The Other Gospels

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering June, 2005)

Since the 19th century it has been known to scholars that there were numerous other gospels and histories dating from early Christian times. They were given the name Apocrypha, meaning "hidden books". When compared with the New Testament, they gave a very different version of events. It seemed obvious, therefore, that they came from later centuries, and were the product of fantasy working on a largely unknown period, that of the first apostles of Jesus. The New Testament canon of authorised books stood out from them as an apparently more reliable account, with more acceptable doctrines.

This understanding was encouraged by the existence of Old Testament Apocrypha, books also called Pseudepigrapha, "false writings", because they claimed to have been written by early Old Testament figures. One set claimed to have been written by Enoch, who appears in Genesis 5:18 as a seventh generation descendant of Adam! These books were certainly written in the few centuries BC, long after the Old Testament canon of authorised books was closed. They are a product of the culture of their own times, when Judaism had become influenced by Hellenism, Greek thought.

It appeared that the New Testament Apocrypha, like the Old Testament Apocrypha, were similarly of antiquarian interest only, of no value for the actual history. But in 1945 the situation became more complex with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, books hidden in a jar that was accidentally unearthed at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. The books contained Christian works which their own titles called gospels, as well as many other works relevant to early Christianity. Gospels were attributed to New Testament writers - Thomas and Philip. The doctrinal content of all the writings was gnostic, and this connected them with the Egyptian Christian monastery of Pachomius. Gnosticism was a system of thought known to have flourished after the apostolic period. It taught that only certain people were saved spiritually, those who had the "divine spark". They were Knowing Ones (gnostics) because they had higher learning , making them superior to ordinary mortals.

It was at first assumed that all the Nag Hammadi works were composed in the third or early fourth centuries, the time when the books were manufactured - as shown by dates on scraps of papyrus used to pad out the binding. But continuing study saw evidence that some might be very early, preserved for a long time in the monastic library. Consequently, they could have historical value, reflecting beliefs and events of the 1st century, even when these seemed to disagree with the New Testament. The discovery of the books had forced scholars to see that early Christianity was far more diverse than had been thought, and this diversity was a feature of its original history.

The dogma of canonicity began to break down. The New Testament was seen to be a selection of books representing the views of one community of early Christians, those who became established in Rome. Other communities claimed equal authority for their divergent views, but their books were not recognised by Rome and only survived in other countries.

In this section we will be seeing why this flood of additional material, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament Apocrypha and the Nag Hammadi books, when taken in conjunction with the pesher of New Testament books, is capable of revolutionising our understanding of Christian origins.

Questions and comments on the contents of this section are invited. More of the apocryphal and gnostic literature will be added in response to readers' requests.
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