Alternative Scriptures: Beyond the New Testament

Many believe that only in recent times have we rediscovered the extraordinary breadth and complexity of early Christianity, with all the alternative gospels and apocalypses, all the heretical movements that vanished before the rise of the Great Church. As I have tried to show, that perception is just not correct. In fact, the great age of textual discovery was over a century ago, between about 1870 and 1930. And thinkers at the time definitely explored the implications of that polyphonic range of ideas, to see Christianity as far broader than traditional orthodoxy.

In 1930, Edgar Goodspeed listed the texts that had come to light just since the 1870s: “the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, the Gospel of Peter, the Revelation of Peter, the Apology of Aristides, the Acts of Paul, the Sayings of Jesus, the Odes of Solomon, and the Epistle of the Apostles – all from the second century.” (The “Sayings of Jesus” referred to here actually constitutes a substantial portion of the Gospel of Thomas). Such texts, and a great many others, were easily available in translation, and could easily be bought by clergy or educated lay people. The fact that so many appeared in popular editions indicates an avid thirst for knowledge of these alternative Christianities and their writings.

As I have remarked previously, everything I say in these columns concerns the English-speaking world. The German world in particular was still more advanced and daring in its scholarly conclusions.

I adapt the following from my 2001 book Hidden Gospels:

Because the heretical texts provided such an odd slant on the endlessly fascinating question of Christian origins, they were often translated and published. Even at the start of the twentieth century, it was feasible to possess a whole library of Gnostic texts. … A substantial literature was available to any English-speaking reader with the means to purchase them. Publishers knew that a reliable market for religious literature existed among clergy and theological students, and the number of popular editions indicates the wide general market for such works. One reliable source for the new discoveries was the British SPCK, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, which in the 1920s published cheap translations of Hippolytus, Pistis Sophia, the Didache, and others. A translation of the Gnostic work Pistis Sophia appeared from mainstream houses like Macmillan.

Editions and translations of the apocryphal texts could be found in every seminary and countless private libraries. Several alternative gospels, mainly late and legendary, were well-known through their inclusion in the popular Ante-Nicene Christian Library, which first appeared in the 1870s, and was expanded as new texts were discovered. By the end of the century, this collection included the Gospels attributed to Nicodemus, Peter, Pseudo- Matthew and the so-called Protevangelium or “First Gospel” of James. Also translated was a Gospel of Thomas, though this is distinct from the famous Gospel of the same name discovered at Nag Hammadi. The Ante-Nicene collection included numerous apocryphal Acts of the apostles, including those of Thomas, John, Paul, Peter, Philip, and Andrew.

Selections from the same range of Acts and gospels appeared in M. R. James’ The Apocryphal New Testament (1924), which became the standard English-language resource on early heresies. We also find here several apocalypses distinct from the famous Book of Revelation which we know from the New Testament. James quotes or discusses the apocryphal gospels of the Hebrews, the Ebionites, and the Egyptians, and the works named for Philip, Peter, Matthias, and Nicodemus. He describes the existence of Gnostic tracts like the Gospel of Mary, though he did not find this worthy of discussion at length. Unknowingly, James also published major selections from the Gospel of Thomas, though he gave them the neutral title of the “Oxyrhynchus Sayings of Jesus.” James’ collection helped give added public visibility to the intriguing logia, which acquired an appeal far beyond the scholarly world: sayings from Thomas were already by the 1930s appearing in devotional collections aimed at a lay public.

Many works summarized the new texts for a general public. In 1864, Charles W. King published what became a standard book on The Gnostics and their Remains, which, apart from summarizing the standard patristic texts, also described the large corpus of available Gnostic gems and amulets. King’s work was superseded in 1900 by G. R. S. Mead’s mammoth and much-reprinted Fragments of a Faith Forgotten…. A contribution to the study of Christian origins based on the most recently recovered materials. The subtitle indicates the already common idea that the heretical texts might shed much light on the earliest days of the faith. The Fragments included extensive translations from the Gnostic writings themselves, including the Pistis Sophia, the Books of the Savior and the Gospel of Mary.

Another popularization was Francis Legge’s Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity (1915). Legge already regards the apocryphal Gospels as a very familiar source, referring for instance to the dialogue between Jesus and Salome from the Gospel of the Egyptians as “the well-known saying of Jesus,” and allotting a substantial chapter to the Pistis Sophia.

From the 1890s onward, such sources inspired academic debate about Gnosticism and other heresies, as scholars argued whether Gnosticism was an offshoot of Christianity or of Judaism, or an entirely independent religion. Or was it indeed a vestige of the authentic message of earliest Christianity, suppressed by the sinister machinations of the later Great Church?

So for a curious lay person a century ago, what resources were available for the apocryphal and pseudepigraphic works that guided this Quest for the Alternative Jesus? Just from the English-language tradition, let me offer a partial list (I exclude scholarly editions in original languages):

Charles William King, The Gnostics And Their Remains (London: Bell and Dalby, 1864)

W. Wright, Contributions to the Apocryphal Literature of the New Testament (London 1865)

W. Wright, Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles 2 vols. (London: Williams and Norgate, 1871)

Alexander Walker, trans., Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Revelations, Ante-Nicene Christian Library 16 (Edinburgh 1873)

George Phillips, The Doctrine of Addai (London: Trübner, 1876)

“The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages,” in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1885), vol 8

E.A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Bee (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1886)

J. Rendel Harris, The Newly-Recovered Gospel of St. Peter (New York: James Pott and Co., 1893)

H. B. Swete, ed., Euaggelion Kata Petron: The Akhmim Fragment of the Apocryphal Gospel of St. Peter (London and New York: Macmillan, 1893)

G. R. S. Mead, ed., Pistis Sophia (1896)

Forbes Robinson, ed., Coptic Apocryphal Gospels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1896)

B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt, Sayings of Our Lord from an Early Greek Papyrus (Egypt Exploration Fund; 1897)

E. A. Wallis Budge, The History of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the History of the Likeness of Christ, 2 vols. (London 1899)

J. Rendel Harris, ed. The Gospel of the Twelve Apostles Together with the Apocalypses of Each One of Them (Cambridge, 1900)

G. R. S. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1900)

Annie Besant, Esoteric Christianity (New York: J. Lane, 1902)

Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, eds. New Sayings of Jesus and a Fragment of a Lost Gospel From Oxyrhynchus (London: H. Frowde 1904)

G. R. S. Mead, Echoes from the Gnosis (London: Theosophical Pub. Society, 1906-1908)

Lonsdale Ragg and Laura Ragg eds., Gospel of Barnabas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907)

Bernardt Pick, The Apocryphal Acts of Paul, Peter, John, Andrew and Thomas (Chicago: Open Court, 1909)

Frances Swiney, The Esoteric Teachings of the Gnostics (London: Yellon, Williams, 1909)

J. Rendel Harris, The Odes and Psalms of Solomon (Cambridge University Press, 1909)

Edwin A. Abbott, Light on the Gospel From an Ancient Poet (Cambridge University Press, 1912)

Kirsopp Lake, The Apostolic Fathers (New York: Putnam, 1912-1913)

E. A. Wallis Budge,  Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt (London, 1913)

Francis Legge, Forerunners and Rivals of Christianity 2 vols (1915)

F. Lamplugh, ed., The Gnosis Of The Light (London: J. M. Watkins, 1918)

Montague Rhodes James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924)

G. R. S. Mead, The Gnostic John the Baptizer (London: J. M. Watkins, 1924)

F. C. Burkitt, The Religion of the Manichees (1925)

E. A. Wallis Budge, ed., The Book of the Cave of Treasures (London, Religious Tract Society, 1927)

M. R. James, Latin Infancy Gospels (Cambridge 1927)

F. C. Burkitt, Church and Gnosis (1932)

Just to give some sense of how the new finds and their implications would have appeared in the mainstream magazine press at this time, here is a short and very selective list of titles

E. J. Dillon, “The Primitive Gospel,” Contemporary Review, June 1893, 857-870

J. Rendel Harris, “The New Syriac Gospels,” Contemporary Review, 66 November 1894: 654-73

“Sayings of Jesus Not in The Gospels” American Monthly Review of Reviews, 9, Feb 1894, 208

Benjamin W. Bacon, “Are the New Sayings of Christ Authentic?” Outlook, July 31, 1897, 785-89

Bernard P. Grenfell, “The Oldest Record of Christ’s Life,” McClure’s (1897), 1027

R. Ogden, “New Sayings of Jesus,” Nation, 65, August 5, 1897, 104

J. Rendel Harris, “A New Gospel and Some New Apocalypses,” Contemporary Review, December 1899: 802-818

“Alleged New Sayings of Jesus,” Harper’s Weekly, November 28, 1903, p. 1893

“Sayings of Jesus Not in The Bible,” American Monthly Review of Reviews, September 1904, 366

Vernon Bartlet, “Oxyrhynchus Sayings of Jesus,” Contemporary Review, January 1905, 116-25

“The New Gospel Fragment,” Independent, 64, January 1908, 107-09

Now go ahead: tell me that right up to modern times, the alternative scriptures were kept concealed by scholars, terrified of revealing their heretical truths to a world trapped in hidebound orthodoxy. In reality, in their taste for the alternative and esoteric, for the “spiritual but not religious,” the years around 1910 in particular look a lot like the 1970s.

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