Books Removed from the New Testament?
A friend recently asked if any books had been removed from the New Testament. Such questions often come from an intent to discredit the Bible, but she sincerely wondered. For example, some skeptics point to the Gospel of Judas as a removed book. National Geographic published the first English translation of it in 2006. This gospel mostly offers conversations between Jesus and Judas. In it, Jesus praises Judas as His wisest disciple and commends him because Judas would sacrifice the man who “clothes” Him. It also offers an unusual creation account; an angel named Saklas created six other angels, who helped him create Adam and Eve.
The Gospel of Judas is just the most recent book to be offered as a “lost” or “removed” book of the New Testament. The most famous of such writings is the Gospel of Thomas. Each time we hear of a newly discovered “gospel,” many media outlets sensationalize it as an alternative form of early Christianity. They mourn how the primary form of Christianity supposedly ran roughshod over other legitimate expressions of the faith. In such a view, the “winning” form of Christianity unfairly excluded or even removed several books from the Bible. Some early apostolic Christians actually did consider seven other books to be part to the New Testament, but Gnostic writings like the “Gospel of Judas” and the “Gospel of Thomas” were not among the seven writings that some Christians briefly considered Scripture.
HOW THE NEW TESTAMENT FORMED
Contrary to modern claims, the Council of Nicea neither debated nor decided the canon of the New Testament.1 For a detailed look at that council according to those who actually attended the council, see Paul Pavao’s Decoding Nicea. The Christian canon gradually coalesced over several centuries through the collective authority of the “apostolic bishops” across three continents without any bickering and without a single ecumenical meeting on the topic.
The apostolic line of bishops are those who were ordained by other bishops who were ordained by earlier bishops whom the original apostles themselves had ordained. The New Testament canon gradually formed in churches through the authoritative use of Scripture by the apostolic bishops. In contrast with the twenty-seven universally accepted New Testament books, Gnostic writings never enjoyed the approval of an apostolic bishop.2
In Book III, chapter 25 of “Ecclesiastical History,” 4th century historian Eusebius of Caesarea listed six books which he said some bishops had received as Scripture:
- “Acts of Paul“
- “Shepherd of Hermas“
- “Apocalypse of Peter” (not to be confused with the “Apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter”)
- “Epistle of Barnabas“
- “Teaching of the Apostles” (also called “Didache,” meaning “teaching”)
- “Gospel of the Hebrews“
- Not listed by Eusebius is “1st Clement,” which was written by Bishop Clement of Rome to the Corinthians.
None of these seven books ever reached universal acceptance in early Christianity, therefore none of them can rightly be accused of ever being part of the Christian Bible. Yet they came far nearer to acceptance in the New Testament than did any of the Gnostic books which the modern media sensationalizes. The following writings have tremendous value to the Christian reader, so long as one does not use them for doctrine.
ACTS OF PAUL
In the order of Eusebius’ list, the Acts of Paul comes first, having been written in the second century AD. Among other apostolic Christians, the famous presbyter and scholar Origen of Alexandria accepted “Acts of Paul” as Scripture. He quoted it authoritatively in De Pascha, in On First Principles, and in Commentary on John.3
Near the opening, the book portrays the apostle as demanding celibacy even in marriage, a common theme of early non-canonical writings. Chapters three and four of the fourteen chapter book have received inordinate attention. In those chapters, a new convert named Thecla forsakes her wedding engagement in order to devote herself wholly to God. She then escapes several execution attempts before dying “a noble death.” The book does not portray Thecla as clearly engaging in public ministry. Nevertheless, so many were the number of readers who interpreted such from AoP, that Tertullian found it necessary to condemn the account in his book On Baptism.
SHEPHERD OF HERMAS
Next in Eusebius’ list comes the Shepherd of Hermas, dating no later than the second century, thanks to its inclusion as Scripture in the Muratorian Canon. It offers colorful visions, parables, and repeated calls to repentance from every kind of sin. The “shepherd” in the book calls himself the angel of repentance. If a Christian attempts to take the book as doctrine, it will seem harsh and legalistic. As a book for reflection and consideration though, it offers valuable insights into the human heart.
Most of all, Shepherd of Hermas presents a lofty view of the church. It clearly affirms the offices of bishops deacons. The first tower vision of the church is worthy of the time of every Christian reader, although the second tower vision seemed overdone and tedious to this reader. Bishop Eusebius attributed the authorship to the same Hermas whom Paul listed in Romans 16:14.4 The Shepherd was very popular in the early churches, being quoted as Scripture by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons,5 Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria.
APOCALYPSE OF PETER
Also included as Scripture in the Muratorian Canon is the Apocalypse of Peter. Bishop Methodius quoted it as Scripture in his Symposium6 around AD 300, as Clement of Alexandria7 and Origen had done before him. Christian understandings of heaven and hell throughout the dark ages sprang from the Apocalypse of Peter. In hell, the apocalypse portrays each sinner’s worst sin as determining the method of his or her torment. This apocalypse along with Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache all testify to early Christian condemnation of abortion. The apocalypse reads:
“I saw another strait place into which the gore and the filth of those who were being punished ran down and became there as it were a lake: and there sat women having the gore up to their necks, and over against them sat many children who were born to them out of due time, crying; and there came forth from them sparks of fire and smote the women in the eyes: and these were the accursed who conceived and caused abortion.”8
EPISTLE OF BARNABAS
Among those who discussed the authorship of Epistle of Barnabas in the early Church, all of them attributed it to Paul’s companion Barnabas, despite modern rejection of that claim. This epistle dates no later than the second century, since Clement of Alexandria quoted it as Scripture.9 Likewise did Presbyter Origen after him. Compilers included it as Scripture in the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus.
Of the seven books that came nearest to becoming Scripture, Barnabas offers the greatest wealth of Christian edification. For one example, the writer exhorts us not to forsake the gathering:
“Do not, by retiring apart, live a solitary life, as if you were already [fully] justified; but coming together in one place, make common inquiry concerning what tends to your general welfare. For the Scripture saith, ‘Woe to them who are wise to themselves, and prudent in their own sight!'”10
In chapter 10, Barnabas explains the eternal spirit of Mosaic dietary laws. In 15, he deftly defends the Christian celebration of Sunday against the Mosaic Law’s Saturday Sabbath. In these and many other ways, Barnabas shared Paul’s deep burden in the letter to the Galatians, that Christians would not return to the yoke of the letter of the Mosaic Law.
TEACHING OF THE TWELVE APOSTLES
Fifth in the list of seven books is the Didache, meaning “Teaching.” Such is the shortened title of Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. The Didache reflects portions of Matthew’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel, Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, and several Old Testament books. Scholars debate the dating of this book, some putting it in the first century and others the third or fourth century.
Clement of Alexandria may have referred to the Didache as Scripture in his Stromata, but his possible reference lacks clarity. While we do not know who wrote it, the Didache is generally honored as an edifying work of the Apostolic Fathers. The Teaching covers a wide range of topics in few words. It refers, for example, to the Eucharist communion as a meal. It also allows holy baptism by sprinkling if one does not have access to immersion. The Didache is brief, simple in form, and widely honored.
GOSPEL OF THE HEBREWS
Of these seven books, we only lack a copy today of the Gospel of the Hebrews. We can still hope for its discovery since several of the others were not discovered until recent times. If early Christians purposely destroyed all copies, then we can blame that destruction upon the Ebionite heresy. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea said that the Ebionites made much use of this book.11 The Ebionites denied the pre-existence of Jesus, clung to the letter of the Mosaic Law, and rejected Paul’s writings.
Bishop Papias of Hierapolis appears to have used this gospel in the second century,12 but not necessarily as Scripture. Quotes of the book also survive in the writings of Hegesippus, Origen, Jerome, and perhaps Didymus the Blind. In his Commentary on Ecclesiastes, Didymus claimed that “gospels” (plural) included the account of the stoning of the adulteress. We are left to assume that he refers to Gospel of the Hebrews, based on what Eusebius attributed to Papias in Ecclesiastical History: “And he relates another story of a woman, who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews.”13
Finally, we come to the letter of First Clement. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea said regarding First Clement, “We know that this epistle also has been publicly used in a great many churches both in former times and in our own.14 Unlike the previous six books, most modern scholars agree with historic testimony regarding who wrote it. Clement of Rome presided as bishop over the city of Rome in succession to Peter himself, as either the second or third bishop of Rome, depending how one counts the succession.
We call the epistle “First Clement” in order to distinguish it from a later letter, which was falsely attributed to the same bishop. First Clement begins by praising the believers in Corinth, then lectures the same audience at length regarding dissensions among them. The epistle famously claimed that the phoenix bird actually exists and reincarnates itself. First Clement is nevertheless revered as a work of the apostolic fathers.
When people accuse early Christians of removing books from the New Testament, they offer us an excellent opportunity to testify to the unity of the faith. The apostolic bishops simply and peacefully disagreed about the New Testament canon for centuries until they miraculously came into agreement regarding twenty-seven books. History proves that seven additional books were seriously considered for inclusion in the New Testament, but none of those seven have the scent of Gnosticism, unlike those popularized today. If we Christians will take time to read the six books which have survived, we will edify ourselves and have personal testimony of the Christian joy presented in them. Let the skeptic investigate them and join us in joyful submission the same King of Kings whom these six writings harmoniously proclaim.
- Dan Brown in his book “The Davinci Code” popularized the idea that the Council of Nicea decided the canon of Scripture. His innovative claim relies on a single sentence which the preceding 1600 years never claimed as evidence of a Nicene canon of Scripture. Regarding the Old Testament book of “Judith” (which Protestants reject), Jerome wrote that the Council of Nicea counted it among the number of sacred Scriptures. Jerome did not state that the Council decided which books were canon, nor did his contemporaries, much less those who attended the council. If the council had discussed such an important topic, then the historian Eusebius of Caesarea would have included that fact when he discussed the New Testament Canon. Eusebius, after all, attended the Council of Nicea himself. The most likely explanation for Jerome’s statement is that someone at the council simply quoted Judith as Holy Scripture.
- Athanasius in his 39th Festal Letter: “…nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics…”
- Pervo, Richard, “Acts of Paul,” (Wipf and Stock Publishers: Eugene, OR) pp 44-45.
- Eusebius of Caesarea, “Ecclesiastical History,” III.3.6
- Eusebius, V.8.7
- Methodius, “Symposium,” book II, chapter 6,http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf06.xi.iii.iii.vi.html
- Roberts-Donaldson translation, paragraph 25
- Eusebius, VI.14.1
- Schaff, “Ante Nicene Fathers,” http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.vi.ii.iv.html
- Eusebius, III.27.4
- ibid, III 39.16
- ibid, III.39.17
- ibid, III.16