The history of Christianity is often the history of doctrinal dispute, arguments about what the Church should or should not believe. This history is often framed as if the Church fell into division after existing an original “pure” form, yet historically no such a pure form can be found to have existed. Like most social and cultural movements, the earliest generations of Christianity are marked by an explosion of creativity and diverse ideas and practices that only later took on more rigid forms. In fact, from Jesus’ life in the first century CE through the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, no single Bible with the same set of texts was universally endorsed and used by the Church.
At the beginning of November I had the great pleasure of traveling down to the Jesus Seminar on the Road in Auburn, California, a mountain town not far from Lake Tahoe, to listen to Westar Fellows Stephen Patterson and Deborah Niederer Saxon present on “The Missing Bible,” a look at texts that (1) were excluded from modern Bibles for various reasons and/or (2) can still be found, in traces, in modern Bibles but not without a little training in biblical criticism. This blog post is an informal report on that event.
As is always the case when I write reports like this, any errors are probably my mistake. You can share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Are you interested in bringing a religious studies weekend course like “The Missing Bible” to your community?
We kicked off Friday night with Deb Saxon introducing a fabulous chart of how early Judeo-Christian texts are related and grouped. Here is my hand-drawn equivalent, not as pretty as Deb’s but it gives you some idea:
The overlapping lines of these Venn-diagram style circles reflect the relationships between the texts. So, for example, the Christian Old Testament includes the entire Hebrew Bible plus some other texts, whereas the Dead Sea Scrolls include both traditionally biblical texts but also some texts that don’t appear in either the Hebrew Bible or the various versions of the Christian Old Testament.
As for the New Testament, Deb pointed out that there are over 100 early Christian writings, which tells us that a lot more was left out than kept in. The diagram above shows the traditional New Testament (27 texts) plus a sampling of the collections found elsewhere. Many of these texts were never “lost” but simply fell into disuse. Interestingly, some of the stories and passages from nontraditional texts have survived in art and popular culture, such as the Immaculate Conception found in the Infancy Gospel of James. No New Testament passage claims that Mary was born, like Jesus, without the taint of sin, yet this appears as a common motif in Western art and is widely believed and cherished by many Christians today.
Other examples Deb noted include the Berlin Codex, found in the late 1800s, and of course the Nag Hammadi library found in 1945. Codex Tchacos, found in the 1970s, famously includes the Gospel of Judas.
Some people might wonder how we know these texts really do come from the first couple centuries CE. Deb offered some examples of how such texts are dated, all of which correspond with an April 2015 blog post I wrote, “8 Tips for Dating Early Christian Texts,” so rather than repeating myself here, I suggest you jump over to that more detailed article if this is of interest to you. To give just one example, though, one way we can determine the absolute latest date a text was written is by who refers to it after the fact. As incredible as a “gospel of Mary” or a “gospel of Judas” may seem to modern readers, who might naturally suspect them to be modern forgeries, we know that 4th-century and 5th-century leaders of the Church like Tertullian and Epiphanius referenced and even quoted such texts—and expected their readers to recognize the reference! Just because a text is no longer widely read today, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been popular a long time ago. Most of us can’t even remember popular books of 50 years ago, let alone 1600–1700 years ago.
One such popular text was the Acts of Paul and Thecla. We have no way of knowing for sure whether Thecla was a real historical figure or a fictional character, but as Deb Saxon put it so eloquently, “For the people who read and more likely heard the story of Thecla, she was as real to them as Paul.” In this story, Thecla abandons her engagement to a wealthy and powerful man to become an apostle after overhearing Paul’s teaching from her window. Her own mother drags her before the authorities and demands she be burned alive as an example to other young women, but God sends a rainstorm to extinguish the fire. Later Thecla is tossed to the wild animals in a Roman arena, but a lioness protects her from harm. She baptizes herself in a pool of killer seals (yes, you read that right) and goes on to live a long, happy existence as a traveling apostle.
This might come as a surprise to many, but there was no universal Church Council that decided what books of the Bible were “in” or “out.” Below are some key dates related to this issue—but note that the only actual major council to be explicitly focused on what books belong in the Bible doesn’t come until the 16th century!
In 313 CE, the Edict of Milan established tolerance for Christianity by the Roman Empire.
In 325 CE, the Council of Nicaea settled a theological debate between Arius (loser) and Athanasius (winner) about the divinity of Jesus. Arius argued that Jesus was a created being, but ultimately the Council declared Jesus “of one substance” with God.
By 367 CE, Athanasius circulated an “Easter letter” with a list of the 27 books we now find in modern New Testaments, but it was written for his own community and didn’t dictate what was being read elsewhere.
In 1546, the Council of Trent responded to the Protestant Reformation by affirming the 27 books of the Latin Vulgate Bible (ca. 400 CE).
We know of other, competing lists to the one circulated by Athanasius. One question we can ask about this is, “What rule or rules did a person use to decide what to include?” For example, if you were Eusebius, your rule was the Nicene Creed: if a book agreed with the Nicene Creed, it must be true, and if it disagreed, it must be spurious. Not exactly a historically sound way of making decisions.
Even into the modern era, we can name some famous examples of people who felt at liberty to modify the list of texts: Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, wanted to do away with James, Hebrews, and Jude. Thomas Jefferson literally cut and pasted verses of the Bible to create his own version, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton even developed The Woman’s Bible. Today, books like Evolution of the Word by Marcus Borg and A New New Testament edited by Hal Taussig continue this legacy.
What do we gain by reading the texts that were eventually excluded from modern Bibles? Deb offered this list of benefits:
To this, I would also add the potential value of these texts as creative resources for modern art and literature.
Stephen Patterson took over from Deb to introduce what is known as the Synoptic Problem and to lay out the evidence for a possible missing text that helps to resolve this historical puzzle. It would be remiss of me not to mention that Stephen’s new book The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, explains this more eloquently and in far more detail than I do in this report. The Lost Way also includes a copy of the reconstructed Q Gospel, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Anyone who has read the first three books of the New Testament (the “Synoptic Gospels,” or Matthew, Mark, and Luke) will notice that they are very similar. They all share stories about a man named Jesus and his disciples. They recount both his teachings—in the form of parables and short sayings—along with miracles of healing and also what might be called miraculous demonstrations of power. All three also include a story about his death by crucifixion and reports of his resurrection from the dead.
Read naively, the similarities in these texts naturally lead people to assume they were written by multiple eyewitnesses of the same events. The variations among the three texts get explained away as natural differences from one person’s account to another’s. To offer a modern parallel, these days we tend to watch events unfold in live action on social media but through the raw experience of each individual person reporting what they see. Here’s the problem: gospels aren’t that raw. The “eyewitness” rationale doesn’t quite hold up upon closer examination because in many cases the texts agree verbatim, word for word. Historians—and copyright lawyers, for that matter—would assert that this points to a literary relationship among the texts. Somebody was reading and borrowing from the other guy’s work.
So who was borrowing from whom, and how do we know? Basically, we know Matthew and Luke were borrowing from Mark because they both rely on Mark’s language while editing it where doing so would suit their purposes and adding other material to it. Where Luke’s edits of Mark differ from Matthew’s edits of Mark, we get some intriguing clues about what the interests and concerns of these later writers were.
This accounts for most but not all of the overlapping material in Matthew and Luke. The remaining material belongs to a gospel we no longer possess, which German theologian Johannes Weiss (d. 1914) called simply die Quelle (“the source”). In English it is often simply called “Q” or the “Q Gospel.”
Q can’t be seen by flipping to a particular book in an ordinary Bible. You have to reconstruct it yourself or trust the work of others. Most of us rely on the free online translation of the reconstructed Greek text by the International Q Project, a team of two dozen scholars including Stephen Patterson, but you can find a reader-friendly recent translation in Chapter 4 of The Lost Way.
Stephen explained to us that Q was written before the Jewish War (66–70 CE) in the Galilean region. We know that because, among other things, (1) it doesn’t mention the Jewish War, and (2) it refers to a lot of tiny villages that only a local would know. In fact, Stephen explained to us, wartime themes dominate all other early Christian writings except for Q and the letters of Paul. Another factor here is forced urbanization: Because the Galilean region was close to a body of water, both the Greeks and the Romans planted cities there. Imagine these ancient empires creating cities from scratch by building aqueducts to ferry water from one place to another. You can guess how rural peasants felt about their water being literally taken before their eyes in a matter of a few years! Context helps us understand the themes found in Q.
Stephen shared several themes and examples from his book. I’ll just share a little about the Lord’s Prayer. The Q version of the Lord’s Prayer is simpler and more concrete than the version many people recite in Christian churches today. Here’s how it reads in Steve’s translation:
Father!—Holy be Your name!—may your empire come.
Give us each day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts, for we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into trial.
(Q 11:2–4; Matt. 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4)
This is one of many sayings found in Q that reveal the altogether practical tone of this gospel. It teaches people how to survive in an empire, particularly in one where most people lived at subsistence level and a single disaster, such as an illness in the family, could become a matter of life or death. Indeed, when one audience member asked what Q can teach us today, Stephen only half-joked that perhaps it doesn’t speak to those of us who could afford to be in the room listening to a lecture. But it has a lot to say about survival, especially the survival of those who can’t find a place for themselves in the sorts of impersonal systems that empires use to govern their subjects. Perhaps that is something we all have experienced in one form or another.
The Gospel of Thomas was known to scholars in fragments for a long time, but nobody knew they belonged together until the Nag Hammadi version was found in 1945. Thomas—Judas Thomas, not “doubting” Thomas—is the patron saint of a place called Edessa, which is not technically located in the Roman Empire but on the far eastern frontier in the borderlands between Roman territory and the Parthian Empire. It was the first city arrived at on the Silk Road east out of Antioch. This tells us that for the people who lived there, a war in Jerusalem would not have felt immediately relevant to their lives. Because of this, a gospel written in Edessa is less interested in wartime themes than many other gospels with a closer connection to Judea.
So what themes do we find instead? Stephen Patterson explained that as a port city, Edessa was the kind of place that many people would have passed through without staying for long. The people there engaged in the sorts of exchanges you would expect: everything from material goods to sex to philosophical ideas. Thomas is a wisdom gospel, optimistic (“seek and you shall find”) about finding something that is “already there.” It may not be comfortable, but it will give those who listening carefully the power to “rule the universe.” The parables of the Sower and the Lost Sheep are found in Thomas, as are the Beatitudes. To embrace this gospel means to “become passersby.” “If you do not fast from the world, you will not find the kingdom,” Thomas reads. One needs to avoid being lost in the exciting but fleeting life of the port city.
The themes in Thomas also reflect Christianity’s emergence during a renaissance of Plato’s ideas known as Middle Platonism. The Gospel of Thomas was written in a context where those ideas could fruitfully mix with the emerging ideas of the Jesus movement. Rather than thinking of this as a unique or isolated incident, we should understand that this movement was influential across many aspects of life in the ancient world. Other famous figures influenced by Middle Platonism include Cicero and Philo of Alexandria.
An example of a Middle Platonic idea is its clever reversal of the classic wisdom saying, “Know thyself.” In its earliest formulation by the famous Delphic Oracle, this phrase meant something more like “get over yourself” or “you’re just human.” But the Middle Platonists flipped that on its head. Suddenly, “know thyself” meant something like “know that you are divine.” Rather than dying and disappearing into the dust, the Middle Platonists believed something in us persisted—the “mind” (nous) that comes from God. It’s easy to see the beginnings of the Christian “soul” or “spirit” in that concept, and in Thomas this theme is especially pronounced. “How much will you bear,” Thomas asks, “when you see your true self?”
Deborah Saxon rounded out the weekend with a tour through women in early and medieval Christian artwork to give us a sense for how ideas about women’s leadership roles changed over time—unfortunately too often summed up by Deb’s phrase “the vanishing act.” I share just a couple of Deb’s many examples here.
Mary Magdalene. Bernadette Brooten in Women Leaders in Ancient Synagogues observed that women were referred to as elders, head of the synagogue, mother of the synagogue, and other terms that suggest an important role in the Judean community. We see evidence of leadership in early Christian texts, as well, such as in John 20:17–18, when Mary Magdalene experiences the two things normally associated with apostolic leadership: she sees and recognizes the risen Christ, and she is given a commission:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Mary Magdalene has sometimes been called the “apostle to the apostles,” as seen in the Gospel of Mary, where she corrects her male companions’ misunderstandings about what Jesus taught—at their invitation! Yet over time Mary Magdalene has come to be thought of as a prostitute and associated with the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus in Mark 14. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s famous book In Memory of Her takes its title from this famous passage. Schüssler Fiorenza observes that Mary Magdalene appears only at the death and resurrection plus one other place in the canonical Bible, Luke 8:1–3.
Mary the Mother of Jesus. Like Mary Magdalene, throughout the course of history Mary the Mother of Jesus has often been shown to be an apostolic leader who commissions and teaches, often to the apostles. In some parts of the world (especially the “global South”) this association is still obvious, but in the West it has become less obvious, especially in artistic representations of her. Here’s an interesting case in point: In the Chapel of Saint Venantius (San Giovanni in Fonte) in Rome, pictured below, an octagonal chapel shows a Baroque-era (15/16t century) Madonna with child that has been built up in front of earlier artwork.
St. Venantius Chapel, Rome. Credit: Kateusz.
Yet above the Madonna, especially if you walk behind this display, you will find a mosaic that dates to around 650 CE, of Jesus flanked by angels and, right below him, mostly hidden by the later construction, Mary in a praying posture, wearing a pallium, hands lifted to lead the prayer for others—popes and apostles! The color blue in her clothing is another indicator that this is Mary.
St. Venantius Chapel mosaic. Credit: Kateusz.
The pallium, a narrow band around the shoulders with short pendants hanging from the front and back, was only worn by popes and archbishops, although it was possible for someone to receive it as a special favor. In the 1800s, Giovanni de Rossi painted the mosaic. His illustration shows a red cross on Mary’s pallium that, in the time since, has been almost entirely replaced with white tesserae.
St. Venantius mosaic, as painted in the 1800s by Giovanni de RossiIn a room outside the Sistine Chapel is a reliquary with Mary in the same posture. Another can be seen in Varona, Italy and at San Marco in Florence, Italy, the latter a piece of art that originally appeared in St. Peter’s Basilica before it was remodeled. This is not meant to be a simplistic story of good à bad representations, though. Keep in mind that early Christian views were diverse, including their ideas about women’s leadership. Some communities embraced it, while others did not.
Thank you again to the generous and well-organized host, First Congregational Church of Auburn UCC, and to our presenters Stephen Patterson and Deborah Saxon for sharing these fascinating and challenging stories from early Christian history! Learn more about the Jesus Seminar on the Road program … and perhaps to organize one in your community?
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.
Subscribe to our email list and receive updates, news, and more.