Why Can’t We Study Extra-Canonical Texts?

In my second year at Ball State University–go Cards!–I took a communications course. Essentially, it was a speech class. We had three major assignments which we had to perform in from of the entire class. For the first, I conducted a study of the first 5 seasons of American Idol and concluded that the southern portion of the country was having a disproportionate level of influence in choosing said American Idol. This had almost nothing to do with the fact that my favorite that year–Katherine McPhee–had lost out to Taylor Hicks, after giving a performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that would have made Judy Garland proud. Enough sour grapes.

The speech I put the most time into was a study of extra-Biblical texts. I had just watched “Banned from the Bible”–a History Channel documentary–featuring favorites of the liberal theologian; such as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. I had never heard of these texts before and the subject piqued my interest nearly immediately, and ever since. I had been a Christian for two decades, a pastor for 3 years, and I had never heard of these books.

I soon found out why. This special noted both the text and the reason for its exclusion from the cannon. What seemed to be the major reasons were lack of multiple sources and the fact that many of them were of the Gnostic tradition. “The book of Enoch” fills in the big branches on the family tree contained within Genesis. “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas” portrays Jesus as a cunning child who creates birds from clay and talks his friends into jumping from a roof–only to bring them back from the dead. “The Apocalypse of Peter”–considered Holy Scripture by Clement of Alexandria–had Gnostic origins and suggested that all would be saved. As Rob Bell has discovered, “Love Wins” only if you aren’t faithfully challenging orthodoxy.

I still have questions about this topic. Can we not learn something constructive about our faith from these texts? Could a mainline church study the contents of some of these extra-scriptural texts and still be considered orthodox? And the big one: why are we so scared to challenge our faith–even if it is with relics from our shared past.

I am relatively new to the faith–or the faith I have in its current form–and even newer to the faithful study of theology and Christian history. I am willing to concede some naïveté when it comes to some of the murkier portions of our history as believers. However, I cannot understand why these texts aren’t given more scrutiny. If for no other reason, we should study them to understand what we don’t believe–no matter how close it is to what we actually believe.

I’m not being self-deprecating when I say I await comments telling me how wrong I am. I have since ceased watching American Idol (as it has increasingly become unwatchable) but I continue to study and ponder this issue. Help me solidify my opinion.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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2 Replies to “Why Can’t We Study Extra-Canonical Texts?”

  1. Many of us do study these texts, but there are good reasons why they are not in our canon. A lot of these reasons are historical. You will struggle to find a non-canonical Christian text that is from within the first century, demonstrates a strong coherence with the early Jesus movement and late Second Temple Judaisms, that was widely authoritative within Christian circles. There are texts that were permissible and popular in early orthodox Christian circles such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Gospel of Peter but they were not on the same level of ‘canonical’ texts. Eusebius has a nice story about Bishop Serapion and the Gospel of Peter which illustrates this point.

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