A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What's up with the "lost books of the Bible"?

September 4, 1992

Dear Cecil:

I am currently reading a book entitled The Lost Books of the Bible. Being interested in Bible history, I thought it might be an interesting diversion, but I was not prepared for what I found. It claims that when Jesus was young, he killed a couple of boys and a schoolmaster because they displeased him. Jesus comes off as an arrogant bad seed in these supposedly ancient texts.

My question is: were these books truly a part of the original Bible, and if they were suppressed for obvious reasons, does the Catholic Church, or any church for that matter, acknowledge their existence? How do they explain Jesus's bad temper? Is this why there is very little about Jesus's youth in the current Bible?

Cecil replies:

No question, the kid portrayed in the "lost books" isn't exactly the Prince of Peace. After recounting three murders in two pages, one passage concludes, "Then said Joseph to St. Mary, henceforth we will not allow him to go out of the house; for everyone who displeases him is killed."

The "lost books" are part of the apocrypha, quasibiblical works not included in the official Bible. There are several dozen of these, dating from both Old and New Testament eras and exhibiting considerable variety in length, completeness, and credibility. A few of these were considered inspired in some corners of the early church but were ultimately excluded from the formal canon for one reason or another; the remainder, which account for the bulk of the material, have always been regarded as spurious by the mainstream church and include works condemned as heretical or fraudulent.

In 1820 a number of the apocryphal books were compiled into a sort of alternative Bible called the Apocryphal New Testament. This was republished in 1926 as The Lost Books of the Bible and reprinted in 1979; the last version is what you saw. The 1820 book in turn was an aggregation of two English translations published in 1736 and 1737. The original works were a serious attempt to advance bible study, but the subsequent publications, arguably in 1820 and certainly from 1926 onward, were an attempt to sell books by creating scandal.

The homicidal-Jesus stories come from something known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (This is to be distinguished from the better-known but equally apocryphal Gospel According to Thomas, about which more below.) Several versions of the Infancy Gospel have come to light, dating back to about the sixth century AD; all are copies of earlier texts.

As near as scholars can make out, the Thomas story originated in the mid-second century AD, subsequent to the four canonical gospels (that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Some say it was based in part on Luke; the two books share the story of Jesus scourging the money lenders at the Temple. It is one of the few portrayals, spurious or not, of Jesus's early life, which no doubt accounts for its continued circulation after eighteen hundred years.

The Infancy Gospel has never been proposed for inclusion in the official Bible. Many of the early Christian writers who were influential in deciding what books belonged in the canon regarded it as heretical. In it the young Jesus is fully aware that he is a god and performs miracles for sport, which is at odds with the usual Christian emphasis on Jesus's humanity.

The book is not a literal account of Jesus's early life. All of the gospels, including the canonical ones, were based on oral traditions collected after Jesus's death and to a greater or lesser extent were intended to support a doctrinal point of view. The Infancy Gospel in antiquity was linked to sects that held that Jesus was God disguised as a man, rather than God become a man. Many of the stories have parallels in tales of the Buddha and other religious figures.

I mentioned there is another Gospel According to Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus discovered in Egypt in 1945. It is taken more seriously than the Infancy Gospel and while not as outrageous is equally troubling in its way. It ends, "Simon Peter said to them, 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.' Jesus said, 'I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.'" The best one can say is that it may represent the view of the compiler rather than the maker of heaven and earth.

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