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The Non-Canonical Witnesses - Interrogating the murkier witnesses


Non-canonical means writings which are not part of the 'canon' of literature which constitutes our Bible. The popularity of the Da Vinci Code and the publication of the Gospel of Judas has brought a greater public awareness to these works.  


The selection of books that would comprise the Bible canon took many years to complete. Although a number of lists of 'accepted' Christian writings (broadly similar to our New Testament) had already circulated the church, it was not until the fourth century was an 'official' canon decreed. 

Alongside the works which were to become the New Testament, there were a number of other (Jewish and Christian) writings.  These, particularly the earlier ones, can give us valuable information about early Christianity. 

Have a look at the witness statementsBecause of their often controversial nature and usually late dating, care must be taken when sifting through evidence from these sources.

Apocryphal - writings which have not been included in the Bible canon. Both Jewish and Christian traditions have a collection of apocryphal books.

Deuterocanonical - although excluded from the canon, some works (for example, Tobit and Judith) are still deemed to be beneficial or are used by some sections within the faith community. Rather than being apocryphal they are attributed the status of comprising a secondary canon (deuterocanonical). 

Lost Gospels?

Although the 'Lost Gospels' is a phrase loved by the media, it does not really do justice to the type and range of apocryphal writing which includes: letters, gospels, acts, teaching, apocalypses, laments, testaments and so on.

Usually they tend to present or promote a particular expression of faith which was deemed by others to be wrong. Other works, appeared to be more for entertainment or providing details which the more established books omitted - as with the Infancy Gospels. 

The Apocryphal Tradition Today

Some may find it surprising that the apocryphal tradition can still be found today. 


The names of the three kings in the nativity, as well as their background stories, have come to us through apocryphal literature. 

Most of the angelic names (e.g. Uriel,  Raguel, Raphael etc.) have derived from apocryphal writings.


Images of Christ releasing the prisoners from hell, which can often be found depicted in church windows and engravings in old Bibles is another example of a tradition arising from an apocryphal rather than Biblical source.

The Unknown Gospel - Papyrus Egerton 2

The papyrus fragments which comprise the 'Unknown Gospel' are extremely interesting because they represent (1) one of our earliest Gospel manuscripts - generally accepted to be around 150 CE, (2) an example of a non-canonical Gospel which is not overtly sectarian or fanciful and (3) it follows closely the texts of all four canonical Gospels while presenting stories and teaching from a different tradition to which we had no access. 

Have a look at some further evidence

The Unknown Gospel also includes our Leper story from Mark. The papyrus is badly deteriorated and following the cleansing we only have the words 'go' and 'to the' to indicate that the story is likely to follow that in Mark.

Have a look at the synopsis below. 

The 'Unknown Gospel'

Fragment 1 (recto)

And look, a leper having approached him says, "Teacher Jesus, travelling with lepers and eating with them in the inn, I myself also became leprous. If then you wish, I will be made clean."


Then the Lord said to him, "I will, be made clean." 


And immediately the leprosy left him.

Gospel according to Mark


And [there] comes to him a leper, begging him and kneeling down, saying to him, 

                                "If you are willing, you are able to cleanse me."

And being filled with tenderness, stretching forth his hand, he touched and 

                  says to him, "I am willing, be made clean."


And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

In what ways do the two accounts differ - what is omitted or added?

Do the extra details in the Unknown Gospel help or hinder the story? Is it likely to be an earlier detail which later got dropped, or a later addition to provide missing information (how the man contracted leprosy and why he was not isolated from human contact - those problems addressed by the witnesses in the Devotional approach)?

Why do think that the version in the Unknown Gospel might have omitted Jesus' emotional and physical response, preferring instead a purely vocal healing?

If you have looked at Redaction Criticism, how is Jesus presented (note the way in which the Leper approaches him and the title used)

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