One last question from a child …
How do you handle the antilegomena in your interpretation of scripture?
Wait! Just kidding! That question obviously wasn’t from a child. That was from someone smarter than me!
When I was in seminary, I resolved to not learn big words. (Too hard to explain later.) So, I must confess, that I had to look up “antilegomena.” How many of you actually know what it means?! It’s actually an important topic.
Let me begin it with a story …
About the time I arrived at Spirit of Joy, Dan Brown’s The DiVinci Code was published. Wrapped around a thrilling adventure story, there was a very clever anti-Christian, anti-historical theme. Brilliantly conceived, the author started the book with a line that said something like, “There are three untrue things in this book to help the author tell an exciting tale.” And he listed three things. “The rest,” he said, “is absolutely true.” It was a brilliant conceit! The fiction writer created trust and invited reader into a series of half-truths and lies that he presented as absolutely true.
To uncover the mystery that was at the heart of the novel, the reader – along with the main characters – systematically discovered that the genealogy of Jesus was a hoax … and … that the Church (especially the old Catholic Church) carefully constructed (and still perpetuates) this cover-up. And the Church (the author contended) corruptly promoted this lie by emphasizing only certain books of the Bible and hiding the witness of other (more true) books.
America loved the novel. It was exciting. But because of the way the story was constructed, hundreds of thousands began to doubt the genuineness of Scripture. It was a very, very big deal!
In response, some of Christianity’s greatest authors tackled the historical and theological inaccuracies of The DiVinci Code, revealing instead the authority of Scriptures. Sparked by a simple novel’s conceit, thousands of churches preached sermon series to address the reliability of Scripture. There were whole Sunday School curriculums and documentaries made to refute author Dan Brown’s contentions. It was a big, big deal in culture and in the Church.
And sadly, it was for many people, the final nail in the coffin for their trust in God, faith, and Church.
So, what is the “antilegomena”? I found this quote: “Antilegomena, a direct transliteration of the Greek ἀντιλεγόμενα, refers to written texts whose authenticity or value is disputed. Eusebius in his Church History used the term for those Christian scriptures that were ‘disputed’, literally ‘spoken against’, in Early Christianity before the closure of the New Testament canon.”
The contention of The DiVinci Code (and of many skeptics) is that at a certain point in history – roughly 300 years after the death of Jesus – the power brokers in an increasingly corrupt (Catholic) Church picked and chose which “Scriptures” would be counted as authoritative. They picked books that solidified their power; they excluded books that told a more true story. That’s not what happened, but if you believe in conspiracy theories (and want to distrust the Church), that’s a compelling narrative.
The way the formation of the New Testament happened is actually very different than this cloak and dagger story. Starting just a decade or two after Jesus’ death, eye witnesses to Jesus’ life were writing to other eye witnesses to Jesus’ life. Peter, for example, was writing to primarily Jews in Jerusalem, many of whom, like him, had lived through Jesus’ ministry and the events of the crucifixion.
- Some of these writers were telling stories of Jesus’ life. These “books” were called Gospels.
- Other Apostles were writing to other eyewitnesses and to a lot of new believers to teach them about who Jesus was, the theological implications of his coming, and how to live as believers in response to our faith in Him. Generally, these were called Epistles. Peter, John, James, Paul and others wrote these Epistles.
But here’s the point: They were all written in the first century during the age of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and during the formation of the church.
When these Gospels and Letters were written, they’d be given to churches. The best of these writings would then be copied and shared with other churches. (Passing along these Gospels and Letters was an expensive and time consuming process, so truly only the best were passed along.)
And then time passed … By the middle of the second century, a new generation of pastors and teachers were now quoting the writings of these original Apostles. They were quoting them as authoritative. They were quoting them as Scriptural.
And then more time passed … The Church for two centuries had been counting as authoritative the books that we now call the books of the New Testament. But as time went by, more and more heresies kept developing. And often these heresies were accompanied by new “books” and stories and tales about Jesus. Written now many decades after Jesus and his eyewitnesses –and in service to their alternative theological beliefs – a handful of these books found small, temporary audiences (and archeologically, some have been preserved to today).
Let me give you an example: One stream of non-Biblical books comes from a school of thought called Gnosticism. It came to prominence not too many decades after the church was founded. Gnosis is from the Greek word that means knowledge, and the Gnostics championed personal “knowledge” (your own unique insight) over orthodoxy and tradition. An example of a “Gnostic Gospel” that ran counter to what Church had been using for decades as authoritative was The Gospel of Judas. In this “gospel” it is claimed that Judas wasn’t a traitor (Jesus actually asked Judas to turn him in in order to bring about the final key events). In the process, then, it was said that Jesus revealed to Judas alone key truths that the other disciples didn’t know. (New “Gospel.” Totally different truths.)
By the Fourth Century when Church Councils met to codify the New Testament canon, there were many such alternative Gospels and false Epistles. Contrary to the claims by The DiVinci Code and many skeptics, the “Church Fathers” at these Councils weren’t picking winners and losers. They were simply affirming what the Church had been using from the original Apostles for already now three hundred years. And it’s easy to find all of these New Testament books quoted repeatedly in the writings of three centuries of early church theologians and saints.
Now, it’s easy to talk about why the current twenty-seven books of the New Testament made it in, and much later “secret knowledge,” like the Gospel of Judas, didn’t. That’s obvious and easy to differentiate.
But in addition to the twenty-seven canonical books, there were many more letters and pieces of early Christian literature that were commonly used by churches for centuries. These writings were not heretical. These writings – like the Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Barnabas – were widely valued by the church. The only discussion at these Councils was whether they did or didn’t deserve the same canonical status as the books we now call Scripture.
Let me give you an example, the Didache is perhaps the most important of this class of theologically important writings. The Didache is in a sense one of the Church’s first catechisms. It reveals authoritatively first century Christian practices, and it taught early Christians about baptism, communion, Church structure, and Christian ethics. Written primarily to a Jewish Christian audience, it prescribed how the Jewish Church must adapt from old Jewish roots to welcome Gentile believers. The Didache didn’t make it into our canonical Scriptures, but it is nevertheless one of the most important documents in church history. It is a testament to value of the antilegomena, even if it falls short of what we call Scripture.
So … to answer the question: How do I use these valuable, orthodox, non-scriptural texts – the antilegomena? Honestly, I use them very, very little. I figure it like this: I’ve only got one lifetime; I think I’ll spend it mining the depths of the books that made it in. The rest of Christian history and literature can surely inform me, but I’m spending most of my time with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, and James!
In Christ’s Love,
a guy who likes big truths
(even if he avoids big words!)