryphal texts to serve their own interests.”

Learn more about the Christian apocrypha and their role in Christian history by reading the full article “‘Lost Gospels’—Lost No More” by Tony Burke in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “‘Lost Gospels’—Lost No More” by Tony Burke in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha by Tony Burke

The Nag Hammadi Codices and Gnostic Christianity

The Sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas


Posted in Bible Interpretation, New Testament.

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  • David says

    Yes, many people held onto these texts, continued to believe them, allowed them to reduce and disfigure the image of the Messiah. They were human beings.

    In the last two centuries, in the United States, we have seen the acceptance of the Book of Mormon, and other heretic writings.

    Because they are written, should we believe them? Or should we continue to be as the Bereans?

  • Georgia says

    This is so interesting and informative. I really enjoyed it and greatly appreciate Mr.Burkes study and research. He is a wonderful writer and i really enjoyed this.

  • James says

    There were writings that had a very large following, and some that had less so. The outlier is that text which was not really all that widely beloved, yet which found an advocate in some articulate “Church Father.” John was not in very good position to be included in the canon, but one advocate pushed John very energetically, and the result is that it’s in there, at the end of the other gospels, but having split Luke I and Luke II (which we now call Acts). There was no suppression; the less popular documents simply did not tend to get copied, and after a generation or two were lost and forgotten. In the land of human-copied texts, it was a world of publish or perish, as least in the long term, and we certainly are talking long term here.
    While much of the scriptures were pretty much set from very early on, e.g., the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke (both volumes), many parts were included for some time which are no longer familiar to us, and some were nearly excluded. The Council of Florence took steps to set the canon but it was not until later that the canon was actually set and closed. Athanasius, God be good to him, did not set the canon; that would come much later.

  • gary says

    The opposition to heresy was a very early (apostle Paul, example) occurence, long before the ascendancy of the Church of Rome’s claim to being top dog!

  • Jay says

    Gee I wonder what irenaeus would have thought when writing “Against the Heresies”?
    While I think and have no problems with people restoring Gnostic Texts to keep the facts straight, sects like the Manicheans believed that their founder was the reincarnation of multiple semi divine beings, to say that the Church fathers of the orthodox faith would ever have said, sure it’ cool to write you own, whatever, and declare it canonical is nuts, because otherwise any type of writings would be merely of the nature of theological discussions and or positions.

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