Ehrman Bart D. - Lost scriptures Books that did not make it into the New Testament

Author : Ehrman Bart D.
Title : Lost scriptures Books that did not make it into the New Testament
Year : 2003

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General Introduction. Even though millions of people world-wide read the New Testament— whether from curiosity or religious devotion—very few ask what this collection of books actually is or where it came from, how it came into existence, who decided which books to include, on what grounds, and when. The New Testament did not emerge as an established and complete set of books immediately after the death of Jesus. Many years passed before Christians agreed concerning which books should comprise their sacred scriptures, with debates over the contour of the “canon” (i.e., the collection of sacred texts) that were long, hard, and sometimes harsh. In part this was because other books were available, also written by Christians, many of their authors claiming to be the original apostles of Jesus, yet advocating points of view quite different from those later embodied in the canon. These differences were not simply over such comparatively minor issues as whether a person should be baptized as an infant or an adult, or whether churches were to be run by a group of lay elders or by ordained priests, bishops, and pope. To be sure, such issues, still controversial among Christian churches today, were at stake then as well. But the alternative forms of Christianity in the early centuries of the church wrestled over much larger doctrinal questions, many of them unthinkable in most modern Christian churches, such as how many gods there are (one? two? twelve? thirty?); whether the true God created the world or whether, instead, it was created by a lower, inferior deity; whether Jesus was divine, or human, or somehow both; whether Jesus’ death brought salvation, or was irrelevant for salvation, or whether he ever even died. Christians also debated the relationship of their new faith to the religion from which it came, Judaism. Should Christians continue to be Jews? Or if not already Jews, should they convert to Judaism? What about the Jewish Scriptures? Are they to be part of the Christian Bible, as the “Old Testament”? Or are they the Scriptures of a different religion, inspired perhaps by a different God? Such fundamental issues are for the most part unproblematic to Christians today, and their solutions, as a result, appear obvious: There is only one God; he created the world; Jesus his Son is both human and divine; his death brought salvation to the world, in fulfillment of the promises made in the Old Testament, which was also inspired by the one true God. One of the reasons these views now seem obvious, however, is that only one set of early Christian beliefs emerged as victorious in the heated disputes over what to believe and how to live that were raging in the early centuries of the Christian movement. These beliefs, and the group who promoted them, came to be thought of as “orthodox” (literally meaning, “the right belief”), and alternative views—such as the view that there are two gods, or that the true God did not create the world, or that Jesus was not actually human or not actually divine, etc.—came to be labeled “heresy” ( false belief) and were then ruled out of court. Moreover, the victors in the struggles to establish Christian orthodoxy not only won their theological battles, they also rewrote the history of the conflict; later readers, then, naturally assumed that the victorious views had been embraced by the vast majority of Christians from the very beginning, all the way back to Jesus and his closest followers, the apostles. What then of the other books that claimed to be written by these apostles, the ones that did not come to form part of the New Testament? For the most part they were suppressed, forgotten, or destroyed—in one way or another lost, except insofar as they were mentioned by those who opposed them, who quoted them precisely in order to show how wrong they were. But we should not overlook the circumstance that in some times and places these “other” writings were in fact sacred books, read and revered by devout people who understood themselves to be Christian. Such people believed that they were following the real teachings of Jesus, as found in the authoritative texts that they maintained were written by Jesus’ own apostles. Historians today realize that it is over-simplified to say that these alternative theologies are aberrations because they are not represented in the New Testament. For the New Testament itself is the collection of books that emerged from the conflict, the group of books advocated by the side of the disputes that eventually established itself as dominant and handed the books down to posterity as “the” Christian Scriptures. This triumph did not happen immediately after Jesus’ death. Jesus is usually thought to have died around 30 ce. Christians probably began to produce writings shortly afterwards, although our earliest surviving writings, the letters of Paul, were not made for another twenty years or so (around 50–60 ce). Soon the floodgates opened, however, and Christians of varying theological and ecclesiastical persuasion wrote all kinds of books: Gospels recording the words, deeds, and activities of Jesus; accounts of the miraculous lives and teachings of early Christian leaders (“acts of the apostles”), personal letters (“epistles”) to and from Christian leaders and communities; prophetic revelations from God concerning how the world came to be or how it was going to end (“revelations” or “apocalypses”), and so on. Some of these writings may well have been produced by the original apostles of Jesus. But already within thirty or forty years books began to appear that claimed to be written by apostles, which in fact were forgeries in their names (see, e.g., 2 Thess. 2:2). The practice of Christian forgery has a long and distinguished history. We know of Gospels and other sacred books forged in the names of the apostles down into the Middle Ages—and on, in fact, to the present day. Some of the more ancient ones have been discovered only in recent times by trained archaeologists or rummaging bedouin, including Gospels allegedly written by Jesus’ close disciple Peter, his female companion Mary Magdalene, and his twin brother Didymus Judas Thomas. The debates over which texts actually were apostolic, and therefore authoritative, lasted many years, decades, even centuries. Eventually—by about the end of the third Christian century—the views of one group emerged as victorious. This group was itself internally diverse, but it agreed on major issues of the faith, including the existence of one God, the creator of all, who was the Father of Jesus Christ, who was both divine and human, who along with the Father and the Holy Spirit together made up the divine godhead. This group promoted its own collection of books as the only true and authentic ones, and urged that some of these books were sacred authorities, the “New” Testament that was to be read alongside of and that was at least as authoritative as the “Old” Testament taken over from the Jews. When was this New Testament finally collected and authorized? The first instance we have of any Christian author urging that our current twentyseven books, and only these twenty-seven, should be accepted as Scripture occurred in the year 367 ce, in a letter written by the powerful bishop of Alexandria (Egypt), Athanasius. Even then the matter was not finally resolved, however, as different churches, even within the orthodox form of Christianity, had different ideas—for example, about whether the Apocalypse of John could be accepted as Scripture (it finally was, of course), or whether the Apocalypse of Peter should be (it was not); whether the epistle of Hebrews should be included (it was) or the epistle of Barnabas (it was not); and so on. In other words, the debates lasted over three hundred years. The issues I have been addressing in the previous paragraphs are highly involved, of course, and require a good deal of discussion and reflection. I have dealt with them at greater length in the book written as a companion to the present collection of texts: Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). There I discuss the wide ranging diversity of the early Christian movement of the first three centuries, the battles between “heresies” and “orthodoxy,” the production of forged documents in the heat of the battle by all sides, the question of how some of these books came to be included in the canon of Scripture, on what grounds, and when. The present volume is intended to provide easy and ready access to the texts discussed in Lost Christianities—that is, revered texts that were not included in the canon. Many of these texts were excluded precisely because they were thought to embody heretical concerns and perspectives. Others were accepted as “orthodox,” but were not deemed worthy of acceptance in the sacred canon of Scripture, for one reason or another. I have called this collection of other sacred texts “Lost Scriptures,” even though the writings I have included here are obviously no longer lost. But most of them were lost, for centuries, until they turned up in modern times in archaeological discoveries or in systematic searches through the monasteries and libraries of the Middle East and Europe. Some of them are known only in part, as fragments of once-entire texts have appeared—for example, a famous Gospel allegedly written by the apostle Peter. Others are cited by ancient opponents of heresy precisely in order to oppose them— for example, Gospels used by different groups of early Jewish Christians. Yet other books have turned up in their entirety—for example, the Gospel allegedly written by Jesus’ twin brother Judas Thomas. And yet others have been available for a long time to scholars, but are not widely known outside their ranks—for example, the account of the miraculous life of Paul’s female companion Thecla. Scholars have never devised an adequate term for these “Lost Scriptures.” Sometimes they are referred to as the Christian “Pseudepigrapha,” based on a Greek term which means “written under a false name.” But some of the books are anonymous rather than pseudonymous. Moreover, in the judgment of most New Testament scholars, even some of the books that were eventually included in the canon (e.g., 2 Peter) are pseudonymous. And so, more often these texts are referred to as the early Christian “Apocrypha,” another problematic term, in that it technically refers to “hidden books” (the literal meaning of “apocrypha”), hidden either because they contained secret revelations or because they simply were not meant for general consumption. A number of these books, however, do not fit that designation, as they were written for general audiences. Still, so long as everyone agrees that in the present context, the term “early Christian apocrypha” may designate books that were sometimes thought to be scripture but which were nonetheless finally excluded from the canon, then the term can still serve a useful function. The present collection of early Christian apocrypha is not meant to be exhaustive, nor is this the only place one can turn now to find some of these texts. Most other collections of the lost Scriptures, however, cover only certain kinds of documents (e.g., non-canonical Gospels) or documents discovered in only one place (e.g., the cache of “gnostic” writings discovered near Nag Hammadi Egypt in 1945). Or they include several of the “other” scriptural texts only as a part of a wider collection of early Christian documents. The major collections that contain all of these early Christian writings—and even more—are written for scholars and embody scholarly concerns. The purpose of the present collection is to provide the non-scholar with easy access to these ancient Christian documents that were sometimes regarded as sacred authorities for Christian faith and practice. I have organized the collection in traditional rubrics, based for the most part on the genres that eventually came to comprise the New Testament: Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses (including in the final two categories related kinds of writings). I have also included several “canonical lists” from the early centuries of Christianity—that is, lists of books that were thought by their authors to be the canon. This final category shows how even within “orthodox” circles there was considerable debate concerning which books to include. Altogether there are forty-seven different texts here, each provided with a concise introduction. Most of the texts are given in their entirety. For some of the very long ones, I have given sufficiently lengthy extracts to provide a sense of what the books were like. Each is in a modern and highly readable English translation. Nineteen of the translations are my own. In conclusion I would like to thank those who have made this volume a possibility: my wife, Sarah Beckwith, whose insatiable curiosity and vast knowledge make her, among other things, an extraordinary dialogue partner; my graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carl Cosaert, whose diligence as a research assistant is sans pareil; Darryl Gless, my unusually supportive Senior Associate Dean, and the entire dean’s office at UNC-Chapel Hill, who provided me with a much needed academic leave from my duties as chair in the Department of Religious Studies, allowing me to complete the project; and especially my editor Robert Miller, who convinced me to produce the book and once more went above and beyond the call of editorial duty in helping me bring it to completion. ...

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