In my Graduate program in History with Sam Houston State University, our professor asked us to compare books of the New Testament with books that are believed to be early Christian accounts of Paul and a young girl named Thecla, a gospel written by Thomas, and an epistle by Barnabas. Following the remarks below, I copied and pasted my assignment of the three comparisons of these ancient texts, their themes, doctrines, and beliefs compared with accepted Christian scripture. I also briefly note why I believe these books were not accepted into the canon by early Christians.
The following section was left out of ‘Day of Defense,’ and with this assignment, I now have an opportunity to use it:
Coupled with the growth of irreligion in a world already full of religious division, Christianity faces another obstacle wrapped in controversy. Its very origins are questioned in light of how the books of the Bible were selected while others were omitted. The controversy stems from the recent discoveries of New Testament or Post-New Testament era manuscripts. These manuscripts have compelled Hollywood, authors, and the History Channel to ask their audiences to consider the origins of the Bible and Christian history.
These forgotten documents consist of the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospels of Judas, Philip, Mary, and others. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, though fictional, reflects upon the true origin of the Christian Church in light of his novel’s analysis of such ancient documents, some supposedly presented and ultimately rejected at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The Da Vince Code brings out certain truths in its fictional narrative by exposing the simple fact that other books did in fact exist and did not make it into the Bible. Analysis of these texts reveals themes, doctrines, and beliefs, especially in the Da Vinci Code’s portrayal, that threaten the Catholic Church and the very origins of Christian belief. Observers questions if Jesus married, the location of the Holy Grail, and whether or not Mary held the priesthood, all to intrigue audiences as to what the Catholic Church has hidden or what became lost to history.
From a Mormon, or Latter-day Saint perspective, the kinds of questions The Da Vinci Code invokes, though intriguing and important, other questions beg answering by looking at canonized scripture. Why? Mormonism asks the religious investigator to consider whether or not the post-New Testament doctrines that entered into Christianity are contrary or consistent with those of the 1st Century Church. In other words, why not examine what the accepted books teach and compare them with post-New Testament creations?
Further, what should be questioned is a man’s claim to being a prophet and looking into the doctrines he professed to restore, in the case of Joseph Smith, to see if his work measures up with the Biblical record. Now, if it is discovered that these extra-Biblical texts complement the Biblical record and vice versa, the worth would be invaluable. If these manuscripts seek their own agenda (alluding to a fictional sacred bloodline and a quest for the Holy Grail), and do not compliment the teachings of the Old and New Testament, then they do little to complement thousands of years worth of the word of God and the numerous prophets and apostles who recorded their revelations.
In reality, if things were hidden, what are they, and for what reason were they hidden? Perhaps the truth was simply distorted, lost, and turned into fables as Paul predicted,
“And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” (2 Timothy 4:4)
The progress and evolution of Christianity without Apostles and Prophets (beyond the 1st Century AD) moved west and joined up with the traditions of Greece and Rome. This convergence of cultures left pure Christianity almost unrecognizable from its original form, even though the original blueprint persisted in the text of the New Testament – hence, the much later Protestant Reformation that challenged the doctrines, interpretations, and traditions of the Catholic Church. Some of these challenges are explored in more detail in ‘Day of Defense.’
While you consider the significance of non-canonical writings, in my book ‘Day of Defense’ I point to other writings from Early Christian writers like Justin Martyr, Origen, Clement, and others shed light on doctrines that parallel what Joseph Smith restored in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
-Comparing the Gospel of Mark with the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas
The canonical Gospel of Mark and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas share a lot of the same sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. They provide details pertaining to the beliefs and practices of the early followers of Jesus Christ. They also differ in the amount of detail and narrative given. The more detailed narrative of Mark, where Thomas fails to, provides the imagery of Christ debating his peers, the Sadducees and Pharisees. Further, Mark tells of the final hours of Christ’s life, his betrayal, and crucifixion. Thomas more or less provides a list of the sayings of Jesus in an almost bullet-like fashion, jumping from one topic to another. However, there are still similarities and agreements between the authors.
Much like Mark, Thomas credits Jesus saying things such as “one shall not taste of death.” In the context of Thomas, it is not quite clear who this teaching is directed to, other than those “who shall find the interpretation of the words” (Thomas, 1). Mark, on the other hand, provides some context for this strange saying quoted in Mark chapter nine verse one. In the previous chapter, Jesus speaks of those who “lose this life for my sake and the gospels sake, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:35). In this way, Mark connects the concepts of losing one’s life for Christ sake and not tasting death. Both authors suggest that it is the word of God that saves men and are in agreement with one another.
Thomas mimics much of Mark in this way in several other examples. Both authors describe Jesus’ parables such as the sower and the mustard seed that Christians hear often in Sunday school. Thomas quotes Jesus as bringing division and a sword, rather than peace, brother against brother, and father against son. This seems to contrast with the peaceful Christ that most New Testament readers are familiar with. However, as contradictory as this seems, Mark uses this same analogy to highlight a point. The gospel of Christ is likely to be difficult for many as it asks evil men to transform their will to God’s. Imagining a setting where a son accepts such teachings and seeks to share them with his brother or father. It is not difficult to see what Christ meant when he said he came to bring a sword. Where historians might think the Gospel of Thomas reveals a contradictory Jesus, the Gospel of Mark provides more commentary and detail as to what is meant by Jesus.
Both gospels further compliment one another with analogies of disciples becoming humbled and teachable as little children. Disciples are to be a light unto the world, depicting them as a candle not to be hidden under a bush, but to be available for all to see. This analogy evokes the hope and peace that is in Christ. They both agree specifically that blasphemy against God may be repented of, but blaspheming the Holy Spirit is unpardonable, in this life and in the next.
The list of many sayings from the Gospel of Mark can continue to be compiled that are echoed by Thomas. However, why might the early Christian church have rejected the Gospel of Thomas over Mark’s? One might speculate that the Gospel of Thomas was not available to those compiling the canon as recognized scripture. The gospel may have been looked at by contemporary clergy as a forgery presented by a sect of suspicious or heretical believers. Interestingly, Thomas makes a vague remark at the close of his gospel about males only inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven, and that Mary, who is with them be made a male so she too can enter. Perhaps this last entry’s confusion did not find any other witness from peer scripture and that it alone was enough to exclude it?
Source for the Gospel of Thomas: http://www.goodnewsinc.net/othbooks/thomas.html
-The Acts of the Apostles and the non-canonical Acts of Paul and Thecla
In a journey of faith, miracles, and the embrace of a foreign and seemingly sinister belief, young virgin Thecla escapes her home and the man she is betrothed to, to join Christian apostle Paul and she herself becomes named among the Christian apostles. In the Acts of the Apostles of the New Testament, Paul makes several journeys in his ministry. One of the cities he visits is Iconuim. This city is also home to the virgin, Thecla. Teaming up with Paul, Thecla’s legacy lives in the non-canonical scripture known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla. Both books share common themes, beliefs, and practices of early Christianity. Some differences are revealed between them as well. Why did early Christian clergy decide to keep one book over the other?
The story of The Acts of Paul and Thecla begins with Paul preaching outside the window of Thecla’s house. Captivated by his message, she forsakes the man who loves her and visits Paul in jail where he teaches her the gospel. Paul is imprisoned a number of times and is finally expelled from the city. Thecla is sentenced to death on a couple of occasions and miraculously escapes each time. Common themes in this story and the canonized Acts of the Apostles emerge, such as faith, charity, and prayer. In the Acts of the Apostles, Christians are described as having all things in common and care for the poor. This communal living echoes the words of Paul in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, where he describes believers as those abandoning the glories and secular enjoyments of the world. Thecla and her friend Trifina send Paul money and clothing to help the poor.
In both books, preaching the hope of salvation through Christ brings imprisonment and suffering. Like Paul, who faces trial and is imprisoned by both Roman and Jewish authorities in the Acts of the Apostles, Thecla and Paul have trouble with authority. As mentioned, Thecla escapes death by fire and from wild beasts in front of a cheering audience. Much like the New Testament apostles, the record of Thecla records her powers to heal the sick and to cast out devils. At one point Thecla desired baptism and in a moment when she is sentenced to die, she springs into a pit of water to baptize herself and escape wild beasts.
In contrast to the canonized Acts of the Apostles, Thecla’s story lacks a key characteristic expressed throughout accepted scripture. In the canonized Acts, when one is baptized, it is performed by one given authority and then has hands laid upon their head by the apostles or by elders chosen by the apostles. On the road to Damascus Paul sees Christ in an epiphany and is instructed to meet Ananias, who is authorized to baptize him. When Matthias joins the Twelve and when Stephen has hands laid on his head to assist in the ministry, these examples illustrate an ordered administration.
At the time the Acts of Paul and Thecla circulated, the dominant church culture was dominated my male leadership. Whether an ancient forgery or a legitimate account without other witnesses or sources that can attest to Thecla’s authority in the gospel, this book of ancient Christian history was not accepted as inspired by mainstream Christianity. Unless an ancient account says otherwise, there is no way to know if this piece of history was widely circulated amongst Christians for church clergy to choose from it or reject it.
Source for the Acts of Paul and Thecla: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/thecla.asp
-Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and the non-canonical Epistle of Barnabas
Paul’s letter to the Romans, a canonized book in the New Testament shares a lot of the same themes, practices, and beliefs that Barnabas wrote in his own epistle. The Epistle of Barnabas was not accepted into the canon, but does it reflect early Christian teachings? Without question, the writings of Barnabas reflect the knowledge of one acquainted with Paul’s letter to the Romans, early Christian teaching, and of the Old Testament.
Paul, to the Romans, writes a lengthy letter to Gentile followers. The main argument of this scripture expresses that those born with the law of Moses (the Jews) and who are circumcised are no more or less worthy than those uncircumcised and without the law. Paul teaches that it is by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that justifies the sinner, not the works of the law. He draws on evidence of father Abraham, being a just man, was also uncircumcised in his old age, but was justified by his faith before God. God gave Abraham the law of circumcision as a symbol of covenant rather than the means of salvation by the performance. Barnabas also writes that the old law, one should flee, and accept the new law of Christ.
The authors both agree that God is no respecter of persons when it comes to judgment, whether they were born of the covenant people or not. If one is taught salvation through Christ and accepts it, they are justified. They also agree that true conversion comes through a broken heart and that Christ makes man free from sin. Further, both Paul and Barnabas provide a similar list of saintly characteristics in contrast to evil. Barnabas teaches believers to seek after the ordinances of God, which are: the hope of life, righteousness, and love. Likewise, Paul states we “glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Romans 5:3-5). Paul and Barnabas advise believers to wait, hope, and endure in this life until the resurrection comes.
In contrast to the virtues of the gospel, Paul and Barnabas define evil in its terms. According to Paul, those worthy of death and who are in danger of the wrath of God are filled with “unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder…haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things” (Romans 1:29).
Likewise, Barnabas says that “But the way of the Black One is crooked and full of a curse. For it is a way of eternal death with punishment wherein are the things that destroy men’s souls – idolatry, boldness, exhalation of power, hypocrisy, doubleness of heart, adultery…corrupters of the creatures of God, turning away from him that is in want, oppressing him that is afflicted, advocates of the wealthy, unjust judges of the poor, sinful in all things” (Barnabas 20:1,2).
The transforming power of Christ, according to both, allows men to be renewed, that they can be made perfect and be heirs with Christ. Paul and Barnabas admonish believers to be united and to create no division between believers. Both of these epistles, one revered as the word of God, and the other mysteriously rejected by early Christians. Barnabas does not specify his audience, other than believers. They may have been Jewish, judging from the number of stories Barnabas used from the Old Testament as being types or shadows of Christ. Historians might ask why this book was not accepted as canon, but one cannot argue that the beliefs and teachings described are more or less Christian than Paul’s epistle to the Romans.
Source for the Epistle of Barnabas: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/barnabas-lightfoot.html
These sources and Dan Brown evoked many questions that spawned new interest in early Christian history. As we search the mysteries of God, let us not forget the words of the Old Testament prophet, Amos.
Scott Thormaehlen received his Master’s in History in 2016 and taught U.S. History in the Lone Star College system in Houston, Texas and for Alvin Community College. His writings have appeared in Accuracy in Academia, the Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies at Sam Houston State University, LDS Living, Meridian Magazine, and East Texas History – a project by Sam Houston State University.