Sometimes important religious discoveries are literally unearthed, giving us previously unavailable artifacts and texts -- such as the discovery of the so-called Gnostic Gospels in 1945 or the discovery of the Gospel of Judas more recently. At other times modern readers re-discover texts that have long been available, documents, for example, known all along to scholars, but not in wide circulation. The Apocryphal Gospels -- over forty texts in all -- include both kinds of discoveries. These early Christian writings comprise accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus that did not make it into the New Testament, that along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John provided ancient Christians with their information about Jesus -- some of it authentic but most of it, well, apocryphal. A good number of these non-canonical Gospels were once accepted by various early Christian groups as sacred Scripture; many of them contain stories that are bizarre indeed. For anyone interested in knowing what the earliest Christians thought about Christ, and God, and many other things, these books are indispensable. On top of that, they can be terrific reading. Consider the following tidbits drawn from a handful of these apocryphal texts.
- Mary's postpartum inspection, The famous Proto-Gospel of James, allegedly written by Jesus' half-brother (Joseph's son from a previous marriage) tells a tale of the midwife who attended Mary after she had given birth to the Son of God. She, the midwife, does not believe that Mary has given birth and remained a virgin, and so she gives her a vaginal inspection, only to find that her hymen is still intact. God punishes the midwife for her doubt -- making the offending hand burn -- but the infant Jesus heals her, the first of his many great miracles.
- Joseph and Mary: The Generation Gap, Joseph is always portrayed as an old man in the medieval paintings of Jesus' nativity (this supposedly explains why he never had sex with Mary). But just how old was he? According to a relatively unknown Gospel called The History of Joseph the Carpenter, Joseph was fully 89 years old when Jesus was born, whereas Mary was all of 15. The account goes on to describe the death of Joseph some twenty-one years later, told in the first-person by his most famous "son," the Son of God himself.
- Jesus the mischievous Wunderkind. Jesus may have been a miracle-working Son of God as an adult, but what was he like as a kid? That is the question answered by the amusing Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which regales readers with tales of Jesus' miraculous activities between the ages of five and twelve. As it turns out, Jesus was a mischievous young fellow and had a bit of a temper. Whenever someone irritates him -- a rough playmate or a strict teacher -- he uses his supernatural power to wither him on the spot. Eventually he gets his mood, and his power, under control, and becomes a remarkable young man to have around the carpenter shop and home.
- Jesus and sacred sex. In modern novels (The Da Vinci Code!) Jesus is said to have had a sexual relation with Mary Magdalene. Even stranger tales of Jesus, Mary, and sex were told in ancient Gospels; by all counts the strangest was The Greater Questions of Mary, now lost but quoted once by an early Church Father. According to this tale, Jesus took Mary alone up onto a mountain, and as she watched, he pulled a woman from his side and began to have sex with her. What happens next is even stranger, as it involves a case of divine coitus interruptus and the consumption of semen. Mary, not surprisingly, faints on the spot.
- The Giant Jesus and the Walking-Talking Cross. Remarkably, the Gospels of the New Testament do not tell the story of Jesus emerging from the tomb on Easter morning. But the Gospel of Peter does. In this text, discovered near the end of the nineteenth century, Jesus comes out of the tomb as tall as a mountain, supported by two angels, nearly as tall themselves. And behind them, from the tomb, there emerges the cross, which has a conversation with God in heaven, assuring him that the message of salvation has now gone to those in the underworld. How a Gospel like this was ever lost is anyone's guess.
- Pontius Pilate the Christian Convert. Pilate is usually portrayed as one of the real bad guys of the Gospel and, in fact, of all Christian history. But in a number of books, often called "Pilate Gospels," he is exonerated for having Jesus executed, and in some traditions he not only repents of what he did, but actually converts to become a believer in Jesus. In parts of the church, Pilate came to be canonized as a Christian saint. A saint? Yes, and the reason is clear. The more innocent Pilate is, the more guilty the other enemies are -- the Jews. These are Christian Gospels written in the context of rising anti-Jewish sentiment, a nefarious underside to many of these otherwise interesting and entertaining accounts.
For a complete picture of what the earliest Christians "knew" about Jesus, the books of the New Testament are not enough. One also needs to read the books that did not make it into Scripture, books written by and for Christians to convey what, in the authors' opinions, were the true views of the Christian faith. Some of these books contain ideas and perspectives that Christians today may regard as strange, or even heretical. Other readers will find them historically valuable and even scintillating. However they are judged today, at one time they were considered by some of Jesus' followers to be sacred Scripture.
Bart. D. Ehrman and Zlatko Plese are co-authors of the new book, "The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations."