Thursday, March 24, 2022

Part IV: Non-canonical books: what could have been in the Bible?

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, part IV

The Bible is a collection of works written at different times by different authors. The “canon” of the Bible is the list of books that are included in the Bible. A book is called canonical if it is part of the accepted canon of the Bible, for example, the Gospel of Matthew is canonical. The Gospel of Matthew is the first book of the New Testament. The novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone” by J. K. Rowling is definitely not canonical in the sense I'm talking about here — it’s not part of the Bible, it doesn’t pretend to be and no one ever thought it was. However, when I talk about “non-canonical” books, in the context of this blog post, it’s about books that almost made it into the canon, but for some reason, didn’t. The non-canonical books described here are early Christian writings that have similar topics, characters and origins to those that made it into the Bible.

This post comprises two summaries, a short summary of the Book of Enoch and a much longer summary of “Lost Scriptures” by Bart Ehrman, which itself is comprised of short summaries of a number of non-canonical books. The last part of “Lost Scriptures” is a collection of canon lists. The next post in this series, “Part V: Biblical canon scholarship,” will make numerous references to different non-canonical books (and canon lists), many of which are mentioned here.

Photo of Bart Ehrman by Dan Sears. (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

The collection of heretical works in this blog post has the recurring theme of Gnosticism, a religious approach that emphasizes personal knowledge (gnosis). To me, the practice of Gnosticism today would be similar to neo-paganism: a pointless revival of a dead religion for the sake of seeming hip. But if you are worried about the numerous diverging paths of Christian theology and the accompanying shatter-mess of schisms that is Christian history, then you should add Gnosticism to your list of ways that your theology could be wrong. Many of the Gnostic works appeared to us in 1945 with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, a treasure-trove of manuscripts older than a millennium. 

I’ve included links to Wikipedia for most books, but I have also gained much by studying this website: Early Christian Writings.

The Book of Enoch 

The book of Enoch claims to be written by the patriarch (while some parts are attributed to Noah). It expands on the stories from Genesis of the flood and of the heavenly beings having children with human women. It discusses angels and demons in depth, mentioning Azazel as a demon. The book of Enoch discusses light, lightning, thunder and other meteorological and astronomical phenomena in spiritual terms. An "elect" one is described with properties similar to the Son of Man in Daniel and Jesus in the New Testament. Also mentioned are a "Son of Man" and a "Messiah" that may be the same person. 

Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament

By Bart Ehrman

Summary written in 2015 

Ehrman gives introductions to and the texts of several non-canonical early Christian writings. At the end, Ehrman presents several canon lists from the early church.

Coptic Gospel of Thomas 

The gospel of Thomas contains secret sayings of Jesus. Many of these sayings have counterparts in the synoptic canonical gospels, but some are unlike the canonical gospels. 

Gospel of Peter 

This is a fragment with a story of the end of Jesus' trial, his death and resurrection. It is similar to the canonical gospel stories, but says that Jesus rose from the tomb with two men, all three tall enough for their heads to reach the sky, and at one point heaven asks a question which is answered by the cross (which also came out of the tomb). I wonder if these parts are faulty text restorations or translations.

Gospel of Philip 

This gospel diverges from the canonical gospels in both content and theology. For example, Jesus is said to not be born of a virgin (although maybe the book contradicts itself on this point). Notably, this gospel implies that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. The book does not describe Jesus' life but rather is a number of Gnostic theological reflections, and it is very difficult to understand. 

Gospel of Truth 

This is actually a Gnostic sermon, not an account of Jesus' life. Error and knowledge are personified, and Jesus is described as bringing knowledge of the Father. However, this piece has several ideas that do not contradict orthodox Christianity: that Jesus died, descended into hell and rose again and that people are predestined to be divinely called. But it diverges from orthodoxy by considering that people are saved by knowledge rather than by grace and faith. This is a beautiful piece that makes me think of televangelists. 

The Gospel of the Saviour 

This is generally in agreement with the canonical gospels in theology but it presents novel content. It's a fragment with lots of missing bits so it's hard to determine exactly what it's really saying. 

Infancy Gospel of Thomas 

This gospel records miracles that Jesus did as a child including turning mud into birds, cursing another child to be withered and cursing a child that ran into him, causing the child to die. Jesus also displays wisdom beyond his years when he is educated. Jesus raises a boy from the dead, heals a dying man and plants a single grain of wheat that grows into a hundred bushels. Jesus' father Joseph is a main character. At one point, Jesus heals Joseph's son James. The book ends with the story from Luke of 12 year old Jesus being left behind at the temple at Passover. 

The Proto-Gospel of James

This book, purportedly written by James, describes Mary's birth and upbringing and then Jesus' birth. It mostly agrees with the canonical gospels (where comparison is possible) but sometimes diverges. Mary is described as being born miraculously to a rich family and then left at the temple (like Samuel). Mary is promised to Joseph, a widower. (James is Joseph's son from a previous marriage.) Mary becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit when she's 16 but she remains a virgin even after she gives birth to Jesus in a cave. The wise men visit Jesus at the cave. Jesus is hidden in a manger to evade Herod's slaughter of the infants. 

The Epistle of the Apostles (actually a gospel) 

This book attacks Simon and Cerinthus (two early Gnostics), by describing a proto-orthodox view of what Jesus said to the apostles after his resurrection. Jesus affirms that the flesh will rise. When proving his resurrected body, Jesus tells Andrew to observe his footprints. Then Jesus makes a bizarre quote from a book that I do not know: "For it is written, 'But a ghost, a demon, leaves no print on the ground.'" Jesus says he will return after 150 years, between Pentecost and Passover (oops).

The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter and The Second Treatise of the Great Seth

These two texts are obviously Gnostic and are purported to mostly be the words of Jesus, explaining how proto-orthodox Christians are in error. Jesus did not in fact die, but he only appeared to die. One Gnostic belief is that body and spirit are separate. The spirit Jesus was floating about the cross laughing. I do not consider these books useful for understanding the historical Jesus. 

Secret Mark


This text is quite possibly a forgery. It purportedly comes from a letter from Clement in two extracts, one of which describes Jesus raising a young man from the dead and then spending the night with him. The young man is described as wearing a linen cloth over his naked body, maybe implying some homosexuality. 

Acts of John

This describes the supposed adventures of the apostle John in Ephesus including raising the dead, miraculously breaking the temple of Artemis and commanding bed bugs to leave him and his party alone. Clearly, the book supports asceticism, since the righteous abstain from sex, even in marriage. John describes Jesus as constantly changing in appearance and simultaneously appearing different to different people. John also says that Jesus didn't produce footprints. (See also the Epistle of the Apostles) The book also seems anti-Semitic 'before he was arrested by the lawless Jews, who received their law from a lawless serpent'. In this book, Jesus is said to have appeared to John while he was, in appearance to everyone else, dying on the cross. This book is obviously docetic.

Acts of Paul

Ehrman presents a single excerpt from this book where Paul’s activity in Rome incites Nero to persecute Christians, to the point where Paul himself is executed. Paul’s neck bleeds with milk instead of blood, and Paul later appears to condemn Nero (as Paul prophesied before his execution).

Acts of Thecla

This book follows a woman who is a disciple of Paul. Like the Acts of John, this book advocates against sex inside marriage. This book gives a physical description of the apostle Paul: "Then he saw Paul coming: a man short in stature, with a bald head, bowed legs, in good condition, eyebrows that met, a fairly large nose, and full of grace. At times he seemed human, at other times he looked like an angel."

The Acts of Thomas

This book describes Thomas' trip to India. Like many other non-canonical acts books, it condemns all sexual activity, even in marriage. (One can observe that a fertility-reducing meme is doomed to go extinct.) The book also has a brief description of heaven, and a more lengthy description of hell. Ehrman only presents two extracts; the whole book is much longer. 

Acts of Peter

This book records Peter’s acts in Rome, including a confrontation with Simon Magus, the sorcerer who (like in the canonical Acts) offered to pay for the ability to work miracles like Peter. At one point, the book describes people as reading the 'gospel' and that same thing is referred to by Peter as 'holy scriptures.' Peter goes on to explain how “What we have written down according to his grace, though it may seem to you as yet so little, contains what is endurable to be understood by humanity. …. the Lord was moved by compassion to show himself in another form and to appear in the image of man, by whom neither the Jews nor we are worthy to be enlightened.” Peter goes on to describe a version of the transfiguration. When Peter confronts Simon, he quotes several books as being scriptural/prophetic, including Isaiah, Ascension of Isaiah, Daniel, Psalms, Mark and apparently makes quotes from unknown sources. In Peter’s confrontation with Simon, a slave is killed by Simon then Peter raise him from the dead. Later, Simon and Peter compete to raise another dead man. In a second confrontation, Peter causes Simon to fall out of the sky while Simon was magically flying. The book describes many married couples ceasing sexual activity after becoming Christians. Peter is arrested for causing important men’s wives to withhold sex. Peter gives an impassioned (although slightly gnostic) speech as he is taken for execution on the cross and he requests to be hung upside down, explaining (with a quote from the Gospel of Thomas or maybe the Acts of Philip) that he should be upside down to mimic the 'first man’ unlike the right side up ‘Word.’ Although the Acts of Peter has some gnostic sentiments, most of it seems generally orthodox to me.

3 Corinthians

This is a pseudepigraphical letter from Paul to the Corinthians that refutes some Gnostic principles. Ehrman includes the text of letter from the Corinthians to Paul, and pseudo-Paul's reply. This book seems entirely proto-orthodox in its theology. 

The Correspondence between Paul and Seneca

In reality, Seneca probably didn't know of Paul. This book, probably composed in the fourth century, describes a series of letters between Paul, the now-but-not-then famous apostle, and Seneca, the then-and-less-so-now famous philosopher. Mostly the content of the letters is mutual admiration. 

1 Clement

This is a letter to the Corinthians that is traditionally considered to be from Clement, an early bishop of Rome. The book condemns a young faction, and asks them to return to obedience. 1 Clement quotes widely, especially from the Old Testament (including Esther), but also from some New Testament books, from the deutrocanonical books of Wisdom and Judith, and from unknown sources. This book seems entirely proto-orthodox to me. The book describes the phoenix as if it were a real bird. Clement also explains the principle of apostolic succession to justify supporting the elders at Corinth. Clement's quotations from the gospels and other parts of the New Testament as authoritative (but maybe not as being from "scripture") supports the idea that the process of canonization of the New Testament was more a process of recognition of the existing practice rather than the definition of a new practice. (1 Clement is supposed to have been written around 95 A.D.)

2 Clement

This letter is a sermon (actually it's not by Clement and doesn't claim to be). It quotes Matthew as being 'scripture.' 2 Clement also quotes from a gnostic gospel (maybe Thomas) and unknown sources. Interestingly, both 1 Clement and 2 Clement make an identical quote from an unknown prophetic source. The quote from the Gospel of Thomas (maybe what we call the Gospel of the Egyptians) says 'when the two are one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female is neither male nor female.' The author of 2 Clement interprets this verse in a rather orthodox kind of way, saying that it means that we should not be hypocritical, have good deeds and be sexually pure. 

The 'letter of Peter to James' and it's ‘reception’, and The Homilies of Clement 

These pseudepigraphical books promulgate a Jewish Christianity, i.e. opposed to the Pauline idea of the inclusion of uncircumcised gentiles. An interesting quote “Rather they attempt, on the basis of the rule that has been handed down to them, to harmonise the contradictions of the Scriptures, if haply some one who does not know the traditions is perplexed by the ambiguous utterences of the prophets."

Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora 

This book describes a gnostic understanding of the inspiration of the Pentateuch. That is, different parts of the Pentateuch are variously from Moses’ own mind, from the elders of Israel or inspired by an imperfect god. This is actually a strangely sensible interpretation of how Jesus removes some of the Pentateuch laws, strengths others and transforms some symbols from physical to spiritual.

The Treatise on the Resurrection 

This gnostic text defends the idea of the resurrection, but claims that resurrection to be spiritual rather than bodily.

The Didache 

Also known as "The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.”

This proto-orthodox work describes instructions for church life, giving, the sacraments, entertaining itinerant teachers, etc. It quotes the Old and New Testaments. Theologically, it's a bit 'works' heavy. 

The Letter of Barnabas

The text of the book does not mention the author, who was probably not the companion of the apostle Paul. It's a letter arguing that Judaism is wrong and that the Old Testament foreshadows Christ. It’s not gnostic, and Erhman calls it ‘proto-orthodox’ but I think its interpretation of the Old Testament is flawed. The flaw is that the letter of Barnabas considers that the Old Testament Judaism completely wrong at the time it was practiced, whereas it was merely an earlier step in God’s true and good redemptive plan. The letter quotes "Enoch" at two points. Also the letter quotes the Old Testament widely, occasionally from the New, and once from an unknown source. 

The letter of Barnabas also includes the strangest passage that applies numerology to the interpretation of the Old Testament in Christian light. In short, the number of people that are circumcised in Abraham's household, 18 plus 300, is digested as iota, epsilon = JE = Jesus, and 300 as tau = cross. This is especially strange given that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. 

‘Barnabas’ explains the food prohibitions in the Mosaic law as being commands for other human behaviors by allegory. For example “Nor shall you eat the hyena” becomes a prohibition on adultery, apparently because hyenas change sex over time. The connections to the animal behaviors are strange, comical and often wrong (although the hyenas example has a grain of truth to it).

The letter closes with the “Two Ways”, a passage that also occurs in the Didache.

The Preaching of Peter 

Fragments survive; purported to be by the apostle but probably written too late. Seems proto-orthodox. One quote: "Peter in the Preaching, speaking of the apostles, says, 'But, having opened the books is the prophets which we had, we found, sometimes expressed by parables, sometimes by riddles, and sometimes directly and in so many words the names Jesus Christ...'"


Pseudo-Titus is a late-dated (maybe 5th century) pseudepigraphical book teaching Christians to abstain from sex, even in marriage. The author quotes widely from both the Old and New Testaments. One quote is attributed to Isaiah but is from an unknown source. "So also did the first created man fall because of a virgin: when he saw a woman giving him a smile, he fell." The author also quotes the Didache. 

The Shepherd of Hermas 

This is a long proto-orthodox book by an early Christian, widely considered to be inspired but not scriptural. It consists of a series of visions that include conversations with angels and a woman who personifies the church. The Shepherd of Hermas is one of the angels that talks with him. "But the other stones that you saw cast far from the tower and falling on the path and rolling from the path onto the rough terrain, these are the ones who believed, but have left their true part because they are of two minds. They are lost, thinking they can find a better path; and they are miserable, walking over the rough terrain." "For the world is also held form through the four elements." 

The revelations in the book claim that a Christian has only one chance to repent from sin after being converted.

"Repentance is itself a form of understanding."

The excerpts that Ehrman includes do not quote from other sources. 

The Apocalypse of Peter

This pseudepigraphical book contains the supposed words of Jesus describing heaven and hell, in gory detail. The book starts with Jesus' apocalyptic discourse (see Mark 13) then expands on the two possible afterlifes. The book contains some strange anachronisms: it is set before Jesus death (though written after), but includes references to Christ's death before it happens. The book quotes from Ezekiel's narrative of bones. The tortures of the damned reflect their sins in ironic ways; this work maybe was the inspiration for Dante's "Divine Comedy.”

The Apocalypse of Paul

This pseudepigraphical book starts with an account of someone finding a work by the apostle Paul that was hidden in a house where Paul stayed. The main body of the book expands on the vision of Heaven that Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 12 and describes heaven and hell in great detail. It bears many similarities to the Apocalypse of Peter.

The Secret Book of John and On the Origin of the World 

These gnostic books describe a polytheistic expansion of the creation story where the creator god mistakenly thinks that “It is I who am God, and there is no one that exists apart from me” (Isaiah 45:5-6,12). Thus the creator god is identified as the god of the Bible, and many other angels and gods (e.g. the creator’s mother, Sophia) are involved in the details of creation. "On the Origin of the World” is presented as a letter with the authority of its anonymous author, whereas The Secret Book of John starts with the post-resurrection Jesus explaining the secrets of this strange creation story with the apostle John. The two books are similar in their imaginative and complex expansions on Genesis, but they differ in their exact details.

The First Thought in Three Forms 

This is a series of mythical gnostic discourses told from the perspective of a female aeon (divine being).

The Hymn of the Pearl

This a Gnostic allegorical text about a prince who is sent to Egypt to get a pearl from a dragon's lair. The prince forgets his identity until he receives a letter from home, after which he gets the pearl and returns home to receive a garment that had been waiting for him since he left. The trip and subsequent reunion with the garment may symbolize the body's life and eventual reunion with the soul. 

Canonical lists

Ehrman concludes the book with a selection of passages from early Christians that include lists of books that were considered canonical. These lists are all proto-orthodox. Ehrman claims that no "heretical” canon lists survive and that the lists show that there was broad agreement that the canon should "include the four gospels, the writings of Paul, and several other apostolic texts. They also reveal the criteria for canonicity that were considered in such circles: for a book to be accepted as canonical, it needed to be ancient (near the time of Jesus), apostolic (connected to one of his closest followers), catholic (used widely by like-minded churches throughout the world), and orthodox (promoting the right kind of belief rather than heresy). It appears that of all the criteria, “orthodoxy” was primary… The first author to list the twenty-seven books of our New Testamant as the canonical books (these and no others) was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in 367 CE.”

The Muratorian Canon

This is believed to be the oldest surviving canon list and includes 22/27 of the New Testamanet books, excluding Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter and 3 John, and also includes the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter. The Shepherd of Hermas is accepted for reading in church but not as scripture.

The Canon of Origen of Alexandria

Origin was born in 185 CE and many of his surviving writings mention various books as being scripture, but he doesn’t give an explicit list. Origen accepted the four gospels, the Pauline epistles (in general, not each enumerated), one or maybe two letters of Peter, one and maybe two more letters of John, the Apocalypse of John and Hebrew. Origen does not consider Hebrews to be written by Paul, and suggests Clement or Luke as possible authors. 

The Canon of Eusebius

Eusebius was a late 3rd to early 4th century church historian. Eusebius classified books in four categoreies:

  1. “acknowledged” as canonical by all the proto-orthodox churches: The four gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul, 1 John, 1 Peter and maybe Revelation.
  2. “disputed” by some churches and accepted by others: James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John
  3. “spurious” books which are accepted but should not be because they are pseudepigraphical: Acts of Paul, the book called the Shepherd, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Peter, the Didache, maybe Revelation and the Gospel of Hebrews.
  4. “rejected” as heretical forgeries: the gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and some others; the acts of Andrew, John and other apostles. 

The Canon of Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius was a 4th century bishop who attended the Council of Nicea. He gave a list of the only approved books for New Testament, giving our current 27 books for the New (listing Hebrews as a letter of Paul) and listing the following books as useful but not canonical: the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, Tobit, the Didache, and the Shepherd.

The Canon of the Third Synod of Cathage


This synod ratified Athanasius’ New Testament canon list, but its decision was not binding and the jurisdiction of the synod was not universal. 

Wikipedia tells me that the Old Testament that was ratified at this synod consists of these books: 

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two books of Paraleipomena, Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Maccabees.

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