Yesterday the world learned of a newly-discovered early Christian text that depicts Jesus as a married man. Jesus’ wife may be big news today, but striking and unusual variations on Christian faith have been around for a very long time. Whether you call them the heretic gospels, the apocrypha, or Dan Brown’s raw material, the records left by some of Christ’s first followers make for pretty interesting reading. Pulling from a variety of early Christian texts, including the famous Gnostic Gospels, here are three particularly surprising heresies from outside the canon:
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas: Young Jesus the Menace
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas; apparently there were a limited number of names in the Levant) depicts 5-year-old Jesus as a little temper-tantrum-throwing tyrant. I’m talking way beyond mischief: the word “demonic” springs to mind.
A neighbor messed up the brook that he was supernaturally playing in, so Jesus cursed him; “thou shalt be withered like a tree, and shalt not bear leaves, neither root, nor fruit. And straightway that lad withered up wholly” (III.2-3). Another boy bumps into him, and Jesus straight up killed the kid (IV.1). When that boy’s parents got mad at Jesus for, you know, murdering their child, he cursed them with blindness (V.1). Joseph tried to discipline him with some righteous ear-twisting, and Jesus said, “Vex me not” (V.3). Parents, keep your kids away from this gospel: they might get ideas.
I should mention that Jesus does eventually decide that his blinded, withered, and dead victims have learned their lesson, and he brings them all back:
Now let those bear fruit that were barren, and let them see that were blind in heart. I am come from above that I may curse them, and call them to the things that are above, even as he commanded which hath sent me for your sakes. And when the young child ceased speaking, immediately all they were made whole which had come under his curse.
But lest you think this is a happy, redemptive ending, check out the kicker:
And no man after that durst provoke him, lest he should curse him, and he should be maimed.
The Gospel of Judas: Judas was a good guy. No, really
You know that moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when Harry realizes, too late, that Severus Snape had been on the side of good all along? That eminently hateable villain was just doing what Dumbledore asked, and all he got was a bad reputation. Poor guy.
The Gospel of Judas is pretty much just like Deathly Hallows, except Dumbledore is Jesus, Snape is Judas, and we’re all Harry Potter. After two millennia of people using “Judas” as a synonym for traitor, this gospel tells us the poor man was just doing his job.
First, the text says Jesus was closer to Judas than any of the other disciples, and that he gave Judas some secret insider information on the nature of the universe: “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom,” he says to Judas, and, later, “Come, that I may teach you about secrets no person has ever seen.”
Jesus both warns Judas of the condemnation to come and promises him he will be rewarded later: “You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations—and you will come to rule over them... you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
There are a lot of missing chunks, but it looks like Jesus and Judas—working together—plan the details of Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus needed his physical body to die in order to ascend to heaven, and he asked Judas to help him out.
This is drastically different from Jesus letting Judas betray him. Canonically, Jesus knew what was coming—“Verily I say unto you, that one of you will betray me”—and didn’t stop it, but that doesn’t mean he was happy about it. In fact, he said pretty clearly that “it had been good for that man if he had not been born,” which ain’t exactly friendly. (Matthew 26:21-24).
But as the Judas Gospel shows, not everybody was happy with that version of the story... Even in the 2nd century BC, some folks were still in love with Judas, baby.
The Gospel According to Philip: About that whole “virgin birth thing”...
The Philip Gospel, part of the Nag Hammadi codex, is most famous for the section that says “And the companion of the savior is Mary Magdalene. The savior loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her [word missing]” which, as you can imagine, has led to some truly delightful academic Mad Libs.
But an even more striking heresy occurs earlier in the Philip text, where the author lays out a nice, logical argument for why the virgin-birth business is nonsense—and in the process, directly contradicts Luke 1:35 and the Apostle’s Creed:
Some said, “Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit.” They are in error. They do not know what they are saying. Whenever has a female been impregnated by a female?
(Now might be a good time to point out that some Gnostic communities seem to have believed in a female Holy Spirit, a sort of Mother figure to go along with the Father and Son.)
Mary is the virgin whom no power has defiled... Whoever of the powers (attempts to) defile this virgin, such powers are merely defiling themselves. And the Lord would not have said “My Father who is in Heaven”, unless he had had another father, but he would have said simply “My father”.
To recap: Mary was always virgin, indefilable, and so was not impregnated by the Spirit—not to mention that the Holy Spirit is female, and a lesbian divine impregnation is just not believable. Instead, Jesus has two fathers, one in Heaven and one not-in-Heaven, and presumably the not-in-Heaven one is the inseminator, but despite having two fathers, Jesus’ mother was still a virgin. Glad we cleared that one up.
As the Smithsonian article takes care to point out, these non-canonical texts aren’t biographical evidence; the new document does not prove that Jesus was married any more than the gospels of Thomas, Judas, or Philip prove that Jesus was a terrible five-year-old, Judas was a secret Snape, or that the virgin birth was... whatever Philip is trying to say it was. Instead, all the non-canonical texts stand as evidence of the diversity of early Christian thought, showing (sometimes colorfully) that before Church orthodoxy was established, early Christian beliefs varied widely. There was no “canon” to defy when these non-canonical texts were written: while churches today call them heresies, to the gospel-writers who recorded them, these Christian texts were God’s own truth.