In general, you can learn a lot about people based on what is on their bookshelf, whether they even have a bookshelf, and how many bookshelves they actually have. The literature that one reads – from nothing at all to vampire fiction to romance novels to classical literature to anything by dead Russians – reveals a lot about one’s interests, passions, hobbies, and so on. Or, viewed from the other direction, that which we read plays a large role in shaping and molding us: expanding our experience base, informing us about myriad subjects, and, ultimately, influencing our worldview. One might even say that the things we read the most are the best indicators of the factors and values that make us who we are.
This presents an odd little conundrum for the Christian reader. Unless you have shelves full of well-marked copies of the Bible, or unless you can honestly say that you spend more time reading Scripture than anything else (newspapers, instruction manuals, work-related documents, and cookbooks included!), then you have this peculiar little mismatch between what you actually read and the single book which, in theory, is the most formative influence on your life. For instance, even if you spent an hour a day studying the Bible vigorously this past week, chances are you spent at least twice as much time reading other writings, both religious and non-religious. Does that mean you undervalue the Bible? That it is not the most important of all? Can you measure the importance of your literary influences based on number of copies, or number of minutes spent reading them in a given time frame?
It is pretty obvious that, in general, the answer is “no.” While we all would admit that we should spend more time studying God’s Word than we typically do, it is pretty reasonable to conclude that we do not have to spend numerically the most time reading it than anything else in order to prove that we value it more highly than anything else we read. Put differently, God’s Word can be the definitive, rock-solid authority in our lives without negating the possibility that we can benefit and learn from other texts.
Strangely, this seemingly simple truth seems lost on many biblical scholars who draw puzzling conclusions about the nature of early Christianity by taking a look at what I’m calling the “early church bookshelf.”
NT++ and Blowing Up the Canon
Within much contemporary New Testament scholarship, the academic community has time and again questioned the nature and scope of the books considered authoritative by Ancient Israel, Judaism, and, most notably, the early Christian church. The two most common arguments run as follows: (a) the formation of what was later dubbed the NT “canon” was a largely politically-motivated and theologically-biased “decision” by the church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and was not finally “decided” until the fourth century; and (b) the sheer existence of other writings that did not “make it into” the OT and NT canon is evidence in itself that something fishy is going on. The fantastic work by Dr. Michael Kruger is a great place to go for both issues, and I cannot add much other than to address a few finer points on (b).
This idea that a whole host of other writings were maliciously excluded from the canonical set is often pushed further to a more profound conclusion adopted by many scholars. Namely: because these other writings exist on the so-called early church bookshelf, they should be treated as equally (or, at least, almost equally) authoritative and normative for early Christianity. In other words, since these books were circulating and being read by at least some Christian groups – and, in fact, in sheer quantity they far outnumber the canonical works – they should be given equal weight when evaluating Christian views of Jesus, salvation, and so forth. Put differently, the OT and NT canons should either be done away with entirely or be dramatically expanded to include a vast array of other writings. In modern terms, it would be like saying that Person X considered C. S. Lewis as equally (or more!) authoritative as the Bible because there are more of his books on the shelf than the Bible.
In future posts, I will aim to develop a variety of different counterarguments. For this post, I will simply begin by addressing the antecedent issue: “what exactly is on this bookshelf to begin with?” Many of these writings get mentioned in the media or show up in the church context, but it can be quite bewildering (it still is to me, sometimes, which is partly why I’m writing this!) to wrap one’s arms around all the different works that can be counted as early Jewish and Christian sources that would have been around in the time of early Christianity. My goal is quite simple: when someone mentions the Gospel of Thomas, or the Talmud, or the Dead Sea Scrolls, how can I get a sense for how they all fit together?
Overview of the Early Church Bookshelf
I will provide an overview of the major collections of writings and how they are related in the various religious contexts. My descriptions will necessarily be short, but I will list a handful of resources at the end where more detail can be found.
The following chart is my own visualization of the “early church bookshelf,” and I will discuss each component in detail below. (Note: A lot of things in seminary would have made more sense if I had a chart like this at the outset; hopefully it will be a benefit to others).
A. The Pre-Christian Era
Included in what I’m calling the Pre-Christian era are writings from the time of Ancient Israel through to the early part of the Greco-Roman age before the beginning of the Christian church following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Not all of these works were necessarily “finished” before the time of Christ (though the vast majority were), but these collections all fit in that general pre-AD era.
- Hebrew Bible: This collection of 39 books, which is called the Old Testament within Christianity, deserves primacy of place, both in chronology and authority. The Hebrew Scriptures cover the time period from creation to the fizzling out of the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile, and it was written down and passed on over the span of roughly 1,000 years from the time of Moses (ca. 1400 BC) to the final prophets (ca. 400 BC). It is made up of three divisions: the Law (or Torah, the first 5 books), the Prophets (including “former” prophets, which are generally the historical books like Samuel and Kings; and the “latter” prophets, which include Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), and the Writings (including Psalms, Proverbs, etc.). Jesus himself, in fact, refers to this threefold division in Luke 24. Highlighted in dark blue in the chart, it serves as the single authoritative set of religious writings, believed to be inspired by God himself, for the Ancient Israelites (and, later, Christians).
- OT apocrypha: Here the nomenclature gets a little murky, as various groups use different labels, and, hence, there is some overlap with the next category below. I am specifically referring to a handful (15 or so, depending on the list) of Jewish writings that were written after the final book of the Hebrew Bible, in the so-called “intertestamental period.” These books include 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, additions to Esther, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, Bel and the Dragon, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and a few others. The global church has had a mixed view on these books. Nearly everyone agrees that many of the books are historically accurate (such as Maccabees) as well as theologically in line with the teachings of the canonical Hebrew Bible (e.g., Sirach is quite orthodox). However, some of the books present views that would be considered out of line with OT teaching. Notably, the Hebrew canon accepted by Jews never included any of these books; however, Greek translations of them were included in the Septuagint (thus the arrow in the chart). Moreover, they seemed to be quite popular in that era as devotional literature, dealing with such issues as resurrection and eschatology and much more. The confusion has arisen largely due to the fact that the OT apocrypha were included in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (ca 400 AD), though he actually did not consider them equally authoritative. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have historically included some or all of these books in their Biblical canons (even the KJV had them in the early releases), but even among them some call these books “deuterocanonical” to suggest that, while they are authoritative, they are not equal to the canonical books. The Protestant tradition has rejected them, though, as I’ll explain below, this should not mean we should fear them or refuse to learn from them at all.
- OT pseudepigrapha: Conceptually, there is no difference between these books and the apocrypha (and, in fact, not all of them are even pseudepigraphal, but this is the label usually used). They include numerous other examples of intertestamental religious writings of the Jewish community, such as the Assumption of Moses, 1 and 2 Enoch, Psalms of Solomon, Jubilees, and much more. Some of them are far out there, others are more restrained; it really is a mixed bag. Where it gets interesting is the fact that the NT book of Jude actually appears to quote from both the Assumption of Moses and 1 Enoch (more below).
- Septuagint: I have introduced the Septuagint in a prior post, so I’ll briefly mention that the Septuagint / LXX is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible plus the OT apocrypha, which was developed from roughly 250 to 100 BC. It is, thus, not an “additional” writing but rather a translation that gained widespread use by the time of the early church.
- Dead Sea Scrolls: I have also introduced the Qumran literature / Dead Sea Scrolls in a three-part post (one, two, three). To summarize here, the DSS are a pre-Christian collection of writings (discovered in the 1940s) made up of (a) canonical OT books, mostly in Hebrew, (b) other religious writings, such as copies of OT apocrypha and pseudepigrapha as well as commentaries on biblical books, and (c) non-biblical “sectarian literature” that reflect the political and social needs of the Qumran community.
B. Second Temple / Rabbinic Judaism
It is widely accepted within Christian circles that Jesus, the apostles, and the early Christian church emerged out of (and eventually parted with) first century or “Second Temple” Judaism. While it is evident from the data that there was no single, uniform Jewish religion – rather, there were multiple groups, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and others – all Jewish sub-groups more or less used the same corpus of writings. One might ask, “Why is this relevant to Christianity?” Understanding what Jews of Jesus’ day were reading helps clarify a lot of things we find in the New Testament, such as the debates Jesus had with, say, the Pharisees (which stemmed from traditions that were ultimately written down in the Talmud), the reference to Paul’s teacher Gamaliel in Acts, the conflicts that arose between the “Judaizers” and the apostles, and much more. While Christianity ultimately broke with Judaism, the worldview of the Jews who converted to Christianity (including Paul) would have been shaped by the oral traditions that were ultimately codified in the writings by the Jewish rabbis. It is also valuable for Christians to know something about these writings in order better to understand modern Judaism and its sources of religious authority.
- The “Oral Torah”: Broadly speaking, Judaism holds to two sources of authority over faith and practice. The first is the “written Torah,” which was discussed above under the Hebrew Bible; it is the literal book given originally to Moses and expanded by other canonical writers over time. However, they also hold to an “Oral Torah,” which includes an entirely separate collection of teachings they believe God gave to Moses verbally while on Mount Sinai, which were then passed on orally through the generations. There is no clear indication of this in the Bible itself, but in effect Judaism holds to a written and an unwritten collection of teachings that hold essentially equal authority.
- Targumim / Targums: In the last century or so BC, the Jewish community had begun transitioning from Hebrew to Aramaic as its common language. In order to facilitate worship in the synagogue setting, rabbis began providing paraphrases or direct translations of the Hebrew Bible (which is always read in Hebrew) in the common language of Aramaic. Eventually, perhaps in the 3rd or 4th century AD (but possibly earlier), these oral “translations” were written down. The most widely used targums include Targum Onkelos (for the Torah), Targum Jonathan (for the Prophets), Targum Neofiti (also for the Torah), and various informal targums for the Writings. Some scholars have argued that in a few instances NT writers may actually be quoting the OT on the basis of an Aramaic targum (as opposed to the Hebrew itself or, more commonly, the Greek Septuagint).
- The Talmud: Anyone who has interaction with Jews will likely have heard of the Talmud or a variety of other terms related to it (which itself can be a source of confusion until you get a sense for all the pieces). The Talmud is considered to be the written documentation of the “Oral Torah.” It was compiled by the rabbinic community from roughly 200 AD onwards. This is interesting, for it means the entirety of the Jewish “oral” canon was not codified until after the New Testament and, more significantly, over a millennium after it was allegedly given to Moses at Sinai. There are two recensions or versions of the Talmud (Jerusalem and Babylonian) which hold sway in different parts of the Jewish world. The Talmud, combined with the commandments of the Hebrew Bible (613 “mitzvot”), provide today’s Jewish community with the roadmap for life (often called “halakhah,” from the Hebrew for “walk” or “path”). Three components constitute the Talmud:
- Mishnah: The most well-known part of the Talmud is the Mishnah, which is the core of the work. It consists of 63 tractates, grouped in 6 “orders,” that purport to contain the “Oral Torah,” covering a whole host of various laws that either expand upon or add to the laws contained in the Hebrew Bible.
- Tosefta: These writings include copies of, supplements to, or expansions on the Mishnah, and they were gathered and written down in the centuries after the Mishnah. Generally it is seen less as a source of authoritative law and more as a commentary on the Mishnah.
- Gemara: This third piece of the Talmud consists of further rabbinical analysis of the Mishnah, and it was put into writing in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.
- Midrash: This term can be confusing, for it can refer both to a method or genre of biblical interpretation as well as an actual corpus of Jewish literature that employs this method. Here I am specifically referring to the large and amorphous body of literature that was originally transmitted orally (as with the other types listed above) and eventually written down by various groups of Jewish rabbis from 200 AD onward. Midrash (as a body of literature) functions essentially as a commentary on the Hebrew Bible, both legal and non-legal texts; there are multiple collections that cover different parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. Midrash (as a genre) employs a variety of interpretive techniques, such as reading biblical texts metaphorically or seeking to find deeper meanings below the literal level; this is not to say, however, that midrashic technique is wild and uncontrolled (sometimes the Bible should be read that way).
- Other Jewish writings: One could say that Midrash is the “catch-all” for everything not included in the Talmud or Targums, but it might be more accurate to say that there is a wealth of other Jewish rabbinic literature that may not fit in the prior the prior three categories but which circulates widely in the various Jewish communities in today’s world.
To summarize, you could classify the Jewish writings using this rough analogy with modern Christian literature: (a) the targums function like The Message translation (brought up to date; literal in some places, paraphrase in others); (b) the Talmud functions as the Book of Church Order governing things in great detail, and (c) the Midrashic literature functions like modern day Bible commentary sets.
C. The Christian Era
Finally we arrive at the writings that flowed out of the Christian movement: sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly or via fringe movements that were not necessarily part of the Christian mainstream, but which were not Jewish either.
- The New Testament: While this is probably self-explanatory, I will comment that the NT consists of Greek writings dating from roughly 50 to late 90s AD that, of course, reveal the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and set forth the development of the church that he established. All 27 works (Gospels, Acts, Pauline letters, general epistles, and Revelation) – and only those 27 – are accepted as authoritative by all 3 major streams of Christianity, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.
- NT pseudepigrapha and apocrypha: As we saw in the OT section above, these terms can be a bit confusing, since there are no set definitions, and the various lists proposed by scholars can be overlapping. What unites this body of work is the fact that these are writings produced by various authors in early Christianity to, in a sense, “fill in the gaps” of the Jesus story contained in the canonical NT or, in the more extreme examples, present theological teachings or stories that are nearly unrecognizable within the mainstream NT context. Notably, it is precisely these writings that have generated the most controversy, prompting scholars to consistently raise and re-raise the question, “Should we not consider these writings to be reflective of common Christian teaching and, thus, authoritative much like the accepted 27 books of the NT?”
- Apocryphal gospels and other texts: Space does not permit any lengthy discussion of what makes up a “gospel,” but in general the works considered under this broad category are various books which purport to reveal new information about Jesus. The most famous is the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 113 “sayings” (logia) of Jesus; it dates likely to the mid-2nd century (though some argue earlier) and is notable for its lack of narrative or plot – including any crucifixion / resurrection account. Other famous examples include the Gospel of Peter, Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Protevangelium of James, the Edgerton gospel, the notorious Gospel of Judas, and several others. While there is often little scholarly consensus on the nature of these works, it is important to note two things: (a) they are all later than the four canonical gospels, pushing well into the 2nd century after the final writing of the NT was completed, and (b) they are all noticeably different in style, content, and portrayal of Jesus than the canonical four.
- Gnostic texts: While scholars knew about the Gnostic movement that developed in the second century as a perversion of or separate movement from Christianity, we had very few direct sources (only quotations drawn from the works of their opponents, i.e., orthodox writers). However, in 1945 a small collection of leather-bound books dating to the 200s-300s AD were found in Egypt. This small “Nag Hammadi library” contained a collection of mostly Gnostic works, including the Gospel of Thomas (see above) and a variety of other works that present a Gnosticized Christianity (if one can even call it that). These works are fairly obscure and often quite bizarre, bearing little resemblance to anything remotely Christian. However, a minority of scholars (but many of them quite loud) have argued trenchantly that this Gnostic Christianity was a parallel group to the “orthodox sect,” and, hence, the Nag Hammadi writings should be put on equal footing with the NT as expressing a valid form of Christianity. Briefly skimming these works, however, will reveal a bewildering and esoteric philosophy that bears little, if any, resemblance to biblical Christianity at all.
- Versions: In the centuries after the writing of the NT in Greek, various Christian groups began translating the Bible into other languages, from Syriac to Coptic to Latin. These “versions” are much like the Septuagint, and they are very helpful for (a) understanding how the Bible was interpreted in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death (since all translation involves interpretation) and (b) studying the original Greek text to iron out various textual differences in the Greek manuscripts.
- Early church writings: Rounding out the early church bookshelf are writings of the Christian leaders who were part of the first and second generations after the apostles. The “Apostolic Fathers” include a handful of writings by authors who either had direct interaction with or lived in very close proximity to the last living apostles. These works include the letters of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna as well as the anonymous works of the epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas. These writings, which come very closely on the heels of the NT, provide a very helpful glimpse into the early Christian movement (beyond Acts). The next level of writings includes a huge selection of what are called Patristic writings, which were produced by the leading bishops and other Christian leaders after the era of the “Apostolic Fathers.” It is worth noting that one or two of these writings (e.g., Shepherd of Hermas) were debated at various points as possibly being recognized as inspired and canonical. While none were ultimately received as such by the church, these writings are widely held to be very sound and orthodox reflections of the teaching of the NT.
So what? Connecting to the pew
I hope this taxonomy proves helpful to folks who, like me, find it difficult to get one’s head around all the types of books and writings that get mentioned in the context of the Bible. There’s a lot here to digest, and many implications could be drawn. I will focus on just a few.
- Broadening one’s horizon is a healthy thing. It is far too easy for Protestant Christians to circle the wagons and attempt to block out anything that might present a threat to their faith. This is particularly true when it comes to the subject of authoritative writings, for there can be the temptation to, for lack of a better word, “be afraid” of the OT apocrypha or Gnostic writings or apocryphal gospels, as if they might contain something that would blow up the Christian worldview (e.g., the whole controversy surrounding the Gospel of Judas a few years ago). Yes, we should rest solely on the authority of the OT and NT as received and recognized by the church as from God himself – but, ironically, that very truth should give us comfort that these other writings do not “present a threat,” rather than the other way around. If God is who he says he is, and if his Word is what he declares it to be, then we can engage with the works surrounding the Bible – many of which disagree entirely with the Bible – with confidence. Carried out with an appropriately critical and biblical eye, it is a healthy thing to learn about what texts Jews hold to be authoritative and why, or what other writings were circulating alongside the NT in the early church, and so forth.
- The early Christians were readers and lived in a broader literary context than we often realize. The discussion above hopefully paints the picture that, in the time of the NT authors and the early church that followed, there were a lot of pieces of religious literature floating around beyond the OT and burgeoning NT. Some of these works are likely quite accurate and contain truth; this seems self evident, but many folks fall into the line of thinking that, if it is not inspired, it cannot contain any truth, and therefore is entirely false. That is a misconception, however: while we may take a canonical work of the OT and NT as 100% because it is inspired, the converse that a non-inspired book is 100% false does not hold. To clarify, several OT pseudepigraphical and apocryphal books have proven to be historically quite accurate (e.g., Maccabees) or largely doctrinally sound relative to the OT’s teaching (e.g., Sirach). On the NT side of the ledger, some of the apocryphal gospels are closer in line with NT teaching (e.g., parts of the Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, and Edgerton Gospel have close or exact parallels to the NT), while others are not. A non-inspired / non-canonical book can contain true statements – as illustrated vividly by Jude’s use of two apocryphal works in his letter – but, of course, also some false ones. The point is that the NT Christians had access to and likely read a variety of religious writings beyond the OT, much like today’s Christian may read Piper or Grudem or Sproul or any host of other “non-inspired” authors (whose works contain a mixture of truth and error) and derive benefit from them.
- By the same token, this does not mean these other writings should be considered authoritative. It is one thing to say that early Christians had access to and read a variety of works circulating around; it is another thing to draw the non sequitur (mentioned at the outset) that these writings should be considered authoritative or as indicators of “normative” Christianity simply because they existed on their bookshelves, so to speak.
- First, much like today’s Christian reader will treat what he or she reads with different levels of binding authority, so also did early Christians. In fact, some of the most important debates about NT canon revolved around some of these works that were consistently and widely rejected as non-inspired but which were still floating around. Some works were treated with respect as helpful and edifying, or others may have been viewed as interesting and entertaining (like today’s Christian fiction), but that does not mean they were afforded authoritative status.
- Second, for the vast majority of the non-canonical writings of the Christian era, we have dramatically fewer manuscripts than those we possess for the NT. Hence, while some of these works may have been broadly popular (we cannot say for sure), the massive discrepancy in manuscript preservation and transmission is in itself a good indicator of the completely different level of respect afforded the NT relative to everything else. In other words, just because we have one or two copies of some non-biblical writing does not mean it had widespread distribution and influence.
- Third, just because a work was written does not by itself confer any right upon that work to be considered in the canonical / authoritative conversation. Many works were produced by fringe sub-groups with a particular ax to grind, and in order to juice “sales,” so to speak, they slapped an apostle’s name on it to increase the odds that it would be read. This is a far cry from the phenomenon of widespread and very early recognition of the fourfold Gospel, the Pauline corpus, and so forth.
- Finally, while these writings are a mixed bag theologically and should not be considered apples-to-apples with the NT, they still provide interesting insights into how early Christians thought about Jesus. If you want to understand the Christian faith “in the pew” of the early church, a good place to look is the literature those Christians were producing at that time. However, it does become problematic when this scholarly pursuit of finding “interesting insights” causes one to put the cart in front of the horse and elevate these writings to such a position that they become more normative for our understanding of Christianity than the NT, which is what many scholars do today.
- Craig Evans, ed., Dictionary of New Testament Backgrounds (helpful discussion in particular about rabbinnic literature)
- Wise, Martin, and Abegg, The Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited and The Question of Canon
- Bart Ehrman (yes, that Bart Ehrman), Apocryphal Gospels
- Jobes and Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint
- McNamara, Targum and New Testament
 E.g., the recent book Gospel Writings by Francis Watson, which is being hailed as one of the most important NT books in the past century.
 Jerome described them as “edifying” but not definitive for deciding church dogma; Rome deviated from this position centuries later by accepting them as equally authoritative.
 Two Aramaic targums were discovered at Qumran, indicating that there was a move to write down the oral targums at a relatively early date. However, apart from these examples, the bulk of the Aramaic targums date much later, after the second century.