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.
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:
- They reveal a bigger view of the Bible texts themselves when we consider that some of our assumptions might have been too narrow.
- They inspire us to ask new questions.
- They help put many puzzling pieces of antiquity together.
- They can deepen our spiritual convictions.
- They help us build bridges between polarized views of the world today.
- They help us understand the struggles inside and outside the new communities of Jesus followers.
- They give us a historical perspective on the way we confront contemporary challenges.
- Sometimes they bring to light enduring ideas we might have thought were only modern ideas.
- Many of them offer guidance to the healing of moral, social, political, and physical ailments.
- 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
- Askew Codex (1773) – This is best known because it includes Pistis Sophia.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
Her exploration and research into these texts ‘beyond the Bible’ began with her Master of Theological Studies work at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, which led to 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 primary text for her research was The Secret Revelation of John. 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 5 years. She has published several articles and book chapters on spiritual healing and on Christian Science in ecumenical settings. 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.
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.
Hal Taussig, PhD, collaborator at Early Christian Texts, follows 1st-and 2nd-century Christic imagination. His study of ancient Mediterranean practices opens up new historical perspectives and challenges conventional Christian dogma. Study of newly discovered ancient texts accesses different meanings for our time. Hal reimagines ancient texts, pretexts, and historical contexts as a way toward 21st-century trust, honesty, and—most of all—vulnerability.
He spends his retirement writing, publishing, researching, and playing in natural and urban settings, where he also pursues his interest in death and vitality. He is just finishing up his fifteenth and sixteenth books, and edging toward poetry and wilderness. He is still actively entangled in the mistakes and love of some books he has written in the past fifteen years: A New New Testament; The Thunder: Perfect Mind; In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity; and Re-reading the Gospel of Mark Amidst Loss and Trauma.
His professional career included a Professorate of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York for 17 years, a Professorate at Chestnut Hill College, Pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church in Philadelphia, Graduate Faculty of Creation Spirituality, and Pastorate of the Oekolompadgemeinde in Switzerland. His recent lectures include Seoul, Korea; Melbourne, Australia; Holden Village, Washington; and Theologian in Residence in Boulder, Colorado.
Erin Vearncombe, PhD, contributor to Early Christian Texts, is an Assistant Professor in the Office of the Dean, Faculty of Arts and Science at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario. She is a co-author of After Jesus Before Christianity and has published on the importance of everyday material objects in our interpretation of the writings of the early Jesus groups, with a special focus on clothing and dress. She is currently working on a project that reimagines the Gospel of Mark as both written and material object in order to help us think more clearly about the function of Mark as a memorial for Jesus.
Erin has a particular passion for writing. At the University of Toronto she specializes in developing supports for new undergraduate writers, including a new summer program for incoming undergraduates called Arrive Ready to Write. She teaches courses for the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, including an exciting new seminar called Goddess Lessons.
Erin holds a B.A. Honours from Queen’s University, an M.A. from the Toronto School of Theology, and a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. After completing her Ph.D. in 2014 she was a member of the faculty at Princeton University, teaching first-year composition, seminars in religion, and the ground-breaking Ways of Knowing course for Princeton’s Freshman Scholars Institute.