He who seeks will not rest until he finds.
And he who has found shall marvel.
And he who has marveled shall reign.
And he who has reigned shall rest.
The Sayings of Jesus,
in Charlesworth, Authentic Apocrypha
When Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate likely was unaware that he would be quoted, frequently in fact, two thousand years later. However, he may have been very aware that this is one of the most complex and controversial issues of all time. Part of the reason it remains so alive lies in how we perceive truth.
Too often we confuse man’s perception of truth with God’s truth, that is, revealed truth. For example, when Old Testament prophets said, “Thus saith the Lord,” we can be quite certain that God was speaking His will or His truth to man, and we can thus rely on those words for divine direction. Similarly, the Bible records that God revealed Himself in vision to well-known prophets such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah. Judeo-Christian groups rarely question that these revelations originated from God and that He was speaking His will through His chosen servants. Religious history also shows that many revelations from God were not specific to doctrine or His plan for man’s redemption (critical as they were), but rather provided inspired guidance regarding everyday decisions, such as who should be anointed as Israel’s king, whether Israel should go into battle, or encouragement to accomplish the divine will.
God is an accepted source of truth among believers. Conversely, truth espoused by early religious philosophers relies on a combination of revealed truth and secular ideas. For example, Augustine often blended the words of scripture with Greek philosophy (known as Neoplatonism). The result was that when certain biblical doctrines seemed confusing by an appeal to the Bible alone – such as the nature of God – intellectual concepts were applied to formulate a more precise, though usually not more accurate, theology. It seems almost inevitable that man will insert his own thinking in an attempt to apply revealed truth to secular circumstance. Nonetheless, belief in a higher power almost demands that God’s truth, though perhaps not always clear, must not be confused or mixed with man’s truth.
At the heart of this book lies a pursuit of God’s truth. This pursuit was born of the desire to learn what happened to the original laws and commandments as God revealed them to Adam and Eve after the fall. Interestingly, one theme that emerged from this pursuit that led through several decades and countless libraries was recurring apostasy. Thus, as we search for truth in this book, our journey may very well take us in directions that confront some concepts of traditional Christian history; that is, it will likely challenge beliefs that some have always simply accepted without close examination. As the Lord so clearly taught, “For my mouth shall speak truth” (Prov. 8:7); thus God’s truth comes to us through His prophets and from the inspired records that these holy men leave behind.
Genuine freedom from sin, as revealed by Jesus (Jn. 8:31-32), comes from hearing, accepting, and living the whole truth of God’s plan for our happiness. Unfortunately, historical accounts suggest that the “fullness” of His laws and commandments has not always been available, and apostasy has prevented many from hearing pure truth during various periods of the earth’s history. How, then, would individuals subjected to such apostasy receive salvation? Was John Calvin, the sixteenth-century reformer, correct when he asserted that God’s elect are saved and the rest are damned? Or does God’s plan include free will (agency), which allows, even requires, that we choose for ourselves whether we will accept and follow Jesus when we learn of His glorious atonement and are moved upon by the Holy Spirit? If we are free agents, God’s plan must somehow create an avenue of fairness for those who never hear the gospel plan or of those whose opportunities and environments have been limited.
In order to consider the matter of religious truth, we must adopt certain standards by which we judge evidence. For this book, I have chosen standards that are regarded as authoritative by informed parties who profess to believe in the God of ancient Israel. First, the Holy Bible must serve as the foundation for our study. Next in line would be certain ancient religious writings known generally as apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works. Finally, secular history and other early Christian writings have certain value as we search for truth concerning the history of God’s teaching through the centuries. The earliest such sources referred to by historic Christianity are known as the Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists, and the Polemicists. While much of the later theology taught by Church Fathers of the mid-second century still appeared to be closely aligned with New Testament Christianity, other doctrines had already been notably altered. This changing of doctrine over time, as recorded in early Christian literature, is instructive and helps to tell the important story of Christianity.
Let us examine each of these categories of standards.
The Holy Bible
The Holy Bible is an inspired record containing God’s revelations to His prophets and apostles. This book is accepted by Christians, who receive it in its entirety; Jews, who revere the Old Testament; and Muslims, who acknowledge several biblical prophets mentioned in the Qur’an, including Jesus. Although the Bible provides a common link between these major world religions, achieving united scriptural views has proven difficult.
The process known as the canonization of the Bible required several centuries, beginning no earlier than the late-second century and not achieving its finished form until late in the fourth century. In fact, whatever beliefs or discussion may have taken place between individual leaders in earlier centuries regarding which books were genuine and authoritative, it is now clear that the real debates and “lists” were all generated in the fourth century.1 In fact, the term canon is not found in any early writings until it was used by Eusebius in connection with the four gospels.2 The Bible is not a collection of all the inspired books ever written as they came from the pens of the prophets; rather, it is a consensus of opinion rendered by late fourth-century Church leaders as to which writings they believed were fully inspired, in contrast with those whose authorship could not be verified or whose theology stood in opposition to current orthodoxy, which by this period had been notably altered from the original doctrines of Apostolic Christianity. The earliest Christians accepted many more books as genuine revelation from God than are contained in today’s Bible.
No surviving documents exist to suggest that first- and early second-century Church leaders made any effort to record official interpretations of doctrine or theology; however, Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries sought to apply rigid scholarship to doctrinal subjects. While most theologians of that day chose to say and write a great deal, little about many of the doctrines they discussed had actually been covered in the scriptural accounts; the result was much speculation. I say speculation because the revised Christian doctrines the theologians created depended on sources other than the Bible and other prophetic writings (God’s truth) for their formulation. The ideas of the Greek philosophers that were taking the Mediterranean world by storm were often merged with Christian doctrines, and the resultant hybrid replaced the more reliable historical and literal interpretations of the Holy Scriptures.
However, the influence of Greek philosophy was not new. Judaism in Alexandria, Egypt through Philo Judaeus (20 B.C.-A.D. 50) underwent significant change early in the first century due to its admixture with Hellenistic ideas. The apostles John and Paul also used Greek philosophy (nominally) to defend Christianity, but it is not clear at what point Hellenism actually infiltrated the Church’s doctrine.
Although today’s Bible does not contain all the books that were considered inspired by the earliest Christians, and although it is known to have been corrupted (intentionally and un-intentionally – see pp. 00) to some extent by transcribers and copyists, it is the word of God and stands as revelation to the human family on how man can be reconciled to God.
New Testament Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha (Old Testament Apocrypha)
The Hebrew Bible was the only source of scripture fully accepted by the early Apostolic Church.3 By the middle of the first century, however, the Sayings of Jesus appear to have carried equal authority among Christians. By the end of the first century, some apostolic writings were being granted equal status. Soon a wide range of divergent views began to surface, clouding what original Christianity may have been. It is important to note that the New Testament Church in Jerusalem was in fact unified for a short period, its members being “of one heart and of one soul” (Acts 4:32). Unfortunately, various groups-such as converted Jews still clinging to the Law of Moses (see p. 0), Christian Docetists (see p. 0), Gnostic Christians (see p. 0), and Christians influenced by Platonism and Neo-Platonism (see p. 0)-generated significant turmoil within the Church that Jesus had organized and sought to unify. What was the cause of such an upheaval so soon after the death of the apostles? Bible scholar Bart Erhman explains:
Diversity soon became a problem for Christian leaders intent on the unity of the religion, who saw Christianity as one thing rather than lots of different things…. The diversity of the movement came to be especially evident around the middle of the second century…. Forceful and charismatic Christians came forward, advocating beliefs and practices that were seen by others as totally unacceptable. Battle lines were drawn, with each side claiming to represent the authentic Christian tradition passed down from Jesus himself to the disciples. In the debates that ensued, nothing proved more important than the Christian literature that had been produced earlier.4
What Ehrman argues in his highly regarded treatise is that Christianity had spread over a wide geographic area. Communication was primitive, and without the Apostles to officially define doctrine, conflicting ideas began to emerge wherever Christianity had been preached, even in such basic concepts as the nature of God and correct performance of the sacraments. Christian leaders argued, and sometimes fought, over the precise definitions of basic doctrines; in the end, the only tools available to resolve such disputes were letters and other writings left behind by the apostles. Even with these authorities to rely on, however, contention arose because the writings were interpreted differently by various groups. Following the death of the apostles, there was simply no universally recognized body or living authority to distinguish truth from error.
The body that considered itself orthodox, meaning “correct, or sound,” in doctrine eventually prevailed; it was later named the Catholic or Universal Church. That this particular group (composed of both the Eastern and Western Church until the eleventh century), or any group, for that matter, was able to retain the purity of original Christian doctrine is not only unclear but improbable. Evidence of this can be determined by comparing certain well-known and relatively well-defined theological tenets of the earliest Christians – such as the purpose and mode of baptism – with parallel doctrines of later Christianity, which by that period had been altered (see pp. 00). For various reasons, Christianity was straying from key, simple teachings as they had been laid out by Jesus. Furthermore, speculative changes to Christian doctrine were made by later theologians, such as Tertullian, Origen and Augustine, some of whom are explored later in this book. In time, even Christians who considered themselves orthodox gradually became contaminated by Greek philosophy, retention of portions of Jewish law, and the influence of pagan ritual. The library of Christianity was stretched and pulled, added to and taken from; in spiritual terms, it became at least in part an indistinguishable blend of truth mixed with some error.
The tragedy of these early stages was that well-meaning Christians, without the guidance of the Apostles, were forced to choose which of the sacred writings were authentic and which were forgeries or alterations made by defectors from true Christianity. Unfortunately, some of the manuscripts held sacred by the earliest Christians were rejected by the leaders of the orthodox movement that followed, notwithstanding the fact that their value was comparable to that of many books eventually accepted into the official canon. Buttressing this conclusion James H. Charlesworth has written:
Far too often scholars jettison the early Christian apocryphal compositions from the study of Christian origins. New Testament experts ignore them because they are not in the canon. This is an unsophisticated approach, since the decision to include only twenty-seven writings within a category called “New Testament” postdates the origins of Christianity by centuries.5
According to Charlesworth, many non-biblical writings are “authentic” because the earliest Church Fathers thought they were genuine. Such documents, he said, must be distinguished from “false apocrypha,” or rather, known forgeries.6
Discussing the value of the Pseudepigrapha to modern Christians, Charlesworth more recently added:
In the past two decades scholars have come closer to a consensus of when and how the canon took shape. The [Old Testament] canon was not closed before 70 C.E. …I am also convinced that the group of Jews behind the Temple Scroll, which is surely pre-Qumranic, would have judged it to be quintessential Torah – that is, equal to, and perhaps better than, Deuteronomy. It is now clear that the so-called Pseudepigrapha must not be treated as if they were produced on the fringes of a monolithic Judaism; …we should perceive the Pseudepigrapha as they were apparently judged to be: God’s revelation to humans.7
Bible scholar Peter Stuhlmacher is another strong advocate of the pseudepigrapha. In a well regarded essay he judges that the “so-called Septuagintal Apocrypha” thus belongs inseparably to the Holy Scripture of early Christianity.8 Although others – including myself – are less willing to take such a strong position, they acknowledge that some New Testament scriptures are probably dependent on the pseudepigrapha.9 While there is limited concrete evidence for New Testament usage of these early writings, substantial evidence documents their widespread acceptance among the early Christian writers. Included in this list of growing advocates, Daniel Harrington draws this precise conclusion,10 going so far as to recommend that the inclusion of these works may improve Christian unity:
There are, of course, more obvious and difficult obstacles to Christian unity than the extent of the Old Testament canon. In any truly ecumenical council that might involve Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, it would probably not be high on the agenda.
But to prepare for that blessed event, it might be beneficial if all Christians (and Jews) began to take these books more seriously in their own right.11
One early objective of this book is to establish that the opinions of the earliest known Christian leaders or Fathers ought to be considered when determining the value of Christian writings. In order to provide a more thorough treatment of some of the historical aspects of the Patriarchal and Apostolic Dispensations, it is necessary to include some of the ancient writings from the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, the New Testament Apocrypha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Included in the Dead Sea Scrolls are several copies of the oldest surviving complete manuscripts (absent Esther) of the Old Testament. Additionally, the scrolls contain other writings that the earliest Christians deemed to be not only authentic but authoritative.12
Although many Christians will not (and perhaps should not) place the same value on non-canonical Old Testament writings included with the Dead Sea Scrolls as they will on the books of the Bible, such writings can be helpful in adding detail to the historical and theological patterns introduced in the Old Testament and preserved in the New Testament.
Canonized scripture includes the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. A number of additional writings considered both authentic and authoritative by the early Church and by some Christian scholars today were not admitted into the original canon. These include such Old Testament-era writings – known as pseudepigrapha – as the Life of Adam and Eve, The Conflict of Adam and Eve against Satan, the Testament of Adam, the Apocalypse of Adam, the Treatise of Shem, 1 and 2 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Testament of Moses, the Testament of Job, Odes of Solomon, the Fourth Book of Ezra, Jubilees, and the Apocryphon of Ezekiel.
New Testament Apocrypha includes such surviving documents as the traditional Catholic Apocrypha, the Gospel of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocryphon of James, the First and Second Apocalypses of James, the Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, Epistle of the Apostles, etc.13
While some authentic apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings are of limited value, many of those quoted in this book were treasured by the earliest Christians and acknowledged by modern scholars as important to early theology. Although in many cases questions arise as to who the actual authors were, the theology itself was judged by the primitive Church as orthodox. And while many of these books were probably altered by scribes, it is also well documented that New Testament writings were subjected to the same kind of abuse (see p. 0). Because significant turmoil continues today over the nature of original Christianity, we will examine in some detail the writings of those immediately following the Apostles in order to understand what they believed. By seeking the common threads found repeatedly in both the canon and non-biblical writings, it is possible to filter through much error and to achieve considerable accuracy in discerning what the earliest Christians esteemed as true.
Notes to Chapter One
1 Outside of the Muratorian “list” of accepted books, now believed by many scholars to be of eastern (not Roman) origin and dated to the fourth (not late second century) as earlier thought, all fifteen extant lists are dated in the fourth century. See Geoffrey Mark Hahneman, “The Murtatorian Fragment and the origins of the New Testament Canon,” in The Canon Debate, eds., Lee Martin McDonald and James A. Sanders (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 412. The term canon is used to define the twenty-seven books of the New Testament and the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament bound together in the modern Bible.
2 Hahneman, “The Murtatorian Fragment,” 406.
3 The Hebrew Bible was compiled perhaps in the third century B.C., and thus the only accepted scripture of the early Apostolic Church.
4 Bart D. Erhman, The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 3.
5 James H. Charlesworth, Authentic Apocrypha (n.p.: D. and F. Scott Publishing, 1998), ix. Charlesworth is recognized by many scholars to be the foremost authority and translator in the world of pseudepigraphical and ancient material. Charlesworth is the George L. Collard Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.
6 Charlesworth, Authentic Apocrypha, ix.
7 James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and The New Testament (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998), xxii.
8 Peter Stulmacher in Meuer, The Apocrypha in Ecumenical Perspective, 12, in Daniel J. Harrington, “The Old Testament Apocrypha in the Early Church and Today,” in McDonald and Sanders, The Canon Debate, 201.
9 Harrington, “The Old Testament Apocrypha in the Early Church and Today,” in McDonald and Sanders, Canon Debate, 200-201.
10 Harrington, “The Old Testament Apocrypha,” 202.
11 Harrington, “The Old Testament Apocrypha,” 202.
12 The majority of all extra biblical quotations used in this work are taken from recent publications and translated and compiled by the worlds most recognized Christian scholars. See Charlesworth, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2 vols., (New York: Doubleday, 1983); Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, 2 vols., (Louisville, KN: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990); Florentino Garcia Martinez, The Dead Seas Scrolls Translated (Leiden, the Netherlands: E. J. Brill; Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996); Rutherford Hayes Platt, The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden (Cleveland, Ohio: World Bible Publishers, 1926-27).
13 See books referenced in note 6 to obtain additional information.