A young university student asked for a clarification about the New Testament and the “Apocrypha.” A classmate had told him that there were many other early Christian documents, called “Apocrypha,” that should have been included in the New Testament. “So” the student asked me “is this more fake news or is the church hiding something just like they have hidden clerical sexual abuse?” My first reaction was: what a sad commentary on our times. But then I thought it was better to offer a clear explanation – and then in a future discussion to move on to other issues.
The New Testament consists of 27 books, which are a selection out of many 1st and 2nd century CE writings that Christian groups considered sacred. They are called the “New Testament Canon” based on the Greek word kanōn, which literally meant a reed used as a measuring rod and the word therefore came to mean “a standard.”
The process of making the official standard list of New Testament books stretched over a long period. The list of what books should be included differed among the hundreds of Christian communities in antiquity. The criteria for acceptance into the “canon” were: true doctrine, broad acceptance and usage, and apostolicity.
A number of early texts were not considered canonical because they were not connected to the apostolic age or they were local writings without support in many areas. These texts outside the accepted canon of the New Testament make up what we call “apocrypha,” from the Greek word apokryptein meaning “to hide away.” It referred first of all to writings which were to be read privately rather than in the public context of Christian services.
During the time of the definitive formation of the canon in the 2nd century, apparent differences existed in the Western churches, in close contact with Rome, and those of the East, as in Alexandria and Asia Minor. Athanasius of Alexandria (293 – 373) the Bishop of Alexandria and a powerful and influential theologian definitively listed the New Testament books in the canon in 367 CE and settled the strife between East and West. The 27 books of today’s the New Testament — and they only — were declared canonical. Later councils affirmed this. The Council of Trent of 1545, the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation, reaffirmed the earlier affirmations of the Council of Florence of 1442 and the North African Councils of Hippo and Carthage from 393–419.
So which books did not make the canon? Here are what I suggest are the most interesting books that did not become part of the New Testament.
The Apocalypse of Peter
This 2nd century book was written as a conversation between Jesus and his followers. It basically describes all the horrible things that happen in hell and all the awesome things that happen in heaven. It is very detailed about what punishment fits which crime for those in hell. Those who are blasphemous to God, for example, are hung by their tongue. But those who go to heaven sing beautiful music, have beautiful bodies with great skin, wear shiny clothes, and smell nice.
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Epistle of Barnabas is a book written between 70 and 130 CE. The main message of the Epistle of Barnabas is that the Hebrew scriptures — what would become the “Old Testament” in Christianity — were actually Christian documents from the very beginning. It offers a completely different interpretation of the Torah that it claims points to the validity of Christianity.
The Infancy Gospel of James
The book, written in 145 CE stresses the importance of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to early Christians. It describes her unique birth, her adolescence, and the early years of Jesus life. It stresses Mary’s perpetual virginity and God’s involvement in choosing her husband Joseph. The book describes in detail Herod’s killing of children in Bethlehem, and presents Jesus’ birth, taking place in a cave.
The Shepherd of Hermas
It would have been a very well-known book to the early Christians. It appears to have been very popular in the 2nd and 3rd centuries but its popularity had almost entirely died out by the 4th century.
The Shepard of Hermas was also very controversial at the time. It was used as scripture by some early churches and despised by others. The early Christian scholar Origen (c. 185 – c. 253 CE) quotes it as scripture. But the “founder of Western theology” Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE) as well as theologian and philosopher Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 CE) regarded it as heretical. The Shepard of Hermas is an allegorical book written mostly in the first person describing the visions of Hermas, a former slave.
Clement is one of two letters sent to the church in Corinth and attributed to Pope Clement of Rome (c. 35 – 99 CE). It is one of the earliest written books that eventually failed to make it into the New Testament, being dated to around 95 CE. The book itself is mostly focused on a dispute in the Christian community at Corinth about the removal of several leaders, which Clement strongly objected to.
The Gospel of Thomas
One of the most famous books not included in the New Testament is the so called Gospel of Thomas. It is not a book that was passed down through the ages but was rediscovered as part of the Nag Hammadi Library in upper Egypt in 1945. There is no evidence it was widely read by the early Christians and the few existing references refer to it as heretical. The book does not mention the death and resurrection of Jesus but focuses on his teachings and how they lead to eternal life. Scholars have proposed dates of composition as early as 60 CE and as late as 250 CE.
The Jesus Seminar (a group of scholars, active from 1985 to 2006, to decide their collective view of the historicity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus of Nazareth) asserted that the Gospel of Thomas may have more authentic material than the Gospel of John. They published a book in 1996 titled The Five Gospels, which includes the canonical four plus Thomas. But John Paul Meier (1942 – 2022) the U.S. American biblical scholar and Roman Catholic priest repeatedly argued against the historicity of the Gospel of Thomas, stating that it cannot be a reliable source for the quest of the historical Jesus.
The U.S. American historian of religion, Elaine Pagels, Professor of Religion at Princeton University, argues in her book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003), that the Gospel of John was written as a rebuttal to the viewpoints put forth in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. But she insists that the Christian Church would look very different if it had incorporated both texts. Pagels’ best-selling book The Gnostic Gospels (1979) examines the divisions in early Christian communities. It is a provocative and a very worthwhile read.
The Didache or “The Lord’s teaching of the twelve apostles” is basically a set of step-by-step instructions for a Christian life. It is dated by modern scholars to the first or (less commonly) second century CE. The first section is on how Christians should apply the commandments of God. The second section deals with the sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist and with fasting.The third section is about ecclesial structure. The Didache was considered for inclusion in the New Testament by some in the early days of the Christianity.
Third Epistle to the Corinthians
The Third Epistle to the Corinthians is an early Christian text written by an unknown author claiming to be Paul the Apostle, known originally as Saul of Tarsus (c. 5 – c. 64/65 CE). This letter has survived and was included in some early lists of sacred documents, but by the 4th century it was not considered valid. It is considered by most scholars to have been written by someone other than Paul the Apostle.
In conclusion, I suggest the most important part of this reflection is not just the historical information about early Christian texts but the call of the Gospels to be and to live in the Spirit of the Christ.
I would, therefore, like to conclude this week’s reflection with two texts from the Fourth Gospel: John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it in all its fullness,” and John 14:19-20: “In a little while the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
That is our hope and our challenge.