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Early Christian Texts:  The Bible and Beyond

Exploring historical and spiritual questions about Jesus, women, salvation, healing, gender, and wholeness raised by extra-canonical books, forgotten scriptures, and so-called “gnostic” gospels.

Those of us who have immersed ourselves in extracanonical texts have been strengthened, shocked, inspired, and healed because of our relationship to them. We have come to realize that they contain extraordinary gems of wisdom. They also challenge preconceived notions about what it meant and what it means to identify oneself as a follower of Jesus.

There are many places within and without the world of Christian thought today where bridges need to be built. People don’t understand others on the opposite side of the divide — such as the divide between the Bible and extracanonical texts. Conversations, not dialogues, build the best bridges. If ‘dialogues’ consist of preconceived plans for a certain result, ‘conversations’ are intended to inspire humility to learn something new; they will strengthen our faith and change us in some small way.

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Fragment of the Apocalypse of St. Peter, stored in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Fragment of the Apocalypse of St. Peter, stored in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

Why should people in the twenty-first century care about the newly discovered texts circulated among Jesus’ earliest followers? Plenty of reasons. Here are the top ten:

  1. They reveal a bigger view of the Bible texts themselves when we consider that some of our assumptions might have been too narrow.
  2.  They inspire us to ask new questions.
  3. They help put many puzzling pieces of antiquity together.
  4. They can deepen our spiritual convictions.
  5. They help us build bridges between polarized views of the world today.
  6. They help us understand the struggles inside and outside the new communities of Jesus followers.
  7. They give us a historical perspective on the way we confront contemporary challenges.
  8. Sometimes they bring to light enduring ideas we might have thought were only modern ideas.
  9. Many of them offer guidance to the healing of moral, social, political, and physical ailments.
  10. They’re full of surprises!

What is meant by texts that go ‘beyond the Bible’? There are over one hundred texts that, for varying reasons, did not make it into the canon (the traditional Bible). They were circulated among the followers of Jesus for hundreds of years, right along with the texts you might be more familiar with in the Bible. Most of these have re-surfaced due to modern discoveries such as those in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Other books have shown up in antiquities markets or even in scholars’ offices. And, to add to the drama, many of them were ‘found’ but unable to be translated into English or made available to the average reader for many decades.

Beginning with the earliest modern discoveries, some of them include

  1. Askew Codex (1773) – This is best known because it includes Pistis Sophia.
  2. Bruce Codex (1795) – James Bruce purchased the codex in 1769 in Upper Egypt, but it was finally transferred to the British Museum and then the Bodleian Library where it has remained since 1848.
  3. The Berlin Codex (1896) – This is a Coptic manuscript from the late fourth or fifth century purchased in Egypt in 1896 by a German scholar. The first version he wrote out for publication was ruined when the pipes at the publishing house burst.
  4. Texts from Oxyrhynchus (1898) – These are from an archaeological site in the middle of Egypt. It has been excavated for nearly a century now, yielding up an enormous collection of papyrus texts. These include fragments from the Gospel of Thomas. Papyrus is an ancient type of paper rolled up into a scroll.
  5. The Odes of Solomon (1909) – This Syriac text resurfaced in the office of an Oxford scholar. It consists of 42 beautiful, psalm-like writings that were probably set to music and sung by early Jesus followers. They include striking feminine imagery for the divine.
  6. The Nag Hammadi Library (1945) – Thirteen leather codices (like bound books) were found in a sealed jar near the caves of Nag Hammadi, Egypt. They contained 52 texts, most of which had never been seen before since they disappeared in the fourth century.
Gospel of Thomas and The Secret Book of John (Apocryphon of John), Codex II The Nag Hammadi manuscripts.

Gospel of Thomas and The Secret Book of John (Apocryphon of John), Codex II The Nag Hammadi manuscripts, photo by unknown photographer, public domain image, from Wikimedia Commons

How will these texts reach people in the modern world? The more we understand them, the more we see how they shed light on contemporary news and events as well as on the traditional Bible. They promote healing – the healing of fractured bodies, agitated minds, and broken political and social systems. Finally these works help us navigate across artificially designed boundaries of insiders and outsiders related to all topics regarding gender, class, and theological doctrine.

Who will be interested in joining this conversation being created? If you’d like to contribute to the bridge-building efforts to understand the voices in ancient gospels and texts that have been missing for centuries, you’ll enjoy the variety of perspectives featured on this site. Let’s learn these new insights together. These discussions invite people from radically different places to cross safely to another side, to benefit from what they learn in a new place, as well as to share the best of what they have to give from their own starting places.

Dr. Shirley Paulson

Shirley Paulson, PhD, principal producer of this website, is especially interested in the bridge-making, conversation-supporting, and healing role these ancient, long-forgotten extracanonical texts can be. From her 30 years’ healing experience as a Christian Science practitioner, she discovers messages of hope and healing from the ancient texts.

Her first book, Illuminating the Secret Revelation of John: Catching the Light, was published by Cascade books in 2022. Learn more about the book here. She has authored several articles about early Christian writings published in Westar’s Fourth R magazine.

Her exploration and research into these texts ‘beyond the Bible’ began with her Master of Theological Studies work at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her PhD in Religion and Theology from the University of Birmingham (UK). The unique contribution of Shirley’s work is her research in extracanonical texts from the perspective of contemporary methodology in Practical Theology. The combination of Shirley’s experience with healing, theological scholarship, and research in Practical Theology evokes ever-new questions and conversations based on ancient texts.

Shirley served as Head of Ecumenical Affairs for the world headquarters of The Christian Science Church for ten years, and on the Board of the North American Academy of Ecumenists for five years. She currently serves on the Board of the Westar Institute. She has published several articles and book chapters on spiritual healing and on Christian Science which appear in ecumenical publications. Read her article, “A Path to Hope from a Mysterious Ancient Text: Gems within the Secret Revelation of John” by clicking here. Shirley has fifteen years’ experience as a public speaker.

Dr. Bernard Brandon Scott

Bernard Brandon Scott, PhD, collaborator at Early Christian Texts, is the Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of twenty plus books, including Hear Then the Parable, Reimagine the World, The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge, The Trouble with Resurrection and he co-authored After Jesus Before Christianity, as well as Sound Mapping the New Testament with Margaret Lee.

A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he edited the first publication of the group, The Red-Letter Parables. He started and co-chaired Westar’s Christianity Seminar I. He was one of the translators for the Complete Gospels. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and the Historical Jesus Seminar.

Brandon has served on the editorial boards of The Journal of Biblical Literature, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, and Semeia, as well as the Westar Board of Directors. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad College, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

He is a birder, an avid nature photographer, and bicyclist.

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