In the second through the fourth centuries, ‘codices’ (that is, books made of bound pages) gradually replaced scrolls, helping to drive the development of a Christian ‘canon’ (or ‘standard’) of sacred scripture. (1) This created an important relationship between individual ‘books’ and ‘the Book’ which contains them.
When multiple stories can be written down in one larger book, which ones should be included? Which should come first? What order should they be placed in? The order in which the books are arranged tends to create an organized framework in which to interpret them, arguably creating another layer of meaning.
For example, the canonical New Testament’s books clearly aren’t arranged in the order in which they were written. Instead, the New Testament opens with four Gospels featuring the life of Jesus. They’re followed in turn by the book of Acts, which narrates the development of an organized church overseen by his disciples, then by a series of letters, and finally a concluding Apocalypse. Paul’s letters to various churches (the earliest New Testament texts) are actually framed on one side by Acts – which outlines a narrative downplaying differences between Paul and the other apostles – and on the other side by letters attributed to the other apostles themselves, automatically suggesting reading strategies to interpret these texts in the light of one another.
Significantly, different churches and communities of faith have different ‘canons’ of scripture. For example, the ‘Old Testament’ books of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Bibles are arranged very differently than those in the Tanakh, the Jewish Bible. The Jewish Bible, like the Christian Old Testament, begins with the first five books of Moses (starting with Genesis), but unlike the Christian Old Testament, the Tanakh culminates in 2 Chronicles, ending on a note of fulfillment – the announcement of the end of Israel’s exile (2 Chron. 36:22,23). By contrast, the Christian Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi, ending on a note of expectation and the divine promise “to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord” (Mal. 4:5, NRSV). The next book in the Christian Bible is Matthew’s Gospel, which features John the Baptist in terms reminiscent of Malachi as a way of introducing Jesus (cf. Matt. 11:14; Mark 9:13). In the Christian canon of scripture, then, ‘the Old Testament’ leads seamlessly to ‘the New Testament’ in an unbroken sequence.
The Catholic canon is larger than the Protestant canon, including what Protestants consider ‘apocrypha,’ books from the Greek translation of the Tanakh (known as the ‘Septuagint’) which was completed by the second century BCE. Eastern Orthodox churches include even more. So the Jewish canon contains twenty-four books in its collection; the Protestant canon contains sixty-six; the Catholic canon contains seventy-three; and the Orthodox canon contains seventy-eight. More recent Christian organizations boast even more, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, which includes the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon plus the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.
From time to time, people ask me whether I think ancient Gospels like Mary and Thomas should be included in the New Testament canon alongside Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I regard the question as hypothetical rather than practical. Some newer versions of the New Testament do include some of these other early Christian texts; but publishing extra texts alongside traditional New Testament books doesn’t necessarily make them ‘canonical.’ What makes a text ‘canonical’ is its shared use by members of a community of faith (for example, in formal liturgy).
That’s not to say that these Gospels can’t be read alongside canonical Gospels, or that they can’t complement canonical texts in an individual’s spiritual quest for divine enlightenment; quite the contrary. It’s simply to acknowledge that most communities of faith haven’t historically accorded them a place of privilege alongside other revered texts.
I like to think of it in terms of three Cs of Christian definition. Traditionally, these three Cs have been understood as creed, canon, and clergy, with each reinforcing the other. However, I think of Christian self-understanding in terms of a different three Cs – that is, Christ-centered communities. Creeds, canons, and clerical authority differ between Christian institutions, but irrespective of models of authority, all are shaped by the shared experiences of their members. And I believe that in actual practice, this has been true throughout the entire history of the church.
The canonical books of the Christian New Testament are foundational spiritual texts for Christians, but they are not the only texts written by early Christians. They document the spread of the Christian message through Greece to Rome (where it eventually developed into the dominant form of Christianity), but they don’t describe the initial spread of Christianity south into Egypt and east into Syria and beyond.(2)
Gospels like Mary and Thomas were written and copied in these other environments. Like the New Testament’s Gospels, they can be read in more than one context. Though these Gospels were originally written in Greek during the second century, they were translated into Coptic (Egyptian) in later centuries and included in codices alongside other types of texts, suggesting certain interpretative frameworks possibly foreign to their original context.(3) But they can be read in other contexts, too, including the canonical New Testament’s context.
Other early Gospels (like the Gospel of Judas) may be more difficult to read within the context of the New Testament’s canon, but they are all nevertheless valuable as testaments to diverse beliefs throughout the world of late antiquity – including diverse beliefs among a wide variety of people seeking to follow Jesus as best they could.
(1) Cf. Lee M. McDonald, The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (Hendrickson Publishers), 1995, p. 115.
(2) Cf. Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala), 2008, pp. 14-21.
(3) Cf. Esther DeBoer, Mary Magdalene: Beyond the Myth (Trinity Press International), 1997, p. 115.
This blog post is a revised version of chapter eight of The Gospel of Judas: The Sarcastic Gospel (CreateSpace), 2014, pp. 45-48.