Apocrypha vs. Gnostic Gospel

A passage of the Bible.
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The generalized term for something outside of a canon is "apocryphal." However, there are also books specifically referred to as the Apocrypha that are most often included only in Catholic canon. They should not be confused with Gnostic gospels, a term for a canon of literature arising out of early Christian sectarianism and rejected from inclusion in most major biblical canons.

1 The Apocrypha

One of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found
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In Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, there is a group of books from the Old Testament known as the Apocrypha, or Deuterocanonical, with the former meaning "hidden" and the latter meaning literally "secondary canon." This collection of books include Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira, Baruch, 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. There are also alternate passages from canonical books, including Esther, Jeremiah and Daniel. The Daniel passages in particular include the story of Bel and the Dragon, a parable about idolatry.

2 The Gnostic Scriptures

Gnostic is derived from the Greek word "gnosis," or knowledge. Gnosticism refers to the belief that knowledge of the true nature of reality is the key to salvation -- a Western concept akin to enlightenment.

Gnosticism, however, doesn't refer to a single religious movement. Rather, it is a collection of beliefs and teachings, some of which are outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. Most commonly, Gnosticism refers to a series of early Christian traditions viewed as heretical by the early Catholic Church.

Specific to Christianity are a series of books known colloquially as the Gnostic gospels. These gospels -- for instance, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas or the Secret Gospel of Mark -- purport alternative teachings of Jesus. In the case of Thomas, the idea of salvation as taught by Jesus is more personal in nature. The authorship itself isn't known, but appears to be before the four synoptic Gospels -- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Specifically, the idea of the Kingdom of God being within oneself implies that a true knowledge of one's self is the source of salvation.

3 Why the Confusion?

Between 1947 and 1956, a series of scriptures were found in the West Bank. These texts ended up being a series of parchments of biblical texts thought to have been collected by a Jewish sect known as the Essenes. The Dead Sea Scrolls were akin to a scholarly archive. They were thought to have been hidden in the West Bank caves during a period of Jewish revolt against the Romans, between A.D. 66 and 70. Many parts of the scrolls were only partially preserved, and translations have been attempted over the years. New passages of old books were found in some cases, and four of the books found in the Dead Sea Scrolls were from the Apocrypha.

In 1945 in Egypt, an entirely different discovery was made -- the Nag Hammadi library. Once translated, scholars realized that these were Gnostic scriptures. This was an important find as, previously, references to Gnosticism were found in reference to their heretical nature in the church. However, this was a discovery of books long thought lost which pertain to the actual texts.

4 Other Biblical Apocrypha

The Apocrypha and Gnostic scriptures are far from representing the only extra-canonical biblical scriptures. There is a series of books known as the Passion Gospels that concentrate on the passion narrative. These include the Gospel of Peter, Acts of Pilate, the Gospel of Bartholemew and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is also a series of Infancy Gospels dealing with the time between the birth of Christ and the later periods of his life as described in the synoptic Gospels.

David Wenz is a writer living in Philadelphia. He has written for Balancing Up, Content Standard, Opposing Views and other publications. He has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Nebraska.