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Early Christian Apocrypha

Other “Unknown” Sayings of Jesus

Here are now some more “agrapha” (sayings of Jesus not found in any of the surviving Gospels; I say more about "agrapha" in the previous post).  These ones are found in writings of church fathers, who appear to have had access to Gospels unavailable to us, or at least to have heard non-canonical sayings of Jesus in some other way.  (You will be able to find info on each church father/writing mentioned pretty easily online) *****************************  Papias (according to Irenaeus Against Heresies 5. 33. 3-4) Thus the elders who saw John, the disciple of the Lord, remembered hearing him say how the Lord used to teach about those times, saying: “The days are coming when vines will come forth, each with ten thousand boughs; and on a single bough will be ten thousand branches.  And indeed, on a single branch will be ten thousand shoots and on every shoot ten thousand clusters; and in every cluster will be ten thousand grapes, and every grape, when pressed, will yield twenty-five measures of wine. [...]

2024-04-04T10:07:39-04:00April 13th, 2024|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

Ever Hear of an Agraphon? An “Unwritten” Saying of Jesus?

To my surprise, I've never talked about the "agrapha" of Jesus before on the blog.   It's about time I did!  This is an intriguing topic connected with the teachings of Jesus known to almost precisely No One!!  (I'd bet a case of fine French wine that your pastor -- if you've ever had one, in any kind of church whatsoever  -- wouldn't be able to tell you what it's all about! Welcome to the world of the insiders. Here is what I say about the agrapha (plural of agraphon) in the book I published with my colleague Zlatko Pleše, The Other Gospels (Oxford, 2014). ****************************** The term “agrapha” has traditionally been applied to a group of “unrecorded” sayings allegedly delivered by the historical Jesus.  The term is not altogether apt, since technically speaking these sayings have indeed been recorded--otherwise we would have no access to them.  And so the term is more normally taken to mean sayings of Jesus that are not found in the canonical Gospels.  Even this definition is problematic however, since it privileges [...]

2024-04-04T10:35:46-04:00April 11th, 2024|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

What We Knew about the Gospel of Peter Before We Had the Gospel of Peter

This is the second of my two posts on the Gospel of Peter.  When the fragment that we now have was discovered by archaeologists in a cemetery in Egypt in 1886, it was almost immediately recognized as the Gospel of Peter, not because it had a title on it, but because it fit so well a description of the Gospel in the writings of Eusebius, the early church historian. In two places in his ten-volume history of Christianity (from Jesus to his own day around 300 CE) Eusebius mnentions the book twice as one of the writings not accepted by the church as Scripture (Church History, 3. 3. 2; 3. 25. 6).  And on one other occasion, Eusebius discusses the book at some length, in order to show why it had been excluded from consideration from the canon. The story involves Serapion, a bishop of Antioch at the end of the second century.  Based on an account he had read from Serapion’s own hand, Eusebius indicates that Serapion had first-hand knowledge of the [...]

Is That a Portion of a Famous Lost Gospel?

Here is an intriguing and mysterious fragment of an ancient Gospel (that is to say: the manuscript of this book was entirely lost, EXCEPT for this little bit that just happened to turn up).  I’ll bet my bottom dollar (but none of my other dollars) that you will think it is a fragment of one of the Gospels of the New Testament.  WRONG!   It is a clever combination of various Gospel accounts into one narrative, a “Gospel Harmony.” Scholars have long debated: is it a portion of the most famous ancient Gospel Harmony of them all, the massive work known as the Diatessaron (I’ll explain below), which we are desperate to get our hands on but probably never will?  (It has been completely lost; no manuscripts survive). Here's the tiny fragment of the something we have, with a discussion to follow:  Both the translation (it’s mine) and the introduction (slightly edited) are taken from my book, done with Zlatko Pleše, The Other Gospels (Oxford University Press, 2014).  There you can also find translations [...]

Was Jesus Opposed to Women and Childbirth? The Lost Gospel of the Egyptians

Now here are some conversations between Jesus and one of his women followers I bet you’ve never seen before! When Salome asked, “How long will death prevail?” the Lord replied “For as long as you women bear children.”  But he did not say this because life is evil or the creation wicked; instead he was teaching the natural succession of things; for everything degenerates after coming into being.  (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, 3, 45, 3) Why do those who adhere more to everything other than the true gospel rule not cite the following words spoken to Salome?  For when she said, “Then I have done well not to bear children” (supposing that it was not necessary to give birth), the Lord responded, “Eat every herb, but not the one that is bitter.”  (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, 3, 66, 1-2) And when the Savior said to Salome, “Death will last as long as women give birth,” he was not denigrating birth -- since it is, after all, necessary for the salvation of those who believe.  (Clement [...]

Did Paul Exchange Letters with the Greatest Roman Philosopher of His Day??

I've mentioned several non-canonical letters forged in Paul's name connected with the views of the second-century heretic Marcion.   There are other letters out there that also (falsely) claim to be written by Paul but that were not forged in order to support or attack a particular heretical view in Paul's name.  That is almost certainly the case with a set of letters that were accepted as authentically Paul's (though never accepted as canonical) for many centuries, down until relatively modern times: Paul's correspondence with the great philosopher (and personal tutor and advisor to the emperor Nero).  Here's what I say about these letters in my book Forged (HarperOne, 2011). (If you want a more thorough analysis of these, and all the Pauline forgeries I'm mentioning in these posts, I get gratifyingly down in the weeds at good length in my academic book, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics) ****************************** The Letters of Paul and Seneca A completely different agenda is found in a much later forgery of Pauline letters [...]

Paul’s Letter to the … Laodiceans? Long Thought to be Part of the New Testament!

One of the most intriguing letters forged in the name of Paul is his alleged letter to the Laodiceans.  As you’ll see, it’s intriguing both because some Christian churches accepted it as part of the New Testament for centuries and because scholars have never been able to figure out why a forger bothered to write it.  I have a theory about that though, which I laid out in my book Forgery and Counterforgery (Oxford University Press, 2013),  from which I have taken this discussion. (I’ve edited it a bit to get rid of the weeds; here I explain the issues and my argument in accessible terms). ****************************** The Letter to the Laodiceans The Letter of “Paul” to the Laodiceans is a pastiche of Pauline phrases with no obvious theme or purpose.  Apart from the opening line, drawn from Gal. 1:1, the borrowings are almost exclusively from Philippians.  About a tenth of the letter represents “filler” provided by the author, which is also without character or color. Scholars have long vied with one another to see [...]

Paul’s *THIRD* Letter to the Corinthians? A Very Interesting Forgery

Even though we don’t have the forgeries of Pauline letters connected with Marcion (they’ve all been lost or destroyed by orthodox Christians), we have other letters forged in Paul’s name that appear to be opposing Marcion (you don't need to read the previous posts to make sense of this one; but if you want to learn more about Marcion -- see the two posts preceding).  These surviving letters are forgeries written to oppose forgeries, an orthodox attempt to fight fire with fire.   One of the most interesting is Paul’s alleged Third Letter to the Corinthians! Here’s what I say about it in my book Forged (HarperOne, 2011). ****************************** Third Corinthians It was quite common for “orthodox” Christians (that is, Christians who accepted the theological views that eventually became widely accepted throughout Christianity) to charge “heretics” (those who taught “false teachings”) with forging documents in the names of the apostles in order to support their views.  We will see much more of this phenomenon in chapter five.  The Gospel of Peter, for example, was charged with [...]

How Much Fact, How Much Fiction? The Life of Peter

History or Legend?  Fact or Fiction?  A bit of both?  It’s hard to know how to understand stories about the apostle Peter found both inside and outside the New Testament.  I began with some examples yesterday, involving his allegedly raising people from the dead.  OK, probably fiction, but still – presented as fact!   I pick up there with this post, taken from my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University, 2006). *************************** The resuscitation of dead bodies may not seem all that remarkable to readers of the New Testament.  To be sure, we don’t see this kind of thing happen every day, but they do seem to happen in the Bible.  Other miraculous events, though, while no less “impossible” in a literal sense, may strike us as a bit more peculiar and subject to doubt.  Consider the episode of Peter and the smoked tuna fish.  Peter is back in Rome, trying to convince the crowds that his God is all powerful and deserves to be worshiped.  They ask him for a [...]

2024-02-26T14:25:18-05:00February 28th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Christian Apocrypha|

The Disciple Peter in History and Legend

Probably my best-named book is Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.  This is a book I wrote so I could use the title.  (A) In fact a publisher wanted to give me a contract for the book, but I turned it down because they wanted me to do other apostles too.  NO! I said.  It’s gotta be these three.  It’s perfect!  They disagreed.  Some people just don’t have a sense of humor.  So I went with a different publisher.  (!) The short thread I just did on Mary Magdalene gave me an occasion to look back at the book.  I recall writing it with some fondness, in part because it is such a great topic: three of the most important figures in the early years of Christianity: Jesus' closest disciple, his most important convert/missionary, and the one who is said to have found his empty tomb.  All three have great stories told about them in the New Testament, and from there the stories get, if anything, even more interesting.  Highly legendary, but just as highly intriguing. [...]

2024-02-26T14:26:04-05:00February 27th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Christian Apocrypha|

Jesus and Mary Magdalene Seen Kissing??

While I'm on the "Jesus and Mary Magdalene" question (see my earlier posts), what about the claims that some (lots) of people have heard, that there is a story in a later Gospel that talk about them kissing? The later Gospel in question is the Gospel of Philip, one of the "Gnostic Gospels" discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi Egypt.  Does it actually talk about this moment (or repeated moments) of intimacy? I have a reasonably full discussion of the relevant issues in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Oxford University Press 2006).   In the book I put the discussion in the context of that one-time-source-for-all-things-bibical,  Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Back 20 years ago, (nearly) everyone had read it and (most of them) thought the fictional account was, as Brown himself claimed at the outset, based on historically factual information.  Sigh....   In any event, here's what I say about it all in my book: ****************************** Some of the historical claims about the non-canonical Gospels in the Da Vinci Code have struck [...]

Interpreting a Text to Make It Seem Orthodox: Luke and Its View of Jesus

In my previous post in this thread I tried to show how one way to show that a text that embraced a “problematic” view (e.g., a potentially heretical understanding of Jesus as an *adopted* son of God instead of, say, the *eternal* son of God) was by interpreting it in light of *other* texts that held more acceptable views.  I named an example in my previous post.  I end the thread here with this one. ****************************** A similar emphasis might be detected behind the entertaining stories of other infancy Gospels, including the one that is arguably the earliest, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  It’s true that later authors like Irenaeus found this set of tales distasteful and even heretical; according to Ireneaus (assuming that he was referring to our Infancy Thomas, which I think he was; Adv. Haer 1:20) this was a gnostic text that inappropriately emphasized Jesus’ gnosis at a young age, when confronting his teachers with supernatural knowledge.  But there’s little in the text itself actually to suggest a Gnostic origin.  In fact, [...]

2023-12-18T11:04:06-05:00December 20th, 2023|Canonical Gospels, Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Jesus in Illuminated Manuscripts and Legends: Video Post

Here's something I've dug out of the archives! I was asked to speak at the Getty Museum, in the Harold M. Williams Auditorium in Los Angeles, California on Thursday, September 22, 2011 during the exhibition "In the Beginning Was the Word: Medieval Gospel Illumination." Illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages are significant for the literary texts they preserve. But they are also important, historically and culturally, for their illustrations of the life of Jesus and other figures associated with him.   These artistic representations tell tales of their own, and the visual stories are not always found in the corresponding texts. A careful examination of these images shows clearly and convincingly that medieval artists were familiar not only with the stories of the canonical Gospels but also with many noncanonical apocryphal tales of Jesus. The apocryphal stories, in some instances, were understood to be "Gospel truth" on par with accounts found in Scripture. In any event, here is the lecture that I gave: Please adjust gear icon for 720p High-Definition: Details on the "In [...]

2023-11-27T14:58:34-05:00December 7th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, Public Forum, Video Media|

How Exactly Could the Virgin-Born Jesus Have a Twin Brother?

I have mentioned in passing that there were some early Christians who thought that one of Jesus’ brothers, Jude (or Judas: both are translations of the same Greek word), was actually a twin. Not just of anyone, but of Jesus himself. Some readers have expressed surprise in the most succinct way possible, by asking: “Huh??” I talk about the matter in a couple of my previous publications, especially when speaking about early Christian apocryphal texts that deal with the missionary exploits of the apostles after Jesus’ death. We have several of these, including an Acts of Thomas. Like the other apocryphal Acts (such as the more famous Acts of Thecla – an account of the adventures of the apostle Paul's most famous legendary convert, an upper-class woman named, obviously, Thecla), this one celebrates the virtue of celibacy and sexual renunciation, and it actually uses the idea that Jesus’ had an *identical* twin to advance its views. I’ll explain how it does that in the next post. In this one I’ll deal directly [...]

2023-11-15T10:09:18-05:00November 12th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

What Is the Gospel of Thomas All About? And Did the Author Use the New Testament Gospels?

What is the Gospel of Thomas trying to teach?  In my previous post I gave a basic overview of the book; here I go into some more depth (not a huge amount) about what it's all about, what it's trying to teach, and whether it depended on Matthew, Mark, and Luke for its sayings. ****************************** The Overarching Message of the Book.      The meanings of many of Thomas's sayings are in no way obvious. If they were, they would not be called secret! Even though the book contains nothing like the Sethian or Valentian myths, some of the sayings do seem to reflect roughly analogous understandings of the world and the human’s place in it (see earlier posts on Gnosticism). Within the hearer is an element of the divine—a soul—that had a heavenly origin (it originated “in the place where the light came into being”). This world we live in is inferior at best, and is more appropriately thought of as a cesspool of suffering, “a corpse.” A person’s inner being (the “light” [...]

The Most Famous Non-Canonical Gospel: The Gospel of Thomas

We've talked about Gnosticism and in the previous post I mentioned Gnostic groups connected with "Thomas," allegedly the (twin!) brother of Jesus.  There are a number of writings written in the name of Thomas, the most famous of which is the Gospel of Thomas discovered at Nag Hammadi.  I haven't talked at length about it on the blog for several years now, so it seems like a good time to return to it here. This will take three posts.  The one today is a broad introduction to what the Gospel is and what it contains.   I have taken this from my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. ****************************** The Gospel of Thomas is without question the most significant book discovered in the Nag Hammadi library. Unlike the Gospel of Peter, discovered sixty years earlier, this book is completely preserved. It has no narrative at all, no stories about anything that Jesus did, no references to his death and resurrection. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings [...]

A Bizarre Scene in the Gospel of Philip: Jesus Kissing Mary

Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have an affair? Now that I've mentioned the Gospel of Philip, I can't help but repost a blog from a few years ago, dealing with one of the most intriguing, not to say titillating, passages from this otherwise somewhat obscure Valentinian Gospel. My original post on the topic was in a thread that was discussing whether Jesus was celibate or not, and I argued that the modern idea that he and Mary were intimately involved is ... a modern idea (without any foundation other than wild imagination and wishful thinking ) A number of readers responded to my post by pointing out that the non-canonical Gospel of Philip sure does seem to *say* they were intimate!   So, what do I have to say about that? I have a reasonably full discussion of the relevant issues in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene.   In the book I put the discussion in the context of – yes, you guessed it --  Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, the one source many people [...]

2023-10-29T17:13:17-04:00November 5th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

The Gospel of Philip: An Example of a Valentinian Gnostic Gospel

In my previous post discussing Valentinian Gnosticism I mentioned an intriguing Valentinian text, the Gospel of Philip. Now I'd like to explain what it is and give you a bit of the opening section in translation so you can get a taste of it yourself.   I've taken all this from the second edition of my book After the New Testament; the introduction is mine but the translation comes from Marvin Meyer, referenced below **************************** INTRODUCTION Even though the Gospel of Philip, also discovered at Nag Hammadi, is easily recognized as Valentinian, the book is notoriously difficult to understand in its details.  In part this is due to the form of its composition.   It is not a narrative Gospel of the type found in the New Testament or a group of self-contained sayings like the Gospel of Thomas (see Chapter 8).  It is instead a collection of mystical reflections that have evidently been excerpted from previously existing sermons, treatises, and theological meditations, brought together here under the name of Philip -- presumably Jesus' own disciple.  Since [...]

Check Out This Gnostic Myth from the Gospel of Judas!

A lot of people over the years have told me they are drawn to the Gnostic way of looking at things, but it’s pretty clear they’ve never actually read any Gnostic texts.   Gnosticism is a lot easier to like in the abstract than in the on-the-ground (or out-of-this-world) reality. When scholars typically describe Gnosticism to general audiences (at least when I do), it usually sounds very weird, rather fascinating, and more-or-less sensible.   When people actually read the Gnostic texts, some of them are like that too (weird/fascinating/sensible) – but lots of the texts seem anything but sensible.  They are (or seem to be) completely incomprehensible. I thought I’d illustrate the point by giving one form of the Gnostic myth as found in a relatively small but rather dense portion of the Gospel of Judas. Some people find that if they have a basic explanation/sense of Gnostic thought (a weird, fascinating, but sensible one as I tried to several posts ago), it is often possible to get the gist of this kind of myth (although parts [...]

The Gospel of Judas: Here’s a Taste of It

Here is the first bit of the Gospel of Judas from the translation of my colleague Zlatko Pleše in our book The Other Gospels. The first paragraph is the explanation of where we got the text from; then the translation of the opening scene. After this bit here, the Gospel gets very strange, at least to most modern readers.   But as you can see, it is really interesting. At the end I give the bibliography for further reading that we cite in our book. This translation is based on the Coptic text of Rodolphe Kasser, and Gregor Wurst, eds. The Gospel of Judas: Critical Edition.  Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2007.   New portions of the Gospel appeared in 2006, when the one-time owner of the manuscript declared bankruptcy and his remaining antiquities collection was turned over to a bank in Ohio; included in this collection were numerous small fragments of the Gospel of Judas.   These have been photographed and they have begun to be studied; for our translation of the account here we have been able [...]

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