Saying everyone should read the Bible is not an unreasonable expectation. Sure, it should be read with adequate guidance, in a good translation, preferably in a properly commented edition, with an acute awareness of the many literary genres are found in it, and of the contexts in which these texts were written, edited, and collected. Simply put, not every edition or translation will do. The same goes for the apocryphal gospels.
Biblical illiteracy is a rising trend. A survey from 2021 found that only 11% of Americans read the Bible daily. The numbers vary across demographics: Millennials are most likely to have never read the Bible, whereas the most frequent readers were those over 70 years old.
As Phil Kosloski explains in his article on the Apocrypha (biblical books and portions of books included in the Catholic Old Testament canon but not in Protestant Bibles) “the compilation of the Bible as we know it today was a long, drawn-out process.” That is, the Bible is not a book, but rather a collection of several separate books, most (if not all) of them made from the interweaving of different sources, oral and written alike. It is also the byproduct of the patient, minute, delicate, and painstaking work of generations and generations of inspired writers, compilers, and editors. It is an anthology of texts written, edited, and codified over millennia.
Keeping this in mind allows us to realize there are many different literary forms in the Bible, thus enriching our understanding and appreciation of it. As read in Pope Paul VI’s Dei Verbum (III, 12) “truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture.” It could be the case that a specific passage is not trying to provide the reader with a historical fact alone, but rather with a moral, or spiritual one as well.Pope Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini (112) pointed at the many beneficial effects of this hermeneutical openness (a word Benedict repeats over and over in this apostolic exhortation) when dealing with difficult biblical texts: “Sacred Scripture contains anthropological and philosophical values that have had a positive influence on humanity as a whole.”
But what about the apocryphal gospels?
In the early years of Christianity, several different communities produced their own gospels, made from stories passed on from apostolic sources or not. We call the gospel texts that didn’t make it into the New Testament canon “apocryphal gospels” (not to be confused with the Apocrypha of the Old Testament). Sometimes these texts agreed with the four canonical gospels, but in the case of others, they were completely different.
For example, in some of these other non-canonical apocryphal gospels, we find a young Jesus making live birds from clay. Whereas this is clearly a reference to one of the versions of the creation of Adam we find in Genesis (and thus an affirmation of the divinity of the person of Jesus Christ, meaning the text provides the reader with some spiritual truth), when compared to the miracles included in the canonical gospels, we find this one is lacking something: all of Jesus’ miracles have the specific, clear purpose of liberating, healing, alleviating the pain of those who suffer. Turning clay birds into live ones simply does not fit the bill. Some other apocryphal gospels include words of wisdom allegedly collected by his disciples, although tainted with gnostic cosmologies that are ultimately incompatible with the original Hebrew context of Jesus’ own teaching.
But also, some important aspects of Christian traditions come from these other gospels. Take, for example, the Harrowing of Hell, commemorated in the liturgical calendar on Holy Saturday. Jesus Christ’s descent into the world of the dead is referred to in the Apostles’ Creed, which clearly states that he “descended into the underworld” (descendit ad inferos). This descent is alluded to in the New Testament in 1 Peter 4:6, which states that the “good tidings were proclaimed to the dead,” but provides no details about it. The Catechism also refers to Ephesians 4, 9: “[Christ] descended into the lower parts of the earth.” But the whole story of the Harrowing of Hell first appears clearly in one of these apocryphal gospels, the Gospel of Nicodemus, from which we also get the name of the soldier who speared Jesus on the cross (Longinus) and those of the two criminals crucified beside Jesus (Dismas and Gestas).
By definition, the canon of the Bible was meant to dismiss all erroneous works that were circulating in the early years of Christianity, and to instruct the local churches which books could be read at Mass. It is only natural that some of the stories contained in the apocryphal gospels (those that did not make it into the canon because they include doctrinal errors) remained part of the tradition, even to this day.
Now, Penguin Classics has published a new translation of the apocryphal gospels, edited by Professor Simon James Gathercole, a United Kingdom New Testament scholar, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, and Director of Studies at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.