excerpt – Pre-Nicene New Testiment

History, Text, and Interpretation

Fruit as well as root

The question of the New Testament canon, which is to say the official list of writings or table of contents, is a vitally important one, as all recognize, and even more important than many realize. On the one hand, if one regards the Bible as inspired and authoritative scripture, it is obviously a vital matter to get clear about which writings are to wield authority over belief and conscience and which shall not. Believing in scripture in general means nothing: it is a matter of specific claims, commandments, doctrines, and rites, and some appear in some documents, others in other documents. For this reason, Protestants follow Martin Luther in rejecting both the book of 2 Maccabees and the practice of praying for the dead, which is endorsed in it. They are ready to believe in the bodily assumption of Elijah into heaven since this event is recounted in 2 Kings, but they scoff at the bodily ascension of the Virgin Mary since this very similar belief is recounted only in non-canonical writings such as The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God. Similarly, biblicists opposing abortion would have a much simpler case to make had the Epistle of Barnabas or the Apocalypse of Peter been admitted into the canon, as they explicitly condemn abortion, whereas the practice does not come up for mention in any document considered canonical.

A more crucial aspect still is that of the authority underlying the Bible. If the texts of scripture authorize everything else in Christian belief and practice, what is it that authenticates the biblical canon? It is not as if the Bible were delivered from the hand of an angel like the Book of Mormon or dictated by an angel like the Koran. The Bible, as everyone knows, is a compilation of many short writings, many of them the products of several writers, redactors, revisers, and scribes. In addition, there were books of the same type that did not finally make it into the canonical list. Who decided on the list and how did they decide? The Bible is not only the beginning of one theological process but is itself the end of another. It is worth looking back at “how came the Bible,” as Edgar J. Goodspeed used to say. When we have done that, we will be in a position to re-evaluate other books that were not canonized.

Marcionite invasion

The history of a distinctively Christian scriptural canon begins with Marcion of Pontus in Asia Minor. Traditionally dated about 140 AD/CE, Marcion actually may have begun his public ministry earlier, just after the turn of the century. One ancient tradition makes Marcion the amanuensis (secretary) of the evangelist John at the end of the first century. That is probably not historically true, but no one would have told the story if they had not assumed Marcion was living at that time. It was a general tendency of early Catholic apologists to late-date the so-called “heretics” to distance them from the apostolic period in the same way apologists today prefer the earliest possible date for the epistles and gospels.

Marcion was the first Paulinist we know of. It would later be a matter of some embarrassment to the church fathers that the earliest readers and devotees of the Pauline epistles were the Marcionites and the Valentinian Gnostics. We know of no Paulinists before these second-century Christians. The mid-first century existence of Pauline Christianity is simply an inference, admittedly a natural one, from taking the authorship and implied dates of the Pauline epistles at face value as works representing a wing of first-century Christianity. But it is quite possible that the Pauline literature is the product of Marcionite and Gnostic movements in the late first and early second centuries. Even if most of the Pauline epistles are genuinely from the first century, the most likely candidate for the first collector of the corpus remains Marcion. No one else in the relevant time period would have had either the interest or the opportunity. No one was as interested in Paul as Marcion. Why?

It was because he shared with his theological cousins, the Gnostics, the belief that the true God and Father of Jesus Christ was not the same deity as the creator and law-giver God of Israel and of the Jewish scriptures. In this belief Marcion was perhaps influenced by Zoro-astrian Zurvanism, a dualistic doctrine, as Jan Koester suggests. Marcion allowed that the creator God was righteous and just but also harsh and retributive. His seeming grace was but a function of his arbitrariness: Nero might render a verdict of thumbs-up or thumbs-down as the whim moved him, and so with the God of Israel. Marcion deemed the Jewish scriptures historically true and expected messianic prophecies to be fulfilled by a Davidic king who would restore Jewish sovereignty. But Marcion deemed all of this strictly irrelevant to the new religion of Christianity. In his view, which he claimed to have derived from Paul’s epistles, Jesus Christ was the son and revealer of an alien God who had not created the world, had not given the Torah to Moses, and would not judge mankind. The Father of Jesus Christ was a God of perfect love and righteousness who would punish no one. Through Jesus, and by extension Paul, the Christian God offered humans the opportunity to be adopted as his children. If they were gentiles, this meant a break with paganism. If they were Jews, it entailed a break from Judaism and the Torah. Marcion preached a strict morality. All sex was sinful. Begetting children only produced more souls to live in bondage to the creator. Marcion believed Jesus had no physical birth but had appeared out of heaven one day in a body that seemed to be that of a thirty-year-old, complete with a misleading belly button, although not human at all: rather a celestial being. Jesus taught and was later crucified. His twelve disciples were to spread his gospel of an alien God and his adoption of all who would come to him. But things v/ent awry: the disciples, as thick-headed and prone to misunderstanding as they appear in the Gospel of Mark, underestimated the discontinuity of Jesus’ new revelation with their hereditary Judaism, thereby combining the two. This was the origin of the Judaiz-ing heresy with which Paul deals in Galatians and elsewhere.

Marcion had noticed an oddity most Christians never notice as they read the New Testament: if Jesus had named the Twelve to succeed him and seemed satisfied with them, why was there a need for Paul at all? And why should he come to eclipse the others in importance? The Twelve are, for the most part, merely a list of names. By contrast, Paul wrote letters that formed the basis of much of the church’s theology. Marcion saw a simple answer: the risen Jesus saw how far off the track his disciples would go and decided to recruit another who would get the message straight. This was Paul. To invoke a recurrent pattern in Christian history, think of Martin Luther, Alexander Campbell, John Nelson Darby, Joseph Smith, Charles Taze Russell, Victor Paul Wierwille, and others. All these believed that original, apostolic Christianity was corrupted by an admixture of human tradition, and they believed they had a new vision of the outlines of the original, true Christianity and could restore it. This is what Marcion thought already in the early second century. It should not sound that strange to us. Like these later men, Marcion would succeed very well in launching a new church, one that would spread like wildfire all over and even beyond the Roman Empire. Most noteworthy is the fact that the New Testament was his idea.

The emerging Catholic Church, which would develop into the medieval church, which then subsequently split into Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, was by this time employing the familiar authority structure of scripture and tradition. By scripture was meant the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish scriptures, including the so-called apocryphal or deutero-canonical books of the Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Sirach/Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, Baruch, the Epistle of Jeremiah, 1 Esdras, and so on. This was “scripture.” Tradition, on the other hand, was a growing body of sayings attributed to Jesus and stories about him, as well as the summaries of “apostolic” doctrine represented in such formulae as the Apostles Creed and similar summaries in the late second century by writers like Irenaeus and Tertullian, to name two. There were a number of early Christian writings of various kinds (gospels, epistles, apostolic acts, revelations, church manuals) that were written and circulated more or less widely, but these were at first more expressions of the. faith than either the source or criteria for faith. That is not to say they were not important. Think of the writings of Calvin and Luther: they are important to Calvinists and Lutherans who still study them, but Calvinists and Lutherans would not consider the wise writings of their founders to be scripture on the same level with the Bible. Admittedly, the difference in actual practice may evaporate, but that is just the technical distinction that is important here. The question that concerns us is precisely how the early Christian writings came to cross that line and join the category of scripture. The earliest Catholic Christians felt no need as yet for new scripture since they found the Septuagint Bible adequate to their needs as long as they could use allegory and typology to see in it a book about Jesus Christ and Christianity.

This reinterpretation of Jewish scripture was not something Mar-cion was willing to undertake. He insisted on a literal, straightforward reading of the Septuagint, refusing to treat it as a ventriloquist dummy and make it seem to speak with Christian accents. Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428) had the same attitude, though he was no Marcionite. Read in a plain-sense fashion, the Jewish scriptures, Mar-cion realized, had nothing to do with Christianity. Even lacking his belief in two different biblical Gods, one can see his point when one thinks of the strained arguments needed in order to make various Old Testament passages sound like predictions of Jesus. And it is still common today to hear Christians contrast the severe God of Israel with the tender Father of Jesus. So Marcion repudiated the Jewish scriptures. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe them, because he did. He simply felt they were the scriptures of someone else’s religion and didn’t overlap with Christianity as he understood it. Nor was he anti-Semitic or even anti-Judaic. For him, Judaism was true on its own terms, just not the religion of Jesus Christ or of the apostle Paul.

Without the Septuagint as his scripture, Marcion felt the need to compile a new canon that would teach Christian faith and morals authoritatively. He accordingly collected the early Christian writings he felt served this purpose. These were paramountly the Pauline epistles except for the Pastorals, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus, because these did not exist yet, still waiting to be written in reaction to Marcion and other “heretics” in the mid-second century. Marcion had shorter, earlier versions of the texts than ours. Likewise, he had a book he knew simply as “the gospel” corresponding to a shorter version of our Gospel of Luke. Catholic writers decades later would claim he had edited and censored the texts, cutting out material that served to link Christianity with its Jewish background. Marcion no doubt did do some editing, textual criticism as it seemed to him, but it seems that Catholic apologists did much more in the way of padding the texts with their own added material, claiming their own versions were original and should be adopted instead of the Marcionite text. Marcion called his scripture the Apostolicon (“Book of the Apostle”). In his and his opponents’ claims and counter claims, we begin to see the inevitable relation of the twin issues of text and canon–which versions of which writings are authoritative?

The first counter-reformation

If Marcion had been merely some eccentric scribe, people like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian would not have bothered with him. In fact, he became a force to be reckoned with as his Pauline Christianity spread far and wide. The relationship between Marcion and the Catholic leaders of his own day is strikingly paralleled in the uneasy relations between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles in Galatians and 2 Corinthians. There were initial attempts at ecumenical cooperation, but it did not work. The Catholic Church sought to co-opt Marcionism late in the second century by, as anticipated above, adding material to the Pauline texts and to Luke, harmonizing Pauline Christianity with Judaism in the manner still familiar today, insisting that Christianity was the rightful heir to God’s covenant promises with Israel and the Jewish people. Had Marcionism triumphed, I dare say we would have seen more peaceful Jewish-Christian relations since neither side would have been perceived as a threat to the other.

How did the Catholic Church respond to the Marcionite Sputnik of a specifically Christian scripture? Where Marcion relinquished the Jewish scriptures to the Jewish religion and replaced them with distinctly Christian writings, the Catholic bishops decided to retain the Jewish Bible, reinterpreted in a Christian manner, and to add a new set of scriptures onto it. They had no objection to having a set of books that would speak overtly of Christian faith and practice. Remember that they already had them and it was just a question of making them officially part of the Bible. So they took over the Pauline corpus, adding the Pastorals and interpolating the others to bring them into accord with Catholic teaching. Marcion’s gospel became our Gospel of Luke by adding chapters 1-3, the Nazareth synagogue sermon, the prodigal son, the tower of Siloam and Pilate’s massacre of the Galileans, the “wisdom saith” speech, the triumphal entry, the wicked tenants, the prediction of spirit baptism, and the ascension. To balance and dilute Luke, they added Matthew, Mark, and John, though John had to be extensively reshuffled and interpolated, as Bultmann showed, before it could pass as orthodox. It may attest the relative unimportance of the Twelve that no one made any attempt to even ascribe apostolic names to Mark’s and Luke’s narratives. The gospels are all anonymous, not pseudonymous, the four names being editorial conventions added once people began to use a collection of gospels, creating the need to differentiate them: “Let’s read from the Gospel … according to Matthew this time.” Perhaps at one point the characters Mark and Luke were held in equal esteem with John and Matthew as important leaders, though only guesswork identifies them with New Testament personalities of those names. It is interesting that the two most common male names in the Roman Empire happened to be Mark and Luke.

Wanting to restore the clout of the Twelve, the compilers of the New Testament made a late attempt to represent them in the canon alongside Paul. The Acts of the Apostles sought to co-opt Paul and make Peter his twin, bringing both sides together, devotees of Paul’s memory and devotees of Peter’s, as well as to imply that the Twelve had played some prominent role. If they ever had, their labors were among Jewish Christians in Palestine and largely forgotten after 70 AD/CE and the destruction of Jerusalem. A group of three anonymous epistles from “the Elder,” a master of traveling missionaries late in the first century, were ascribed gratuitously to John, son of Zebedee. Two spurious Petrine writings (1 and 2 Peter, by different pseudonymous authors) were chosen out of the much larger bin of Petrine apocrypha surviving today, including the two Apocalypses of Peter, the Gospel of Peter, the Journeys of Peter, the Acts of Peter, the Preaching of Peter, the Letter of Peter to Philip, the Letter of Peter to James, and so on. The two favored epistles were added, as was a letter by someone named James and another by one Jude. Was James the brother of the Lord? Son of Zebedee? Son of Alphaeus? Some other James? No one knows. In any case, these documents gave us the core of the Catholic canon, though its exact outlines would take some centuries to be delimited.

Loose canon

For Irenaeus (115-202), bishop of Lyons and major opponent of Gnosticism, the Christian Testament included the four gospels, the Pauline Epistles, and Acts. He also used 1 Peter, 1 John, either 2 or 3 John (he does not say which, but he mentions “another” Johannine epistle), Jude, and Revelation but seemed not yet to regard these as scripture. No mention of Hebrews, 2 Peter, or James. Twenty years later, Tertullian (mid-second to mid-third century), a follower of Irenaeus, had the same list but considered them all scripture. Tertullian used Hebrews and the Epistle of Barnabas without saying specifically that he regarded them as canonical. He thought 1 Enoch ought to be included in the Old Testament. The first Christian we know of who referred to the Jewish scriptures as the Old Testament was Mel-ito of Sardis in the last third of the second century. Clement of Alexandria (160-215) was the first to call the Christian scriptures the New Testament.

While Irenaeus considered the books just listed above to be authoritative and canonical, he did not predicate that authority upon divine inspiration. As he saw it, their authority stemmed from their place as the foundational documents of the apostolic age. Again, Tertullian carried things a significant step farther, locating the authority of these books specifically in apostolic authorship rather than just the early period of Christianity. To be considered authoritative, they had to have been composed by Jesus’ apostles and their delegates, by which he meant Mark and Luke because they were said to have been assistants to Peter and Paul respectively. Irenaeus has his predecessor, Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, linking Mark to Peter in this way in about 130 AD/CE. However, ascribing statements to Papias functioned as convenient hadith—licenses to make this or that item authoritative as needed—as in Islam where the claim of access to left-over Koranic verses or ancient oral traditions was a way of circumventing scripture.

Clement of Alexandria had no closed canon and made frequent reference not only to our four conventional gospels but also to the Gospel according to the Hebrews and the Gospel according to the Egyptians, to apocryphal as well as canonical Acts, to the Epistles of Clement and Barnabas, the Preaching of Peter, and the Shepherd of Hermas. If Morton Smith is to be believed. Clement also possessed a Secret Mark. Thus far, the New Testament books were authoritative because they were apostolic. It was Clement’s successor, Origen (185-251), who first pronounced them inspired writings, as opposed to writings of inspired or authoritative writers, which was an important distinction that continues to be drawn even in the twenty-first century. Origen reasoned that since a book either was inspired or was not, it behooved the church to decide which ones belonged in the Bible, but he himself did not make that judgment. He only saw the need.

Eusebius, the great church historian and propagandist for Con-stantinian Christianity, makes it clear that precise canonical boundaries were still a matter in dispute in the mid-fourth century. He tells us how, in the discussions of contemporary theologians, the available writings in effect fell into four categories. First, there were the books regarded as genuinely apostolic: the four conventional gospels and the Pauline epistles, with some disputing of Hebrews, 1 John, 1 Peter, and Acts. Some of the church fathers included Revelation in the apostolic category, though Eusebius himself was no fan of it. Second, there were generally disputed books: 2 and 3 John, Jude, James, and 2 Peter, while some accepted Hebrews; Origen admitted that “God alone knows” who wrote Hebrews. Third were the “spurious” works (meaning they were possibly pseudonymous), which were nevertheless acceptable and usable: the Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Acts of Paul, Shepherd of Hermas, Apocalypse of Peter, the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles to the Nations), Barnabas, and for some the Revelation of John. Eusebius thought it was a “John the Elder” rather than the son of Zebedee who wrote the Revelation. Fourth were outright heretical forgeries: the Acts of John, of Andrew, Peter, Thomas, and others, and the Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias. The question of a definitive list was still open, at least for a while. But Eusebius tells us how Constantine had fifty deluxe vellum copies of the New Testament manufactured and sent to prelates all over the empire, this of course implying a fixed text. We cannot help thinking of the Islamic tradition that, to stifle theological debates in which opponents appealed to different texts of the Koran, the Caliph Uthman called in all known variant copies, had his scholars standardize an official text, and burned the earlier ones. The distribution of a New Testament codex from the home office by Constantine must have had the same effect of establishing an official list. However, the Constantine Bible may not have quite matched our familiar list of twenty-seven books. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, which date from this period and are possibly examples of the Constantinian pulpit Bibles, include such books as Barnabas and 1 Clement.

The Muratorian Canon, a fragmentary document from Rome discovered by Muratori, has generally been placed in the second century, but some now argue it dates to the fourth century. It lists all of our New Testament books except for Hebrews, James, and 1 and 2 Peter, while including the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. It mentions but rejects the Shepherd of Hermas.

Bonfire of the heresies

The first known list of our twenty-seven New Testament writings appears in the paschal (Easter) letter of Athanasius to his diocese in 367 AD/CE. Athanasius lists them and warns his flock to use these and no others. One immediate result of this encyclical was to prompt the brethren of the Monastery of Saint Pachomius in Egypt, the very first known Christian monastery, to hide away their copies of the banned books. They buried them in a cave in leather satchels, where they rested in oblivion till 1945 when they were accidentally discovered by a shepherd boy at Nag Hammadi. The monks knew the inquisitors would be coming around again to see if the encyclical had been obeyed, and they did not want to hand over their precious copies of the Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Peter, the Egyptians, and Mary Magdalene; their Revelations of Zostrianos, James, Melchizedek, Seth, Shem, and Dositheus; their Epistles of Peter and James; or their Apocrypha of John and James to be burned. Their library attests to an astonishing range of Christian scriptures still in use at the time. We have only these and a very few other copies of the excluded books because the Constantinian authorities carried out a systematic purge of the writings deemed heretical per Athanasius’ encyclical. Others, like the Shepherd of Hermas, survived outside the canon since they were not considered dangerous, just not official. The importance of this fact is still vastly underestimated today. It means that the New Testament as we read it is as much a document of the fourth century as of the first. The canonical deck was cleared, so to speak, to leave us with a highly misleading impression of what early Christianity was like. Even so, the scholar F. C. Baur was able in the nineteenth century to discern the split in early Christianity along pro- and anti-Torah, Pe-trine vs. Pauline, lines, with Gnosticism lurking somewhere down the road. Some decades later Walter Bauer (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity} demonstrated that the Christian movement was much more diverse than even Baur had thought, that emerging Catholicism had managed to rewrite history in such a way as to cast itself as the original Christianity, caricaturing all other varieties as unimportant cranks and fringe groups. Shortly after Bauer’s book appeared, the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi library made it clear that early Christianity must have been an even more lush theological jungle than any scholar had conceived of. Here, for the first time, were multiple primary sources attesting to many completely different families of early Christian belief, of which we had hitherto only the slightest, if any, hint. Who would have imagined there were whole wings of Christianity that thought Jesus was the reincarnation of Seth, of Melchizedek, or of Zoroaster? Elaine Pagels (The Gnostic Gospels) was about the only scholar who seemed to realize the full significance of the Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, that they were not some sort of ancient science fiction novels but rather the cherished scriptures of people’s living faith. She did a good job of putting some flesh on the bones. For instance, if we wonder about the identity of the “single ones” held up as a model in the Gospel according to Thomas, we need only remind ourselves that the Greek word is monachos (monk) and that the document was found at a monastery. As in Buddhism still today, there was then no one canon. Different species of Christians used different sacred books. This was about to change.

The canon list of Athanasius, who championed homoousias christology (Christ is “of the same nature” as the Father) at Nicea, was officially adopted by the local Synod of Hippo in 393 and again by the Synod of Carthage in 397. This hardly meant that from then on everyone agreed on what should constitute the New Testament. Surviving manuscript codices (and there are a great many) from the next few centuries continue to include some of the less heretical books or lack some of the more orthodox ones. Scribes apparently did not feel particularly bound to conform to the Athanasian norm. Why should they? No ecumenical council would rule on the matter until the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent in 1551! In general, though, it would be fair to say that by about 400 AD/CE, the western Mediterranean churches used the Athanasian canon, while remaining grudgingly reluctant about Hebrews. It took another two centuries until the eastern churches were ready to accept Revelation as canonical. Even today in the Monophysite churches of Armenia and Ethiopia, the New Testament canon contains such books as Barnabas, Clement, and 3 Corinthians.

During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther was able to reshape the canon simply by virtue of the fact that he was preparing the official German edition of the Bible. It was up to him what would be included. He rejected the Old Testament Apocrypha, mainly because it had not survived in its original languages. He felt scripture could be considered authoritative in its original Hebrew or Greek, that one could not rely on the Septuagint or the Latin Vulgate; therefore a book that existed only in translation could not be canonized. He rejected the theological content of some of the Apocrypha, as well, but fell short of condemning it. Even the Puritans would read from the Apocrypha for edification, and it was included in the King James Bible until 1823 when its printers finally decided to remove it.

Luther reshuffled the books of the New Testament, restricting Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation to an appendix. He referred to James contemptuously as the “epistle of straw,” while he said the Book of Revelation deserved to be thrown into the Elbe River. None of these books adequately conveyed the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone, which was his plumbline. Needless to say, Lutherans would not choose to follow their leader on this point. In the nineteenth century, Protestant theologians would revisit the question, Schleiermacher urging colleagues to sift the “canonical” from the “apocryphal” within the New Testament, while Harnack said it was time to follow Marcion and cut loose the Old Testament. Perhaps the most astonishing Protestant remark on canonical questions came from Willi Marxsen, a twentieth-century German who noted that Protestants had implicitly sawed off the branch they sat on when they rejected church tradition as the norm for faith in favor of “scripture alone.” How did they come to this predicament? By ignoring that the canon itself was purely a matter of church tradition, not of a decree from God. The Bible doesn’t tell us what ought to be in the Bible, tradition does, and the latter is what Protestants claimed to reject. Uh-oh.

Making the cut: criteria

As a matter of tradition, the selection of the books for the canon was gradual and to some degree haphazard. It was the result of a gradual accumulation of local usage and then a comparison of such local versions and usages by larger councils. It still remained a matter of local habit and custom until the mostly anonymous Catholic bishops and theologians in the second, third, and fourth centuries began applying certain criteria to determine the degree to which a book should be revered. Some of these criteria will sound familiar by now, but I will nevertheless discuss them in order of descending importance, noting how each argument has a tendency to collapse into another.

First, catholicity: Was a book known in and used liturgically all over the empire? If it was not, it was dubious since a real apostolic writing (see just below) would have had time to circulate more widely. The fewer quarters of the church it was known in, the greater the likelihood it might be a recent forgery. “Why didn’t we hear about this Gospel of Wally until now? I smell a rat!” is how the logic went. The little book of 3 John had trouble passing muster on this score, but it made it in because it was evidently by the same author as the popular and renowned 1 John, so it was reasoned that its short length had caused it to be largely overlooked. In practice, catholicity meant “more widely known,” whatever its contents, because long familiarity and wide readership meant there had been more opportunity for the rough edges to be worn away through harmonizing exegesis. But if it was unfamiliar, the foreign ring to the prose jumped right out. This is what happened to the Gospel of Peter. Bishop Serapion was asked to look at a copy in rural Syria where it was popular. The bishop had never heard of it, so he took a look but saw no problem. Then someone advised a second look, and he picked out signs of docetism, the belief that Jesus had only seemed (Greek: dokeo) to suffer while remaining divinely impassive. So the book was condemned. Had the concerned reader grown up hearing it read every Sunday in a familiar context, he would not have noticed a problem any more than the Syrian congregations had. In addition, the less widely known a book was, the easier it was to exclude it out of political considerations since it had fewer partisans to defend it.

Second, orthodoxy. Did the contents promote the rule of faith, which was the emerging creed? Again, catholicity might overrule this since unorthodox elements could be harmonized if the book were held in high esteem. For instance, no one complains about the numerous Gnostic, docetic, and adoptionistic verses in Paul’s letters. Even so, evidence of docetism could prejudice the decision, as with the Gospel of Peter or the Acts of John. A book might also be spurned over something as simple as citing other books no longer considered canonical. Barnabas cited 1 Enoch as scripture and was not canonized; but Jude cited 1 Enoch and was accepted, though someone tried to replace it with 2 Peter, a book which incorporates most of Jude and cuts references to the Assumption of Moses and 1 Enoch. A book might also be rejected not because of outright heresy but because it risked letting the camel’s nose under the tent flap. In this way, late apocalypses like the Shepherd of Hermas were considered dangerous because they were of later vintage, and if one could accept them, there would no longer be any clear reason not to accept the prophetic rantings of the Montanist prophetess Maximilla. Other books were rejected not so much because of their content but because of guilt by association due to long or notorious use by heretical sects. The Gospel of Thomas was probably excluded because Valentinians and Manicheans used it. Their interpretations were by no means the only way to read the book, and had it been included in the canon it would not sound heretical to anyone today. The familiar Gospel of John came near to sharing Thomas’s fate because it was popular among the Gnostics, one of whom, Heracleon, wrote the first known commentary on it. The anti-Montanist Gaius thought it might have been written by the Gnostic Cerinthus himself! A whole group, dubbed by their enemies the alogoi (a pun: opponents of the Logos/witless ones), opposed John. And in fact, John probably was Gnostic. As Bultmann showed, it was toned down by an “ecclesiastical redactor” to make it suitable to orthodox ears.

Third, apostolicity. Was it written by an apostle or by an associate of an apostle? We have seen how important this criterion was, but it was a wax nose easily twisted. If a book was widely known and deemed orthodox, then an apostolic byline could be created for it. In this way, to secure entrance into the canon, the anonymous Epistle to the Hebrews was ascribed to Paul. It was also possible to claim some tenuous link between the ascribed authorship and an apostle, as when Mark was made Peter’s secretary and Luke Paul’s. If a book sounded too blatantly unorthodox despite a clear apostolic authorship claim, such as the numerous books attributed to Thomas, Peter, Paul, Matthias, James, and John, it could be dismissed as a forgery. While Eusebius embraced the chiliastic (millenarian) teaching of Revelation, he ascribed it to John, son of Zebedee. Once he rejected the doctrine, he decided the Revelation must have been the work of another John after all.

Similarly, one is forced to wonder whether the reason Matthew’s gospel received its apostolic ascription was because it was by far the most popular of the gospels, while Mark and Luke were damned with faint praise through the assignations of sub-apostolic names. By the time the grossly different John was added to the equation, Gaius, remember, had suggested Cerinthus for its author as a function of its Gnostic content. To go so far as to grant it a fully apostolic pedigree was a counterblast. Had no one gone so far as to credit it to Cerinthus, it is likely no one would have over-compensated with Johannine authorship. It is parallel to the criticisms aimed at the erotic Song of Solomon in the first century among rabbis. Shouldn’t such a piece of pornography be ejected from the canon and public reading? No, came the reply. In fact, the book was said to be especially holy, rendering anyone who touched it ritually unclean. From one end of the pendulum to the other.

Fourth, numerology. Irenaeus was desperate to include Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and equally zealous to crowd out the Valentinian Gospel of Truth. He reasoned that there could be only four canonical gospels due to the fact that there are four winds, four compass directions, and four Argus-eyed creatures in the heavenly throne room in Revelation chapter 4. Irenaeus was also attentive to the perfect number seven—the number of planets known to the ancients, each worshipped on one day of the week. Paul’s epistles were first organized according to the seven recipient churches: Rome, Corinth (1 and 2 Corinthians having once been combined or confused), Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Colossae, Ephesus. But this arrangement threatened to leave little Philemon out in the cold, to say nothing of the Pastorals. Once these were added, one could count epistles, not recipients, and this brought the total to thirteen with two each to Corinth and Thessalonica. Hence the need to make Hebrews a fourteenth Pauline epistle, resulting in two sevens. One could have as easily ascribed Hebrews to Apollos or Clement or Barnabas, as some did.

Scripture as tradition

In retrospect, what we see is a process, first of expansion of the canon in reaction to Marcion, then of contraction of the canon to exclude the books of Montanists and Gnostics. There are in all religions differences over the contents of the canon. Different sects, or subdivisions of religions, still have different canons even if it is only a matter of which individual books they like best and read more often. It is well to ask just what the point is of delimiting a canon. As Frank Kermode says, the point is to restrict the number of possible sources of divination or doctrine, to limit the number of available voices one must heed and obey. If you don’t want the flock considering certain doctrines, you need to omit any scriptural texts that might be understood as teaching them. By the same token, hand in hand with defining the canon comes interpretation by an authoritative elite. Until Vatican II, the Catholic Church discouraged lay Bible reading lest it unleash sectarian fanaticism and make every Bible reader his own pope. To the extent that Protestants have avoided this, it is because individual Protestants have been content to stay within the limits set by the interpretive tradition of their pastor or denomination. Notice how the late 2 Peter both recognizes a Pauline collection as scripture (3:15-16) and admonishes the reader never to presume to engage in personal exegesis (1:20) since it is a perilous task that has already led many into soul-blasting heresy (3:16). Tertullian set forth his Prescription against Heretics, wherein he advised the apologist never to get embroiled in scripture arguments since the heretics might well win. What one should do instead was to deny the heretics’ right to appeal to scripture. The canon is authoritative only when interpreted through the filter of apostolic tradition, so the argument went.

Today’s biblicists are caught in a double irony. First, the contents of the Bible, whose infallibility they idolize, have been set by fallible mortals like themselves rather than by some miracle of revelation. They are dependent for their Bible’s table of contents on the unquestioned traditions of men, which in principle they claim to disregard. Second, they continue to quote the Bible as if it were their sole authority when in fact they control the reading of it by their own traditions of orthodoxy, condemning as heretical any who venture a different interpretation. In fact, their terror in the face of higher criticism of the Bible is plainly an unwillingness to allow the Bible to speak with new voices.

The complete canon

The goal of the present collection is to try to strip away the Ni-cene, that is, the orthodox, traditional gloss from the underlying early Christian texts. To invoke a contemporary shibboleth and apply it to ancient matters, we want to celebrate the original authentic diversity of early Christianity. As Helmut Koester remarked in class, “The best canon is the most inclusive canon.” This is true historically because widening the net gives a truer sense of the early years of the religion. But remember, too, what Kermode said: by throwing open the canonical doors, we welcome in new sources of inspiration and ideas. Why should we allow committees of unknown and long-extinct clerics to decide for us what will be on our spiritual menu? Here is a chance to give an ear to Ebionites, Nasoreans, Gnostics, Marcionites, Dositheans, and others who entered into the mix of early Christianity without making them second-class citizens, without putting the twenty-seven approved books over here and the “also-rans” over there, even as many scholars continue to do.

I have said that along with the delimitation of the table of contents, the fixing of the canon included making one version of each book official, along with an official interpretation. Marcion’s editions were not safe, and people were required to utilize the Catholic versions. Nor were people allowed to decide what the text meant merely by reading it; one had to consult a bishop, who consulted the creed. This book seeks to undo these restrictions in favor of an eclectic approach, including for the first time in a printed New Testament the work of such radical text critics as J. C. O’Neill, Winsome Munro, and William O. Walker Jr. In the absence of absolute proof, most scholars still conservatively resist suggestions that early texts were tampered with. In the case of the New Testament, it is not possible to point to an original manuscript to show that it lacks lines one suspects were added later. But to insist on evidence that is definitive is to ignore the obvious. We have no manuscripts from before about 200 CE. The possible changes would have been made before that. Conservatives just don’t want to deal with the repercussions. If stylistic factors, theological inconsistencies, and logical jumps are deemed sufficient to convince us that the text has been interpolated, the whole text becomes quicksand, say the conservatives. Then we could never be certain of what Paul thought, what Jesus did, what the Bible really says. True enough, but that is a problem only if one feels entitled to dogmatize from the text. No scholar has ever had such a prerogative. All exegesis must be tentative, and no one will object unless he or she is too scared to think for oneself or to allow others to do so. This will disappoint only the dogmatist who wishes to proof-text an infallible book to short circuit theological debate.

The same goes for interpreting the text. It is easy to fall into the habit of feeding the text through the creed. The historian has no business doing that and must keep his or her eyes peeled and ears cocked for old and new possibilities of what the text means, what it might have meant to ancient writers and readers who shared different assumptions from ours. The goal of this translation, as Vladimir Schklovsky said of literary criticism in general, is to “defamiliarize” the text. In other words, to strip away false assumptions that render it virtually invisible to the reader. To do this, to reveal the New Testament as a new book, I have adopted a policy of moving back and forth between translating the text more literally than usual, even if it sounds a bit brusque, and paraphrasing if that will bring out neglected implications. Disputed passages—those absent from some manuscripts—are shown in italics. There are also numerous critical and historical footnotes, including cross-references for related passages in other scriptural or extra-canonical books.

In pursuing the agenda I have chosen, I have to acknowledge two illustrious predecessors: first Ethelbert Stauffer, whose neglected New Testament Theology made full and unprecedented use of extra-canonical sources to fill in the astonishing richness of the myth- and thought-world of the early Christians. Second is Hugh J. Schonfield, who, though without expanding the table of contents, did produce a fresh New Testament translation (The Authentic New Testament), which sought to present the old book as if it had just been excavated from some sun-bleached Near-Eastern tomb.

This book represents one of an almost infinite number of possibilities for what the New Testament might have looked like if it had been assembled under different circumstances. It is not definitive in any sense, nor could it be. But if it attains its goal of shaking the New Testament loose from the mummy-bands of familiarity and helps make the New Testament a whole new book for the reader, then I am satisfied.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Walter Bauer. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Translated by the Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins; edited by Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.

Rudolf Bultmann. Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting. Translated by Reginald H. Fuller. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.

John Burton. The Collection of the Qur’an. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Hans von Campenhausen. The Formation of the Christian Bible. Translated by J. A. Baker. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.

Robert M. Grant. A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Adolf von Harnack. Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God. Translated by John E. Steely and Lyie D. Bierma. Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1999.

R. Joseph Hoffmann. Marcion on the Restitution of Christianity: An Essay on the Development of Radical Paulinist Theology in the Second Century. American Academy of Religion Series 46. Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1984.

Frank Kermode. “Institutional Control of Interpretation.” In The Art of Telling: Essays on Fiction, edited by Frank Kermode. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983, 168-84.

John Knox. Marcion and the View Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Winsome Munro. Authority in Paul and Peter: The Identification of a Pastoral Stratum in the Pauline Corpus and I Peter. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 45. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Elaine Pagels. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.

Robert M. Price. “The Evolution of the Pauline Canon.” Journal of Higher Criticism website, online at www.depts.drew.edu/jhc/.

Hugh J. Schonfield. The Authentic New Testament. London: Dobson, 1955.

Ethelbert Stauffer. View Testament Theology. New York: Macmillan, 1956.

* * * * *

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

If nature abhors a vacuum, so does popular piety. Early Christians could not abide not knowing what the son of God was doing before he began his public ministry. If one had only Mark’s gospel, the answer would be nothing special: Jesus’ boyhood and young adulthood would have been even less eventful than most since he was busy being righteous. Granted, Mark has Jesus appear at a baptism of repentance, but as everyone knows, it is the conscience of the righteous that impels them to such rituals. For Mark, the real action started only once Jesus was imbued with power from on high at his baptism. Matthew and Luke began the process of compromising this picture by adding a miraculous birth story, making Jesus a demigod right from the start. Thus, it comes as no surprise when Matthew has Jesus already knowing he is God’s son before he is baptized and Luke portrays him as a twelve-year-old child prodigy, no real child at all but a godling in childlike form. Once this precedent was established, Christian curiosity was given the green light and the pious imagination went wild concocting stories of what the boy Jesus might have done, would have done, and finally did do.

Such stories are filled with contempt for the dull-witted adults around Jesus: “What fools these mortals be!” The point is to glorify Jesus at their expense; they must, like Mark’s disciples, be fools, otherwise Jesus’ preternatural wisdom would not be apparent. We can see this ubiquitous theme in two stories that crept into the traditional canonical gospels. In Luke 2:41-51, Jesus’ parents are comically negligent, then pitifully inept as they look for their missing child. Where else would he be but in the temple, deep in halakhic debate with the scribes? Totally clueless, they rebuke him, and with eyes rolling skyward, he places himself under their moronic supervision. Such is the kenosis of the god. As Raymond E. Brown saw, John 2:1-11 also took a bit of Infancy Gospel material and made Jesus older in this scene, adding his disciples in a purely vestigial capacity. Originally the Cana story featured young Jesus and his mother who, contrary to John 2:11, appears to be quite used to her son performing miracles for the convenience of adults. “They are out of wine,” she says; “What do you propose to do about it?” Despite his irritated refusal to help, Mary knows he will eventually heed her request (“Do whatever he tells you.”) and bail out the adults who have been so short-sighted they have not stocked enough wine for the wedding reception. To the disconcertion of teetotalers everywhere, the boy Jesus transforms hundreds of gallons of water into wine.

One may say about the stories of the Infancy Gospel tradition, here and in the canonized gospels, as well as in the numerous other such texts including the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy and the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, the spiritual level is not very high. The young Jesus is ruthless, not to mention capricious, in his application of divine power. He does not suffer fools. The gospel saying that best fits him is Mark 9:19: “0 faithless generation! How long am I to be with you? How long must I endure you?” The stories are, none of them, elevated beyond the level of 2 Kings 2:23-24, where the prophet Elisha rids himself of the nuisance of mocking children by calling she-bears to rip their intestines out. More than anyone else, the young god Jesus must remind us of the blue-skinned Krishna, a godling who plays jokes on his devotees–only Jesus has less of a sense of humor.

Ernst Kasemann once called the Gospel according to John a piece of “naive docetism,” as indeed it is. And the same can be said of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. There is no attempt to deny the fleshly existence of Jesus Christ here. But there is the tendency, still common today, to deny Jesus the traits of genuine humanity. What would most people answer if asked whether Jesus could have gotten by without eating? Did he really have to go to the bathroom? Did he ever get sick? Could he have added numbers incorrectly? Could he have been married? This sort of docetism implies naive hero worship, and it is probably every bit alive today as it was whenever this gospel was compiled. When was that? No doubt some time in the second century, but it is impossible to be more specific. Infancy Thomas was likely written originally in Greek, and there are two Greek forms of the book extant in different manuscript traditions. However, I have worked from the Latin, which seems better written. Though most of the individual episodes and anecdotes in Infancy Thomas do not require any particular setting, just like most stories and sayings in the familiar adult gospels, on the whole the book has been constructed as a great patch to fill in a perceived hole in Matthew by answering what might have happened to the holy family while sojourning in Egypt and then later when they returned. By the end of the book, we seem to have been brought up more or less even with Luke 2:41.

I, Thomas the Israelite, the philosopher, address you, all the brothers of the nations, to inform you of the childhood deeds of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and his miracles, everything he did when he was born in our land. The beginning of it is as follows.a


1Amid the furor that erupted over the search that Herod ordered for our Lord, Jesus Christ, when he sought to kill him, an angel told Joseph, “Take with you Mary and her boy and escape into Lgypt from the presence of his would-be murderers.” 2And Jesus was two years old when he went to Egypt.

3And as Joseph was walking through a grain field, he reached out and took some of the ears of grain, rubbing them over the fire, and began to eat the roasted grain.b
And once they had entered Egypt, a certain widow offered them hospitality in her home and they stayed with her for a year.c 5And Jesus, now being three years old, saw boys at play and began to join them. 6And he took a dried fish and dropped it into a basin and commanded it to swim around. And it began to swim around.d 7And again, he addressed the fish: “Expel the salt you are rubbed with and walk over land into the nearest body of water!” 8And it happened. And when the neighbors saw what happened, they related the story to the widow woman in whose house Mary, his mother, lived, 9And as soon as she heard it, she ejected them from her house in a great hurry.


1Once when Jesus was strolling with Mary, his mother, through the thick of the city marketplace, he chanced to see a schoolmaster teaching his pupils. 2And behold, twelve sparrows who were arguing with each other tumbled from their ledge into the lap of that school teacher in the midst of his instruction. 3When Jesus saw it, he was highly amused and stood there laughing. And when that teacher saw him having a good time, he became infuriated and told his pupils, “Go and bring him here!” 4And when they had dragged him to the teacher, he seized him by the ear and demanded, “What did you see that was so funny?” 5And he answered him, “Rabbi, look: my hand is full of wheat. I showed it to the birds and sprinkled some among them for them to carry it away from the busy street where they would be in danger; and this is why they fought with each other, to divide up the wheat.” 6And Jesus did not leave there until they had finished. And once this was done, the teacher put it into motion to expel him and his mother from the city.


lAnd lo, the angel of Adonai met Mary and told her, “Take the boy and go back to the land of the Jews, for the ones who sought his life are dead.” 2And Mary got up and took Jesus, and they journeyed to the city of Nazareth where her father was landlord.e 3And when Joseph left Egypt after the death of Herod, he kept him in the desertf waiting for those in Jerusalem who had sought the boy’s life to settle down.g 4And he thanked God for giving him to understand he should do thish and because he had found favor in the sight of the Lord God. Amen.


1Now when Jesus was five years old there was a great rain upon the earth, and the child Jesus walked about in it. 2And the rain was very terrible, and he gathered the water together into a pool and commanded with a word that it should become clear, and immediately it did. 3Again, he took some of the clay from that pool and fashioned it into twelve sparrows.i 4So it was the Sabbath day when Jesus did this among the Hebrew children, and the Hebrew children went and said to his father, Joseph, “Lo, your son was playing with us, and he took clay and made sparrows, which it was not right to do on the Sabbath, and he has broken it.” 5And Joseph went to the child Jesus and said to him, “Why have you done this which was not right to do on the Sabbath?” 6But Jesus spread forth his hands and commanded the sparrows, “Go forth into the sky and fly! You shall not meet death at any man’s hands.” 7And they flew and began to cry out and praise Almighty God. But when the Jews saw what was done, they marveled and departed, proclaiming the signs Jesus did.

8But a Pharisee who was with Jesus took a branch of an olive tree and began to empty the pool Jesus had made. 9And when Jesus saw it, he was annoyed and said to him, “O man of Sodom, ungodly and ignorant, what harm did the fountain of water I made do you? Lo, you shall become like a dry tree with neither root, leaf, nor fruit!” 10And immediately he shriveled up, fell to the earth, and died. “His parents carried him away dead and reviled Joseph, saying, “Look what your son has done! Teach him to pray, not to curse!”


lAnd after some days, as Jesus walked with Joseph through the city, one of the children ran and struck Jesus on the arm. 2But Jesus said to him, “You have reached the end of the road!” And at once he fell to the earth and died. 3But when those present saw this wonder, they cried out, “Where does this child come from?” And they said to Joseph, “It is not right for such a child to live among us!” 4As he departed, taking Jesus with him, they called out, “Leave this place! Or else, if you must stay with us, teach him to pray and not to curse, for our sons lose consciousness.”

5 And Joseph called Jesus and began to admonish him: “Why do you call down curses? Those who live here are coming to hate us.” 6But Jesus said, “I know these words are yours, not mine, but for your sake I will be silent from now on. 70nly let them see the result of their own foolishness.” And immediately those who spoke against Jesus were made blind, and as they wandered about they said, “Every word from his mouth is fulfilled!” 8And when Joseph saw what Jesus had done, he took hold of his ear in anger, 9But Jesus was annoyed and said to Joseph, “It is enough for you to see me, not to touch me. For you do not know who I am, and if you knew it, you would not vex me. 10Although I am with you now, I was made before you.”


1There was a man named Zacchaeus who heard all that Jesus said to Joseph, and he marveled silently and said, “I have never seen a child who spoke this way.” 2And he approached Joseph and said, “You have a wise child. Bring him to me to learn the alphabet. 3And when he has mastered the alphabet, I shall instruct him in honorable behavior so that he may not grow up a fool.” 4But Joseph replied to him, saying, “No one can teach him except God alone. Do not imagine that the boy, of little stature, will be of little consequence!” 5And when Jesus heard Joseph say these things, he said to Zacchaeus, “Indeed, Rabbi, whatever issues from my lips is true. And before creation I was Lord, but you are as gentiles. 6The glory of the worlds has been bestowed upon me, but you have been awarded nothing. Why? Because I am before the worlds! 7And I know how many years are assigned you, and that you will be carried off into exile. 8My Father has so decreed it to the end that you Jews may come to understand that whatever I say is true.” 9And the Jews on the scene, hearing Jesus’ words, were amazed and exclaimed, “We have seen this lad perform miraculous deeds and heard him say such things as we have never heard, 10nor are we likely to hear them again from any human source, whether from the archpriests or the rabbis or the Pharisees!” 11 Jesus replied, saying to them, “Why should you wonder? Do you think it is impossible that what I have said might be true? 12Listen, I know the exact times both you and your ancestors were born and, what is more, when the very world was made. I know as well who sent me to you.” 13And when the Jews heard what he said, they gasped, finding themselves at a loss for words. 14And as he thought in his heart, the child’s heart swelled, and he said, “I have spoken to you by way of a proverb because I am aware of your weak understanding and your ignorance.” 15And that schoolmaster said to Joseph, “Bring him to me and I shall teach him the alphabet.”j
And Joseph took the child Jesus and brought him to the house where other children also were taught. 17But the teacher began to teach him the letters with sweet speech and wrote for him the first line, from A to T, and began to pat him on the head and to teach him. 18But the child remained silent. Then the teacher hit him on the head, and when the child felt the blow, he said to him, “I ought to be teaching you rather than you teaching me!k 19I know the letters you would teach me, and equally I know that you are to me like an empty jar from which only echoes proceed: only sounds, no wisdom.” 20And beginning with that line he pronounced all the letters from A to T well and swiftly. 21Then he looked at the teacher and said, “But you do not know how to interpret A and B; how do you propose to teach others, you hypocrite? If you do know A and can tell me about it, then I will teach you about B.”l 22But when the teacher started to explain A, he was speechless. So Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Listen to me, Rabbi, and understand the first letter: see how it has two lines, 23advancing in the middle, as if standing still, then giving, scattering, varying, threatening? The triple intermixes with the double and simultaneously all of one kind, all alike.”

24And when Zacchaeus saw how he deconstructed the first letter, he gazed at it in wonder. He was equally dumbfounded at such a human being, one with such erudition. 25And he exclaimed loudly, “Woe is me, for I am dumbfounded! All I have accomplished here is to bring on my own disgrace.” 26And he said to Joseph, “I beg you, brother, take him off my hands, for I cannot bear to look him in the face, nor can I tolerate his powerful command. 27For this child can quench fire and bring to heel the raging sea. He was born before all worlds! What sort of womb could have brought him forth, what manner of being his mother, I know not. 28O my friends, I am driven to distraction! I am an object of ridicule! I bragged that I had recruited a disciple, but he has turned out to be my teacher. 29Nor can I live down my disgrace, for I am an old man. I do not know what to say to him. 30All that is left to me now is to fall ill with some terrible malady and exit this world or at least to leave town since everyone has seen my shame: a mere infant has tricked me. 31What is there to say? What excuse can I offer? He has bested me at the very first letter! 32I am at a loss for words, O my friends and associates, unable even to begin framing an apt reply to him. 33So now, I beg you, brother Joseph, take him out of my sight; take him home because he is a teacher or Adonai or perhaps an angel. Beyond that, I do not know what to say.”

34And Jesus turned to face the Jews who attended Zacchaeus, saying to them: “Whoever does not see, let him see! Let those without understanding understand! Let the deaf hear, and through me, let the dead rise! 35And as for the exalted ones, let me summon them to ever higher things, even as he who sent me to you has commanded me.” 36And when Jesus finished his speech, all who had formerly suffered from any infirmity found themselves made well by his word.


1So one day Jesus climbed up on top of a house with the children and began to play with them. 2But one of the boys fell down through the door to the upper room and immediately died. 3And when the children saw it, they all fled, leaving Jesus alone in the house, 4And when the parents of the boy who had died arrived, they accused Jesus, saying, “Truly, it was you who made him fall!” 5But Jesus said, “I never made him fall.” Nevertheless, they went on accusing him. 6So Jesus came down from the house and stood over the dead child and shouted, calling him by name, “Zeno! Zeno! Arise and tell whether I made you fall.” 7And immediately he arose and said, “No, Lord.” And when his parents saw this great miracle which Jesus did, they worshipped God and kneeled before Jesus.


1And after a few days, one of the boys in that village was chopping wood and struck his foot. 2A.nd when a crowd of people came out to see him, Jesus accompanied them. And he touched the wounded foot and immediately it was made well. 3And Jesus said to him, “Rise and chop the wood and remember me.”m 4But when the crowd with him saw these signs, they kneeled before Jesus and said, “Truly, we surely believe you are God!”


lAnd when Jesus was six years of age, his mother sent him to draw water, 2And once Jesus had arrived at a fountain or a well, he had to make his way through a thick crowd and his pitcher was broken in the crush, 3So he took off the cloak he was wearing, filled it with water, and brought it to his mother, Mary. 4And his mother, once she saw the miracles he had performed, kissed him and said, “O Adonai, hear my petition: save my son!”


lIn the season for sowing, Joseph went out to the fields to sow wheat and Jesus followed him. 2When Joseph began to sow, Jesus reached out and filled his fist with as much seed as he could hold and he scattered it. 3When the season for reaping arrived, Joseph returned to the field to harvest his crop. 4Jesus came, too, and collected the ears of grain he had planted, and it came to a hundred pecks of the finest grain, 5So he summoned the poor, the widows, and the orphans and divided among them the wheat he had produced. 6For the sake of Jesus’ blessing on his house, Joseph too took a bit of the same wheat.


lAnd Jesus came to be eight years old. So Joseph was a builder and made ploughs and ox yokes, 20ne day a certain rich man said to Joseph, “Sir, make me a bed, both sturdy and beautiful.” 4But Joseph was dismayed when he saw that the beam he had prepared was too short. Jesus said to him, “Do not be dismayed. You take hold of one end of the beam and I will take the other, and let us stretch it out.” 5And so it happened, and at once he found it suitable for the job. 6And he said to Joseph, “Make it any way you want.” 7But when Joseph saw what happened, he hugged him and said, “Blessed am I that God has given me such a son!”


lSince Joseph could see that the boy enjoyed such divine favor and that he was getting taller, he deemed it proper to take him to learn to read. 2And he entrusted him to another teacher for instruction. And that teacher asked Joseph, “Which language do you want me to teach the lad?” 3Joseph answered him, “First Greek, then Hebrew.” The teacher saw that he was very intelligent and gladly took charge of him. 4And writing out the first line of the alphabet for him, namely A and B, he lectured him for several hours, 5But Jesus kept quiet, giving him no answer. Finally, Jesus said to the rabbi, “If you are really a rabbi, and if you truly know the alphabet, tell me the force of the A and I will tell you the force of the B.” 6Then his teacher was livid with fury and rapped him on the head, and Jesus was angry and cursed him. At once he keeled over dead. 7So Jesus returned home, and Joseph strictly charged his mother, Mary, not to let him out beyond the courtyard of their house.n


1After many days had passed, another teacher, a friend of Joseph, arrived and urged him, “Let me have him and I will teach him to read with a very winsome manner.” 2And Joseph replied, “Very well: if you think you are up to the task, take him and instruct him. Good luck!” 3When the teacher had taken him, he went along with the boy in fear but with sure purpose, thrilled to be assigned the task of teaching him. 4And when Jesus arrived at the teacher’s house, he noticed a scroll lying there. 5Picking it up and unrolling it, he commenced to speak. But instead of reading what was written in the scroll, he spoke from the Holy Spirit and taught Torah. 6And indeed, everyone standing around him listened closely. The teacher sat down beside him and heard him gladly, begging him to teach them further. 7A large crowd had now gathered to hear all the holy doctrine he propounded and the excellent eloquence of a mere child who spoke in such a manner.

8And when Joseph heard of it, he feared a replay of past events and ran to the house of study, hoping he was not too late to stop Jesus from killing the man. 9But the teacher with Jesus said to Joseph, “Be assured, brother, that though I took charge of your child to teach him or to train him, he is already filled with great maturity and wisdom. 10Lo, now take him back home rejoicing, my brother, because the maturity he has is a gift of Adonai.” 11And Jesus, hearing the teacher speak this way, cheered up and said, “Lo now, Rabbi, you have spoken truly! 12And for your sake, he who is dead shall rise again.”o And Joseph returned home with him.


1And Joseph sent James to gather straw, and Jesus followed him. 2And as James was busy gathering the straw, a viper bit him, and he collapsed on the ground, apparently dead from the venom. 3When Jesus saw this, he blew on the wound. At once, James was restored to health and the viper died.p


1A few days later, a neighbor’s child died and his mother grieved for him terribly. 2Hearing of it, Jesus went and stood over the boy and rapped on his chest, saying, “I say to you, child, do not die, rather live!” 3At once, the child got up. And Jesus said to the child’s mother, “Take your son, nurse him, and remember me.” 4And the crowd who witnessed the miracle exclaimed, “In truth, this child is from heaven! He has already freed many souls from death, and he has made well all who looked to him for help.”q
The scribes and Pharisees asked Mary, “Are you the mother of this child?” And Mary replied, “I am indeed!” 6And they said to her, “Then you are the most blessed of women since God has blessed the fruit of your womb, giving you so splendid a child with such wisdom as we have never seen nor heard of.” 7Jesus got up and followed his mother. And Mary stored away in her memory all the great miracles Jesus had performed among the people as he healed many who were diseased. 8And Jesus grew in height and in wisdom, and everyone who saw him praised God the Omnipotent Father who ever dwells in bliss. Amen.

9I, Thomas, the Israelite, have written what I have seen, and I have recounted these events both to the nations and to our brothers, as well as many other deeds performed by Jesus,r who was born in the land of Judah. 10Behold then, how the house of Israel has seen everything from the very first, even as far as the last: 11what great signs and wonders Jesus performed among them, things which were overwhelmingly good, the like of which their father Abraham never saw, as holy scripture tells. 12And the prophets have testified about his deeds among all the tribes of Israel. 13And it is he who is to judge the world, chosen for the task by the will of the immortal, since he is the son of God, acknowledged throughout the entire world. 14All worship and honor are due him for ever and ever, who lives and reigns as God throughout ages multiplied by ages! Amen.



a. This original form of the opening, preserved in the Greek versions, occurs in the Latin only at the end of section 3 and is clumsily worded. It seems some scribe decided to harmonize the Infancy Gospel of Thomas with Matthew’s nativity narrative, but did so ineptly. I have therefore restored the introduction to its proper position, introducing the adventures of young Jesus beginning where Matthew 2 leaves off.
b. The subject here may be Jesus instead of Joseph, but an adult would more likely be gleaning wheat. Otherwise in this gospel, the child is only shown doing the miraculous. If the pronoun refers to Joseph, it connects him to the typology of Joseph in Egypt, whose association with grain saved the world in ancient times.
c. 1 Kings 17:8-16, 19
d. This miracle has been ascribed to many holy men throughout the ages from St. Francis of Padua to the Pentecostal faith healer William Marrion Branham.
e. The seeming absence of Joseph makes the story parallel to the ejection, wandering, and angelic rescue of Hagar and Ishmael in Gen. 16:6-15; 21:9-21.
f. This element, too, derives from the Hagar and Ishmael story in Gen. 21:21.
g. Where did young Jesus go after Egypt? Did he go to Nazareth with Mary or to the Judean desert with Joseph? Our evangelist has conflated Matt. 2:19-23 with Gen. 21:9-21.
h. Matt. 2:22
i. There is an echo here of the Genesis creation stories, wherein God separates the waters from the dry land and begins creating life forms from the clay of the earth.
j. This section (vv. 3-15) does not appear in the Greek versions. The text was plainly inserted by a pious scribe who wanted to reassure readers that Jesus had no need of human instruction.
k. The point here is to allay “the anxiety of influence,” showing the divine Jesus was not in need of anyone else’s instruction or ministry, a concept distasteful to Christians. Cf. Matt. 3:14 (“I need to be baptized by you, and you are coming to me?”); Gal. 1:1, 11-12.
l. Cf. Mark 11:29; Matt. 21:24
m. Thomas 77b: “Split the wood, and I am there.”
n. We may catch here an echo of the orders of Suddhodana, father of Prince Siddhartha, to keep his son from straying off the royal estates lest he behold the world’s pain and become a savior.
o. That is, the disrespectful teacher he had struck dead in the previous episode.
p. A similar tale is told in Berakoth 33a: “Our rabbis report that once a poisonous snake was biting people. Some went to Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa and told him about it. He said to them, ‘Show me its hole.’ They showed him, and he covered the opening with his heel. It emerged and bit him. And it died. He draped the snake over his shoulders and went to the House of Study, saying to those present, ‘Behold, my sons, it is not the serpent that kills, but sin that kills.’ Then they said, ‘Woe to the man attacked by a serpent, but woe to the snake attacked by Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa!'”
q. Luke 7:13-16; 1 Kings 17:21-24
r. In fact, what we have are three categories: childhood miracles wrought before Thomas came on the scene; events from Jesus’ public ministry, of which Thomas claims to have been an eyewitness; and other events from the adult life of Jesus for which Thomas was not present, as in John 20:19-24.