Book Review (part 10: Noncanonical Gospels) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

scroll-tagsIn this tenth post regarding my summary/recap on James Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek I will attempt to convey his argument regarding the plethora of noncanonical Gospels (section 40.4). These sources could potentially serve as valuable pieces of data for the nature of trajectories within second century Christianity. Before beginning, I want to offer a few reflections on this section and the materials within it.

First of all, it is somewhat anachronistic to group each and every one of the following documents under the label ‘Gospels.’ For one, a ‘Gospel’ is a literary document which modern scholars have identified as resembling ancient Greco-Roman biographies (albeit the Christian biographies attest to the resurrection of Jesus as a distinctive feature not observed in other ancient biographies for obvious reasons). Therefore, documents which do not fit the mold of the established literary genre of Greco-Roman biographies should not be labeled as ‘Gospels,’ strictly speaking. However, since they are already labeled as such by scholars, I will continue to use that terminology, having raised my concerns with the nomenclature. I only raise this concern because there is often an assumption floating around assuming that certain Gospels should have made it into the NT canon, when in fact those documents are not even technically ‘Gospels’ themselves.

Secondly, it is almost impossible to say anything certain regarding issues of authorship, date, and place of origin for most of these documents, other than the fact that we almost certainly do not know the answers to these issues!

Thirdly, it should be recognized that groups of Christians (as they considered themselves) did produce, copy, and use many of these documents within their religious settings. This should be ample evidence to demonstrate that there was never a single line of unaltered theology and praxis passed down unscathed from the apostles to someone like Eusebius or Constantine. As with most history, life was messy and unorganized. An interesting conversation can be had regarding in what ways have modern forms of Christianity reflect Gnostic tendencies, but that is for another time and another post.

With those points on the table, I will begin to recap the various noncanonical Gospels presented within section 40.4:


Three (?) Jewish-Christian Gospels (Gospel According to the Hebrews, Nazareans, and Ebionites

-Dunn asks whether these documents were actually three separate works or perhaps different ways of indicating one or two Gospels

-We only know about these works due to judgmental labels and a few quotations from the Church Fathers, all of whom disregarded these works

-Likely appeared in the first half or middle of the second century

-Likely one or more of these works drew upon Matthew’s Gospel


Gospel of Thomas

-Discovered with the rest of the Gnostic Nag Hammadi collection in 1945-46

-This document is a collection of 114 saying, having no narrative like the four canonical Gospels

-The copy extracted from the Nag Hammadi library was written in Coptic, but shows signs of being translated from Greek

-Likely written in eastern Syria, perhaps in Edessa

-Dunn argues that Thomas might have originally been penned in Syriac before moving to a Greek form

-Dunn also does not discount the likelihood that many of these sayings were transmitted orally in a variety of wordings


Gospel of Truth

-The title is taken from its opening line (“the gospel of truth is joy”)

-GoT was also found among the Nag Hammadi cache

-Its contents reflect Valentinian theology, with some arguing that Valentinius himself was the author

-If this is the same GoT spoken of by Irenaeus then it can be dated between 150-180 CE, having originated from Rome


Gospel of Philip

-Another Gnostic work from the Nag Hammadi collection

-Also reflection Valentinian influence

-Was named after Philip because his name is the only named apostle within the document

-Perhaps dated to the third century, but likely drawing upon earlier sources


Gospel of the Egyptians

-Cited twice by Clement of Alexandria

-Clement’s knowledge suggests that GoE was circulating in Egypt in the late second century CE

-Likely of limited historical value


Gospel of Mary

-This Mary is Mary Magdalene

-A Coptic version was discovered in 1896 with two further fragments discovered later

-These later two versions can be dated to the early third century CE, suggesting that the GoM was penned in Greek sometime in the second century

-No distinct Gnostic tendencies


Gospel of Judas

-Not included among the Nag Hammadi library

-Mentioned by Irenaeus and Epiphanius

-The text was not discovered until the 1970s and ultimately published in 2006 (with more hype that Michael Jordan’s return to basketball)

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I’ll offer a continuation of my recap on Dunn’s section regarding noncanonical Gospels in the following blog post. Stay tuned or subscribe for more updates!




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