The Bible and Beyond Podcast Episode

What Texts Did the Early Jesus People Read?

An Interview with Dr. David Brakke

David Brakke

Dr. David Brakke

David Brakke challenges the common notion that Christians had a New Testament type of Bible by around 200. Rather, he claims, their Bible was Jewish scriptures plus a wide variety of written texts by Jesus followers used in multiple contexts. Marcion and his followers would have been the exception, since he rejected the Jewish writings. Brakke’s recent analysis of two ancient Christian texts concludes that the early Christian years were diverse and served different purposes before the biblical canon was established.

The first glimmer of lists appears when Eusebius tries to sort out early Christian literature, but even these lists are tentative. By the end of the first century, the early followers of Jesus would have agreed that they had texts to use, but oral traditions were also important. The transition from oral traditions to written texts introduced the question of Christian authority.

The Muratorian Fragment has often been viewed as evidence of an established canon, but Brakke thinks it was more likely a second-century text that illustrated a wide variety of texts used for different purposes. Some texts were recommended for reading in church; others for special instruction; and others for private reading, such as the Shepherd of Hermas. For instance, since the Shepherd of Hermas wasn’t associated with an apostle, it didn’t seem good to be read in church.

The Secret Book of James was probably a late second-century or early third-century writing. It hasn’t been studied as thoroughly by scholars as the Muratorian Fragment, but it seems to indicate even further evidence of the second-century diversity. It included lists of helpful texts but it also implies a sacred study environment. That is, considering these two texts together leads to the conclusion that early Christ people around 200 CE were likely using different sets of texts in different contexts.

Irenaeus, the Church Father of the second century, probably set the tone for an approval or disapproval of certain texts. He thought various texts should reflect the rule of faith for that time, and this would have excluded such texts as Valentinian – or so-called gnostic types of writing. On the other hand, Irenaeus was also aware of ‘barbarian Christians’ who had no text at all. That didn’t seem to concern him.

Brakke summarizes from his study of the two second-century texts—the Muratorian Fragment and the Secret Book of James—that Christians were very different in antiquity. In 200, people were not interested in asking for a New Testament. They sort of agree on some ancient writings which were very useful, but others not at all.

Professor David Brakke is the Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity and Professor of History at the The Ohio State University. He studies and teaches the history and literature of ancient Christianity from its origins through the fifth century, with special interests in asceticism, monasticism, “Gnosticism,” biblical interpretation, and Egyptian Christianity.

In our previous podcast interview, we discussed his book The Gospel of Judas: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary.

Brakke is a former president of the International Association for Coptic Studies and a member of the Board of Consultants of the Journal of Religion. From 2005 to 2015 he served as editor of the Journal of Early Christian Studies.

He has produced three courses with “The Great Courses” (aka Wondrium), including one on “Gnosticism” and another on early Christian apocrypha. He also maintains a page on that includes access or reference to his other books and articles.

Some Bible and Beyond podcast episodes are made available as video podcasts on our YouTube channel. This month’s episode can be found here.