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Five Good Reasons Why Bible Readers Should Read Noncanonical Texts
by Shirley Paulson, PhD
Papyrus 8 in the Staatlich Museum in Berlin. This is a portion of Acts. Image is in the public domain and the photographer is unknown, via Wikimedia Commons.
If it were true that the canonical Bible just fell from heaven, all packaged in immortal wrappings, we would have no reason to concern ourselves with what other people wrote when the Bible appeared. But it didn’t happen that way—which is why you can’t just read the Bible in a bubble.
Each book in the Bible was written at a different time, by a different person, and for a different reason. Here is a detailed example to illustrate this point. Starting with a canonical book (Colossians), looking at the same subject (clothing and unclothing) from extra canonical books, and returning to another canonical book, we can see how the additional insights strengthen our reading of both canonical books.
1. Chances are, God didn’t just choose 66 people to tell secret messages to.
Other people probably heard God too. The more we hear God-inspired messages, the clearer the whole picture becomes.
2. Canon decisions evolved centuries after the texts were written.
Therefore, canons came about in extremely different contexts from the time in which the writings occurred. Centuries later, canon-making decisions came about while church leadership strove to preserve its patriarchal authority in the church.
3. Extracanonical writings and even art images tell a much fuller story about women during the events of the New Testament.
The discovery of more women, their names, and their stories from extracanonical writings is like a family reunion. When they all get together, family members discover more about each other and learn why key family decisions were made, what impact those decisions had on siblings or later generations, and what they meant in the context of the larger family.
4. Extracanonical writings help us deal with canonical discrepancies and omissions.
What really happened at the scene of Jesus’s resurrection? Details from the four canonical gospels don’t line up to the same story. If we think of their stories as interpretations rather than history, our own understanding expands. The same is true for many other writers who caught some level of inspiration from the story and imagined it in creative new ways.
My blog post on the Gospel of Peter illustrates another important artistic perspective of the resurrection. It helps us look for meaning rather than a record of history.
5. Some obscure points in the canon may have much greater significance in the larger context of other works.
Here is a detailed example to illustrate this point. Starting with a canonical book (Colossians), looking at the same subject (clothing and unclothing) from extra canonical books, and returning to another canonical book, we can see how the additional insights strengthen our reading of both canonical books.
The author of Colossians proffers guidance for right behavior for his community. “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. …Above all, clothe yourselves with love.” (Colossians 3:12,14)
From the Gospel of Thomas
That Colossians verse is simple enough, even though “clothing yourself” with certain virtues sounds a bit odd to modern ears. Looking beyond the canon, we find in the Gospel of Thomas a far more potent meaning behind the idea of clothing and unclothing ourselves. Jesus said, “When you undress (yourselves) without being ashamed and take your clothes (and) put them under your feet like little children (and) trample on them, then [you] will see the son of the Living One, and you will not be afraid.” (Saying 37)
“Undressing yourself without being shamed” is not about the shame of nakedness. It’s about removing a false cover. When you don’t hide any longer behind false pretensions (i.e. clothing), you have nothing left to hide before God. Trampling on those clothes that have been removed indicates commitment to a life of purity, and it creates a vivid image of permanent destruction to the temptation to identify ourselves in some way other than as God’s own children.
From the Gospel of Mary
In the Gospel of Mary, Levi said: “Let us be ashamed. We should clothe ourselves with the perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves as he commanded us, and proclaim the good news…” (10:11) When Levi encourages the shame, Levi could be referring to the bad behavior he had just experienced with his fellow disciples.
But the fact that he’s proposing a new kind of clothing (like the compassion, kindness, humility mentioned in Colossians) the ‘shame’ he advocates probably carries the same meaning as in the Gospel of Thomas: recognizing that they had been mean and arrogant arguing with Mary, and therefore they could not claim innocence before God. They should be ashamed of their behavior, remove that kind of clothing, and then “clothe themselves with the perfect Human” – which would be the image and likeness of God.
This understanding of unclothing and clothing would bring greater punch to the Colossians passage about clothing ourselves with these virtues. It’s about claiming a new identity that reflects God’s perfection. It appears to have been a commonly recognized way of identifying with the goodness of God, in contrast with human weaknesses.
From 2 Corinthians
Returning to the canon, consider how this expanded meaning of clothing and unclothing elucidates a familiar letter from Paul. He wrote to the Corinthians that “in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling—if indeed, when we have taken it off, we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:2-4).
With additional insight from the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary, we could think of Paul agreeing that we long for the heavenly clothing. But he reminds people that we’re usually not so willing to remove the corrupt clothing – the kind that gets in the way of our innocence before God. But if we can be willing to be unclothed from our earthly burdens, we will discover that our mortality yields to life forever with God.
No doubt Bible lovers will love their Bibles even more when they take advantage of the extraordinary learning opportunities presented by reading these related texts.
You make fresh ideas so accessible!
Thanks, that’s a lovely article on the additional insights in studying the Extracanonical Texts along with the Canonical Books.
Thank you Shirley, for these insights – it certainly expands my understanding. I have lots of exploring to do!!