The Non-Canonical Gospels

Q. Why are the other Gospels not in our canon of scripture?

A. Ultimately, it was the bishops – the leaders of the Church – who made the final decision but this decision was not reached in some smoke-filled back room. It was a decision that was based upon the experience of early Christians – people like you and me – who, in the first century, had come to embrace certain books as worthy of being considered inspired by God while designating other works as either falling short of that or just downright missing the mark.

This being, said, there was no definitive list or canon of the New Testament until the 4th century. Much of what was not included in the Canon remains available to us in the form of what we now refer to as apocryphal writings. Such books give us a glimpse into the mind and heart of early Christianity and are worthwhile for study; however, they are not considered inspired because of errors they contain in their presentation of the Gospel message.

Some of our Catholic Tradition can be traced to the apocryphal Gospels. For example, the names of the parents of Mary – Joachim and Anna – come to us from apocryphal writings such as the Gospel of the Birth of Mary and the Proto-Gospel of James. Likewise, have you ever wondered why images and statues of Saint Joseph often portray him holding lilies? This is the result of a legend, included in the apocryphal writing known as the Protoevangelion, about how Joseph came to choose Mary as his spouse.

In addition to these lovely images and passages, we also find strange and misleading passages such as the story from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas in which the child Jesus gets upset with one of his playmates and strikes him dead! This is not the Jesus we know.

In recent years, author Dan Brown has made a fortune exploiting the lack of knowledge that most people have about the apocryphal gospels by proposing that the Church has been involved in a massive cover-up of these writings for centuries. Not true. They’re on library shelves and on the internet.

Joe Paprocki, D.Min. – National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press in Chicago

Holy Bible

CtH: I scoped out a few of the non-canonicals, then decided I don’t know the real Scriptures well enough to be confusing myself with this stuff and stopped.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas – Purports to describe the doings of Jesus in his boyhood. Includes this disturbing story:

IV. 1 After that again he went through the village, and a child ran and dashed against his shoulder. And Jesus was provoked and said unto him: Thou shalt not finish thy course (lit. go all thy way). And immediately he fell down and died. But certain when they saw what was done said: Whence was this young child born, for that every word of his is an accomplished work And the parents of him that was dead came unto Joseph, and blamed him, saying: Thou that hast such a child canst not dwell with us in the village: or do thou teach him to bless and not to curse: for he slayeth our children.

Infancy Gospel of James – Aka, Protevangelium of James. The oldest manuscript is from the third century and Origen quoted it in the second century. The author is not familiar with Jewish life, but seems to have simply embellished wildly on stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. One example:

XV. I [Mary and Joseph were brought together] unto the place of judgment. … [Mary] wept bitterly, saying: As the Lord my God liveth I am pure before him and I know not a man. 4 And the priest said unto Joseph: Wherefore hast thou done this And Joseph said: As the Lord my God liveth I am pure as concerning her. …

XVI 1 And the priest said: I will give you to drink of the water of the conviction of the Lord, and it will make manifest your sins before your eyes. 2 And the priest took thereof and made Joseph drink and sent him into the hill-country. And he returned whole. He made Mary also drink and sent her into the hill-country. And she returned whole. And all the people marvelled, because sin appeared not in them.

The Gospel of Mary [Magdalene] – Composed mid to late 2d century, this document communicates not the Christian vision of a world that will pass away in favor of a new world order, but a Gnostic world that needs to dissolve because it is only an illusory chaos of suffering and death. Examples:

Peter said to [Jesus], “Since you have now explained all things to us, tell us this: what is the sin of the world.” The Savior said, “Sin as such does not exist, but you make sin when you do what is of the nature of fornication, which is called ‘sin.'” …

Peter said to Mary [Magdalene], “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than other women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you have in mind since you know them; and we do not, nor have we heard of them.”



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7 responses to “The Non-Canonical Gospels

  1. Having read some apocrypha and “lost gospels” (admittedly, a long time ago), I had a lot more respect for the Bible canonizers limiting their selection to the Big Four. The others didn’t so much “confuse” me as bore me. After having gobbled down Matt, Mark, Luke, and Jack, I was looking for more Real Jesus.

    There were many collections of stories and sayings about Jesus floating about, copied and passed around like some emails forwarded today. (Except the ancient copiests were probably more careful and accurate – heh). What made it into those collections ran the full range of veracity. Even with the Internet, it can be hard to verify or refute stories. Multiply that infinitely in ancient times, and add the pre-scientific, not-always-skeptical mode of thought, and a willingness to believe just about anything (especially about someone who really was working apparent wonders), and you’ll get a lot of fable and error mixed with your fact. The childhood stories of Jesus striking a playmate dead which you mentioned and randomly bringing a dead bird back to life were especially disturbing. No ring of truth to those for me!

    The last bit of Thomas does not strike me as true, but I’ve always found it amusing. The apostles ask Jesus to send Mary off “because women are not worthy of the life.” But Jesus replies, “See, I shall lead her, so that I will make her male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The apostles’ sexism (think about them disbelieving Mary’s report of the resurrection) sounds vaguely plausible, but Jesus’ reply doesn’t sound much like him, does it? Still, I read it tongue-in-cheek. He couldn’t convince the entrenched boys club to admit women, so he redefined the terms for their limited understanding. [grin] (Otherwise, it’s pretty ugly sexism, all around.)

    The Gospel of Thomas is a great example of those “forwarded email” collections of sayings attributed to, and stories about, Jesus. That may be how one or more of the Gospels started out or had as source for some of the material. Just for one personal example (again, Biblical inerrantists, just look the other way for now), my truth bells don’t chime on Jesus withering of the fig tree. YMMV.

    Which gives me an opportunity to bring up this: “Personally, I regard Luke as the ablest reporter, the most careful researcher, and by far the finest writer in the New Testament, and recommend that you read his gospel first.” That’s Louis Cassels, onetime religion editor for AP, in my well-worn copy of his “This Fellow Jesus,” 1973, Family Library, which I read early-on in my post-“rebirth” adult religious studies. Wow! Here it is on Amazon. Cool.

    Trust in the Spirit of Truth.


    • Can’t… be… concise…! 🙂


      • Ting

        You may not be concise, but you are very, very interesting! I will check out the Cassels book – I took a course long ago on the historical Jesus – what scholars think is true based on historical standards, and disregarding any religious beliefs. It was really hard to separate the two in my mind but an interesting endeavor.


        • chrissythehyphenated

          What Ting said.


          • chrissythehyphenated

            Except not the course on the historical Jesus, which I would be really wary of, having read about (and met a few) what kind of anti-Christian agenda some of these people had/have.

            I took one Lit class in college on the Gospel of John; the teacher opined that “of course” Jesus didn’t fast for 40 days, but was eating desert plants, like peyote, so therefore all that Satan stuff was just drug hallucinations.

            I took another Lit class, forget the label, but the theme was “Professor Fat Guy Who Should Rethink that Vespa Cuz His Fat Behind Looks Absurd from Behind” put together a bunch of 19th and 20th c novels that in his none too humble opinion each attempted to address the Big Question about the meaning of our existence. In his summation in the last lecture, he ran through them all and “showed” how they all failed.

            It was a little like that stuff in Ecclesiastes. Except the part that made me totally enraged and disgusted and determined to be more careful what I allowed these jerks to teach me about was that the ONE SOLUTION that any of the authors had presented that WORKED … Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the epilogue, where the main character finds God, redemption and finally peace … is worthless, contrived, blah blah.

            Then he “wisely” informed a lecture hall full of unformed young minds that there was NO PURPOSE TO LIFE, so don’t bother looking for one.


            • Ting

              Well, those don’t sound interesting – just infuriating! This “course” was actually at my church and led by our pastor so we didn’t have that sense of hopelessness at all. We were all believers, so we came at it from that perspective. It was more a matter for me of learning some of the things your series has presented – things that I did not know just from a cursory reading of the Bible.