The Apocryphal Jesus

Course No. 6371
Professor David Brakke, Ph.D., M.Div.
The Ohio State University
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Course No. 6371
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What Will You Learn?

  • Gain new insights into early Christianity by studying non-canonical texts that help you fill in the critical gaps and resolve New Testament contradictions
  • Study a wide range of apocryphal literature to learn more about the Jesus, his family and the apostles (as though they were characters in a novel)
  • Deepen your knowledge of early Christian history and theology, including an introduction to key writers and church leaders

Course Overview

The New Testament gives us 27 canonical texts—gospels, letters, and more—but these works are only a tiny fraction of the many volumes written about the life of Jesus, his family, and the apostles. This alternative body of literature falls under the category of “apocrypha,” which means “hidden” or “secret,” and it offers fascinating insights into the early Christian world and how different groups understood the teachings of Jesus and the first apostles.

These early Christian apocryphal works, which range from infamous texts such as the Gospel of Thomas to obscure fragments such as the Gospel According to the Egyptians, are more than historical curiosities. The canonical Bible is one of the most influential books in all of Western history, but you might be surprised to find out how many gaps and contradictions the New Testament contains. For instance, if you only read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you might wonder:

  • Why does the Catholic Church venerate the Virgin Mary when she plays such a surprisingly minor role in the canonical gospels?
  • How did many come to believe that three wise men visited the infant Jesus? And who were they and where did they come from?
  • Where did the story of Peter’s upside-down crucifixion come from?

Much of what we know about Jesus today actually comes from apocryphal sources rather than the Bible. The Apocryphal Jesus is your chance to learn about the breadth and depth of the early Christian world from a variety of sources—many of which were considered heretical at various times in history. Over the course of 24 revealing lectures, Professor David Brakke of The Ohio State University takes you on a tour of this world and surveys the major apocryphal works that have survived. From forged letters to recently discovered gospels, The Apocryphal Jesus explores the stories and ideas that shaped the foundations of early Christian thought—and continue to influence Christianity today.

Deepen Your Understanding of Figures from the New Testament

In the early centuries of Christianity, there was a concerted effort among church leaders to shape a single narrative, which led to the New Testament canon. Because it has widely been accepted as the official version of Christian doctrine, we tend to think of the New Testament as complete and comprehensive—which you will discover is far from the truth. Early Christian writing contained genres galore, including:

  • Gospels
  • Letters
  • Novels
  • Apocalypse narratives
  • And more

Early Christian authors wrote reams of literature about Jesus, his family, and the apostles, drawing from an even larger oral tradition. Because of the sheer volume of this material, these writers often struggled to create a signal through the noise, with some writers resorting to penning forged works under the guise of better known figures, including Paul and even Jesus himself. Other writers declared their works “secret” or “hidden” as a way to drum up interest.

Even though only a tiny portion of apocryphal works survive today—many as mere fragments discovered recently in the 20th and even 21st centuries—reviewing this literature gives us a host of new angles on well-known figures from the Bible, as well as insights that can’t be found anywhere in the New Testament. In this course, you will:

  • Examine the cult of Mary and her special status in the Church through the Proto-Gospel of James and the Gospel of Mary.
  • Consider how Mary could be a virgin while married to Joseph—and why Joseph seems to disappear from the record of Jesus’ life and where he may have been.
  • Explore what Jesus may have been like as a boy, and learn how he may have debate the apostles through various “dialogic gospels” and “agrapha” during his ministry.
  • Re-consider Judas Iscariot with the Gnostic vision presented in the Gospel of Judas.
  • Learn about the strengths and weakness of Peter as he performs miracles and is ultimately martyred in the Gospel of Peter and Acts of Peter.

By studying these works and more, you will fill in many of the gaps and resolve contradictions from the New Testament. Not only will you learn more about the names you already know, you will also see how the ideas from these works made their way into mainstream Christian belief, even if they were excluded from the Bible itself.

Gain New Insights into Early Christian Thought and Culture

Professor Brakke explores a wealth of apocryphal narratives, giving you deep insights into the stories and ideas of the early Christian era that were omitted from the accepted version of the New Testament. For instance, in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, you will meet Jesus as a child and see that, while he may always have had a spark of the divine inside him, he also may have experienced the same restlessness and rebelliousness as ordinary children.

One of the most fascinating apocryphal works is the Gospel of Thomas, which has been deemed heretical and inspired the Hollywood film Stigmata. What you’ll learn is that this gospel is a collection of Jesus’ sayings, a wisdom book like Song of Solomon or Proverbs in the Old Testament, and it promotes a radically different interpretation of Jesus’ teachings than the traditional narrative, a sort of “road not taken” for Christian theology.

Together, these stories do more than reveal new perspectives on theology. They tell us much about early Christian thought and culture, including:

  • The relationship between Christianity and Jewish law
  • The value of celibacy versus marriage
  • The role of women in Christian society and the church
  • The nature of Hell and the afterlife

You’ll also find out how the Roman Empire shaped early Christianity. The Roman Pontius Pilate may have crucified Jesus, but that fact became awkward once the seat of the church moved to Rome. Books like the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Acts of Pilate refashioned him as a sympathetic figure—perhaps even a saint—thus exonerating the Romans from the crucifixion.

The Ideal Course for Skeptics, Seekers, and Believers

Throughout this course, Professor Brakke explores more than 20 New Testament apocryphal texts, giving you a comprehensive look at the early Christian world as well as a sensitive reading of complex and often contradictory narratives. Along the way, you will discover the early Christians’ view of human nature and the world, their conception of God, and their reactions to the life and teachings of Jesus.

The Apocryphal Jesus is a must-have course for anyone interested in rounding out their knowledge of early Christianity. Skeptics, seekers, believers, and audiences of all backgrounds will find something new and exciting to learn here, and you will come away with a better understanding of the foundations of Christianity, and learn how the echoes of early Christian ideas can still be heard today.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    The Influence of Apocrypha
    The term “apocrypha” comes from the Greek and means “hidden” or “secret.” The apocryphal writings of early Christians have a reputation for being heretical because they are not part of the New Testament’s 27 canonical books. But as you will learn in this first lecture, these early Christian writings have contributed greatly to Christian culture and doctrine. x
  • 2
    Jesus and Mary in the Proto-Gospel of James
    Begin your foray into the early Christian apocrypha with an extended reflection on the Virgin Mary. You may think you know her from the New Testament gospels, but you might be surprised to find out that much of her life's story actually comes from the Proto-Gospel of James, which fills in many of the gaps from the canonical gospels. x
  • 3
    Young Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas
    The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is considered a bizarre book, offering what some see as troubling insight into the childhood of Jesus, portraying him as both amazingly divine but also troublingly human. Delve into some of the scholarly debates around this book and find out why it was so popular in the Middle Ages. x
  • 4
    Joseph and the Magi in the Apocrypha
    The New Testament gospels leave many questions on the table: Why was Mary a virgin if she was married to Joseph? How did Joseph feel about his wife bearing the child of the Lord? In this lecture, see how many early Christian apocryphal works humanize Joseph and resolve some of the questions—and contradictions—of the New Testament. x
  • 5
    The Apocrypha and the Cult of Mary
    While Mary is present in the canonical gospels, it's really in the early Christian apocrypha that she becomes the leader among the saints. Explore several key texts to uncover what we know about Jesus' mother, her relationship with the disciples, and what makes her unique among New Testament figures. Better understand her special place in Christianity today. x
  • 6
    Lost Gospels and Fragments
    Not all apocryphal works have survived, and many of the ones we have today exist only as fragments. Survey several important fragments and lost gospels—how we discovered them and what they say—to gain a fascinating glimpse of early Christian beliefs and controversies that we would not know about otherwise. x
  • 7
    Sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas
    The Gospel of Thomas is the most famous—even infamous—apocryphal gospel, suppressed by the Church for its supposed heresy. As you’ll find out in this lecture, the gospel compiles the sayings of Jesus and is modeled on the wisdom books from the Old Testament. This “living Jesus” provides a radically different angle on the meaning of Jesus’ life and teachings. x
  • 8
    Jesus's Statements beyond the Gospels
    Not all of Jesus’ words come directly from the canonical gospels. These words—known as “agrapha”—come from numerous sources: books of the New Testament other than the gospels, the works of early Christian authors such as Origen, and alternative manuscripts of the New Testament gospels. Examine several of these sources to gain new insights into Jesus. x
  • 9
    Conversations with the Living Jesus
    The gospel writers recorded much of Jesus’ life, but they also acknowledged that they didn’t record everything. Much of what he said is recorded in so-called “dialogic gospels,” accounts of Jesus in lengthy conversations with one or more of his disciples. Study three of these unique works and gain new theological insight into Christianity. x
  • 10
    The Gospel of Judas's Gnostic Vision
    Judas Iscariot is one of the most infamous figures in the Christian Bible, but the Gospel of Judas gives us a new perspective on this traitorous disciple. In this lecture, Professor Brakke introduces you to Gnosticism and shows how, in this gospel, Judas' betrayal of Jesus points to a greater truth about divinity and the material reality of the world. x
  • 11
    The Gospel of Peter and the Talking Cross
    Jesus designated Peter as the founder of the Church, which arguably makes him one of Christianity’s most important disciples. The Gospel of Peter, however, adds some complexity to Peter’s story—and it reframes the story of the Crucifixion to help make Christianity more compatible with the politics of the Roman Empire. x
  • 12
    The Apocrypha and Pilate's Sanctification
    In the early centuries, Christianity became a Roman religion, which created awkwardness given that the Roman Pontius Pilate crucified Jesus. Find out how certain apocryphal texts—including the Gospel of Nicodemus, also known as the Acts of Pilate—dealt with this problem by recasting Pilate as a sympathetic figure and, ultimately, a Christian saint. x
  • 13
    Dialogues with the Risen Jesus
    The New Testament tells us Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the apostles before ascending into heaven. While the canonical gospels left Jesus' words a mystery, many apocryphal writers filled in the gaps. Examine several of these dialogic gospels to learn what Jesus told his followers after the resurrection. x
  • 14
    Hope and Adventure in the Acts of John
    Many of the apocryphal gospels were essentially novels written during the early Christian era, and they were filled with adventurous tales of shipwrecks, necrophilia, self-mutilation, and other wild stories. Dive into the Acts of John to consider this fascinating genre of literature and what it offered audiences of the time—as well as historians today. x
  • 15
    Social Disruption in the Acts of Paul
    Historians agree that this fragmentary work presents us a largely invented character, yet the Acts of Paul also gives us a remarkable challenge to the basic structure of Roman society—the household, the city, the empire, and even the Church. Examine this subversive book and discover a version Christianity that completely upends the reigning social order. x
  • 16
    Thecla: Independent Woman of the Apocrypha
    Continue your study of the Acts of Paul and turn to his disciple, Thecla, who is one of the most interesting women in early Christian writing. Although she likely did not exist in real life, she represents many women who did, and her story gives us a powerful look at the role of women in early Christian society. x
  • 17
    Miracles and Magic in the Acts of Peter
    As you have seen, Peter may have been the first leader of the Church, but he was a flawed leader. The fragmentary Acts of Peter builds on his story from the canonical gospels and shows us a fascinating, if somewhat troubling, figure. Learn more about Peter and his miracles, and find out why he was crucified upside down. x
  • 18
    Peter versus Paul in the Pseudo-Clementines
    Each of the surviving apocryphal acts of the apostles make one apostle its hero, but they don't disparage the other apostles. However, the Pseudo-Clementine texts present a dramatic fight surrounding the early Church. This theological mess may pose a problem for historians, but it is nonetheless an important piece of early Christian literature. x
  • 19
    The Acts of Thomas and the Mission to India
    How did Christianity get to India? Did Thomas really travel across the Middle East and preach the gospel in South Asia? Historians debate these questions and more, but regardless of the literal truth, the Acts of Thomas provides spiritual guidance about humanity's place in the world and challenges us to liberate ourselves. x
  • 20
    Spiritual Love in the Acts of Andrew
    While it was not the most profound of early Christian writings, the Acts of Andrew contains some of the strangest stories in all of early Christian literature, including tales of cannibals, myriad seductions, jilted husbands, and a human-killing giant serpent. Learn about some of these exciting stories, consider the book's genre, and reflect on the role of women. x
  • 21
    Forged Letters of Jesus and the Apostles
    The letter is one of the most important forms of Christian communication, from the New Testament letters of Paul through today's Papal addresses. In the early Christian world, apocryphal letters abounded, many of them forged. Examine the content of some of these letters, including ones purportedly written by Jesus. x
  • 22
    Revelations That Didn't Make the Bible
    The New Testament Book of Revelation is not the only apocalypse narrative from the first centuries of the Common Era. In this lecture, you'll explore the content and theology of several other Christian apocalypses and consider why the Revelation to John made it into the canon while the many other apocalypses did not. x
  • 23
    Tours of Hell before Dante
    You might be surprised to learn the canonical New Testament does not present a single consistent picture of the afterlife in general or hell in particular, yet visions of damnation exist in much of the early Christian apocrypha, including the Apocalypses of Peter and Paul. Take a tour of hell through several of these works and review their continued influence. x
  • 24
    Apocrypha after the New Testament
    Although the New Testament was codified in the fourth century, apocryphal books continued to be written into the Middle Ages. Round out the course by surveying the later Christian apocrypha and witness the way the creative flourishing of Biblical writing continued through the Middle Ages and even into the present. x

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Your professor

David Brakke

About Your Professor

David Brakke, Ph.D., M.Div.
The Ohio State University
Professor David Brakke is the Joe R. Engle Chair in the History of Christianity and Professor of History at The Ohio State University. He received his B.A. in English from the University of Virginia, his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University. He taught for 19 years in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. Professor Brakke has published...
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Reviews

The Apocryphal Jesus is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 57.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent in coverage, presentation, and style Dr. Brakke's course is highly-recommended to those seeking clear information on how to follow the evolution of Christianity the several centuries after Christ's crucifixion, and why the many other pertinent gospels and writings were rejected for inclusion in the bible's final compilation. Dr. Brakke presents the material logically, with careful explanations. His style is easy to follow, and he is cautious not to inject his personal opinions, but to use objectivity as a key. The history re how each of the various writings was known, or came to be found (some quite recently), is fascinating and compelling. We are also told what contemporaries thought of the texts at the time, which throws helpful light on them. This Great Courses course is an excellent addition to those by the outstanding scholar Dr. Ehrman: a very fine complement. In particular, I enjoyed Dr. Brakke's lectures concerning The Acts of Peter and The Acts of Thomas. The lecturer has a brilliant knack of spending just the right amount of time on each of his topics, happily, providing the way for the listener's/viewer's further study and research. #
Date published: 2018-11-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Lots of details about early Christianity I did not realize things like Saints Jochim and Anne were not in the Bible. Fascinating content.
Date published: 2018-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating! Many times since beginning this course, I have retold events from the lessons given. This is the historical view of the lives of Jesus, his step-father Joseph and Mother Mary. It helps bring a human touch to the Bible by explaining the back stories of who the characters are, from where they came and incidents in their lives that are not addressed in the Bible. The professor has chosen great material and arranged it in a fascinating way. The delivery Is dynamic. This has been my favorite course ever!
Date published: 2018-08-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Apocryphal Jesus This is what I have been looking for. I was hung up on getting a degree but I decided I would start with this. Wonderful and informative lectures.
Date published: 2018-06-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Researched and Very Interesting I am very happy with this lecture series. I purchased it for use in an adult Sunday school class. It has provided us with excellent information about early religious writings of the first through fourth centuries. The lectures are presented in a very even-handed fashion without trying to sway the student into one specific way of thinking about these ancient texts. It has been very interesting to learn about non-canonical writings and gospels of the same time period as the New Testament and to understand more about the times, politics, and personalities of early Christianity.
Date published: 2018-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good course. Good course for one wishing to know the different beliefs about Jesus that early believers actually held. likewise it helps one to appreciate that modern humans can differ in their own understandings and to know that those differences don't automatically make other understandings to necessarily be heretical..
Date published: 2018-05-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great review of some challenging topics This reviews material that I had never felt with before. It is done in an interesting way and I would like to learn more.
Date published: 2018-05-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from First lecture explains the title. Have finished lesson #15. I bought the online audio version and downloaded entire course to my laptop. Though I have been a protestant Christian over 50 years, most of the info in this course is unavailable within the traditional church setting. The course and lectures are presented in a historical rather than theological format. For the Christian with a strong spiritual foundation and a curious mind they are non-threatening and very informative. The lessons are well presented and the guide book allows deeper digging for those who would like more details.
Date published: 2018-03-18
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