The Non-Canonical Gospels and the Historical Jesus: Interview with Dr. Chris Skinner

Posted by Greg Monette on January 15 2014

Interview with Dr. Chris Skinner

I am excited to have Dr. Chris Skinner join us as a guest on this blog. He is a professor of Religion at Mount Olive College in North Carolina. Having earned his Ph.D. in biblical studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Chris has authored numerous books including, What Are They Saying About the Gospel of Thomas? He has also contributed numerous scholarly essays and chapters to peer reviewed journals and academic volumes. His academic interests include the study of the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of John, and the influential non-canonical Gospel of Thomas. Chris blogs with Dr. Nijay Gupta at cruxsolablog.com and his personal website is christopherwskinner.com.

GJM: Many people are fascinated by the ancient texts that shed unique light on the historical Jesus found outside of the New Testament. The intrigue surrounding the so-called “apocryphal” and “gnostic” Gospels continues to make headlines and inspire popular television programs about Jesus of Nazareth. Why do you think this is the case?

CWS: I think the non-canonical texts inspire interest for many reasons, though I will limit myself to three. First, I think it’s true that in any area of life, the unknown is always a little more intriguing and mysterious than that which is familiar to us. These writings present a new and enigmatic Jesus that we don’t see in our more familiar NT texts. Second, these writings often present Jesus in ways that are more theologically developed, and therefore dissimilar from the Jesus we see in the NT. In some cases, Jesus has a greater self-awareness at a younger age, or his divinity is on display in ways not seen in the canonical gospels, or his humanity seems missing or overshadowed. These later expansions of the Jesus tradition are compelling and reveal an early Christian imagination that deserves our attention. Third, some are suspicious of what became “orthodox Christianity” and see these texts as a way of investigating other early ways of understanding Jesus. In discussing the “multiformity” of early Christianity, many contemporary scholars argue (correctly, in my estimation) that during the earliest stages of devotion to Jesus there was no such thing as a singular definable Christianity, but rather multiple “Christianities.” Against that backdrop, some have found these writings about Jesus to be even more interesting.

However, I would push back on your question a bit. You suggested that these ancient texts “shed unique light on the historical Jesus,” and I’m not really sure that’s accurate. In most cases, these writings are much later than our earliest documents and they tell us very little about the historical Jesus. Even in the case of the Gospel of Thomas—which some scholars want to date as early as the 50s CE—very few have insisted that Thomas could be used as a viable source for historical Jesus research. Outside of John Dominic Crossan, who has used Thomas more extensively than anyone else in reconstructing the historical Jesus, those who have used Thomas as a source for historical Jesus research have not argued that we can gain much from it.

GJM: As an expert on the non-canonical document known as the Gospel of Thomas, what do you think is the importance of this text for understanding early Christianity?

CWS: I could say a lot of things here, but again I will limit myself to three remarks. First, the Gospel of Thomas is the non-canonical gospel that shares the most in common with the canonical gospels, especially Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In numerous instances, the Gospel of Thomas shares verbatim or near verbatim agreement with the Synoptic Gospels. Thomas also contains some sayings that appear to be later than (and dependent upon) the canonical gospels, along with other sayings that appear to preserve an earlier tradition than the canonical texts. All of this forces us to raise the question, “What is Thomas’s relationship to the canonical texts?” Second, the Gospel of Thomas is important because it preserves an alternative way of understanding Jesus’ significance during an early and formative period in the history of Christianity. “Salvation” is not found through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but through the proper interpretation of Jesus’ sayings. This is a radically different approach to appropriating the Jesus tradition than what we see in the NT. Third, Thomas is important for what some scholars feel it demonstrates about one genre within early Christianity. Thomas has no narrative structure and no passion or resurrection narratives like those found in the canonical gospels. Instead, it is a list of 114 independent sayings of Jesus. Since this sayings list is similar to the way in which many scholars envision the hypothetical source, “Q” (i.e., the material unique to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark), some scholars see Thomas as validation that such a literary genre actually existed within early Christianity.

GJM: Evangelical Christians tend to have an allergic reaction to non-canonical (outside of the Bible) texts relating to Jesus of Nazareth. What is the reason for this, and what are they missing by their lack of interest in these texts?

CWS: The foundational doctrine for evangelical Christians is their understanding of Scripture as the sole authority for faith and practice. Therefore, if material is not found in the Bible, evangelicals often regard it as inferior (at best) or completely devoid of value (at worst). This approach to the material is unfortunate because it shows the lack of a robust, historically informed understanding of the NT and its development, along with a prejudice against material that could help them understand the history of early Christianity. It also reveals the ignorance many evangelicals have about the NT, which contains several quotations or references to stories from non-canonical texts, including 1 Enoch (Jude 14-15; 2 Pet 2:4; 3:13), the Assumption of Moses (Jude 9), the Martyrdom of Isaiah (Heb 11:37), and possibly a lost book that Origen referred to as the Book of Jannes & Jambres (2 Tim 3:8).

I think that those who ignore these texts are missing out on an opportunity to think critically about the development and dissemination of traditions about Jesus at a fairly early period in the history of Christianity. As one example, regardless of where you date the composition of the Gospel of Thomas—and contemporary arguments range from the 50s to the 170s CE—you have to reckon with the fact that Thomas’s emergence predated official statements of Christian “orthodoxy.” At the end of the day, Christians can read these materials with great benefit, especially as a historical window into early discussions about Jesus’ identity, nature, significance, etc. You need not assume that these writings are authoritative or ascribe to them a canonical status in order to find them valuable.

GJM: Can you recommend a few books on the non-canonical Gospels that people should read if they want to get up to speed on these important ancient texts? Can you also provide a brief one-sentence description of what each book is about and why it should be read?

CWS:

  1. Nicola Denzey Lewis, Introduction to “Gnosticism”: Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). While not focused on the non-canonical gospels exclusively, this primer provides a very useful overview of important non-canonical texts. This book is among the best current introductions to non-canonical, early Christian literature.
  2. Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). Again, this book is not focused exclusively on the non-canonical gospels, but provides an overview of various early Christian writings. This book is especially useful for the non-specialist who wants an entrée into the discussion.
  3. Helmut Koester and Stephen J. Patterson, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991). This book is a classic text, originally authored by Koester and later updated with contributions from Patterson. It is a bit dated, but remains a solid resource for tracing the importance of the non-canonical gospels vis-à-vis the NT.
  4. Hans-Josef Klauck, The Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction (London: T&T Clark, 2004). This treatment of the non-canonical gospels provides decent coverage of the material for those looking for more than just a preliminary overview.
  5. Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Plese, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). This one is for the more advanced student. For each gospel under consideration, the authors provide a brief introduction, select bibliography, the ancient text in its original language, and a contemporary translation. The more advanced student will benefit from this book.

GJM: In your opinion, what is the most valuable non-canonical Gospel for our knowledge of second-century perceptions about Jesus, and why?

CWS: I would say it all depends on what you want to know about second-century perceptions of Jesus. As you well know, so many parochial issues surrounding Jesus’ nature, birth, death, identity, mission, etc. cropped up in the first few centuries after his death. Each non-canonical gospel has a unique story to tell about Jesus and is usually driven by a specific angle or theological agenda. (This is also true of the four canonical gospels!) Therefore, I’m not sure I can make such an unqualified value judgment. I would recommend skimming through one of the resources listed above and getting a feel for the second-century writings about Jesus. Then make your decision about what to read as it relates to your specific interest in Jesus.

GJM: Thank you for your answers!

CWS: Thank you for inviting me to participate in this interview.

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