Non-canonical gospels’ influence on the Quran

Philip Jenkins has been writing a lot about the circulation of non-canonical writings about Jesus in the ancient and medieval worlds. Recently, he wrote about their influence in Islam. He begins:

I have been tracking the ancient “lost gospels” through the Middle Ages, when these alternative scriptures continued to exercise a remarkably wide influence. This was especially true in the cultures of Islam, which emerged in a largely Christian world fascinated by apocryphal writings. Even in the fifth century, Arabia was proverbiallyhaeresium ferax: the breeding ground of heresies.

A century ago, Jesuit scholar Louis Cheikho stressed that the pre-Islamic Christian East was “literally inundated” with apocryphal works of both the Old and New Testaments (Quelques légendes islamiques apocryphes, 1910). He listed some of the influences that he could trace in the Qur’an itself: the Apocalypse of Adam, Book of Enoch, the Cave of Treasures, the Protevangelium, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, and the Gospel of Barnabas.

Cheikho also warned that we should be very careful when reading Qur’anic citations to such seemingly familiar works as the Torah, the Gospel or the Psalms. In each case, he argued, we are not necessarily dealing with the canonical versions of these texts, but rather apocryphal versions or adaptations.

See his post for a few examples.

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8 comments

  1. But non-canonical according to whom? Clement? Athanasius? Pope Damasus? Martin Luther? Joseph Smith? Baptists? Unitarians? You and/or me? Who died and made any of us pope? Growing up my mom had a KJV Bible from the 1800’s. It had the Deuterocanonicals in it, as had pretty much every OT in history before the American Bible Society decided to expunge them. Zondervan published an “exact replica” of the 1611 KJV, basically a reprint of scanned images of the original text. It was gorgeous with incredible artwork throughout and included over 100 pages of preface material like genealogies. However, thumbing through it in Walmart I saw that in small print the preface noted the deuterocanonicals had been removed. I guess it would have scandalized too many people to learn the real history of their beloved KJV Bibles. This sort of intellectual dishonesty and whitewashing of history leads me to believe that the Protestant world at large is incapable of having an honest conversation about the Biblical canon. It is terribly disheartening.
    http://www.amazon.com/Holy-Bible-1611-James-Version/dp/0310440297/

  2. I can’t say that I’ve seen too much anti-historicism by thoughtful Protestants. The KJV example you gave is bad news, but I don’t want to defend pop evangelicalism’s grasp of these things.

    In Jenkins’ piece, he doesn’t discuss the deuterocanonicals, but, to quote him, “the Apocalypse of Adam, Book of Enoch, the Cave of Treasures, the Protevangelium, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, and the Gospel of Barnabas.” Were any of these ever accepted by the ancient church as canonical?

    Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deuterocanonical_books) lists the Catholic deuteros as:

    Tobit
    Judith
    Additions to Esther (Vulgate Esther 10:4-16:24)[21]
    Wisdom (or Wisdom of Solomon)
    Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira (or Sirach or Ecclesiasticus)
    Baruch, including the Letter of Jeremiah (Additions to Jeremiah in the Septuagint)[22]
    Additions to Daniel:
    Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children (Vulgate Daniel 3:24-90)
    Susanna (Vulgate Daniel 13, Septuagint prologue)
    Bel and the Dragon (Vulgate Daniel 14, Septuagint epilogue)
    1 Maccabees
    2 Maccabees

    Correct me if any of this is wrong.

    What I have seen from some Protestants that seem historically informed and appreciative of pre-1500s church history has been honest about the history of the canon. The three people that come to mind immediately are Mark Noll, Doug Wilson, and Philip Jenkins. Protestants who understand history understand that church authorities had to distinguish between the different books circulating among Christians. Also, a lot of these discussions took place before the papacy really came into its own, right?

    Two chapter-length are the first chapter of Mark Noll’s “Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity” and Doug Wilson’s chapter in “When Shall These Things Be? A Reformed Response to Hyper-Preterism.”

    Here are two quotes from the latter, which I’m not saying that you will agree with (I already know a couple of things you won’t like, and I’m not agreeing with everything in them), but might help you to see what he is talking about:

    http://dougwils.com/books-in-the-making/chrestomathy/getting-the-foundational-creed-right.html

    http://dougwils.com/books-in-the-making/chrestomathy/which-explains-a-lot-actually.html

  3. You are correct that none in that list were considered canonical by the early church (the Apocalypse of Adam, Book of Enoch, the Cave of Treasures, the Protevangelium, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Arabic Infancy Gospel, and the Gospel of Barnabas).

    That said, at least with the Protoevangelium of James, I do think the early church regarded it very differently than modern Protestants. (e.g., Origen’s comments http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf09.xvi.ii.iii.xvii.html )

    “Also, a lot of these discussions took place before the papacy really came into its own, right?”

    Actually, I would say that this is wrong. For instance, Polycarp, a famous martyr and disciple of the John taught a young man Irenaeus. Irenaeus taught that Rome had a primacy among the other churches and that one would know a heretic by whether they agreed with the church in Rome. This was well over 100 years before we have a complete list of canonical NT books that matches our current canon.
    “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.”
    http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103303.htm

    While the church was concerned with fighting heresies in the pre-constantinian period when there was much confusion over true doctrine. Heresies were fought more centrally with appeals to apostolic succession and the authority it conveyed than with appeals to Scripture. The heretics had their own Scriptures, and it would be useless to debate them on Scriptural grounds if they did not accept the apostolic authority which was the source of both the canon and right doctrine.

    I read the quotes from Wilson, and it seems his writing contains the seeds of what could be an honest discussion of the development of the canon. I must say, my past experience with discussions with otherwise thoughtful pastors and Bible study leaders doesn’t give me much hope that it will prove fruitful in the end. Perhaps you would consider blogging on this topic to help restore my faith that there are thoughtful Protestants attempting to be consistent?

  4. I agree with you that the Roman church had a leading status in the early church, but what I meant was that you don’t see the kind of centralized papal leadership of the church that becomes a hallmark of the medieval period and after. I see the papacy coming into its own with the Gregorian Reforms of the 11th century, with a less centralized approach before that.

    “Heresies were fought more centrally with appeals to apostolic succession and the authority it conveyed than with appeals to Scripture.” Yes, I get that sense as well.

    I will try to blog when I come across good Protestant discussions of canonization. As I mentioned in the original post, Jenkins has been writing about it. Let me give you a few links. He’s an Episcopalian, and, while probably on the conservative end there, he doubts that the events in Esther happened, doubts that I don’t share with him.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2013/03/hoiw-many-gospels/
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2013/04/canons-of-scripture/
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2013/06/the-second-canon/
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2013/06/a-womans-hand/

  5. “what I meant was that you don’t see the kind of centralized papal leadership of the church that becomes a hallmark of the medieval period and after. I see the papacy coming into its own with the Gregorian Reforms of the 11th century, with a less centralized approach before that”

    Would you mind giving an example? I guess I view internal governance structure as changing over time, but not fundamental to doctrine. If the church were to roll back the Gregorian reforms and take a “less centralized approach,” I could live with that as within the bounds of historical Christianity, though perhaps not the wisest implementation of it. Rome would still be the standard of Orthodoxy in matters of doctrine. Other bishops would still present their disputes to the bishop of Rome for arbitration. Rome would still be viewed as the pre-eminent example of apostolic succession. Church councils would still decide matters of deep dispute among Christians. Perhaps local bishops would have slightly more prominence in international and state relations, but local bishops have tremendous leeway and local prominence right now on many of those issues, so i don’t see it as a fundamental change. Also I don’t see how a Protestant squares the circle when comparing their doctrine and practice of rejecting apostolic succession and Roman pre-eminence to historical Christianity.

    I guess my take is that if the early church viewed Rome as the standard of Orthodoxy, and clearly taught such things as the real presence in the Eucharist and apostolic succession, then I don’t see how Protestants justify their positions as even remotely historical. It seems to me that the Eastern Orthodox deal with this question in a way that I can respect as authentic and serious, though I disagree.

    I did find the links you posted very encouraging. Jenkins had perhaps the most serious ponderings on the Deuterocanonical and apocryphal texts that I’ve seen from a Protestant (though admittedly that could be from my own background and exposure being to limited). He definitely bears more reading. I’m rather curious now how he comes to his conclusions and stays within Protestantism. Perhaps he’s the one who can restore a sense of serious respect for Protestantism in how the deal with historical Christianity. Right now, I mostly see Protestants who take historical Christianity seriously as on a sometimes decades-long journey to either Catholicism, Orthodoxy or agnosticism (e.g., John Henry Newman, Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, Frank Schaeffer and Bart Ehrman). I don’t see how one can stay Protestant in the long run and deeply engage with historical Christianity, but perhaps Jenkins or yourself can help me understand that.

  6. Doug, for my examples of the qualitative difference between the pre- and post-Gregorian papacy, I’m thinking of things like the creation of the college of Cardinals, the Investiture Controversy, the call for the Crusades, and the papacy of Innocent III. It seems to me that the administration of the church has been far more monarchical since then, while Rome represented more of a first among equals (at least among the patriarchs) in the ancient world. For examples, the Roman church did not call the Nicaea or Chalcedon councils (correct me if I am wrong).

    “Also I don’t see how a Protestant squares the circle when comparing their doctrine and practice of rejecting apostolic succession and Roman pre-eminence to historical Christianity.” I can’t speak for all Protestants, but I think that the general answer would be something like this: the Roman church and the bishops did not accurately preserve the teachings of the apostles, allowing too much to be added on and misunderstanding the gospel over time, and thus the reform movements were launched as correctives (but ended up as many different institutions).

    I wonder if saying that to you is a bit like someone saying to an evangelical Protestant that the Bible has serious flaws. Just as you and I both believe the Spirit inspired the Bible, I realize that you believe that the Spirit guides the church through the bishops, the apostles’ successors. So I don’t say what I said lightly. Let me quote Mark Noll from the chapter that I referenced above to show you his summary of Protestant views (although I can’t say how representative they are and if he holds these positions, he is trying to give an overview):

    “Protestant belief in the normative power of Scripture along with Protestant suspicion of human institutions means that Protestant interpretations of the early church are likely to stress the foundational role of the New Testament writings and to be more willing to than either Catholic or Orthodox to find flaws in early church practices or decisions…. Protestants … tend to look upon the episcopacy that emerged by the mid-second century as a natural response to circumstances. A Protestant interpretation might begin by suggesting that the James who presided over the activities of the Jerusalem church in the Book of Acts was selected out of a pragmatic necessity, but that he did not confuse his own role with the more basic reality of the apostolic message of Christ and his work. Similarly, the bishops should be regarded as no more than elders with added functional responsibilities. Bishops, like all believers, could be regarded as ‘apostolic’ when and if they upheld the message of the apostles about the salvation found in Christ, but they should not otherwise be considered uniquely apostolic in their ordination or in the exercises of the office” (33, 41).

    The reason that he presents the different positions is that he says that the late 1st and early 2nd century evidence is limited, and that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox tend to have different ways of explaining this time period.

    • I should also say that “Similarly, the bishops should be regarded as no more than elders with added functional responsibilities. Bishops, like all believers, could be regarded as ‘apostolic’ when and if they upheld the message of the apostles about the salvation found in Christ, but they should not otherwise be considered uniquely apostolic in their ordination or in the exercises of the office” seems way too minimalist an interpretation for me.

  7. On two other things that you brought up:

    – I wonder if the reason that you found Wilson and Jenkins so different from your normal Protestant interactions is that you have mostly interacted with Protestants outside the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. If I remember correctly, you were in a Calvary Chapel church. From what I can see, Protestants in the Reformed tradition (some Baptists, but more likely Presbyterians and others with stronger institutional structures and intellectual traditions) are quite a bit more comfortable with ancient church history than the nondenominational mainstream. Here are some posts where I summarize parts of Mark Noll’s America’s God, about American theology from the mid-1700s through the Civil War:

    https://temporachristiana.wordpress.com/2009/06/22/americas-god-chapters-7-9/
    https://temporachristiana.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/calvinism-and-methodism-get-americanized/
    Especially this one: https://temporachristiana.wordpress.com/2009/07/23/american-hermeneutics-and-slavery/

    It looks like Frank Schaeffer’s conversion to Orthodoxy hasn’t gone very well: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/frank-schaeffer-go-to-hell-pro-lifers/

    Finally, my latest post links to a Protestant scholar’s arguments about the canon, and I think that you will enjoy it to at least some degree.

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