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Early Christian Apocrypha

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 [...]

The Gospel of Judas: The Most Recently Discovered Sethian Gnostic Gospel

For anyone interested in Gnosticism, the most recent full Gnostic Gospel to appear, the Gospel of Judas, is a real treasure.  In my previous post I described the broad contours of Gnostic views and the more specific Sethian understanding of the divine realm, the world, humans, an salvation.  Different Sethians, of course, would have different views of things (think of all the Catholics, Episcopalians, or Baptists you know or know of!).  The Gospel of Judas presents a particularly intriguing form of the Sethian myth. I have said some things about the Gospel of Judas on the blog, but it's been a few years, so it's worth talking about again.  You can find a translation, done by my colleague Zlatko Pleŝe, in the volume we co-edited and translated: The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament.  We also give the following Introduction to the text; I will give the rest of the Introduction and a bibliography, and a bit of the translation itself, in the next post. ****************************** The Gospel of Judas is the [...]

Gnostic Views in General and the More Specific Views of One Known Group (The Sethians)

I can now describe as succinctly as possible the basic views that appear to have been widely shared among various of the Gnostic groups, before giving a bit more detailed information on one of our best known groups, the Sethians.  All this is taken from my textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press). ****************************** MAJOR VIEWS OF VARIOUS GNOSTIC GROUPS Despite the many differences among the various Gnostic groups, most of them appear to have subscribed to the following views: The divine realm is inhabited not only by one ultimate God, but also by a range of other divine beings, widely known as aeons. These aeons are, in a sense, personifications of the ultimate God’s mental capacities and/or powers (some of them were called such things as Reason, Will, Grace, and Wisdom). The physical world that we inhabit was not the creation of the ultimate God but of a lower, ignorant divine being who is often identified with the God of the Jewish Bible. Because [...]

2023-10-22T18:47:45-04:00October 28th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Some of the Difficulties in Understanding Gnosticism

Now that I've discussed the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, I can move into the kinds of religion found among these books, popularly known as the "Gnostic Gospels."  And that will involve laying out the views found among the various Christian groups of the second and third century (principally) that scholars call Gnostic.  Gnosticism is a fascinating topic, but it is also widely misunderstood, in no small part because scholarship on Gnosticism over the past twenty or thirty years ago has shown that the widely held views of earlier generations of scholars were based more on assumption than on evidence. There have long been heated debates over even how to define Gnosticism. Until about a hundred years ago, just about the only sources scholars used for understanding Gnosticism were the writings of its most vocal opponents, the proto-orthodox church fathers of the second, third, and fourth centuries.  The problem is, as we all know so well (think: American politics!) you can't really rely on what a group's enemies say if you want to know [...]

2023-10-17T11:33:26-04:00October 26th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

Interesting Questions About the Books From Nag Hammadi

There are a lot of unsettled questions about the "Gnostic Gospels," that is, the books of the Nag Hammadi Library. After my recent posts I received some interesting questions that *can* be settled, and here I deal with two of them: one that’s a zinger and the other that has been asked by several readers. First the zinger. The reader noted that I indicated that the books of the library were manufactured in the fourth century; we know this because the leather bindings on the books had their spines strengthened with scrap papyrus (and is therefore called cartonnage) and some of these papyri were dated receipts. And so the reader’s question: QUESTION: Just out of curiosity – what form of dating did the compilers of the books use, that would correspond to our “341 CE” and so on? I’m assuming they weren’t using Roman dates. But were the Romans themselves, in that era, still using dates “ab urbe condita”? RESPONSE: This is a great question, and I have to admit, I had [...]

Are There Really Good Reasons to Doubt the Story of the Discovery of the Gnostic Gospels? My Response to Mark Goodacre

A couple of days ago we enjoyed a guest post on the blog by Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament at Duke University.  In this post Mark provided five reasons for doubting if the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library – as that story has been recounted by scholars for many years – is in fact accurate.  Mark’s post was a summary of a longer, more detailed, and scholarly article that he has published on the subject. In 2015, when I first discussed this issue on the blog, I asked Mark’s permission to respond to his five points, and he gladly agreed; I in turn agreed to let him respond to my responses.   Rather than asking you to reread his post, I have reproduced each of his five reasons here, and then dealt with them one at a time. Let me say that I really don’t have a horse in this race, and my sense is that Mark doesn’t either.  We would both love to be able to keep telling the story, [...]

2023-10-12T10:45:56-04:00October 22nd, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, History of Biblical Scholarship|

Why We Might Doubt the Story of the Discovery of the Gnostic Gospels: Guest post by Mark Goodacre

A few days ago I posted about the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, giving the remarkable story that scholars -- for as long as I myself have been a scholar -- have been telling about how it happened.  I also mentioned that my New Testament colleague at Duke, Mark Goodacre – who is on this blog and who has an important blog of his own – has written an article calling this story into question. Years ago when I was discussing this matter on the blog, I asked Mark if he would be willing to summarize his objections to the story as it is typically recited, and he did so in the following post.   He's asked me to add a couple of links at the end in case you want to look more deeply into the matter. ****************************** Five Reasons to Question the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery  I am grateful to my friend and colleague Bart Ehrman for mentioning me in his blog in connection with the fascinating and compelling story of [...]

2023-10-12T10:37:17-04:00October 21st, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, History of Biblical Scholarship|

What Is Actually In the Nag Hammadi Library?

For near fifty years now the "books that did not make it into the New Testament" have been a source of fascination, not just for scholars but for regular ol' folk intrigued by the idea that there may have been alternative forms of Christianity, a wide range of seemingly bizarre beliefs and practices out there in the early centuries of the church. In my previous post I gave the standard tale of how the most significant discovery of such books occurred in 1945 somewhere near the village of Nag Hammadi Egypt (and therefore called the Nag Hammadi library).  The story I told has fallen into some disrepute over the past decade, for reasons we'll see in the next post.  Before dealing with that issue, however,  it's important to see what this library/collection of books actually is.  Here is how I describe it in my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press).  ****************************** What was this ancient collection of books?  The short answer is that it is the [...]

2023-10-12T10:32:08-04:00October 19th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, History of Biblical Scholarship|

Our Most Important Discovery of Ancient Christian Writings: The Nag Hammadi Library

The most significant discovery of Christian manuscripts (ever) was the Nag Hammadi Library, popularly (and a bit inaccurately) known as "the Gnostic Gospels." One of the intriguing features of the discovery is that no one is quite sure how it happened.  When I was in graduate school, everyone heard a standard tale that we then passed along with some glee to our students.  But now that story is in a bit of disrepute -- thanks in large part to that destroyer of New Testament Scholarship Orthodoxy, my friend and colleague, Duke professor, Mark Goodacre, as you will see in subsequent posts.. Just to be clear: the discovery itself was definitely made.  We have the books of the Nag Hammadi Library, readily available in English translations.  And I want to talk about a few of them.  But first I want to talk about what we know and don't know about the discovery itself. I'll start, in this post, by giving the popular tale that, until relatively recently, just about everybody knew.  This is how I laid [...]

Were Jesus’ Brothers His … Brothers? The Proto-Gospel of James

In the Gospels conference a few weeks ago (New Insights Into the New Testament; see New Insights into the New Testament: A Biblical Conference for Non-Scholars (, Candida Moss gave a fascinating presentation on (the historical) Jesus' actual family. That is a major issue in the non-canonical Gospel I have been discussing just now in this thread, the Proto-Gospel of James. This Gospel was very popular in Eastern, Greek-speaking Christianity throughout the Ages, down to modern times; and a version of it was produced – with serious additions and changes – in Latin, that was even more influential in Western Christianity (a book now known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew). In some times and places, these books were the main source of “information” that people had for knowing about Jesus’ birth and family – more so than the NT Gospels. The idea that Joseph was an old man and Mary was a young girl? Comes from the Proto-Gospel (not the NT!). The view that Jesus was born in a cave? Proto-Gospel. The [...]

2023-10-21T10:34:10-04:00October 14th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha|

When a Gospel Meets the Twilight Zone: As Time Stands Still in the Proto-Gospel of James

In my previous post I mentioned one of the most significant passages of the Proto-Gospel, where the midwife Salome doubts that a virgin had given birth (note: she does not doubt whether a virgin could have *conceived* [although no doubt she *would* have doubted it!]; what she doubts is that a woman could give *birth* and still have her hymen intact. That, obviously, would be impossible), and gives Mary a postpartum examination only to find that in fact she really is still a virgin (i.e., “intact”). Immediately before that amazing scene is another that I find at least as entrancing. In it, Joseph himself describes – in the first person – what happened when the Son of God came into the world. This was such a cosmic event, that time stopped. And Joseph describes how, by explaining what he saw at that moment. Every time I read this passage I think of a Twilight Zone episode that I saw once where everything slowed down to a virtual standstill except the main character, who observes everyone [...]

2023-10-12T16:42:39-04:00October 12th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha|

The Gospel Before the Gospel: The Proto-Gospel of James

In this thread I've been talking about some of the more famous Gospels that are not in the New Testament. I move now to one that I've talked about on the blog before, but it's been a few years so it's worth talking about again. It is arguably the most influential Gospel outside the canon: the Proto-Gospel of James (which scholars call the Protevangelium Jacobi -- a Latin phrase that means “Proto-Gospel of James,” but sounds much cooler….). It is called the “proto” Gospel because it records events that (allegedly) took place before the accounts of the NT Gospels. Its overarching focus is on Mary, the mother of Jesus; it is interested in explaining who she was. Why was *she* the one who was chosen to bear the Son of God? What made her so special? How did she come into the world? What made her more holy than any other woman? Etc. These questions drive the narrative, and make it our earliest surviving instance of the adoration of Mary. On the legends found [...]

2023-10-04T10:55:14-04:00October 11th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha|

The Messy World of the Early Christian Gospels. Who Is Copying What?

Many people who think about how the Gospels circulated in early Christianity have a pretty simple -- or rather, overly simplified (in my view) -- understanding of how it all worked.  I include among those "many people" a number of Gospel experts.  In fact, including a lot of the top experts.  The issue is this: what earlier accounts of the life, sayings, deeds, death, and resurrection were in circulation and used in the production of later accounts (say at the end of the first and into the second century).  I’ll talk about it here with reference to Papyrus Egerton 2, about which I’ve only said a few things. Scholars have traditionally thought of the four canonical Gospels as THE Gospels that were available, so that when a new Gospel like the Unknown Gospel in Papyrus Egerton 2 appeared the question always was: WHICH of the canonical Gospels was the author familiar with (and which did he use).   I challenged that view in my earlier post.   We shouldn’t think that there were basically FOUR, and everything [...]

2023-09-29T14:12:06-04:00October 1st, 2023|Canonical Gospels, Christian Apocrypha|
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