Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Non-Canonical Gospels and the reasons they were left out

The Infancy Gospel of James tells a story silent in scripture; the life of Mary and the choosing of Joseph. Compared with the canonical gospels there are areas of overlap (Zacharius made dumb, Herod’s massacre) and areas of marked difference (birth in a cave outside Bethlehem (Thompson, Forum, 30/07/09) and the age of Joseph (section 8-9).) Mary’s position is elevated; in quantity (cf: limited stories of Jesus’ childhood), in super-humanness (walking at six months), and theologically and culturally (access to the holy of holies). At points (such as the birth account in section 19) the text is near proto- docetism robbing Mary but more importantly Jesus of his Humanity. In contrast Josephus’s reaction makes him look more human (Tang, Forum, 30/07/09).

The question is raised: was the early church right to exclude this text from scripture? I believe so. The Infancy Gospel of James strikingly lacks the unapologetic christo-centredness of the canonical gospels. It fails point you to Jesus or encourage you to worship the Father (Keane, Forum, 01/08/09.) It thus lacks the ‘self-authenticating character’ (Achtemeier, Green, & Thompson, 2001) for it to pass the The Rule of Faith. The book uses information from both Luke and Matthew (Kirby P. , 2001-2006) and its emphasis of virginity may reflect a second century rejection of the physical (Spence, Forum, 05/08/09). Authorship is questioned further by the mixed understanding of Jewish customs seen within the text.

The following question: is it beneficial to us today? Personally, yes. However, the reason being it has forced me to look closer at the canonical and historical-cultural issue of the time. Publically, no. Although interesting, it is theologically, historically and culturally confusing.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 ‘sayings’ a different form to the theological biographies. The text is laced with biblical language and imagery (‘One who seeks will find’ 94) and biblical phrases and titles (‘The Father’s Kingdom’ 57). Coupled with a verses taken near directly from canonical gospels (20/111 sayings, 9 & Mt. 13, 14 & Mt 15) give this text an aura of authenticity. Closer inspection reveals several problems.

At least 7 sayings are modified scriptural verses (32 & Mt 5, 26 & Mt 6.) There are some sayings which have no biblical parallels but appear in-line with biblical thought (40, 47.) 15/111 are confusing and strange (37, 77, 114). Other passages seem to be contradictory to biblical thought or seem to undermine other teachings in NT or OT. Saying 98 ‘Jesus said, "The Father's kingdom is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful.”’ (Thompson, Forum, 30/07/2009.) Saying 12 is unusual as it elevation of James to ‘James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being’ which might be fairer to say of Jesus. (Hyland, Forum, 31/07/09.)

The differences between this text and the canon are sufficient for its exclusion. It has value to insight into the Gnostics (Spence, Forum, 05/08/2009) but ‘It does not portray the true Jesus and His True message’ (Tan, Forum, 11/08/2009.) I would discourage young believers from it as it appears more authentic than it is.

The Didache takes a third form as a ‘handbook’ of ‘The Teachings’ of the apostles. It tastes of contemporary Christian books which aim to make scripture more relevant to their audience by linking scriptural instruction with the author’s understanding. Scripture is used in chapter 1 (eg. ‘you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbour as yourself.’ Cf. Luke 22:37-38) as is extension into the author’s application (‘fast for those who persecute you’.) Chapter 2 has scriptural and extra-scriptural commandments side by side (‘you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty.’) Some seem opposed to Jesus’ teaching (‘let your alms sweat in your hands’ cf. ‘freely you have received, freely give’) (Terek, Forum, 30/07/2009.) The text is also liturgical in its description of practices. Baptism technique (chapter 7) talks of ‘living water’ (perhaps like Catholic ‘Holy Water’) and ‘pour out three times’ (a traditional Anglican practice) Chapter 8 describes the Lord ’s Prayer and 9-10 describe communion.

Awareness of this text would have been beneficial to the church. It summarizes Christian teaching and describes Christian practices. In many ways it serves as a forerunner to the modern Anglican Prayer Book. The danger of the text describing things to ‘do’ is the lost of focus on what Jesus has ‘done’ and the embrace of legalism. In fact there is no mention of Jesus at all (Keane, Forum, 31/07/2009) the importance of which is debated as the neither dose the book of James (Spence, Forum, 05/08/2009).


Achtemeier, P. J., Green, J. B., & Thompson, M. M. (2001). Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Kirby, P. (2001-2006). Infancy Gospel of James. Retrieved 08 29, 2009, from Early Christian Writings: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/infancyjames.html

Kirby, P. (2001). The Protoevangelium of James . Retrieved August 29, 2009, from Early Christian Writings: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/infancyjames-roberts.html

NT Apocrypha: The Protoevangelium of James (Infancy Gospel of James). (2009). Retrieved August 29, 2009, from Tabor Online: http://www.taboronline.com.au/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=3158

The Didache. (2001). Retrieved August 29, 2009, from Early Christian Writings: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html

The Gospel of Thomas. (1994). Retrieved 08 29, 2009, from THE GNOSTIC SOCIETY LIBRARY: http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html

The Protoevangelium of James. (2001). Retrieved August 29, 2009, from Early Christian Writings: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/infancyjames-roberts.html

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