The Bible is one of the most foundational, influential and widely read books of all time, having been translated into over 2000 languages. It consists of 66 books, written over 1400 years by more than 40 authors and has had an immense impact on humanity, especially in the West. Yet, if we understand the Bible to be the complete word of God, why were some books left out? This article explores the reasons why certain books were not included in the Bible.
Background of the Canon
The Hebrew Bible, known in English as the Old Testament, is the collection of texts traditionally considered to be revelations given by God to the Israelite people and written by the ancient Hebrew prophets and sent to their descendants. The New Testament includes the four gospels, and other texts describing the life and teachings of Jesus. The sections of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, collectively known as the canon of scripture, have come down to us through centuries of transmission and translation.
In the fourth century, at the Council of Carthage, the Church officially declared what would be included in the Christian Bible. Rather than relying on the traditional Jewish concept of an inscribed sacred book, they chose to base their canon on the writings of influential Church fathers, such as St. Augustine. This resulted in many of the books left out of the Bible being excluded from the church both then and to this day.
Uses of Non Canonical Texts
Though the books left out of the Bible were not accepted by the Church as legitimate scripture, many of them were still used for instruction and teaching, particularly for conversion of Jews and others to Christianity. This is especially true for the New Testament, where many of the texts left out of the Bible are gospel stories, apocryphal accounts, and other writings from the period before and after Jesus. For example, the non-canonical gospel of Thomas was highly valued in the early Church, and was even considered divinely inspired by some. Similarly, the book of Enoch was considered an authoritative work by early Christians, though it is not included in the Bible.
Preservation of Non Canonical Texts
The books left out of the Bible have been preserved for two primary reasons: first, because of their importance in the early Church and second, due to the discovery of ancient manuscripts containing these texts. In addition to the New Testament gospels and epistle, today we have access to ancient non-canonical writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Apocrypha, and the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. These manuscripts have provided invaluable insight into the faith and practice of early Christianity, and have allowed us to better understand the books left out of the Bible.
Critical Analysis of Non Canonical Texts
While the books left out of the Bible have certainly been of the utmost importance in the history of the Church, they must still be read and interpreted critically. Scholars are aware that some of the non-canonical writings were written late, or are heavily tainted with mythology, parable, and anecdote. This means that any interpretation of these books must take into account their historical context and be used with caution.
Relevance of Non Canonical Texts
Though the books left out of the Bible are not accepted as canonical by the Church, they continue to shape the Christian faith at large. This is due in part to their sheer antiquity and the legacy of their writings in ancient texts, but also because of their relevance to modern audiences. For example, the fact that the Gospel of Thomas omits the kind of miracles and promise of resurrection that defined first-century Christianity and instead emphasizes personal spiritual insight has relevance to people looking for Christ-like ethics today.
Mythology and the Bible
Though the books left out of the Bible often feature mythical creatures and extraordinary tales, they often have a moral or spiritual point that still shines through. This can be seen in the apocryphal book of Judith, which tells the story of a woman who defeats the Assyrian general Holofernes in battle, a feat that would be impossible in real life. While this story obviously has an element of fantasy, it conveys a message of courage and faith that still resonates with readers today.
Esoteric Traditions and the Bible
The books left out of the Bible are not just of interest to scholars and theologians, but also to believers and seekers who wish to access deeper layers of knowledge. This is particularly true for those who follow esoteric traditions such as Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism that is particularly concerned with understanding the hidden meaning of the Bible. Some of the books left out of the Bible, such as the Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Formation, contain teachings on creation, prophecy, and other mystical matters that many esoteric practitioners continue to explore today.
Paganism and the Bible
One of the primary sources of the books left out of the Bible is the ancient pagan traditions of the Near East and Mediterranean regions. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, had a vast body of literature and mythology that greatly influenced various aspects of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Even today, some of the books left out of the Bible such as the Hermetica, containing teachings based on the arcane wisdom of the Greek gods, are still studied and appreciated for their insights into symbols, metaphysics, and life.
Preservation and Scholarship
The books left out of the Bible represent an important part of our Christian heritage, and should be preserved and studied for their contributions to religious history and thought. Scholars are beginning to recognize the value of these texts, even those that are not accepted as scripture, and to explore their meaning and application. In this way, the books left out of the Bible can still serve to reveal new understandings to believing Christians and seekers of truth.
The books left out of the Bible have also been adapted over time to represent different religious, cultural, and regional perspectives. For example, the Gospel of Thomas was translated into Coptic in the 4th century, adapting the original Greek text to represent different understandings of Jesus and his teachings. Similarly, the book of Enoch has been adapted over time by various Jewish groups, with some regarding it as part of the “apocalyptic” canon, and others regarding it as part of the “enochic” tradition.
Implication and Potential Impact
The books left out of the Bible provide an invaluable source of spiritual knowledge and insight for both believers and seekers of truth. They provide a unique window into faith and practice in the early Church, and can still be used today to expand our understanding of Christianity and our relationship to God. By understanding and appreciating these non-canonical texts, we can gain new insight into God’s word and reveal new truths to be used in our own life and practice.