What Do You Do When The Church Fathers Quote the Non-Canonical Gospels?

Posted by Clark Bates
October 18, 2018

Something that has always impressed me when reading the church fathers, particularly the apostolic fathers[1], is the amount of Scriptural quotations and allusions that they contain.  You can’t read 2 pages into Polycarp’s Letter to the Philippians without encountering 8 references to Scripture.  The Same could be said of Ignatius, 1 Clement, The Epistle of Barnabas, and others.  The overwhelming influence of both Old and New Testament writings serves as a constant reminder to me that the faith upon which I stand has always been based in the traditions and teachings of the Old and New Testaments!

But there’s a problem….

They didn’t JUST quote from the Old and New Testaments.

Allow me to offer a case study using the book commonly called 2 Clement.

Why 2 Clement?

While it’s often referred to as the 2nd epistle of Clement, 2 Clement isn’t an epistle at all.  It reads like a sermon.  It may be that, like the epistle to the Hebrews or even the Epistle of Barnabas, it was originally delivered as a sermon or homily and then re-drafted as a letter, but the overwhelming indications, and position of most historians is that 2 Clement is a sermon.  Its actual date is unknown, but it’s almost certain that it’s not written by the same author as 1 Clement and, with the exception of a very small few, it is not related in any way to the events surrounding 1 Clement.[2]  The epistle is accepted by most to be from some time in the 2nd century.  Its choice as a case study is fitting for this article because of its sermon-like qualities and the dating, which places it within the time of the early church.

What’s the Problem?

As you read through 2 Clement, there are many enjoyable passages.  For instance, it reads:


“And also, another Scripture says, ‘I did not come to call the upright, but sinners.’ This means that he was to save those who were perishing.  For it is a great and astonishing feat to fix in place something that is toppling over, not something that is standing.” (2.4-6)


We would say “amen!” and even recognize the author’s use of Matthew 9:13.  Or in another place it reads:


“And so we should repent while we are still on earth.  For we are clay in the hand of the artisan….While we are still in the world, we should repent from our whole heart of the evil we have done in the flesh, so the Lord will save us – while there is still time for repentance.” (8.1-2)


Most Christians would again agree with this statement.  For the most part, 2 Clement says a great many things that are inspirational and convicting, making it an effective sermon for even modern readers.

But then you come to places like this:


“For the Lord himself was asked by someone when his kingdom would come, he said, ‘When the two are one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female is neither male nor female,’ Now the ‘two are one’ when we speak truth to one another and one soul exists in two bodies without hypocrisy.” (12.2-3)


Setting aside the author’s attempted explanation, it might shock the reader to see this bizarre quote attributed to Jesus.  This doesn’t come from the canonical gospels.  Its source lies in three possibilities: The Gospel of the Egyptians, as cited by Clement of Alexandria, The Gospel of Thomas, or a third source from which the other two were drawn.

The Gospel of the Egyptians reads:


“When Salome inquired when the things concerning which she asked should be known, the Lord said: When ye have trampled on the garment of shame, and when the two become one and the male with the female is neither male nor female. In the first place, then, we have not this saying in the four Gospels that have been delivered to us, but in that according to the Egyptians.”

(Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 3.13.92)


And the Gospel of Thomas reads:


“Jesus saw infants being suckled.  He said to his disciples: ‘These little ones being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom.’  They said to him: ‘Then will we enter the kingdom as little ones?’  Jesus said to them: ‘When you make the two into one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside and the above like the below – that is, to make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will not be male and the female will not be female – and when you make eyes instead of an eye and a hand instead of a hand and a foot instead of a foot, an image instead of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].’” (Thomas, saying 22)


The saying in 2 Clement is a combination of the two.  But why would the author use this?  Does that make these sources Scripture?  Before answering, let’s look at one other place:


“For this reason, the Lord has said, ‘Even if you were nestled close to my breast but did not do what I have commanded, I would cast you away and say to you, ‘Leave me! I do not know where you are from, you who do what is lawless’….For the Lord said, ‘You will be like sheep in the midst of wolves.’ But Peter replied to him, ‘What if the wolves rip apart the sheep?’ Jesus said to Peter, ‘After they are dead, the sheep should fear the wolves no longer…’” (4.5; 5.2-4)


In this section Jesus is cited two times saying things that are found in no available source!  We don’t have any record anywhere, in any document, that Jesus, or Peter, ever said these things!  So, what is going on?!

Take a Deep Breath

To many in the church, this is very disconcerting.  The very idea that an author or pastor would be citing non-canonical, and even Gnostic writings must have devastating implications to the faith!  But it doesn’t.  There are some very careful realities that must be acknowledged when you find writings like these.

  1. The first few centuries of the church were the time when it had to make its way without apostolic authority.  The Twelve had died.  A new church age was commencing and they needed an authority to look to.
  2. Not every writing that we have in the New Testament had circulated to every region right away. Some writers seem unaware of the works of Paul and only use the Gospels.  Others only use a select Gospel.
  3. It is a matter of history, both in the Gospel of John and in the writings of Papias, that Jesus said and did more than is recorded in the Gospels. Papias even claimed to have a collection of His sayings.

What does all that mean?  Primarily, it means that church history is not as neat and tidy as most are told.  We as Christians, especially apologists, would do well to acknowledge that immediately.  It also means that in its infancy the church wanted to gather everything that Jesus ever said.  They needed His authority to guide them.  Are they all genuine sayings?  It doesn’t seem so, and as the years go on, the church as a whole begins to recognize those sayings and teachings that were authentic and those that weren’t.  In kind, the quotations from spurious sources becomes less and less until they are non-existent.  This is not a result of some government mandate, merely a response both to the work of the Holy Spirit among the body and a recognition of the continuity of the teaching contained in Gospels, epistles and Paul.

As far as 2 Clement is concerned, it’s not even clear why or how he is using the texts.  Some say he is using them because he agrees.  Others say he’s pointing out the inaccuracies of Gnosticism but only in a subtle way.  And some even say he’s adopting Gnostic teachings and incorporating it into the orthodoxy of the church.  In many cases, we’ll never know “why” these leaders used what they did, but the fact THAT they used them occasionally is not enough to determine that they were scripture.

Conclusion

A simple analogy would be the average church service each Sunday morning.  Undoubtedly, at least in this country, you will hear a sermon from a biblical text, but it will be mixed with analogies and personal anecdotes and possibly even quotations from (gasp) non-biblical sources!  Does your pastor’s use of Robert Frost or Rudyard Kipling in a sermon place them on the same pedestal as the work of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John?  Of course not!  Therefore, if looked at objectively, that should not be the conclusion reached here with the early church.

Additionally, it is a modern, primarily American, phenomenon to think that any Christian writing that isn’t canonical should be shunned.  This is certainly not the approach of our religious forefathers and it shouldn’t be ours.  The Shepherd of Hermas was one of the most influential Christian writings of the 2nd century, yet hardly anyone in the modern church has read it.  There are sources that make it clear that Hermas was not placed equally with Scripture, but it was valuable enough to be included at the close of Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete Bible in existence.  Even 2 Clement with its many oddities conveys important lessons.  These books do not have to be Scripture to be valuable.  They were helpful to the church then, and they can still be informative to us now.

The church today is teetering on the edge of collapse in regards to its appreciation of Scripture, and realizations like the one in this article send many away from it.  Lay people abandon Scripture as a result, because they were led believe that history was different, and because they weren’t exposed to the truth they weren’t able to handle it.  If there’s a disease spreading, the body needs an inoculation to survive.  If the church is to survive the challenges of today, the answer is not to hide them away from difficult truths.  It’s to expose them, so they can become inoculated to what’s coming.

Read good books!  Know your history!  And work through the challenges they present!

 

[1] The term “apostolic father” first appears in the Hogedos written by Anastasius, the 7th century abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.  Ironically, he used this term in reference to a convert of the apostle Paul, named Dionysius the Aeropagite, whose work is not included in contemporary collections of the “Apostolic Fathers”.  This title is used in modern parlance to designate the disparate collection of early Christian writings whose authors are believed to have followed or been companions of the original apostles of Jesus Christ.  These works represent the earliest Christian writing after the deaths of the apostles themselves.  For more information, consult, Ehrman, Bart D., The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 of Loeb Classical Library 24 (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2003)., and/or Holmes, Michael W. ed., The Apostolic Fathers: Translated by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989).

[2] Karl Donfried, The Setting of Second Clement in Early Christianity, Leiden: Brill, 1974.  Donfried argues strenuously that both epistles are connected and that the natural rendering of 2 Clement is a homily delivered by one of the deposed elders, now re-instated after the letter of 1 Clement was received and obeyed.  This is not a position held by most in academia, then or now.

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