Lesson Seven - According to Non-canonical Gospels
Jesus as Rabbi, Heretic and Prophet
Why are there other Gospels?
The Greco-Roman world of the first and second century was filled with stories of great teachers, miracle workers and semi-divine heroes like Hercules. Jesus was, for many people, one of those characters. He was not yet the center of a world-wide religious movement. As his followers began to evangelize there were always further questions. What about his childhood? What about his mother? What made him so great? Was he greater than our heroes? A slightly more modern take on these stories would be the stories of George Washington and the cherry tree, or George skipping a silver dollar across the Potomac.
Many of the extra-canonical texts attempted to answer these questions. In that sense they were widely used and accepted by people in the early church and are sometimes mentioned by the Early Church Fathers.
What do they tell us about Jesus?
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (140-170 C) offers us a portrait of Jesus as a youthful miracle worker and sage. F.F. Bruce (Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 87) writes that “Jesus proves to be an infant prodigy at school, instructing his teachers in the unsuspected mysteries of the alphabet; he astounds his family and playmates by the miracles which he performs.”
These miracles are classified into two groups. Each group contains a sequence of 3 miracles, a teaching moment where Jesus teaches the teachers and then 3 more miracles.
The first set of 3 miracles include breathing life into clay birds, cursing a boy so he becomes a corpse, cursing a boy who dies and his parents are blinded. The second set of miracles includes Jesus reversing the last two miracles mentioned above, resurrecting a friend and healing a man who chopped his foot with an axe.
The second set of 3 miracles includes Jesus carrying water on a cloth, producing a feast from a single grain of wheat, and stretching a beam of wood to help his father finish a project. The second set of miracles includes healing a man from a poisonous snake bite, resurrecting a child, and then resurrecting a man who dies in a construction accident.
What kind of Jesus is this? This is a Jesus who does miracles for the sake of miracles and not as demonstrations of the inbreaking Kingdom of God (which are the point of the miracles in the canon). Some of his miracles are in fact cruel (bringing death) and are used to show his power against those who might criticize him. Even so, in the end there is some mercy shown. In some ways he is the ancient version of a young Clark Kent, learning about and using his super powers.
The Infancy Gospel of James (140-170 CE) offers us more a portrait of Mary than of Jesus. We only meet Jesus in these stories as an infant. The Gospel is divided into three sections, each containing eight chapters. Section one contains the story of Mary’s amazing birth and childhood. Like many Old Testament characters Mary is born as a miraculous gift from God to an older infertile couple. Mary then grows into a perfect and pure child. The second eight chapters offer us a glimpse into the crisis of her becoming a woman (meaning her menstruation might interfere with her work in the Temple).
This is solved when an angel insures that she is betrothed to Joseph who is a holy man. When Mary becomes pregnant, she and Joseph are tested to see if they have they violated the Law. They pass the test. The final eight chapter consist of Jesus’ birth and the hiding of Jesus from Herod in a feeding trough. Part of this section has the midwives who assist in Jesus’ birth declaring that Mary was a virgin before and after the birth. Thus Mary becomes the prototype for the perfect Mother of God.
What kind of Jesus is this? This is a Jesus who is born not merely of a pious woman but of a woman who is perfect in every respect. This insures his holiness through the holiness of his mother.
The Gospel of Peter (150? CE) offers us a very different picture of the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus than is offered in our canon. First, as is mentioned in the lesson, the Jews bear the entire brunt of Jesus’ death. While Pilot washed his hands, Herod and the Jewish leaders do not. This leads to Herod condemning Jesus, not Pilot. The crucifixion leads to darkness during the day (people had to carry lamps) and to Jesus not dying but being lifted immediately off of the cross and into heaven. The resurrection account goes like this.
"9. And in the night in which the Lord's day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in the heaven; and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend with a great light and approach the tomb. And the stone that was put at the door rolled of itself and made way in part; and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in. 10. When therefore those soldiers saw it, they awakened the centurion and the elders, for they too were close by keeping guard. And as they declared what things they had seen, again they saw three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them. And the heads of the two reached to heaven, but the head of him who was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, You have preached to them that sleep. And a response was heard from the cross, Yes."
What king of Jesus is this? This is a Jesus who was never really human. He was a Jesus who never suffers, never dies and when raised (well not actually raised…more returns) is a spirit that is larger than life. Thus there is no real sense of a bodily resurrection.
The Gospel of Thomas (40-240? CE) is a sayings source, similar to what scholars call “Q”, which is a saying source used by the canonical Gospel writers. What we have to remember is that all of the stories and sayings in the scriptures once circulated in oral tradition and were not written down until between 60 and 90 CE. Thus there is no narrative, only secret sayings of Jesus which help people reach heaven.
What Kind of Jesus is this? I would agree with N.T. Wright that the Jesus presented here is one not connected with the great themes of Judaism (as we saw when looking at Jesus through the writings of Paul) but as a Hellenistic philosopher who imparts secret wisdom which will allow them to be saved. In some ways, no cross is needed.