Friday, May 6, 2022

Part VII: My new identity

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, Part VII. For context, start at the introduction.

In Part I, I mentioned about how I saw a counselor in 2016 and explained to him about the loss of my Christian faith. Removing Christianity seemed to remove my identity. The counselor said that he was excited for me, because I would get a new identity. Indeed, Christianity had a strong grip on my identity. In some sense, the counselor was right: I had a significant shift in the way I saw myself, but he was also wrong: the substance of my identity was mostly unchanged. In this post, I discuss how my new identity is largely the same as my old identity. 

Carina Nebula by Harel Boren, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. I now accept the nebulous nature of meaning. This amazing picture reminds me that the nebulous is beautiful. 

Christianity had made a near-total claim on my identity. Furthermore, it made a systematic claim on my identity, such that other aspects of my identity were defined in terms of Christianity. To give but one example of many, I was a Christian husband. My marriage was literally defined in Christian terms. It seemed sensible to wonder who I was if the Christian part were subtracted. The nihilist answer is that I was no one, but fortunately that answer doesn’t survive even a modest degree of sober, well-informed scrutiny. 

From one identity, mostly back to the same

The actual answer to who I have become is the most boring one: I’m the same person as before, just not a Christian. There are confusing philosophical problems around the continuity of the self but we can side-step those by accepting the nebulous nature of identity. I often take mental refuge in the realization that there is no "true self." 

To give a bit more detail on the “new” me: I am still husband to the same woman, I am still father to the same children, I still play the same electric guitars, I still work for the same company, I still have the same last name and the same extended family, I still have the same digital identities on various websites, I am still the same height, my eyes are the same color, my body has aged a bit but that was going to happen anyway, I still have that cluster of small congenital hemangiomas on my right wrist, etc. 

The big realization is that the all-encompassing system (Christianity) doesn’t support the ancillary meanings (marriage, family, music, work, etc.) — actually it’s the other way around! Christianity presses meanings into its service, so that Christians see Christianity as total. But hear me, Christian, actually you are a person, with an identity of unbounded richness and complexity! When I took away the Christianity, I only took away a single part. Most of my identity remains unchanged.

Increased tolerance for contradiction

My Christianity was a grand system of meaning that deliberately and consciously forced meanings to be more consistent with each other. I had a low tolerance for contradiction and a low tolerance for what David Chapman calls “nebulousity.” Individual meanings had to be clear, the connections between meanings had to work well and the entire system tried to be consistent. As seen in “Nash and the Strawman,” I did not require absolute consistency, but consistency was definitely strongly favored. 

I still value consistency a lot, but removing the grand system has significantly reduced my drive to eliminate inconsistencies. Equally, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the nebulous nature of meanings. People are contradictory and inconsistent. It’s ok for me to be contradictory and inconsistent, too, sometimes. And the nebulous is ok — actually it’s beautiful. 

Part of this increased tolerance for fuzz and error is because philosophical and spiritual topics are now a lot less important to me. I don’t have a system as my identity. I don’t go around calling myself a follower of the method of David Chapman, which I summarized in Part VI. (What would that be, a “Chapmanian”?) And that’s because I’m not. I don’t have a system, not even “the system of” And I don’t need to defend my ideas so ardently any more. I’ve tried to reach the lowest possible potential energy state for my beliefs and now I don’t fear falling further. Prove that I’m wrong and, hopefully, I’ll shrug, laugh and correct myself. Practically, I probably don’t react quite so well, because I’m human. I still repeat my mistake of fusing my identity with my beliefs, but I’m only going to do that in comparatively tiny ways. In the words of The Who, I “won’t get fooled again.”

One could see my newly-failed ardor for "the truth" as evidence of apathy. Maybe it is, but I like to think that it’s a sign that I’m starting to take a meta-systematic approach. Systematic thinking is an enormously useful skill and my attacks on Eternalism shouldn’t be perceived as downplaying the importance of systems. But no one system fits every situation, so I think it’s better to spend energy moving between systems rather than trying to weld all the systems together and smooth over all their differences. The way forward is to use meanings rather than to obsess over them. I ought to refocus on practical problems instead of crashing my head against the dead stone wall called “philosophy.”

The living reverberation of my old Christianity

Defining myself by disagreement with Christianity isn’t actually a goal (in spite of this whole series). My wife is a Christian. I go to church, celebrate Christmas and I join in praying. In a definite cultural sense, I still am Christian. (Imprinted cultural identity is just that strong!) Mostly, I do Christian activities to support my wife and kids. But going to church is also a good way to make friends.

My marriage is very important to me. I love my wife and she’s a Christian, so I walk the line of living in a way that’s respectful to her beliefs. Everyone is on a path of learning and knowledge is so high-dimensional that no one can be in the same state of knowledge as anyone else. Each of us has to learn to cooperate with people who think in different ways and who hold different beliefs. It helps that my no-religion is one that does not seek to proselytize. 

After a period of thinking, I realized that life is too short for me to figure out morality again. Furthermore, while there are several different ethical theories and each has slightly different implications and each produces different answers under extraordinary conditions, generally, I find that morality is just one thing. Everyone thinks you shouldn’t murder people or steal their stuff. Kant’s categorical imperative is a re-phrasing of the Golden Rule. So, as a general rule, I stick with the ethical system that I know from Christianity. Certainly, I don’t hold myself to all the rules in the Bible, for example, the rule against idolatry is a little nonsensical for a person who doesn’t believe in God. And I am not hesitant to accept moral developments that are more recent than the 1st century AD, for example, feminism, universal egalitarianism, and the idea of accepting everyone in the world as my “neighbor” in the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37.

Some beliefs are about the practical object world: gravity, keeping a job, cooking breakfast, etc. Other examples of group membership statements could include: believing in God, that gun control is bad, that Muhammad designated Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor, etc. Group membership beliefs are parts of a person’s identity, but practical beliefs aren’t. In “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari calls socially constructed belief systems “myths” and says that they are required for humans to organize themselves into large groups. My synthesis is that Harari's work implies that we cannot remove all group-membership beliefs. On the other hand, Steven Pinker in “Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters” says that we can eliminate the realm of mythology, but I think his definition of mythology is smaller than Harari’s. (Also, Pinker ignores some of his own socially-constructed identity-beliefs.) 

I aim to minimize my identity-beliefs, an idea from Paul Graham: “If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.”  For example, if I accepted “New Atheism,” (which, in 2022, is already an old idea!), then in many ways I would be trying to replace one tribal identity with another. I may still have some group identity beliefs, but while I may be outwardly “Christian” in many ways, I do not accept the Christian group membership beliefs.


I stopped being a Christian. Not much else about me changed. But the process of leaving Christianity caused significant trauma at the time and the question of what that meant for my identity was pressing. Fortunately, I was able to detangle the rest of myself from the grip of my former systematic Christianity. In Part VIII, I’ll expand on how nihilism appeared in the crater of my exploded Christianity, and I speculate on how I could have avoided the pain that nihilism caused. 

In hindsight, I wonder what the counselor could have said that would have been more helpful. Maybe he should have said: “I’m excited for you because you’ll be the same person as before, just not a Christian.” On the other hand, he might have said something like that, and I forgot because it’s a less catchy meme. Sometimes the truth is like that. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Intermezzo: Fast forward to 2022

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, a brief intermission. This post parallels the passage of time between when I wrote most of the material in Parts I-VI (2015-16) and when I wrote Parts VII-X (2021-22). Here's a link to the series introduction.

“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich. (This image is in the public domain.)

In Part I, I told the story of my Christian faith-to-no-Christian faith journey. Part II is my argument against absolute Biblical authority. Part III presents summaries of four books and one essay that fed into my thinking during my period of doubt and seeking. In Part IV, I outline some early Christian writing by summarizing Bart Ehrman’s book “Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament.” Then I explored the question of which books actually did end up being the Bible, in Part V, by summarizing three scholarly books on the subject. Part V finds that the support for the Biblical canon is less than absolutely solid; that is one way to see that the Eternalist system of Evangelical Christianity is build on a foundation of unjustified dogma, rather than reason.

After too much material on the Bible, Part VI presents a summary of, moving on to the post-Christian part of my journey. Certainly, removing Christianity left a void in my life. But the question of “what to replace Christianity with?” turned out to be badly formed. I think of as a catalyst for my realizing that Christianity needs no direct replacement in my life. It’s not that I had the wrong system, it’s that no system could ever be the perfect one or even the right one. 

The first six posts in this series were drafted in previous years, much of it during a transitional period. Now, in 2021-2022, I have a modicum of hindsight and the benefit of having worked through some of the associated emotional problems. The upcoming posts are my thinking on these questions: 

  • After leaving Christianity, where did I land? In my story of Part I, I briefly mentioned the counselor who was excited for me because I would get a new identity. This is addressed in Part VII “My new identity.”
  • How could I have made my journey out of Christianity easier? In particular, I’m interested in how I could have avoided the problems caused by passing through nihilism. I discuss more in Part VIII “Dodging nihilism better.”
  • What new problems of meaning do I now face and how do I address them? This is the topic of Part IX “Answering Eternalist objections to the Complete Stance.”
  • What do I see as the next steps for meaning in my life and in the world? Addressed in Part X “Next steps in meaning-space.”

But before you read the next posts in this series, I recommend that you read these pages by David Chapman: 

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Part VI: On Meaningness

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, part VI
For context, start at the introduction. I started writing this summary in 2016.

Photograph of David Chapman (used with his permission).

In, David Chapman presents a life philosophy that intends to be practically useful. The essential idea is that meaning is both “patterned” and “nebulous.” Chapman argues that meaning is circumstantially and collaboratively created, rather than either being eternally present and fixed or being completely nonexistent. The titular coinage, “meaningness,” is designed to evoke the notion that the boundaries of meaning are blurry. Meaningness purports to offer “Better ways of thinking, feeling, and acting—around problems of meaning and meaninglessness; self and society; ethics, purpose, and value.”

I suggest that you visit and read everything there. Each of Chapman’s words is worth fifty of mine. I credit Chapman in part for saving my life (on the order of a decade worth of rescue) from the bleak spectre of abysmal nihilism. Part I explains more of my personal story. The upcoming posts in this blog series, Parts VII through X, will build on the ideas of

Chapman calls the application of a specific approach to meaning as a ‘stance.’ For example, “Eternalism is the stance that everything has a fixed, clear-cut meaning,” and the opposing stance, “Nihilism[,] says that nothing really means anything.” Chapman claims that both Eternalism and Nihilism make the same metaphysical error of considering that “real” meaning is always fixed. Furthermore, Chapman claims that the “Complete” stance corrects that shared error by recognizing that meaning is nebulous. Meaningness expounds on the concept of a stance and discusses a range of stances that relate to unity & diversity, self, purpose, personal value, ethics and other topics. Finally, Chapman discusses the history of meaningness and how Western society has progressed from a ‘choiceless’ (pre-modern) approach to meaning, through a ‘systematic’ (modern) approach to meaning and now has entered a period of atomized meaning (post-modernity).

I find it ironic that one main idea of is our failure to recognize the nebulousness of meaning, but that the whole website is devoted to describing idealized categories. But I'm also highly grateful, because I'm a category junky. I wonder if some people who use non-category-based thinking approaches have direct and intuitive understanding of the dual nebulous and patterned nature of meaning. On the other hand, the medium is a “hyper text book” that is being gradually written over years while simultaneously in the public view. As a recovering Eternalist, I would have preferred a book with a front and a back cover, but I acknowledge the irony in such a preference. Because Chapman published some parts before the whole work was done, I was able to read important parts at a critical juncture in my life.

Accepting the nebulous nature of meaning is a feasible path around the infinite quagmire of reasoning via formal logic from the ground up. Macroscopic human life must be guided by well-chosen heuristics rather than an all-encompassing system built only from physical laws and the initial condition of the universe. Even the basic laws of physics have so far been insufficient to derive what we now know of chemistry. (For more about traversing levels of complexity, including physics-to-chemistry, see “The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the simple and the complex” by Murray Gell-Mann.) Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” is not the right starting point; a formal logic system will not get us to what to feed our guests for dinner (and Gödel's incompleteness theorem is not the limiting factor). The difficulty with such foundationalism is not "merely" a practical problem; reality is fundamentally not amenable to such an approach.

Brief notes on specific parts

  • Sometimes says that ideas are 'obvious,’ but I think the obviousness of an idea is actually quite subjective.
  • I believe that the author's main idea is useful to people who are ostensibly inside 'eternalist systems' such as Christianity, because stances are actually continuous and many people who carry the "Christian" label actually think and act according to stances that are partially (and even wholly) complete. (Chapman realizes this.)
  • Existentialism is wrong in the sense that meaning is not personal. Meaning is social. 
  • One way to see aspects of the complete stance is to look at history and see how the meanings of certain things have changed. This illustrates how meaning is both existent & dynamic and might help one avoid fixating or denying meaning. However, it's difficult not to impose one's current meanings on the past if one adopts an Eternalist stance. 
  • Re: I don't get what he's saying here or perhaps I'm not convinced.
  • Christianity (in my old form) uses a blend of total responsibility and victim thinking in the concepts of sin and redemption. 
  • Streaming is the atomization of the meaning found in music.
  • Re: Hypothesis: "Agile" software development is useful when it's applied as a Level 5 meta-systematic practice, but quickly breaks down when people try to interpret and apply "agile" as a Level 4 system. Or even a Level 3 system: “Agile is what my buddies do.” (This page used to be on the domain, but has since moved.)
  • I think Richard Hamming's "The Art of Doing Science and Engineering" has meta-systematic reasoning, at least for technical matters.

Hit parade of quotes

"Runs of unexpected good or bad luck trigger the eternalist stance automatically."

"Discovering that you have been betrayed by eternalism, and have lost out on the promises it made, is a horrendous emotional blow."

"Vajrayanists will recognize these—along with “wondrous, delicious, and vivid”—as structural equivalents of “coemergent emptiness, bliss, and clarity,” respectively."

"With the countercultures having passed, there is room for the fluid mode to reclaim a relativized, non-foundational, pragmatic rationality."

"'How do we rescue meaning from nihilistic atomization?' is a more urgent question than whether God exists. Scriptural literalism has definitively failed." (This blog post series is yet another too-little too-late exposition on the definite failure of Scriptural literalism.)

"The atomized mode generates paranoia, because without the systematic mode’s ‘therefores,’ its structure of justification, there are no memetic defenses against bad ideas."

"But at some point you realize that all principles are somewhat arbitrary or relative. There is no ultimately true principle on which a correct system can be built. It’s not just that we don’t yet know what the absolute truth is; it is that there cannot be one. All systems come to seem inherently empty." Bold font is mine. See also “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari.

“There can be no systematic ‘scientific method.’”

"When it’s obviously impossible to form a systematic self, the task is to surf your own incoherence. Increasingly, this is a practical problem, not an existential threat." This seems to relate to my Nash and the Strawman essay in the following ways: I was mistaken to think that a foundationalist philosophy was desirable, right or even possible. I was right that "Maybe we don't have enough time to eliminate insignificant inconsistencies from our worldview", but maybe I was wrong about both the quantity of inconsistency that one has to tolerate and the general quality of having abundant comparable propositions. Consistency is the exception. Inconsistency is much more common, but fuzzy vagueness is the widespread rule.


Thanks to David Chapman for reading a draft of this post.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Part V: Biblical canon scholarship

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, part V
For context, start at the introduction.

Photograph of a Gutenberg Bible by Kevin Eng. (This image is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)


As mentioned in the previous post, the Bible is a collection of smaller works written at different times by different authors. The “canon of the Bible is the list of books that are included in the Bible. If I want to use some kind of claim about the Bible, for example, that the Bible is divinely inspired or that it is inerrant, then I have to combine that claim with a notion of the limits of the Bible.

While the previous post was a grab-bag collection of the books that didn’t make it into the Bible, this post focuses in on the question of how the church chose which books to include in the Bible that we now have. To that end, I present summaries of three books that seek to explain and understand the canon of scripture:

  • “The Canon of Scripture,” by F. F. Bruce 
  • “The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission and Authority,” by Lee Martin McDonald
  • “The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance,” by Bruce Metzger

I assume that you are familiar with the contents of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. Catholics include more books; they have a different canon. Given the magnitude of the force of the Bible in defining our culture, if you were to read one new book that I mention in this series, you ought to read the Bible. The English Standard Version (ESV) is a reasonably good, recent translation and was favored by the Biblical inerrantist crowd that I used to belong to. The ESV is more of a ‘word for word’-type translation. If you want more of a ‘thought for thought’ translation, then the New Living Translation (NLT) is one option that I like. A middle of the road (and slightly older translation) is the New International Version (NIV). I have read the entire (Protestant) Bible at least three times, at least once in each of these three translations. A great place to read the Bible online in various translations is Bible Gateway

In his conclusion, McDonald says “Those who argue for the infallibility or the inerrancy of Scripture logically should also claim the same infallibility for the churches in the fourth and fifth centuries, whose decisions and historical circumstances have left us with our present Bible.” This quote illustrates how a careful and historical study of the origin of the Biblical canon lead me to forcibly reject the Bible as the sole source of spiritual truth. 

To wit, if the Bible is the source of absolute, indisputable truth, and all that’s left for us is to understand the Scripture through study, exegesis and a sniff of church-sanctioned debate, then the Bible ought to stand on absolute, indisputable pillars of justification. But a careful study of the origins of the canon shows me that the Bible’s table of contents is deeply human, somewhat arbitrary and, ultimately, not justified to the standard required for a source of absolute, indisputable truth. This is a coup de grâce that blows Evangelical Christianity to smithereens. And that is before starting the necessary analysis of the potential problems with the authorship, historicity and contents of the canonical books themselves! “But,” one might argue, “that’s too high a standard.” Exactly! No system can reach such a high justification. Therefore, I accept no system as absolute or indisputable.

You might or might not agree with my conclusions, but this post is mostly concerned with analysis of the canon of the Bible and my approach is through presenting my own summaries of others’ work. I placed the summaries in increasing order of length. Last is Metzger’s book, which is the best one and I flatter it with the longest summary. For that book, I’ve even summarized the appendices, which include fascinating minutiae.

The Canon of Scripture

By F. F. Bruce 

Summary written in 2017

Bruce presents a view of the history of the development of the canon of the Christian Bible. I strongly felt that Bruce affirms his preconceived conclusion that the finally accepted canon was the right selection. To be generous, I would say that Bruce makes no argument as to whether or not the selection of the canon was correct in any sense but rather he takes the approach of “this is how it is; how did it come to be this way?” Bruce examines the developments of both the Old and New Testaments, tracing the history from ancient times until the present, with an emphasis on the first five centuries AD. In two illuminating appendices, Bruce presents his analysis of Secret Mark (concluding that it is an ancient fraud) and his analysis of the “primary and plenary senses” of scripture. This book is an adaption of a lecture series by the author and is surprisingly well typeset. 

The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission and Authority

By Lee Martin McDonald

Summary written in 2015

McDonald aims to answer the question "Why did some ancient books make it into our Bibles, and others did not?"

In part one, McDonald introduces his questions & explains the adaptability of the Bible as a key criterion for its continued use, explains the emergence the Old and New Testaments, and describes how canonization was a process. McDonald discusses the notion and use of scripture and the notion and use of the word canon. McDonald invites his readers to think critically about how mere quotation does not imply that the author holds the quoted book in authority. He describes how books were viewed as authoritative before they were collected into a fixed canon. Therefore, one can discuss books becoming authoritative as a gradual process and then how those books and not others were accepted into a fixed collection.

In part two, McDonald examines the origins and development of the Old Testament canon/the Hebrew Bible. Interestingly, the only part of the Old Testament that is viewed as canon in the Old Testament is the law of Moses. We do not have hard evidence that the Old Testament canon was fixed in the time of Josephus, c. 100 CE. Like the development of the New Testament canon, the books of the Old Testament were first accepted as scripture over a wide range of times. The canon of the Old Testament was not fixed in the time of Jesus. Rather, the Hebrew Bible formed in the first few centuries CE, in parallel to the acceptance of the various Old Testament books in the Christian church. In some cases, Jewish opinion of a book was diminished because that book was held in positive esteem by Christians. In other cases, the Christian opinion of books was supported by the Jewish esteem, for example, Jerome’s view of the Old Testament books was influenced by the practices of Jewish people. So, in some ways, the Protestant rejection of Old Testament deutrocanonical books is strange because those books were rejected by the Jewish people precisely because they were sometimes thought to support Christianity.

In part three, McDonald examines the development of the New Testament canon. McDonald considers the emergence of the New Testament writings as "scripture," then the transition of these writings from scripturally accepted individual books to a fixed and limited canon of books. McDonald then considers the influence of factors such as heretics and the development of the codex. McDonald asks which textual variant is canonical and he seems to settle on the opinion that the question of canon in the first several centuries did not extend to the textual variant but only to whole books. McDonald catalogs various collections of Christian Scripture lists and collections of quotations from various early Christian books of the existing New Testament books. In a divergence from an earlier scholarly consensus, McDonald maintains that the Muratorian fragment dates from the 4th or 5th century CE. (Wikipedia says that the Muratorian fragment dates from the 7th or 8th century; I presume that Wikipedia follows the “scholarly consensus.”) Finally, McDonald examines the criteria used by the church in determining which books were canonical: whether the book was apostolic, whether the book was orthodox, how old the book was, and how many churches used the book. Like Bruce Metzger, McDonald concludes that inspiration was not a factor used by the early church in determining which books were canonical, rather inspiration is a corollary of canonicity.

McDonald gives several useful appendices: an outline of canon research with primary sources & questions, Old Testament lists in the early church, New Testament lists in the early church, and New Testament citations of allusions to apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings.

I found McDonald's book to be overly verbose and too concerned about what other scholar may think of his writing. Perhaps the intention was for this book to be more of a textbook than of a “start at the start, and end at the end” book. However, I found the content to be interesting and useful in my exploration of the Bible's origins. Indeed, the process of selecting the books in the Bible was murky and not without controversy. There was a diversity of opinions about which books should go in the Bible. This diversity is much wider, if one includes so-called "heresies.” In the same way that there was a diversity of opinions about which books should go in the Bible, there is a diversity of theological opinion within the books of the New Testament.

One interesting question that McDonald raises in his conclusion is: “Those who argue for the infallibility or the inerrancy of Scripture logically should also claim the same infallibility for the churches in the fourth and fifth centuries, whose decisions and historical circumstances have left us with our present Bible.” This question illustrates how a careful and historical study of the origin of the Biblical canon lead me to forcibly reject the Bible as the sole source of spiritual truth. Books were chosen based on their orthodoxy, and orthodoxy was determined based on oral tradition which, ideally, was safeguarded by the successors of the apostles (= apostolic succession). It is the authority of the church that the canon's authority derives from. Another interesting idea from McDonald's book is that the church may be free now to make alternative decisions about the canon than it did in the past. 

The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance

By Bruce Metzger 

Summary mostly written in 2015

Metzger gives a brilliant, erudite, and scholarly examination of the origin and development of the canon of the New Testament. The development of the canon took a long time to be completed in full (~400 years), but many books were accepted sooner. Persecution (including requirements to surrender holy books; think ‘which books would people surrender?’) and heresy (e.g. Marcion) were factors that led the church to more clearly express which books were considered authoritative. The long tail of the diversity of thought and action regarding the canon is clear: some parts of the Syrian church still only use 22 books, and the Epistle of “Paul” to the Laodiceans was included in many New Testament copies through the Middle Ages. The books that may seem doubtful now were doubtful even in the 4th century: Revelation, Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 & 3 John. In addition to these doubtful books that were eventually included, there were some doubtful books that were only eventually excluded, such as the Didache, the Shepard of Hermas, the apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas. 

I was intrigued to read about how many concerns about the New Testament today, are in fact as old as our knowledge of the texts themselves: the Church Fathers of the first four centuries were concerned about the great difference in style between 1 Peter and 2 Peter, the big difference between the synoptic gospels and John, the possibility that Revelation, John, and 1-3 John may have different authors, Jude’s quotations from apocryphal books, the mystery of the authorship of Hebrews, the supposed contradictions in the gospel accounts, and the supposed contradictions between James and Paul. Metzger seems to hold a reasonably traditional Christian perspective, and he generally seems supportive of the current canon and positive toward the Christian faith. 

In chapters 1 & 2, Metzger surveys the previous literature on the canon of the New Testament. 

In chapter 3, Metzger examines the early Church Fathers' use of the Old and New Testaments in order to derive their concept of what 'scripture' is. Overall, he finds that these early authors do not place the New Testament in the same category as the Old, but that the to-become New Testament was quoted widely, if not always exactly, and had an implicit but not exclusive authority. The words of Jesus, on the other hand, did carry the highest authority with the early Church Fathers. Many of the books examined by Metzger in this section are included in "Lost Scriptures" by Bart Ehrman. (See Part IV of this blog post series, “Non-canonical books: what could have been in the Bible?”.)

In chapter 4, Metzger describes the forces of time and culture that catalyzed the creation of the canon: Gnosticism, Marcion, Montanism, persecution, and other factors. In general, the church had to respond to heresy by more fully describing what it thought was true. Similarly, it seems like the move from oral tradition to written authority happened gradually, possibly for the same reasons.

In Chapter 5, Metzger lists the approaches to the canon taken by Eastern church figures, including Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Origen, Clement of Alexandria and others. These 2nd-3rd century Christian writers had a more developed view of the canon of the New Testament than did the earliest Church Fathers. For these 2nd-3rd century writers, the authority of the current New Testament books had increased, but it is not quite on par with the Old Testament. Clement of Alexandria and Origen are particularly fascinating to read about, including their use of ‘agrapha’ or unwritten (at least outside major books anyway) sayings of Jesus, such as “Be approved money-changers,” (apparently scholars consider this to be a genuine saying of Jesus). Other agrapha include “You have seen your brother; you have seen your God,” and “Ask for the great things, and the little thing will be added to you.” Origen wrote extensively. He quoted from many apocryphal books that are now outside the New Testament, and even considered some of those books to be ‘inspired,’ even if he didn’t consider those same books to be scripture. I wonder why most Christians today have zero interest in reading books outside the Bible that the early church considered inspired.

In Chapter 6, the practices of Western 3rd generation Christians such as Irenaeus and Tertullian are considered. While similar to their Eastern counterparts, my impression is that the authority of the New Testament is more closely matched to the Old for the Western Christian writers. Tertullian appeals to the epistle of Jude as a testimony to the authority of the book of Enoch

Metzger explores apocryphal New Testament literature in chapter 7. Metzger has a low view of the non-canonical gospels: "Even the gospel of Peter and the gospel of Thomas, both of which may preserve scraps of independent tradition, are obviously inferior theologically and historically to the four accounts that eventually came to be regarded as the only canonical gospels," p. 174. When referring to the apocryphal acts of apostles, Metzger says that "in the credulous temper of the age, almost anything was believed." Ironically, this could also apply to the canonical books. Metzger claims that the author of the apocalypse of Peter is the first to introduce pagan ideas of heaven and hell into Christianity. 

In chapter 8, Metzger describes two early canon lists in detail: the Muratorian Canon and Eusebius' classification of New Testament books. The Muratorian fragment (of some unknown but early date likely before 200 AD) lists all the New Testament books except 1 & 2 Peter, James and Hebrews. In addition, it lists the apocalypse of Peter as disputed and The Shepard of Hermas as acceptable only for private reading. Books were identified as being accepted or rejected based on whether they were read publicly in church and whether they were written by "eye- and ear-witnesses, i.e. apostles."

Eusebius (c. 360-340 AD) classified books based on their use by early Christian authors as universally accepted, universally rejected, or of divided usage. Significantly, when Eusebius wrote, there was no official canon issued by a synod or any kind of official agreement, so Eusebius was left with taking a guess at the canon based on the usage of each book in his vast (for its time) library. Eusebius found these books to be universally accepted: the four gospels, the Pauline epistles (which probably includes Hebrews here), 1 Peter and 1 John, and maybe Revelation. The disputed books are James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 & 3 John. The spurious books are the acts of Paul, the Shepard of Hermas, the apocalypse of Peter, the epistle of Barnabas, the Teachings of the Apostles and the gospel according to the Hebrews. The "fiction of heretics" are the gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias, and the acts of Andrew, John and other apostles. In some sense, the books are first divided into orthodox and unorthodox (all the subcategories are orthodox except "heretical"), and second by canonical status: recognized, disputed or spurious. Metzger explains the strange status of Revelation by saying that Eusebius the historian recognizes the canonical status that Revelation enjoys in the eyes of some authors but Eusebius the churchman was annoyed by its use by the Montanist heretics, so he points out its rejection by other authors. Eusebius was commanded by Constantine to produce 50 copies of the Bible, but strangely he made no (lasting) record of which books he included. 

In chapter 9, Metzger examines the attempts to close the canon in the Eastern church in and after the 4th century. In about 350 AD, Cyril of Jerusalem made a closed canon list of 26 books, excluding Revelation. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 AD, made a book list of the Old and New Testaments which excluded the deutrocanonical Old Testament books (permitting them only for devotional reading) but presented all 27 of the New Testament books as the only canonical books. Athanasius’ list was not universally accepted; Gregory of Nazianzus later made a bible book list the same as Athanasius, but lacking Revelation. Especially noteworthy is Amphilochius, a contemporary of Gregory and Athanasius, who expresses uncertainty over the canon list.

Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403 AD) accepted Revelation and also the wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus as canonical New Testament books in his list. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, was the first to give the Bible its current name, literally "the books." Despite numerous quotations from other books, Chrysostom doesn't quote 2 Peter, 2 or 3 John, Jude or Revelation, implicitly matching the Canon list of the Peshitta and the "synopsis of the sacred scriptures". In 691-2 AD, the Trullan synod "sanctioned implicitly, as far as the number of Biblical books is concerned, quite incongruous and contradictory opinions... Such an extraordinary situation can be accounted for only on the supposition that the members of the Council had not even read the texts sanctioned. In view of the confusion implicit in the pronouncement made on the canon at the Trullan synod, it is not surprising that the latter history of the Bible in the East continues to exhibit uncertainty and vacillation," even up to the 10th AD! 

Based on the numbers of surviving manuscripts, Metzger opines that "the canon of the New Testament was not essentially a dogmatic issue whereby all the parts of the New Testament were regarded as equally necessary (The Gospels exist in 2,328 copies; the Book of Revelation in 287 copies)."

Some parts of the Syrian church had a Bible (The Peshitta) with 22 New Testament books, lacking 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude and Revelation. Other parts later had all 27 books. The debate in the Syrian church over the list of canonical books seems to have continued into the 9th century AD at least, and even today the Syrian Orthodox Church presents lessons from only the 22 books. The Nestorian monument erected in 781 AD in China claims that Christ left behind 27 "holy books." But probably the Chinese church did not have all 27 New Testament books at the time. In the 12th century AD, the scribe Sâhdâ wrote a copy of the New Testament that included 1 & 2 Clement between Jude and Romans. The canons of the Armenian and Gregorian churches also showed signs of change even in the Middle Ages, even if only because of slow translations for Revelation. The Ethiopian church had a Ge'ez canon that includes several extra books in both the Old and New Testaments. 

In chapter 10, Metzger makes a similar survey of attempts to close the canon in the Western church. Persecution, and maybe other factors, caused the Western church to more emphatically classify books as either canonical or not. Controversy was definitely present in the 4th century AD. Two undated and anonymous lists are described, both have peculiar properties, like possible scribal errors, strange book orders, and incompletely expressed ideas. Hilary, bishop of Poitiers, (d. 368 AD) is the earliest writer in the west to quote James. Filaster (d. ~397 AD), listed his acceptance of the gospels, 13 letters of Paul and seven catholic epistles, and elsewhere seems to accept Hebrews and Revelation. Rufinus (b. ~345 AD) gives a New Testament list with the same books as Athanasius, but in a different order. In addition, Rufinus lists the Shepard of Hermas, the Didache, and the Judgement of Peter (now lost) as "ecclesiastical" but not "canonical,” such that they may be read in church but they do not have authority for matters of faith. 

Jerome (~346-420 AD), the leading scripture scholar of the century, included the present books of the New Testament in his Vulgate translation. He also wrote several catalogs of sacred books, one of which is complete and lists all books of the Bible, including 27 New Testament books as we have today. In some of Jerome's other writings he comments on the seven doubtful books, which are James, Jude, 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter, Hebrews and Revelation. On Hebrews and Revelation, Jerome writes "and yet we receive both, in that we follow by no means the habit of today, but the authority of ancient writers." Jerome seemed to view the Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepard of Hermas as on the borders of the canon. 

Augustine (b. 354 AD), lists our present New Testament books in his treatise "De doctrina christiana." Augustine sees some books as being received on more weighty authority than others, where the weight of the authority is positively related to the number of churches that accept a book and the relative authority of those churches. At this, Metzger says that "[t]he great debate of so many generations was practically over. But it remained for someone to say that it was over." It was the synods in Hippo in 393 AD and Carthage (397 & 419 AD) that pronounced the complete and limiting list of the New Testament books. The synods attributed Hebrews to Paul. 

In the Middle Ages in the west, the subject of the canon was seldom discussed, but variations in the actual list of books in written copies of the Bible remained, such as the addition of the epistle of Paul to the Laodiceans in more than 100 manuscripts of the Vulgate. The See of Rome delivered a categorical opinion at the Council of Florence in 1439-43, declaring as canonical the present 27 books in the New Testament. 

In the Renaissance & the Reformation, doubts were rekindled about the authorship of Hebrews, and the apostolic authorship of James, Jude, 2 & 3 John and 2 Peter. Martin Luther (14830-1546) merely relegated his least favorite books, Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation, to the back of his translation, which, in light of the chaos of book ordering through church history that Metzger relates, seems like the slightest of condemnations. In Luther's prefaces to biblical books, he explains his opinions on the relative importance of each New Testament book and his reasons for disliking the theology of the last four books of his translation, considering those four not "the true and noblest books of the New Testament." Luther's chief evaluation of a New Testament book is theological. He decided on his theology, then he used that theology to judge the Bible. 

Other reformers went further in diminishing the importance of the commonly disputed New Testament books, such as Oecolampadius (d. 1531) who listed Revelation, James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 & 3 John as being scripture, but somehow less than the other books. In 1596, pastor David Wolder declared Luther's four lesser books as 'non canonical.' 

The reformers in Geneva presented the New Testament books "in the traditional manner." According to John Calvin, "the authority of the Scriptures is based, not on the pronouncement of the Church, but on the interior witness of the Holy Spirit." Interestingly, Metzger gives the opinion that "for Luther the Word is in the Bible; for Calvin the Word is the Bible." 

In response to the reformers, the Catholic Pope Paul III convened the Council of Trent which, after debating the possibility of putting books into more than one canonical importance class, issued an absolute decree accepting the books of the Vulgate (and probably meaning to include doubtful additions like John 7). Several Protestant confessions of faith in the 16th and 17th centuries AD have canon lists that match the usual 27 books. 

In chapter 11, Metzger examines problems that confronted the early church concerning the canon. For the early church, "[a] basic prerequisite for canonicity was conformity to what was called the 'rule of faith,' i.e. that a book matched the normative Christian tradition." Metzger compares the requirement for an Old Testament prophet to agree with the fundamentals of Judaism to the way that a work claiming canonical status was judged in the church based on its content. Although at the earliest stages the concept of orthodoxy must not have been entirely clear, Metzger is of the opinion that at least some tradition had been established. For example, the "faithful sayings" in the pastoral letters, which include 1 Timothy 1:15, 2 Timothy 2:11-13, and Titus 3:8The second test that Metzger lists as used by the early church is whether or not the book was apostolic. Apostolic authorship was not about dogma, but rather about identifying eyewitnesses or careful historians. The third test was continuous acceptance by the Church at large. These three criteria became generally adopted during the 2nd century AD "and were never modified thereafter." But their manner of application did vary. "What is really remarkable ... is that, though the fringes of the New Testament canon remained unsettled for centuries, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater parts of the New Testament was attained within the first two centuries not only among the Mediterranean world but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia.”

"Inspiration" on the other hand, was not one of the criteria. Inspiration was not considered to be limited to the scripture but rather the inspiration of the Holy Spirit was considered to apply to many Christians. For example, Gregory of Nyssa applies the word for "divinely inspired" (the same as in 2 Tim 3:16) to his brother's commentary on the six days of creation. Inspiration was not consider to be a unique property of scripture. The special character of the inspiration of the Bible became a topic of theological attention later. 

[Added 2022: History shows that the above criteria for canonicity are, broadly speaking, well-achieved and with a reasonably high level of consensus in the church. But consider whether this standard for reasonable inclusion in the canon is the same as the standard that ought to be required for an infallible source of absolute truth for all matters discussed.]

The early Church Fathers quote from the gospels more than from the Pauline epistles (with Matthew receiving the most quotations), which Metzger says suggests that the gospels were accepted as authoritative before the Pauline epistles. The plurality of gospels, and the apparent divergence of the different accounts, was not considered completely natural to early church writers. This was because the existence of multiple authoritative accounts implicitly implies that none is perfect. Luke 1 indicates that the multiplicity of accounts was ancient. On the other hand, Tatian's Diatessaron is one example of replacing the four gospels with a single harmonization. Another example is Marcion, the heretic who rejected all the gospels except Luke. Metzger says that long before the canon was finally settled, some areas only used one of the four gospels, for example, only the gospel of Matthew was widely read in Palestine. This may be the reason for us now having the four accounts. Irenaeus, on the contrary, defended the four-fold gospel with number symbolism (four winds, four living creatures in Ezekiel, etc.).

One strange detail regarding the canonicity of the Pauline epistles is why letters to individual churches were given universal authority and application. As evidenced by early variants of the manuscripts, sometimes people edited Paul's letters to make them seem like they were directed at the Church in general. Other times number symbolism was used to justify the general use of the Pauline epistles: along the lines of 2 x 7 churches (including Hebrews) equals the universal church. 

In chapter 12, Metzger examines questions concerning the canon today, starting with the question "Which form of the text is canonical?" That is, which of the textual variants is canonical? Metzger says that "the category of 'canonical' appears to have been broad enough to include all variant readings," including for example, the long ending of Mark (which was present in the 2nd century AD). 

Metzger then considers the question as to whether the canon is open (to additions or subtractions) or closed. Ultimately, it seems improbable that a book could be added to the canon, since it would need to meet the standards for apostolic authorship and orthodoxy, and also be a found, surviving document from a long time ago. He gives the example of possibly adding the Coptic Gospel of Thomas to the New Testament canon, and describes why he thinks that would not be a good idea. On the topic of removing books, Metzger points out that an individual's misguided motives may mislead an attempt to remove parts of the canon and he gives Luther as an example of such a mistake. So Metzger considers that the canon is theoretically open, but that changes are highly unlikely.

Next, Metzger asks if there is a "canon within the canon," today; if there is some way to identity which parts of the Bible are authoritative and which parts are not authoritative. Possible examples of the canon within the canon could be "the preaching of Jesus, in Paul, and in the Fourth Gospel" (Kümmel's idea), or the sub-canon might be more like the sources of the synoptic gospels perhaps with the message transformed into something addressable to the present day reader (Marxen's idea). Other searches for a sub-canon include programs for working around apparent Biblical contradictions. Metzger responds by protesting the question of "why the New Testament should have to be consistent in all its parts." Metzger holds that a diversity of thought and opinion about the most important parts of Christianity is present even in the text of the New Testament itself. "The homogeneity of the canon is not jeopardized even in the face of tensions that exist within the New Testament." The canon "make[s] the limits of acceptable diversity within the Church." "Unity will be achieved, not by an initial agreement on doctrine and practice, but by the willingness to grow together in the common search for a renewed understanding of the several traditions embodied within the entire range of the New Testament canon."

[Added 2022: For general life guidance, it's totally fine to draw from multiple semi-coherent sources. I do that now. But consider whether the New Testament's internal consistency reaches the standard that ought to be required for an infallible source of absolute truth for all matters discussed. Well, you guessed it: such a standard is impossible to achieve. So it's best to reject all systems that claim to be infallible sources of absolute truth for all matters they discuss, including systems that claim such status for the New Testament. For extra irony, notice that the New Testament makes no such claim for itself. To be clear, I still draw inspiration from the New Testament and I use its principles to guide my life, but I don't think it's absolute truth.]

Metzger addresses the question of whether the canon is a collection of authoritative books (that the books join the collection because of their authority), or that the canon is an authoritative collection of books (that the books gain their authority by being part of the collection). “If the authority of the New Testament books resides not in the circumstance of their inclusion within a collection made by the Church, but in the source from which they came, then the New Testament was in principle complete when the various elements coming from this source had been written.” Hence, we must make the distinction between “the ground of canonicity” (a theological question) "and the ground for the conviction of canonicity” (an historical question). “[T]he status of canonicity is not an objectively demonstrable claim, but is a statement of Christian belief. It is not affected by features that are open to adjudication, such as matters of authorship and genuineness, for a pseudepigraphon is not necessarily excluded from the canon.” And in a matching footnote: “Pokorny, after raising the question of whether pseudepigraphic writings should be removed from the canon, writes: ‘That would be the consequence if we regarded the canon as a direct revelation from God, somewhat as Moslems regard the Koran. The Biblical canon, on the other hand, is a human testimony to the revelation of God. If the Church has received and canonized even pseudepigraphic writings as apostolic witness, that means for us (and we see it today more clearly than earlier) that even the Biblical canon is validated through God’s grace and not through the work of any human being.”

Some authors (like Marxsen) would claim that the development of the canon looks like an historical accident, but to the contrary, Metgzer claims that “the whole process can also be rightly characterized as the result of divine overruling.” “[T]he Church did not create the canon, but came to recognize, accept, affirm, and confirm the self-authenticating quality of certain documents that imposed themselves as such upon the Church. If this fact is obscured, one comes into serious conflict not with dogma but with history.” “History records many instances of the self-evidencing power of Scripture ... to bring a person, hitherto antagonistic to all that is good, into the presence of God and Jesus Christ in a unique way.” If I were to eliminate all of Metzger’s nuance, I would say that he answers his own question by saying that the canon is a collection of authoritative books, but he doesn’t explicitly say that.

In Appendix 1, Metzger examines the history of the Greek word for “canon.” It was not until 350 AD that the greek word “κανών” was used to describe the list of New Testament books. On a side note, it seems that Eusebius drew up “lists of numerals that corresponded to the numbered sections in the text of the Gospels, by which one could quickly locate parallel passages”. I wonder if this is related to the history of chapter and verse numbers. Wikipedia tells me that: 

Archbishop Stephen Langton and Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro developed different schemas for systematic division of the Bible in the early 13th century. It is the system of Archbishop Langton on which the modern chapter divisions are based.


The first person to divide New Testament chapters into verses was Italian Dominican biblical scholar Santi Pagnini (1470–1541), but his system was never widely adopted. Robert Estienne created an alternate numbering in his 1551 edition of the Greek New Testament which was also used in his 1553 publication of the Bible in French. Estienne's system of division was widely adopted, and it is this system which is found in almost all modern Bibles.

In appendix 2, Metzger discusses the variants in order of the New Testament books. Before the advent of printing, there were numerous variations on the orders of the books, even within the general categories of gospels, Pauline epistles, general epistles, Acts and Revelation. The present order of the gospels was popularized by Eusebius and Jerome, but Metzger lists 8 other orderings found in various manuscripts. “The preceding survey of the very great variety in order, both of the several parts of the New Testament as well as of books within each part, leads one to conclude that such matters were of no great significance for the ancient and medieval Church; they became an issue only with later editors and publishers.”

Metzger discusses the titles of the New Testament books in appendix 3. “In antiquity the title of a book was not considered such an essential and unalterable part of the book as in later times, especially since the invention of printing.” The New Testament books did not originally have titles like we are accustomed to now. Metzger lists the variations in the titles of the gospels, Acts and the epistles, which seem to involve only minor variations, like “Gospel of Matthew” vs. “The Gospel according to Matthew.” Revelation, however, has in one case the most baroque title: “The Revelation of the all-glorious Evangelist, bosom friend [of Jesus], virgin, beloved to Christ, John the theologian, son of Salome and Zebedee, but adopted son of Mary the Mother of God, and Son of Thunder.”

Metzger presents early lists of the New Testament books in appendix 4. The Muratorian fragment lists starts in the middle of describing the second book of the list (probably Mark), then Luke, John, Acts, Corinthians (1 and 2), Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, Thessalonians (1 and 2), Romans, Philemon, Titus, Timothy (1 and 2), Jude, 1 & 2 John, Wisdom of Solomon, Apocalypses of John and maybe Peter. The canon of Origen (c. 185-254 AD) seems to include the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John only, some letters of Paul, one definite epistle of Peter and one disputed epistle of Peter, the apocalypse of John, one definite and two possible epistles of John. Origen also contemplates the authorship of Hebrews and he accepts the book without knowing the author for sure.

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.