Early Judeo-Christian Writings

A survey of the early noncanonical Judeo-Christian writings, particularly if drawn from collections of the popular ‘lost books’ variety without the commentary of specialists, might lead one to conclude that the literature contributes little to the understanding of Christian origins. Most of the material is difficult to interpret from a modern perspective, and much of it may seem bizarre to the uninitiated. Yet the study of pseudepigraphic, apocryphal and apocalyptic literature has proven invaluable in illuminating the patterns of belief in Palestine when ‘Jesus is LORD’ was first declared. There are some real gems. And Old Testament scholar Margaret Barker asserts that “It is beyond doubt that the faith of the temple became Christianity... The gospel as it was first preached by Jesus, and as it was developed and lived by the early Church, concerned the restoration of the true temple.”

The Latter-day Saint might note parallel themes in these excerpts:
The Apocryphon of James1

    But I answered and said to him, “Lord,we can obey you if you wish, for we have forsaken our fathers and our mothers and our villages and followed you. Grant us not to be tempted by the devil, the evil one.”

    The Lord answered and said, “What is your merit if you do the will of the Father and it is not given to you from him as a gift while you are tempted by Satan? But if you are oppressed by Satan and persecuted and you do his (the Father’s) will, I [say] that he will love you, and make you equal with me, and reckon [you] to have become beloved through his providence by your own choice. So will you not cease loving the flesh and being afraid of sufferings? Or do you not know that you have yet to be abused and to be accused unjustly; and have yet to be shut up in prison, and condemned unlawfully, and crucified «without» reason, and buried «shamefully», as (was) I myself, by the evil one? Do you dare to spare the flesh, you for whom the Spirit is an encircling wall? If you consider how long the world existed «before» you, and how long it will exist after you, you will find that your life is one single day and your sufferings one single hour. For the good will not enter into the world. Scorn death, therefore, and take thought for life! Remember my cross and my death, and you will live!”
D&C 122: 5–92

    “If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; if thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; — and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine Elder Son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? — O my father! what are the men going to do with you? — and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for blood of the lamb: and if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if the fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way: and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open her mouth wide after thee, know thou my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all, — art thou greater than he?
    Therefore hold on thy way, and the Priesthood shall remain with thee, for their bounds are set, they cannot pass. Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less, therefore fear not what man can do; for God shall be with you forever and ever.”


1.   “The Apocryphon of James,” translated by Francis E. Williams, edited by Dieter Mueller. From James M. Robinson, editor, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Second Edition, ©1984 E.J.Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands.
Textual signs:
[lacuna in manuscript]
«correction of a scribal omission or error»
(material supplied by editor or translator)
2.   I follow the text from selection 22 of Joseph Smith, The Essential Joseph Smith, ©1995 Signature Books, Inc. D&C 122: 5–9 is a standardized reference to The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints, Section 122: Verses 5–9. The D&C is one of the “standard works” of Latter–day Saint scripture, and is composed primarily of the revelations and other writings of Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the Church.

The similarity of those passages was pointed out to me over thirty years ago by James M. Robinson, while The Nag Hammadi Library in English was being translated. Hugh Nibley had referred me to him in response to an inquiry concerning the “Gospel of Philip,” one of the tractates in the Nag Hammadi library.

  Noncanonical Gems:
Go to website “The Apocryphon of James,” translated by Francis E. Williams.
Go to website “The Apocryphon of James,” translated by Ron Cameron.
Go to website “The Gospel of Philip,” translated by Wesley W. Isenberg.
Usually simply labeled as “Gnostic,” the Gospel of Philip appears to be a rambling collection of texts, orthodox and otherwise, some of which might impress a Latter–day Saint as thematically characteristic of initiatory lectures.
Go to website “The Gospel of Philip,” translated by Wesley W. Isenberg.
Excerpts, primarily references to the “Holy of Holies” as the “bridal chamber.”
Go to website “The Hymn of the Pearl.”
Also titled “The Hymn of the Robe of Glory,” this early Christian era “gnostic” fabulous poem — relating the concern of the hero’s premortal parents and family in heaven for the success of his mortal mission — reads like something from the hand of an imaginative Latter–day Saint.
Go to website
Go to website
“The Odes of Solomon,” translated by J. Rendel Harris. Two links.
There are 41 known Odes, numbered 1 through 42, with Ode 2 as yet undiscovered. Some Odes apparently alternate between the words of the individual Odist and statements ex ore Christi, “from the mouth of Christ,” as some commentators would have it. Other scholars contest a Christological interpretation. From a Christological viewpoint, Ode 42 is particularly interesting: it apparently depicts the visit of the dead Christ with the “spirits in prison” (re: 1 Peter 3: 18–20, 4: 6).
Go to website “The Odes of Solomon,” translated by James Charlesworth.
See above notes. Charlesworth advocates a Christological approach.
Go to website “The Odes of Solomon,” translated by James Charlesworth, followed by Willis Barnstone’s more poetic version of 11 of the 23 Odes published in his The Other Bible (see the following section). Although an incomplete collection of the known Odes, Barnstone’s is the most beautifully rendered version that I have seen.
Go to website “Discourse on Abbaton” by Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria, translated by E.A. Wallis Budge. Not easy to find on the web. I saved this HTML document from a URL that is now a “dead link,” so posted it here. I have not proof–read this transcription.
RARE! “Discourse on Abbaton” by Timothy, Archbishop of Alexandria. This 2.2 MB PDF document is not a searchable text file. It is comprised entirely of scanned images from the 1914 print edition of Coptic Martyrdoms Etc. in the Dialect of Upper Egypt.

  Noncanonical Libraries:
Go to website Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism
An interdisciplinary seminar of the department of theology of Marquette University (Milwaukee, USA). Documents and links are grouped by common themes. The themes include, among many others: Jewish temple traditions and Christian liturgy; pseudepigrapha; traditions concerning Adam, Noah, Enoch, Melchizedek and divine mediators; instruction, initiation, and special knowledge; and ascent to heaven. An outstanding resource.
Go to website The Gnostic Society Library: Nag Hammadi Library Section.
Go to website Wesley Center Online: Noncanonical Literature.
From the Wesley Center for Applied Theology, Northwest Nazarene University. Most links to this site have an obsolete subdirectory path.
Go to website Early Christian Writings.
Go to website Christian Classics Ethereal Library: The Early Church Fathers.
Go to website New Advent: The Fathers of the Church.
An encyclopedic collection of early Christian documents.

More on the Odes of Solomon:

The Other Bible, edited by Willis Barnstone, a poet and professor of comparative literature, contains his beautiful translations of 23 of the 41 “Odes of Solomon” and the“Hymn of the Pearl.” This 800–page paperback also contains the “Apocryphon of James” and the “Gospel of Philip,” and is a good value for the non-technical reader. Chapter 23 of The Gnostic Bible, edited by Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, contains Barnstone’s translation of all 41 “Songs of Solomon” and the “Song of the Pearl.”

While J. Rendel Harris’ translation of the Syriac original, which he discovered, is perhaps the more literal, Barnstone better conveys the poetic character. To illustrate the contrast in style, here is the beginning of my favorite:

Ode 11 
J. Rendel Harris

My heart was cloven and its flower appeared;
and grace sprang up in it:
and it brought forth fruit to the Lord,

For the Most High clave my heart by His Holy Spirit
and searched my affection towards Him:
and filled me with His love.

And His opening of me became my salvation;
and I ran in His way in His peace,
even in the way of truth:

From the beginning and even to the end
I acquired His knowledge:

And I was established upon the rock of truth,
where He had set me up:

And speaking waters touched my lips
from the fountain of the Lord plenteously:

And I drank and was inebriated
with the living water that doth not die;
And my inebriation was not one without knowledge,

but I forsook vanity
and turned to the Most High my God,
And I was enriched by His bounty,

and I forsook the folly which is diffused over the earth;
and I stripped it off and cast it from me:

And the Lord renewed me in His raiment,
and possessed me by His light...
Willis Barnstone

My heart was cloven and there appeared a flower,
and grace sprang up
and fruit from the Lord,

for the highest one split me with his holy spirit,
exposed my love for him
and filled me with his love.

His splitting of my heart was my salvation
and I followed the way of his peace,
the way of truth.

From the beginning to the end
I received his knowledge,

and sat on the rock of truth
where he placed me.

Speaking waters came near my lip
from the vast fountain of the Lord,

and I drank and was drunk
with the living water that never dies,
and my drunkenness gave me knowledge.

I threw off vanity,
turned to my God
and his bounty made me rich.

I threw off the madness of the earth,
I stripped it from me and cast it away,

and the Lord renewed me in his raiment
and held me in his light....
If the veil enwraps you like a garment, how (or perhaps where) do you reach through it to embrace The Eternal?

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