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The Seekers' Guide to the Bible

What is not in the New Testament

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The early canons

We often hear that the contents or canon of the NT were not finalized until the Council of Carthage in 397. This is true but the key word is finalized. The canon that was confirmed at Carthage had been compiled by St Athanasius of Alexandria about thirty years before. What he had been doing was assembling all the books that he was absolutely sure about as part of his campaign against the Arian heresy. Ironically, Athanasius does not appear to have been as strict as some of his predecessors and included a few books that were considered questionable.

Of the twenty seven books of the NT, nineteen have been accepted by every orthodox churchman who had ever expressed an opinion. These were the four Gospels, Acts, all of Paul's letters except Philemon, 1 Peter and 1 John. Note that they are not claiming that the other books have anything wrong with them but rather that they were not of apostolic origin.

One of the earliest lists we have comes from Rome at the end of the second century which was published in 1740 by Ludovico Antonio Muraturi and is called the Muratorian Canon. I have previously discussed it above under 'traditional authorship'. It includes the Gospels, Acts, 1, 2 and 3 John, all of Paul's epistles, Jude and Revelation. It also includes an Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. The Shepherd of Hermas is rejected as being too recent.

Meanwhile in the East, Origen had his own list from the same period. He went for the Gospels, Acts, all of Paul's letters, 1 Peter, 1 John, Jude and Revelation. He is doubtful about 2 Peter and James but does include the Shepherd of Hermas which he thinks is divinely inspired.

As we can see, Jude, Hebrews, 2 and 3 John and Revelation all gained general acceptance as did Philemon. The later may just be missing from some lists as it was not considered very significant. James and 2 Peter were about the last to win widespread acceptance although Eusebius questions Revelation as late as the mid forth century.

The important point to grasp from all this is that, although there was a lot of discussion about a few of the books of the NT, the core has never really been questioned. We have already discussed the books that actually made it into the NT and so here I will cover the ones that did not quite make it as well as some that never had a chance.

The near misses

Exactly which works we categorize as near misses is very much a matter of taste. Those that I have excluded from this section will appear under the apostolic fathers below. In general, a near miss is a book that at least one church father thought ought to have been in the New Testament. Clicking on the title will take you to the text.

The Shepherd of Hermas

The Muratorian fragment tells us that Hermas was the brother of Pope Pius I who reigned about 150 AD (if reign is the right word that early on). The fragment itself refers to Clement who was pope in about 100 AD. It is therefore hard to be more specific about dates than 100 - 150 AD. The book itself is about a series of visions in which Hermas meets the church personified as an old lady and a certain shepherd who preaches about repentance. Even though it did not make the NT, it is an edifying piece of early devotional literature.

The Epistle of Barnabas

Barnabas occurs quite frequently in Acts as a helper of Paul. However, this letter is usually dated to about 130 AD and does not say who wrote it. The writer has a detailed knowledge of the OT which he quotes at length. He also knows about the vinegar that Jesus received on the cross (7:3) as well as the destruction of the temple by the Romans (16:4). The letter itself is a long exhortation for morality but the writer obviously has quite a high opinion of his readers.

The First Epistle of Clement

This is usually seen as a genuine letter from Bishop Clement of Rome dating to about 95 AD during the persecution under Domitian. Clement is clearly feeling rather hassled as he refers to calamities and reverses that have made him late in writing to the Corinthians. They have been having an argument among themselves and seem to have asked Clement to arbitrate. Clearly, this is early evidence that the Bishop of Rome had some sort of overriding authority in the early church, at least in Greece. However, it could have been Clement's personal standing that caused the Corinthians to refer their dispute to him.

The Second Epistle of Clement

Unlike 1 Clement, this is more a homily than a letter and does not appear to be by Clement himself. Instead, it is dated to the first half of the second century. It is another exhortation on morality.

The Epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans

It was not until the fifteenth century that questions about this work were finally settled to the satisfaction of everyone. It hung around so long because if it was by Paul then it should be in the NT.  It certainly contains Pauline teaching. Indeed it looks like a composite of some of Paul's other letters. Since a letter to the Laodiceans is mentioned in the canonical letter to the Colossians (4:16), we know that it did exist. The only problem would seem to be that this is not it.

The Apocalypse of Peter

The Muratorian canon mentions this along with the Apocalypse of John (that is, Revelation) but says it is not accepted by all. I cannot really tell why one should be canonical and the other not. It can hardly be said that one is more fanciful than the other. That said, this one is a little later and perhaps not such a good example of the genre.

The apostolic fathers

There is a good deal debate about who exactly the apostolic fathers are. Nowadays, the term is generally restricted to orthodox writers from before 150 AD. First among them is Clement of Rome whose letter to the Corinthians mentioned above nearly made it into the Bible itself. Hermas is also included in this category. The 'church fathers' is a general term for Christian writings up until about 800 AD and they fill thirty eight volumes in the standard work. Luckily they are all available over the Internet and for download.  The discussion of this section is restricted to the first volume of the set only.

Ignatius

After Clement, the earliest of the fathers is Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who was supposed to have been martyred under the Emperor Trajan in about 115 AD. We have seven of his letters as well as a few others in his name. He wrote them on his way to death at Rome and touchingly asked the Roman Christians not to use their influence to obtain his release. This suggests some Christians occupied positions of power even at this early stage. He also wrote to Polycarp who refers to the letter in his own Epistle to the Philippians. A later work on his martyrdom is full of details about him that can in no way be substantiated.

Polycarp

The bishop of Smyrna was martyred at Rome in around 155 AD. We have a contemporary account of his death that was circulated to the churches afterwards. He was a pupil of John of Ephesus and an important witness to the apostolic tradition. He wrote many letters, but only one, to the Philippians, is extant.

Justin Martyr

After examining many forms of philosophy, Justin converted to Christianity as an adult and set about defending it against pagans. He ran a school for Christian thought in Rome where he was martyred in 165 AD with several of his pupils. Of his works, two volumes of apologetics are extant as well was his dialogue with a Jew called Trypho. His work is of incomparable importance in what it tells us about early Christianity.

Irenaeus

Irenaeus was the Bishop of Lyons during one of the worst early persecutions there in 177 AD. He carried a letter to Rome at the time. He had been a pupil of Polycarp and wrote his Against Heresies as a devastating attack of Gnosticism and Montanism. Irenaeus was fiercely orthodox and was one of the reasons that none of the large number of heresies that sprang up in the second century prevailed.

The Gospels of Peter and Thomas

Of the vast number of apocryphal and Gnostic writings that we now possess only two have attracted very much attention from scholars.

The Gospel of Peter

The only fragment we have of this Gospel details the passion and resurrection. It is notable for being extremely anti Jewish and taking elements from all four canonical Gospels. For this reason it appears to be part of a harmony of the Gospels with some extra details added. For example, there is a fantastical account of the resurrection and a meeting between Pilate and the soldiers who were guarding the tomb. The fragment is usually dated to about 150 AD by which time the four Gospels would have been in general circulation for the author to draw upon.

The idiosyncratic NT scholar, John Dominic Crossan, thinks that the Gospel of Peter actually records the earliest witness to the death of Jesus - a so called 'Cross Gospel'. Needless to say very few of his colleagues are persuaded by this unusual stance. For a start, the inclusion of Herod and the white washing of Pilate both seem to follow Luke. See my analysis of the text of the Gospel fragment here

The Gospel of Thomas

Although Greek fragments had been found a little earlier, the complete Gospel of Thomas was only discovered in 1945 at Nag Hummadi in upper Egypt. This version is in Coptic, the language of Christian Egypt, and consists of 114 sayings of Jesus - only some of which are familiar from Luke and Matthew. The rest of the sayings seem to be obscure to say the least and perhaps echo eastern wisdom literature like the teachings of the Buddha. Some scholars claim the Gospel to be Gnostic in origin because it was found with lots of undoubtedly Gnostic texts.

Most scholars date Thomas to about 140 AD if not later. However, the Jesus Seminar believe it should be considered contemporary with the hypothetical Q. That means they think it is earlier than the canonical Gospels and certainly cannot be Gnostic in origin. I would be overjoyed to find that we had an independent early record of the sayings of Jesus but I cannot quite believe it. The Seminar do not seem to believe it either as they do not think many of the sayings recorded in the Gospel of Thomas have any chance of being authentic.

Two aspects of the Gospel of Thomas need to be pointed out. Firstly, the rather disturbing 114th saying where Peter describes women as an admonition is probably a later addition. Secondly and conversely, Mary Madgdalene is described as a disciple in Thomas whereas the canonical Gospel writers seem to imply the 'women' did not have that status. I think that women were disciples and that trying to exclude them was a deceit of a later generation. Note that this does not mean Mary was one of the twelve apostles but rather one of the larger group of five hundred odd.

Other Gospels, Acts and Apocalypses

As a perusal of this website will quickly demonstrate, there is a vast body of early Christian literature in the form of 'Acts', 'Gospels' and 'Apocalypses'. The later are mainly fantastical prophecies and not very interesting. The Acts, however, can be enormous fun and many of the legends are very familiar. For example, it is in the late second century Acts of Peter that we find the story of Peter leaving Rome only to find Jesus heading in the opposite direction. "Quo vadis, domine?" ("Where are you going, Lord?") asks the ageing disciple.  Back to get crucified again, says Jesus, as you have run away.  Peter, of course, immediately turns around and meets his fate in Rome.

The various Acts of Pilate are interesting because Justin Martyr refers to something of the same name in his Apology. In fact, Justin is asking the Emperor to whom he is writing to check up on Pilate's reports in the Imperial archives. Justin just assumes there will be something there. These Acts were written well after Justin was alive by someone who felt that the work referred to ought to exist. Oddly, Pilate himself is actually a saint in some Orthodox churches in the East.

The apocryphal Gospels try to fill the gaps in Jesus' life left by the canonical books. Note how what is in the four Gospels themselves is never questioned but instead they concentrate on Jesus' childhood and early life. These can be enjoyable and if you are interested in paintings, they are indispensable as many scenes were taken from them by artists. Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, appears only in these works and not in the canonical Gospels.

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James Hannam 2003.
Last revised: 09 June, 2013 .