Insights from the non-canonical gospels - The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster

The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster (2009)

Chapter 6. Insights from the non-canonical gospels

What is a ‘non-canonical’ gospel?

In the introductory chapter the question was raised concerning what the terms ‘non-canonical’ and ‘gospel’ actually denoted. Hesitant answers were provided. After considering various non-canonical gospels, those answers have probably not become any less hesitant, but perhaps the reasons for hesitancy have become clearer. The range of texts to which both ancient and modern scholars have attached the label ‘gospel’ is in some ways amazing. Starting with the four canonical gospels, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke are extremely similar, no doubt due to the literary dependence between these texts, the fourth gospel, John’s account, already shows a diversity of form, language, and theology. Yet these differences appear relatively minor when compared with other writings outside the confines of these four canonical texts. Perhaps those texts that cover the same phase of Jesus’ life as the canonical accounts show the most commonality with the four gospels of the New Testament. Thus the Gospel of Peter or the fragmentary stories in Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840 and Papyrus Egerton 2 appear to cohere with familiar accounts of Jesus’ life. While such texts are easier to appropriate under the title of ‘gospel’, this does not say anything about their authenticity, nor does it automatically support claims that they may be a repository of alternative traditions about Jesus. Rather, with the three non-canonical texts mentioned above, it was argued that in different ways they were all derivative upon the New Testament gospels and that they probably preserved little if any independent historical details that could be traced back to the historical Jesus.

Similarly, the infancy gospels only further problematize the understanding of the category of ‘gospel’. These were seen as being essentially gap-filling exercises which sought to satisfy the curiosity of the pious. Yet even texts as bizarre as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas with its maverick and deadly boy-Jesus could be labelled as a ‘gospel’. The Protevangelium of James circulated in antiquity without the term ‘gospel’ being attached. That categorization was applied by its modern rediscoverer. Nag Hammadi texts differed greatly in form and content, yet four of the texts in that collection bear the term ‘gospel’ in their titles. One of these, the Gospel of Thomas, is the least speculative among this group of texts. Yet it is different to the narrative-type gospels in that it consists of a series of 114 sayings which seem to have little structural organization beyond being a compendium of words of Jesus. With the other Nag Hammadi gospels one enters into a different world of theology and thought. This combined with the variations in literary genre makes one realize how stretched the term ‘gospel’ had become. Therefore, perhaps the most that can be concluded is that texts which appear to have some link with Jesus and also relate an understanding of ‘good news’ or salvation, seem to have had the potential to be classified as gospels.

The category of ‘non-canonical’ is at one level much easier, since by definition it describes any text not in the canon of the New Testament. However, the foregoing discussion of specific texts demonstrated that the distinction is perhaps not simple. When considering the Protevangelium of James, it was noted that this was a widely circulating text, which in the Greek-speaking church was generally regarded as being ‘orthodox’ in its theological outlook and hence was used to supplement mainstream beliefs. Others regarded the theological value of this text as virtually nil - from such a perspective the text was deemed to be non-canonical. Thus the classification of a text as being ‘canonical’ presses one to ask the question, ‘canonical for whom?’ The Nag Hammadi library represents a highly varied collection of manuscripts, yet this corpus of texts may well have functioned as an authoritative collection for the readers of those texts - or was it no more than a chance miscellany of literary works? Therefore the classification of texts as ‘canonical’ or ‘non-canonical’ is an arbitrary and perspectival choice. Perhaps the best reason for retaining the distinction is simply that it preserves the traditional categories and thus it can be employed for ease of reference.

The non-canonical gospels and the historical Jesus

Conspiracy theorists seem to adore the non-canonical gospels. They are employed to support the suggestion that the image of the true Jesus has been suppressed, buried under layers of ecclesiastical constructs that domesticate the revolutionary message of the teacher from Nazareth. It is true that by comparison the canonical accounts present a relatively tame picture of Jesus, who is best understood within a 1st-century Jewish context. Perhaps it is because the canonical gospels present a Jesus whose teaching and life is tightly linked to a specific historical setting that in some ways these texts have become less attractive to postmodern tastes. By contrast, the non-canonical accounts are often free from the limitation of historical context, and their esoteric teachings are ambiguous enough to be interpreted in multiple ways. Yet even if the utility of the ideas in non-canonical gospels is more appealing for those pursuing contemporary spiritualities, this does not make their portrait of Jesus more authentically historical. If Jesus, the 1st-century Galilean, has become irrelevant to modern minds, he cannot be reclaimed by privileging historically dubious representations of him. Bad history does not make for good faith. It needs to be acknowledged that most of the non-canonical texts appear either to derive in various ways from the four gospels of the New Testament, or they seem to be the products of speculative and visionary theological schools that flourished between the 2nd and 4th centuries.

This is not to say that no material in the non-canonical gospels has any claim of originating with the historical Jesus. Rather, expectations should be limited. As has been discussed, the Gospel of Thomas is the most likely source of extra-biblical authentic Jesus tradition being preserved among the non-canonical gospels. Some forms of sayings which parallel canonical versions actually appear more primitive and consequently raise the possibility that they retain a form of wording closer to that actually spoken by Jesus. Again there is still a huge gap between what is recorded and what Jesus may actually have said. The Gospel of Thomas, at least in the fullest form in which it is preserved, is written in Coptic. This is likely to be a translation of a Greek version, evidenced by the fragments discovered at Oxyrhynchus. Jesus himself almost certainly gave his teaching in Aramaic. So even if the Gospel of Thomas does preserve the wording of a saying closer to that uttered by the historical Jesus than a version preserved in the New Testament, this is still perhaps two stages of translation removed from Jesus’ actual spoken words. Where the Gospel of Thomas may provide more interesting data is when it presents otherwise unattested sayings that have a degree of probability of originating with Jesus. In reality, most scholars who even entertain this possibility would place only a small selection of sayings from Thomas in this category.

Belief that the non-canonical gospels offer the possibility of repristinating early Christianity is just that - a belief! When the material contained in these texts is analysed from a thoroughgoing historical perspective, the vast majority of sayings and narratives are seen to stem from the period subsequent to the New Testament and thus have lesser claim than the canonical gospels to be accurate portraits of the historical Jesus. Does this then mean that the study of non-canonical gospels is a fruitless endeavour?

Hopefully not, but it needs to be recognized that their value lies elsewhere.

What is the value of the non-canonical gospels?

Hopefully by now it will be recognized that texts can have multiple layers of historical contexts. A modern historical novel, set in Tudor England say, may wish to transport readers back to that period, or help them to experience the authentic feel of Elizabethan England. Attention may be given to dress, diet, and even details of the station and influence of major figures. Yet often, in order to connect with a modern readership contemporary concerns must be projected back on to ancient characters. Thus the psychological, relational, and financial concerns they express can have a very modern feel, which while resonating with 21st-century readers would nonetheless actually be foreign to the purported context.

The same is true with the majority of non-canonical gospels. They reflect the concerns of their world more closely than the world of the 1st-century Jesus. Yet for the historian of ancient Christianity this is itself an extremely important window onto the piety, practices, and beliefs of diverse groups of Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries - and beyond. For example, the Gospel of Peter shifts the blame for the crucifixion heavily onto the Jews and seeks to absolve the Roman authorities. This does not mean that its storyline accurately represents the 1st-century historical reality. However, it is vitally important to understand that at least by the end of the 2nd century, early Christians were downplaying Roman involvement, perhaps to remove the offence of Jesus having been crucified by imperial authority, and simultaneously allowing Christians to scapegoat one of the groups that most fiercely disputed claims of Jesus’ messiahship and divinity.

Non-canonical gospels are also a powerful witness to the diversity of early Christianity itself. It has long been recognized that ‘the winners write history’. Even within Christianity there have been victors and those whose perspectives have been defeated and rejected. Regardless of whether this is piously seen as being due to divine providence, or rather more pragmatically as being due to the vagaries of history, it remains the case that what emerged as ‘orthodox’ Christianity was able to produce the narrative of the history of the church. In so doing, it either neglected competing understandings of the faith, or represented these as heretical and deviant. More than anything else, what the non-canonical gospels permit is the opportunity to hear once again those voices from the margins. By reading these texts it is possible to enter the thought-world of various mystical and experiential forms of Christianity. The discovery of such texts has rescued long-lost voices and in the process enlarged the understanding of the diversity and variety of early Christianity.