What apocryphal writings can teach us.

Recent discoveries in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, have turned up a Gospel of Thomas and other works that have attracted the attention of the press. For example, John Dart, religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, has written a popular exposition of the Nag Hammadi discovery entitled. The Laughing Savior (Harper & Row, 1976). These discoveries raise important questions: how do the apocryphal gospels compare with the four canonical gospels? What are these apocryphal gospels like? Have the words of Jesus been preserved outside the New Testament? A consideration of these issues can help us evaluate canonical traditions in a broader perspective.

The Apocryphal Gospels

The apocryphal gospels are non-canonical writings of a motley variety about the purported deeds and revelations of Jesus Christ. Though the Greek word apocrypha originally meant “hidden,” the church fathers used it to describe spurious writings foisted as gospels. Irenaeus refers to “an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings, which they themselves (i.e. heretics) had forged, to bewilder the minds of the foolish.” Although some of them are patterned after the canonical gospels, many bear little resemblance to them. As Origen noted, “The Church possesses four Gospels, heresy a great many.” Of the fifty-some apocryphal gospels, many are known simply by title only or by a few scattered quotations and allusions in the church fathers. A number of works, especially of the popular infancy gospels, have been preserved in late manuscripts and versions. Egypt has preserved some early papyrus and parchment copies, most notably in the Gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi.

Most apocryphal ...

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