Apocrypha, Deuterocanonical Books, and Non-Canonical Writings

Discovery of Ancient Writings

The earliest writings about Jesus were not as neatly organized as the Gospels we know today. While the four canonical Gospels are the primary sources for information about the historical Jesus, several ancient Christian religious writings have been discovered over the years, providing valuable insights into early Christian beliefs, practices, and history. They include stories about Jesus and his teachings that did not make it into the official New Testament canon, a mystical, esoteric side of Christianity (Gnosticism), often at odds with orthodox teachings, and writings by early Christian leaders thought to have had direct connections to Jesus’s apostles. These offer a glimpse into the very earliest development of the Christian church.

Dead Sea Scrolls

These scrolls were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in caves near the Dead Sea in Israel, particularly at Qumran. They contain biblical texts, as well as sectarian writings and community rule documents that shed light on the religious milieu of the time.

Nag Hammadi Library

Discovered in 1945 near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt, this collection of ancient manuscripts contains Gnostic texts, including several that are considered to be Christian in nature. The texts offer insights into early Christian Gnostic beliefs and practices.

Oxyrhynchus Papyri

Discovered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, these papyri include fragments of early Christian writings, as well as non-religious texts. The Christian texts range from biblical fragments to early Christian letters and theological treatises.

Gospel Competition

Before a common orthodoxy existed, history suggested that hundreds of writings may have circulated among early Christians. Historians read this literature because it gives us access to the diversity of Christian beliefs about Jesus and the apostles during the early centuries.  They include:

    • Apocrypha: The term “apocrypha” comes from Greek. It is the plural of the singular “apocryphon,+ which means “hidden” or “secret.” Lots of early Church fathers’ writings aren’t in the New Testament, including f Clement, Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Origen.
    • Deuterocanonical Books.  They are a collection of Jewish and early Christian texts included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles (specifically, the Old Testament) but absent in Protestant Bibles. The Catholic Church encourages the reading and study of the books and uses them in liturgical readings during Mass.
    • Gnostic Gospels: Some Christians were claiming that they had
      secret or hidden teachings of Jesus. In addition to whatever you might read in, for example, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans or in the Gospel of Mark, Paul and Jesus had taught additional, higher concepts to special students, and these secret ideas had come down through oral traditions.  These works, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, were written in the 2nd century or later, promoting Gnostic beliefs. While interesting, they contain little, if any, historically reliable information about Jesus. The Church does not consider Gnostic gospels to be divinely inspired or hold the same canonical authority as the Deuterocanonical books or the Gospels of the New Testament.
    • Infancy Gospels: These include the Infancy Gospel of James, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and The History of Joseph the Carpenter. They elaborate the birth and childhood of Jesus with fantastical stories and. hold no historical value regarding the real Jesus.
    • Other Texts: Some, like the Acts of Pilate and The Life of John the Baptist, focus more on figures associated with Jesus than Jesus himself. While these can offer insights into early Christian communities’ perspectives, they aren’t reliable sources for the historical figure.

The discovery of ancient texts is ongoing, and their interpretation continues to be debated by scholars. They are important because they show the complex Jewish environment out of which Christianity emerged, i.e., they offer a broader view of early Christianity, outside the established New Testament. Writings of the Apostolic Fathers tell us how the early church organized, interpreted doctrine, and dealt with challenges, especially Gnosticism.