In a post last year, I remarked how definitions of the Biblical canon had changed through the centuries.
I’ve recently been working on the history of lost and alternative gospels, and how such texts continued to be available through the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Contrary to popular legend, the mainstream churches did not succeed in stamping out all competitors to the Big Four gospels in the fourth or fifth centuries, and numerous alternative works maintained their influence for at least a thousand years afterwards. This story is interesting enough in itself, but it also raises questions about the very idea of canonicity, and declaring what is and is not sacred scripture.
By the fifth and sixth centuries, the churches had come to a broad consensus over what was and was not included in the New Testament canon. There were four gospels, no more, no less, and that should have been straightforward.
The problem is that through the Middle Ages – roughly from 500 through 1500 – all churches continued to use many other texts generally classified as New Testament apocrypha, including some pseudo-gospels. However counter-intuitive this may seem, some of these ancient texts remained so popular that they came close to overwhelming Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Such alternative gospels were read in liturgies from time to time, and elite clerical authors and scholars sometimes cited these texts as if they were canonical. “Other” gospels also formed the basis of religious popular culture, including mystery plays and devotional literature. They contributed mightily to shaping the standard Christian narrative available to the great majority of believers, and especially at the Christmas season. Of course, literacy rates were not high in this era, leaving ordinary believers to learn their lessons through visual symbols or religious drama. Stained glass windows, famously, were the “Bible of the Poor.” But these texts also found a large reading audience, and they were popularized through anthologies like the Golden Legend, which between 1470 and 1530 was by far the most popular book printed in Europe.
Some texts stand out particularly, and most date from Late Antiquity, from between the second and fifth centuries. I have already posted about the enduring influence of the Protevangelium, concerning the Virgin Mary, but we might also look at the very popular Infancy Gospels of Christ, or the overwhelming image of the Harrowing of Hell. This last story tells how Christ, after the Resurrection, broke the gates of Hell and rescued the souls of the righteous who had died before his time, including the great figures of the Old Testament narrative. Several Biblical texts point to some such event, although they do not describe it explicitly. The direct source of the Harrowing was a massively influential apocryphal gospel called the Acts of Pilate, often known in the Middle Ages as the Gospel of Nicodemus.
So successful were these alternative texts, so influential, that they force us to reconsider our standard literary categories. A culture rooted in centuries of Protestantism tends to think of a sharp and obvious division between Holy Scripture and all other types of literature, whether religious in intent or not. Either something is within the canon, or it is not, and ever since the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church likewise has adopted that attitude. In earlier times, though, we have to think of more fluid boundaries.
Works like Nicodemus were absolutely central to Christian consciousness for at least a millennium – in fact, for over half the story of Christianity in Europe alone, never mind the wider world. If such alternative texts were not canonical, neither were they wholly excluded or condemned, and the term “apocryphal” goes nowhere near indicating their practical influence. In practical usage, to describe a story as “apocryphal” is more or less to dismiss it as spurious or even fantastic.
Put another way: if churches treat a text exactly as if it’s a canonical scripture, and use it as fully authoritative, what prevents us from calling it canonical, at least for that particular community?
If the Christian canon was not open, yet for long centuries it was much more flexible and accessible to alternative texts than we commonly think.