The B-List: Early Christian Writings That Didn't Make the Cut—and what they tell us about the early church

SPRING RETREAT at Pine Springs Ranch - Advance Registration Required.  Print registration form (see link below), complete and mail with payment by April 6.  See you there!

May 4, 2012 - May 6, 2012
John R. Jones, PhD, Associate Professor of Religion, La Sierra University

FRIDAY EVENING:  “So what was Leigh Teabing talking about, anyway?”

The Da Vinci Code is built around the claim that there were many early gospels, which the patriarchs of the Church eventually suppressed—and which would surprise us if we had and read them.  Parts of this theory are true, and parts are not—but which is which?  First, a quick overview of non-canonical “gospels:” general characteristics, variety of viewpoints, connections back into various aspects of Jesus’ life, driving motives.  And a look at the stages in the preservation of the memories about Jesus.

Then we’ll look at the actual text of certain of the earliest non-canonical gospels—a process that’s both entertaining, intriguing and serious.  We sample materials from the only two serious contenders for pre-New Testament gospels: (a) The Gospel of the Nazareans, and (b) that fascinating, mysterious source called “Q” – a pretty clear example of a “gospel behind the gospels.”

So what do we learn from these sources, that we didn’t know before?  

SABBATH MORNING 1:  “The Other Muhammad Ali”

An amazing discovery in the sands of Egypt that rivals that of the Dead Sea Scrolls—yielding a treasure-trove that includes the Gospel of Thomas and 45 other early Christian documents not included in the New Testament.  What are we to make of these?  

SABBATH MORNING 2:  “Peter, Paul and Mary”

We’ll look at the Gospel and the Acts of Peter, and then turn to especially consider two women who obviously bothered the early Christians a lot:  The story of the Gospel of Mary is itself an episode of discovery and recovery in the midst of two world wars and other tragedies.  And it preserves the early Christian intrigue with the relationship between Jesus and Mary, and its influence in the early Christian movement.  Three fragmentary copies of this text exist, dating from the 3rd and 5th centuries; but the material they preserve has been dated on linguistic grounds to the late 1st to early 2nd centuries.  Definitely worth a look!

The second story of an early Christian woman derives from the Acts of Paul, and takes place in Iconium.  It too records material that, while not traceable back to Paul, appears to be in circulation by the end of the first century AD.  Not only is the story of Thecla a rattling good yarn, it reveals much about early Christianity’s appeal to the female half of the human race.  How to relate this tradition to the appeal for public respectability and conventional conduct in the epistles to Timothy and Titus?

SABBATH AFTERNOON:  “…and last but not least, Judas”

One of the most despised figures of history, Judas too has his own early document—completely unknown until one threadbare papyrus copy was discovered by some peasants in Egypt in the late 1970’s, and then subjected to a bizarre series of cloak-and-dagger misadventures until finally deciphered in 2000.  We’ll view a bit of the National Geographic video tracing this strange story, then read what we have of the actual text in English translation.  Then we’ll ask ourselves what motives prompted the composition of this strange and haunting work?

SUNDAY MORNING:  “So what can we conclude about all this?”

We complete our survey of these early non-canonical Christian materials with a look at the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, the earliest attempt at a church manual, regarded by some scholars as predating the canonical gospels.

There is much more:  The Epistle of Barnabas, dating from the turn of the 1st/2nd century; the Epistles of Ignatius bishop of Antioch, written to a half-dozen churches as he was passing through them en route to his martyrdom in Rome (108AD), the Shepherd of Hermas, a visionary Christian apocalypse written during the first half of the 2nd century, and more.  Each of these works was regarded as sacred scripture in some early Christian circles, and functioned as part of their Bible.  At the same time, certain of our New Testament books—most notably the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Revelation of St. John—were seriously doubted in certain Christian groups.  As the canon gradually took shape in the 5th century and beyond, we consider anew the influences that gave it shape—and what we can learn about the first believers from all of their writings.


John, a third-generation Adventist, was raised in the Philippine Islands, where his parents served on the faculty of Philippine Union College.  After graduation from Walla Walla College and completing masters programs at Andrews University, John and his wife Patricia moved to Napa, California for a year of pastoral internship and nursing.  They then accepted invitations to Hong Kong Adventist College where, for five years, John chaired the theology department and Pat established and administered their School of Nursing.

After doing masters and doctoral programs at Vanderbilt University, John and Pat returned to Asia in 1978, where, for nine years, John taught at the Far Eastern Division’s theological seminary and Pat established and administered the Division’s graduate nursing program.

John has been with Loma Linda and La Sierra Universities since 1987, when he joined the central administration of LLU as Senior Assistant to the Vice President for Academic Administration.  Following the separation of the two institutions in 1990, he served as Dean of the School of Religion at La Sierra until five years ago when he hung up his administrative hat “for good” and returned to his first love, full-time teaching.

John’s areas of expertise are New Testament studies and Asian religions.  A well-known preacher and public speaker, he is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the Adventist Society of Religious Studies.  His extracurricular interests include several languages, folk music of several traditions, and conducting adventuresome study-tours “to obscure places like Tibet and the Silk Road.”

Pat teaches in the graduate nursing program at Loma Linda University and serves as Associate Director of the Health Ministries Department of the General Conference.  Their married daughters Carla and Janelle are cultural anthropologist and psychiatrist, respectively.

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58000 Apple Canyon Road
Mountain Center, CA 92561
United States
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