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.
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."
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