“Should We Be Interested in Stories Christians Told about Jesus in the Second Century?” by Vernon K. Robbins

Vernon K. Robbins
Vernon K. Robbins

Vernon K. Robbins is professor of New Testament and comparative sacred texts at Emory University, Atlanta, and author of Who Do People Say I Am? Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity.

This is the third post he has written for EerdWord about his new book, which was officially released this week and is now available. 

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I remember when a number of my college students during the 1990s told me there was concern among their parents that they were reading Gospels outside the New Testament. They were reading them for my class on Jesus and the Gospels, which I privately called “Jesus and the Twelve Gospels” — a title I kept to myself until only recently.

Then came Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, first the book (2003), and then the film (2006). Every year since, a number of students have asked me if it was okay for them to share information from my class sessions with their parents. To make it easier for them to do this, and to make the material available beyond the small circle of my students and their families, I decided to write Who Do People Say I Am? Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity.

Some readers will likely have doubts about the point of my book. How can it be informative or enlightening, they may wonder, to read Gospels that were purposely left out of the New Testament?

Who Do People Say I Am?
Who Do People Say I Am?

Here, though, are just a couple of the tidbits I’ve gleaned from my study of these fascinating extrabiblical books.

Two-thirds of the one hundred fourteen sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas (it only contains sayings!) are versions of sayings in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. But many of these sayings are worded so that they sound more like sayings in John. There is, however, no explicit saying of Jesus from the Gospel of John — like “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6) — in the Gospel of Thomas! How might a person reword some sayings in Matthew, Mark, or Luke so they sound more like the Gospel of John? Or do you actually do this yourself sometimes?

Here is another one: did you know that the Acts of John (perhaps emerging around 200 CE) presents the “divine” Jesus (in the form of light and a voice) talking with John in a cave while the “earthly” Jesus is dying on the cross? This means that, according to this Gospel, the divine Jesus separated himself from the earthly Jesus during his crucifixion. Sounds strange, right? But let me ask you this: do you ever separate the divine Jesus from the earthly Jesus in your own mind? If not, how do you merge the Johannine Word “who was with God and was God” (John 1:1) with the Jesus who cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)?

Overall, I think we should ask the question: “What would it have been like to live in the second century as a Christian who believed in Jesus?” Regularly Christians, and I presume others, think about Jesus during the first century CE. But if no second century Christians had been interested enough in Jesus to tell stories about him, there would be no Christians today.

What would some of the stories they told about Jesus look like? Well, many Gospels and Gospel-like writings outside the New Testament show us what some of them did look like. Should we be interested? Certainly! Why not? These are the people who “took Jesus on the road,” so to speak, in ways that brought him — in the give and take of life and all its conflicts — to the world in which we live today.

Click to order Vernon K. Robbins’s Who Do People Say I Am? Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity.

Check out two earlier posts by Vernon K. Robbins on EerdWord: