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Early Christian Apocrypha

An Apocryphal Story of Mary’s Conception of Jesus

In my previous post I introduced the seventh-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, one of the most popular Christian writings of the Middle Ages.  It tells an expanded version of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and then yet more legendary tales of what happened afterward.   I continue here with another intriguing portion of the account: the events surrounding Mary conceiving Jesus, even though she was a virgin, and the reactions of Joseph when he realizes she is pregnant, and then – something completely missing from the New Testament – the religious “test” inflicted on her by others to see if she was telling the truth. Again, this is taken from the translation in my book The Other Gospels, produced with my colleague Zlatko Pleše.   The Annunciation 9 1 On the next day while Mary was standing beside the fountain to fill her small pitcher, an angel appeared to her and said, “You are blessed, Mary, for you have prepared a dwelling place for God in your spirit.   Behold, a light will come from heaven [...]

A Different Account of Joseph and Mary!

As we move to the Christmas season, I thought it would be interesting to post some extracts on one of the most popular Gospels in the Middle Ages, an account of Jesus’ birth – and before that, his mother Mary’s birth – and what happened in the aftermath.   It is called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, because modern scholars once thought that it had claimed to be written by Matthew (the author of the first canonical Gospel); but in fact, as you will see, it claims to be written by Jesus’ brother James. The Gospel comes to us in Latin and was probably produced in the early 7th century.   Some of you may know, from the blog or elsewhere, a Greek Gospel of this description from the 2nd century, the Proto-Gospel of James.   This later Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is a kind of reworking and expansion of the Proto-Gospel, with some parts removed, lots more added, and others simply altered.  It may be that its unknown author wanted to propagate the stories of the Proto-Gospel in the [...]

Peter and Mary Magdalene in Competition

I began this short thread with a discussion of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, where she seems to be Jesus’ preferred follower; I then talked about the idea that there were women apostles in the earliest period of the church – according to Paul himself – and pointed out an old tradition that in fact Mary was the very first apostle. I want to pick up there, and show how not just in the Gospel of Mary but in other parts of the early Christian tradition Mary and Peter were sometimes portrayed in controversy over who was Number One! Here is how I discuss it in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. ******************************** As I’ve intimated, this view that Mary was the original apostle – the one commissioned to tell the good news of Christ’s resurrection –  is found already in the books of the New Testament.  In the Gospel of Mark, it is Mary Magdalene along with Mary the mother of James and Salome who come to the tomb on the third day, [...]

2020-11-15T09:07:44-05:00November 18th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Women in Early Christianity|

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

In my undergraduate class on ancient Gospels and modern Jesus films this semester we looked at one of the truly intriguing but little known early Gospels, “The Gospel of Mary.”  This second century does not claim to be written by Mary Magdalene, but she is the main figure in it – the one to whom Jesus gave a secret revelation about ultimate reality, much to the chagrin of the male disciples who can’t believe that Jesus would reveal the secrets of the world to a *woman* instead of them. It is a Gnostic Gospel – by which I mean that it is based on “gnostic” myths about how humans are trapped here in their material bodies and need to learn the secrets about themselves, about the world, and about how to escape their physical prisons – all this through the secret “knowledge” (Greek = gnosis) that Jesus can provide. We have no record of a Gospel according to Mary (Magdalene) from the early church, The book was, in fact, unknown until its discovery at the [...]

2020-11-05T23:25:54-05:00November 13th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Women in Early Christianity|

John, the Bedbugs, and Miracles that Convert

This week in my graduate seminar we discussed the Apocryphal Acts of John, one of the five surviving (lengthy) accounts of an apostle engaged in missionary activities after the resurrection of Jesus. These accounts are highly legendary, with almost no historical information in them, but they are fantastic books – entertaining early Christian fiction, even though, probably, the people who read them assumed they were descriptions of what really happened. The five surviving accounts are the Acts of John, Thomas, Peter, Paul, and Andrew. Among the legendary information we find in these books are stories that people still today often simply assume are true, for example, that Thomas was the missionary to India, that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, and that Paul had his head chopped off. The Acts of John probably comes from the end of the second century, and so a hundred years or so after John the disciple of Jesus would have died. Like the others, it was written in Greek. I talk about it a bit in my [...]

2020-10-23T23:32:45-04:00October 8th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha|

The Roman Standards Worship Jesus? From the Gospel of Nicodemus

Yesterday I said a few things about the Gospel of Nicodemus; here is the opening section of it.  As you’ll see the author does his best to convince his readers that this is an authentic account (even though it was written over three centuries after Nicodemus would have been dead).  And then comes one of its intriguing passages: despite everyone’s best efforts, the Roman standards (bearing the emblem of the emperor himself – thought, of course, to be a god) bow down to Jesus during his trial.   Terrific account! This is my translation from the Greek version of the book, found in The Other Gospels. The Gospel of Nicodemus Public Records about our Lord Jesus Christ, Composed Under Pontius Pilate I, Ananias, a member of the procurator’s bodyguard, well versed in the law, came to know our Lord Jesus Christ from the divine Scriptures, coming to him by faith and being deemed worthy of holy baptism.  I searched out the public records composed at that time, in the days of our master Jesus Christ, which [...]

2020-10-23T23:40:48-04:00October 1st, 2020|Christian Apocrypha|

A Gospel of Nicodemus?

This week in my graduate seminar we discussed one of my favorite-of-all-time-non-canonical Gospels, the Gospel of Nicodemus.  I am devoting an entire chapter to one of its episodes in the book I’m working on now (on “otherworldly journeys” in early Christianity), which describes Jesus’ “descent into Hades” between his death and resurrection, the most famous “Harrowing of Hell” narrative in the early Christian tradition (Jesus descends in order to save people who had died before his crucifixion). I haven’t said much about the Gospel on the blog before.  This is how I discuss and explain it in the book I co-produced with my colleague Zlatko Pleše, The Other Gospels.  In later posts, I’ll give some excerpts from the account itself. *************************************** Scholars have long debated whether any of the earliest Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death were devoted exclusively to his passion.  Source critics in the nineteenth century argued that there were (no longer surviving) written accounts behind the passion narratives of Mark and of John.  More recently, some scholars have seen a distinctive [...]

2020-10-23T23:44:01-04:00September 30th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha|

Some Intriguing Selections from the Gospel of Peter

Now that I’ve said a few things about the Gospel of Peter, I thought it would be interesting to give you a bit of it.  It is a fascinating account, with lots of intriguing differences from the Passion narratives of the New Testament.  As I said in my previous post, its most striking passage involves Jesus’ resurrection. It may come as a surprise to some of you to hear that the resurrection of Jesus is never narrated, or even described, in the New Testament.  But that’s true.  The NT Gospels explain how Jesus was crucified and buried; they then pick up the action on the third day after with the women finding the empty tomb.  But they don’t say a word about what actually *happened* between those two events, when Jesus came back to life and then emerged from the tomb.  The Gospel of Peter does provide an account. Below I’ve included the section of the Gospel on Jesus’ Burial, skipped the bit about the discovery of the tomb, and then given the section on [...]

2020-09-26T22:44:49-04:00September 25th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

A Very Odd Saying of Jesus

Now *here* is a recorded saying of Jesus I bet you haven't heard before.  Unless you've been reading the blog for years.  It's one of my favorites from outside the NT and it has an odd connection to a question I raised yesterday about the Gospel of Peter.  As I pointed out then, the "Gospel of Peter" that we have today, which was discovered in 1886, is, unfortunately, only a portion – the only surviving portion – of what was once a complete Gospel.  But was it a complete Gospel? Or was it a passion Gospel (like the later Gospel of Nicodemus) that gave an account only of the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus?  That has long been debated. The weird saying of Jesus I'm talking about is NOT found in that fragment of the Gospel of Peter, but it may help decide whether Peter was a complete Gospel or not. In recent years a German scholar named Dieter Luhrmann has argued that other portions of the Gospel of Peter have shown up, in [...]

2020-09-24T18:44:36-04:00September 24th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

And Now: The Gospel of Peter!

Each week just now I'm talking about one of the apocryphal texts that I have assigned to my graduate seminar this semester on early Christian apocrypha.  This week we took on one of my all-time favorites, the Gospel of Peter.  I've mentioned it on the blog before, but it's been a while.  I've been writing about it in the book I'm working on, and I'm particularly struck by how enigmatic and fascinating it is. Unfortunately, we have only a fragment of the book, which begins smack dab in the middle of an episode and ends, literally, in the middle of a sentence.  To show why that in itself so tantalizing, let me first say a bit about what the Gospel is (at least that part of it we still have!). The Gospel of Peter comes from one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries of Christian texts in the nineteenth century.  In the winter season of 1886-87, a French archaeological team headed by M. Grébant was digging in Akhmîm in Upper Egypt, in a portion of [...]

2020-09-23T17:52:44-04:00September 23rd, 2020|Christian Apocrypha|

Jesus’ Twin Brother? Really? Readers’ Mailbag

Here is a question I get with some fair regularity, and which I have addressed several times on the blog in the past.  Since I made a few posts on the Coptic Gospel of Thomas last week, I've received it again several times -- including this succinct way of asking. QUESTION: I’m perplexed by how Jesus could have had a twin brother. Jesus was miraculously conceived of the holy spirit so how did a twin get into Mary’s womb at the same time? RESPONSE: Here is what I've said before about the matter which, for what it's worth, is one of the most intriguing in early Christian traditions, from where I sit: ************************************************* 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 [...]

2020-09-21T16:15:47-04:00September 21st, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Historical Jesus|

The Secret Message of the Gospel of Thomas

This will be my last post for now on the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.  Here I try to unpack its overarching meaning.  It delivers a surprising method, quite different from that found in the Gospels of the New Testament.  Its author, of course, thought he was delivering the ultimate truth.  It's interesting to think about what would have happened if people found him more convincing than the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Again, this is taken from my textbook on the NT.   ************************************************************************************** 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”). [...]

2020-09-17T16:35:41-04:00September 17th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha|

The Gospel of Thomas: Some Basic Information

In my previous post I cited the first eighteen sayings of the Gospel of Thomas.  There are 114 altogether, but those first ones give the sense of the whole.  I'll spend a couple of posts explaining a bit further what this Gospel is all about, first with a basic overview of its most important aspects.  This is taken from my textbook on the New Testament: ***************************************************************************** The Gospel of Thomas 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 of Jesus. The Sayings of the Collection. The sayings are not arranged in any recognizable order. Nor are they set within any context, except in a few instances in which Jesus is said to reply to a direct question of his disciples. Most of [...]

2020-09-16T16:43:59-04:00September 16th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha|

Our Most Important Gospel from Outside the NT: The Gospel of Thomas

This week in my graduate seminar we will be discussing the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, not to be confused with the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that I mentioned in a post last week, with which this one has no relation, apart from the fact that both claim to be written by Thomas, a.k.a. Didymus Judas Thomas, i.e., Jesus’ brother Jude. By far this Gospel of Thomas is the best known, most read, and most significant Gospel from outside the New Testament.  It was accidentally discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi Egypt as one of the 52 documents contained in a set of twelve books, with part of a thirteenth, now widely known as the Nag Hammadi Library.  Most of these documents are Gnostic. Like all the others, this one is written in Coptic and is a Coptic translation of a Greek original.  The book that contains it was produce in the mid-fourth century CE.  But the Gospel itself was originally composed in the early second century CE.  It is hard to say when after this [...]

2020-10-29T16:48:35-04:00September 14th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

The Earliest Infancy Gospel: Some of the Critical Problems

In my previous post I gave some of the early chapters from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  It seems like a pretty straightforward and entertaining set of early legends about the boy Jesus.  But it turns out the scholarship on the text is complicated.  Here is how I describe some of it in the edition I co-authored with my colleague Zlatko Pleše, The Other Gospels.  I have omitted here some of the more technical discussion (mainly about manuscripts in other ancient languages, that are so different from one another that we are not sure even what the Gospel was originally called); but this should give you a taste of some of the key issues scholars wrestle with. ******************************************** The so-called Infancy Gospel of Thomas presents some of the most intractable textual and historical problems of the entire corpus of early Christian literature.  On the most basic level, we do not know the scope and contents of the original version of the book, if we can even speak about an “original.”  This Gospel, in its various [...]

2020-10-29T17:00:18-04:00September 6th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha|

Jesus as a Boy? The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

This coming week in my graduate seminar we will be discussing the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.  Do you know it?  Fantastic book! I often get asked which non-canonical book would I include in the New Testament if I were given the choice.  I sometimes mischievously answer, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas. “Mischievously” is an appropriate term.  This is a set of legendary stories about Jesus as a child, starting when he was five and going up to twelve, ending with the story found (only) in Luke’s Gospel about Jesus as a twelve-year old in the Temple discussing the Law with Jewish teachers (the unknown author of Infancy Thomas got the story from Luke).  Many of the stories do seem to portray him in a mischievous light, especially to modern readers.  Is this Jesus the Super Brat?  Many readers (especially the first time through) think so.  Others argue there are more serious things going on. There were probably a number of reasons for someone to write this book.  In part, of course, it was to satisfy [...]

2020-10-29T16:59:55-04:00September 4th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha|

My Early Christian Apocrypha Seminar

I am teaching a PhD seminar this semester on the early Christian apocrypha; it's a little hard to define what those are, though hundreds of people have tried!.  The way I define them are as non-canonical books that are similar in genre and contents to those that did make it into the canon.  Or something like that.  They comprise Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses, they can be "orthodox" or "non-orthodox" (= " heretical"); most of them claim to be written by apostles (but not all); the ones I'm most interested in date from the second to the fifth centuries. It's a fairly but not crazily heavy-hitting class.   It meets once a week for three hours.  Here, for your amusement and reading pleasure (especially if you do the assignments!) is the syllabus: To see what follows, you will need to belong to the blog.  Not a member yet?  Now's the best time ever to join.  Why?  Because you can't join in the past.     Reli 801: Early Christian Apocrypha Instructor: Bart D. Ehrman Fall 2020 [...]

The Opening Section of the Gospel of Judas

Here is the first bit of the Gospel of Judas from the translation of my colleague Zlatko Pleše in our book The Other Gospels.  After this bit here, the Gospel gets very strange, at least to most modern readers.   But as you can see, it is really interesting. The first paragraph is the explanation of where we got the text from; then the translation of the opening scends, and after that I give the bibliography for further reading that we cite in our book.   ************************************** Our 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 Gopsel of Judas.   These have been photographed and they have begun to be studied; for our translation of the account here we have [...]

What is the Gospel of Judas About?

I have said some things about the Gospel of Judas in my previous posts, but not much, really, about what is actually in it.   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 most recently discovered Gospel to be published, and is arguably the most important and intriguing Christian text to appear since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in 1945.  Details of the discovery and the mishandling of the manuscript by antiquities dealers are provided in the exhaustive account of Herb Krosney.  The manuscript containing the Gospel preserves three other gnostic works as well: the “Letter of Peter to Philip,” known in a slightly different version from the findings at Nag Hammadi; the [...]

2020-08-05T15:20:17-04:00August 5th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha, Heresy and Orthodoxy|

A Very Odd Story about the Baby Jesus

Over the past few days I have been working on my syllabus for the graduate seminar I will be teaching this term, on Early Christian Apocrypha -- that is, other Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses that did not become part of the New Testament.  As chance would have it, I was also just now browsing through some old blog posts, and came across this one, posted on this date seven years ago.  It is about one of the most historically influential and downright interesting Gospels from outside the New Testament.  In the Middle Ages, this book was sometimes *treated* as Scripture:  it inspired a good deal of Christian art, for example, and provided people with "information" about Jesus' birth and what happened before it. So I thought I should post it again.  Here it is: ********************************** In my graduate class on non-canonical Gospels, we typically analyze 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 [...]

2020-10-28T01:56:21-04:00July 29th, 2020|Christian Apocrypha|
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