What Are We to Conclude from the New Testament Apocrypha?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In the last few blog posts, we have looked at just a few of the documents produced by Christians in the second century and beyond. What can we conclude, from the study of these documents, about their historical reliability?

Robert van Voorst, in his book Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, summarizes the situation:

[W]e have seen that the agrapha have a limited witness to the teaching of the historical Jesus. Although the results are disappointingly meager, some isolated sayings do surface as likely candidates for authenticity. We have also raised the methodological issue of circularity: what from the agrapha is deemed authentic rests on a prior determination of what is deemed authentic in the canonical Gospels, with the result that the authentic agrapha tend to duplicate the canonical sayings.

Van Voorst asks:

[D]o the second and third centuries yield valuable, independent, historical information about Jesus that enables us to revise significantly our understanding of him? Put another way, does the literature from this time period tell us anything historical about Jesus that we do not already know with some confidence from the canonical Gospels?

On the whole, probably not. Jesus was not an anti-Semite, as the Gospel of Peter implies. He was not a “talking head,” as the Gospel of Thomas portrays him. He certainly was not a libertine, as the Secret Gospel of Mark has been read to portray him. The sources of second-and third-century passion narratives were probably not sources for the canonical passion narratives.

If these documents give us little in terms of non-derivative historical information about Jesus, then what is their value?

[T]he primary historical value of these documents is rooted in their own time and space. The same is true, of course, of the canonical Gospels, but they stand much closer to the period of Jesus’ public ministry and were probably subject to criticism and correction by first-generation followers of Jesus.

Therefore, by commonly accepted rules of historical evidence, the canonical Gospels are of greater value in understanding the historical Jesus. The writings considered above give us a rich perspective on the diversity of Christianity after the New Testament era. These documents reflect the diverse views within Gnosticism, the depth of popularizing tendencies in emerging orthodoxy, and the distinctive witness of Jewish Christianity.

Where does current scholarship stand on the New Testament apocrypha?

Their relationship to the New Testament, although an important and enduring question, is now given less attention, while their role in reconstructing the religious and social history of second- and third-century Christianity is given much more attention.

The most important takeaway from this series of posts on the New  Testament apocrypha is that unless a document can be shown to have its source in the eyewitnesses of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, then we should be skeptical when snake oil salesmen make extravagant claims about Jesus based on these documents.

Might these documents have value in telling us how second century and following Christians thought about and practiced their faith? Of course. But that is a completely different matter. Read these documents devotionally if you like, but never confuse yourself into thinking that these documents can give you historical insights about Jesus on par with the New Testament canon. They were simply written too late.