Note: This is the second installment of a new blog series announced here.
In the prior post, we discussed the first basic fact about the New Testament canon, namely that the New Testament writings are the earliest Christian texts we possess. We were careful to make clear that the early date of these books does not make them canonical, but the early date does show that these books were written during a time period when eyewitnesses of Jesus were still alive.
In this current post, we address the issue of “apocryphal” New Testament writings. These are writings that were not included in the New Testament, but have a similar genre (gospels, acts, letters, apocalypses, etc.). And these writings are often attributed to famous individuals; e.g., the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of John.
While we cannot go into extensive detail about these various apocryphal writings, we can at least note one basic fact that is often overlooked: all of these apocryphal writings are dated to the second century or later. Thus, this post is the corollary of the prior one. Not only are all New Testament writings from the first century, but all apocryphal writings (at least the ones that are extant) are from the second century or later. And many are from the third or fourth century.
What is particularly noteworthy about this fact is that even critical scholars agree. While there is dispute over the dating of some New Testament books (e.g., 2 Peter, the Pastoral Epistles), there is virtual unanimity over the late date of apocryphal books. There are, of course, fringe attempts to place some apocryphal writings into the first century—e.g., Crossan argues that a “cross gospel” embedded in the Gospel of Peter is from the first century—but these suggestions have not been widely received.
The observation of this simple fact quickly calls into question sensationalistic claims about how these “lost” books contain the “real” version of Christianity.
Of course, one might argue that later texts can still preserve authentic first-century Christian tradition. After all, a text doesn’t have to be written in the first century to contain material from the first century. True. But, we would still need to have a compelling reason to accept these later texts over our earlier ones. And when it comes to these apocryphal writings, compelling reasons are in short supply.
For one, we know that many of these apocryphal writings are outright forgeries, pretending to be written by someone who was clearly not the author. That fact alone raises serious questions about the reliability of their content. Second, many of these apocryphal writings contain obvious embellishments and legendary additions. For example, in the Gospel of Peter, Jesus emerges from the tomb as a giant whose head reaches the clouds, and he is followed by the cross itself which then speaks (!). And third, many of these apocryphal writings contain a Gnostic-style theology that did not even emerge until the second century, and therefore could not represent authentic first-century Christianity (e.g., Gospel of Philip).
To be clear, this does not suggest that it is impossible, in principle, for an apocryphal writing to be first century (it’s just that we have not found one yet). Nor does this suggest that apocryphal writings could not (or did not) ever contain reliable Jesus tradition. We know that early Christians sometimes appealed to apocryphal gospels as containing some true material (more on this in a later post). But, and this is the key point, the scraps of apocryphal literature that may be reliable do not present a version of Christianity that is out of sync with what we find in the New Testament books, and are certainly not in a position to supersede what we find in the New Testament books.
In the end, apocryphal writings constitute an interesting and fascinating source for the study of early Christianity. But, largely due to their late date, they do not offer a more compelling version of Christianity than the New Testament writings themselves.