Canonical and Non-Canonical Gospels

Canonical and Non-Canonical Gospels

“Jesus Christ was a historical figure of staggering influence, perhaps the most enigmatic and inspirational leader the world has ever seen.  As the prophesied Messiah, Jesus toppled kings, inspired millions and founded new philosophies.  As a descendant of the lines of King Solomon and King David, Jesus possessed a rightful claim to the throne of the King of the Jews.  Understandably, his life was recorded by thousands of followers across the land… More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them.”  – Sir Leigh Teabing, The Da Vinci Code, p. 310

Against the significant exaggeration in this best-selling novel, a list of non-canonical Christian writings can be found in the table of contents of Bart Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It Into the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2003).

 Study Questions

  1. The Greek word kanōn meant a measuring rod or a standard and came to refer to “canonical” books that were included in the New Testament.  Why do you think the early Christians referred to their list of scriptural books as a “canon”?
  2. The Criteria for what to include in the New Testament in the fourth century included apostolic authorship (by Peter, John, Paul, etc), antiquity of the book, widespread consensus on a book’s value, and conformity with the “rule of faith.”  How might these criteria have been applied to the Gospels believed to be by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?
  3. In addition to the proto-Orthodox (or “centrist”) form of “Christianity” that emerged victorious, there were rival Christian factions in the first few centuries.  Jewish followers of Jesus variously known as the “Ebionites” (from ebyonim or “poor ones”) or the “Nazaraeans” accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah or the Moses-like Prophet and continued to practice Torah, with some denying the deity and Virgin birth of Jesus and insisting that he was adopted as Messiah at his baptism while others accepting the Christology of the proto-Orthodox Church.  Teachers (Simon Magus, Cerinthus, Basilides, Valentinus, Carpocrates, Ptolemy, Heracleon, etc) or groups that scholars label “gnostic” (from gnōstikos or “possessor of knowledge”) basically taught that the material world was created by an ignorant or wicked Demiurge (meaning craftsperson, artisan) rather than the transcendent Supreme Being and salvation is attained through knowledge of one’s divine origins so the divine spark within can escape this material prison (for Christian Gnostics Jesus is the divine revealer of esoteric knowledge).  Marcion, a devoted follower of Paul, distinguished the harsh God of justice in the Hebrew Bible (Demiurge) from the loving heavenly Father of Jesus as separate divine beings and accepted only the letters of Paul and a Gospel condemned by critics as a mutilated version of Luke.  How do you think the proto-Orthodox reacted to each group?
  4. A bishop and apologist, Ireneaus of Lyons, tells readers that various Jewish Christians preferred the Gospel of Matthew (though we also have citations of other Jewish Christian Gospels that scholars variously label the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospel according to the Ebionites, and the Gospel according to the Nazaraeans), that Docetists preferred the Gospel of Mark, that Marcion preferred the Gospel of Luke, and that Valentinus preferred the Gospel of John.  Meanwhile, Irenaeus championed the Four Gospels as normative and scriptural (see Against Heresies 3.11.7-8).  Why do you think he did this?
  5. The Nag Hammadi Corpus was discovered in 1945.  One of the most important texts in this collection was the Gospel of Thomas, a list of  114 sayings of Jesus.  How does a Gospel made up of sayings with no narrative differ from the emphases of the New Testament Gospels?
  6. Below are some sayings in Thomas:  which sound familiar from the New Testament Gospels and which sound very different (there is a stalemate about whether Thomas is dependent or independent of the Synoptics or whether it is a rolling corpus with some early independent sayings enlarged by later sayings influenced by or in reaction to the Synoptics)?  What are the views of Thomas on Jesus, other disciples or Christian traditions, soteriology (salvation) or eschatology (end times)?

These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded. And he said, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.”  (1)

Jesus said, “Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will reign over all.” (2)

Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and it is outside you.  When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.” (3)

Jesus said, “Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you.  For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed. (5)

His disciples asked him, “Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give to charity? What diet should we observe?” Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate, because all things are disclosed before heaven. After all, there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing covered up that will remain undisclosed.” (6)

Jesus said to his disciples, “Compare me to something and tell me what I am like.” Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a just messenger.”  Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.”  Thomas said to him, “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”  Jesus said, “I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended.”  And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?”  Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.”  (13)

The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us, how will our end come?” Jesus said, “Have you found the beginning, then, that you are looking for the end? You see, the end will be where the beginning is.  Congratulations to the one who stands at the beginning: that one will know the end and will not taste death.” (18)

For this reason I say, if the owners of a house know that a thief is coming, they will be on guard before the thief arrives and will not let the thief break into their house (their domain) and steal their possessions. As for you, then, be on guard against the world. Prepare yourselves with great strength, so the robbers can’t find a way to get to you, for the trouble you expect will come. (21)

Jesus saw some babies nursing. He said to his disciples, “These nursing babies are like those who enter the (Father’s) kingdom.”  They said to him, “Then shall we enter the (Father’s) kingdom as babies?”  Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter.” (22)

His disciples said to him, ‘Is circumcision profitable or not?’ He said to them, ‘If it were profitable, their father would beget them already circumcised from their mother. Rather true circumcision in the Spirit has become completely useful.’ (53)

Jesus said, ‘I tell my mysteries to those who are worthy of my mysteries.’ (62)

Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, you will find me there.” (77)

Jesus said, “The Father’s kingdom is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in. Then he killed the powerful one.” (98)

They showed Jesus a gold coin and said to him, “The Roman emperor’s people demand taxes from us.”  He said to them, “Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God, and give me what is mine.” (100)

Jesus said, ‘He who drinks from my mouth will be as I am, and I shall be that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.’ (108)

His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” (113)

Simon Peter said… “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.” (Saying 114)

For the sayings in translation, see

For a full bibliography, see

For some newer sources not included, see Stephen Patterson, The Fifth Gospel:  the Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age (Trinity Press, 1998), April DeConick, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and Its Growth (T&T Clark, 2005); Simon Gathercole, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas – Original Language and Influences (Cambridge University Press, 2012), Mark Goodacre, Thomas and the Gospels: The Case for Thomas’s Familiarity with the Synoptics (Eerdmans/SPCK, 2012); Christopher W. Skinner, What are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas(Paulist Press, 2012).


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