The Apocryphal Jesus

The Apocryphal Jesus
Course Trailer
The Influence of Apocrypha
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.

33 min
Jesus and Mary in the Proto-Gospel of James
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.

28 min
Young Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas
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....

30 min
Joseph and the Magi in the Apocrypha
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....

30 min
The Apocrypha and the Cult of Mary
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....

32 min
Lost Gospels and Fragments
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....

32 min
Sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas
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....

32 min
Jesus's Statements beyond the Gospels
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....

31 min
Conversations with the Living Jesus
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.

30 min
The Gospel of Judas's Gnostic Vision
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.

32 min
The Gospel of Peter and the Talking Cross
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....

32 min
The Apocrypha and Pilate's Sanctification
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....

33 min
Dialogues with the Risen Jesus
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....

34 min
Hope and Adventure in the Acts of John
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....

33 min
Social Disruption in the Acts of Paul
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....

33 min
Thecla: Independent Woman of the Apocrypha
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....

31 min
Miracles and Magic in the Acts of Peter
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....

31 min
Peter versus Paul in the Pseudo-Clementines
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.

31 min
The Acts of Thomas and the Mission to India
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....

30 min
Spiritual Love in the Acts of Andrew
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....

31 min
Forged Letters of Jesus and the Apostles
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....

31 min
Revelations That Didn't Make the Bible
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....

30 min
Tours of Hell before Dante
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....

30 min
Apocrypha after the New Testament
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....

33 min
David Brakke

What the people we will study would want us to do is to read their texts, to consider with open minds what they teach us, and-just possibly-to pursue our own quests for the truth about God and ourselves-that is, to seek our own gnosis.


Yale University


The Ohio State University

About David Brakke

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 extensively on the history and literature of ancient Christianity, especially Egyptian Christianity, early monasticism, the formation of the biblical canon, and Gnosticism. His books include The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity; Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity; and Introduction to Christianity, with Mary Jo Weaver. He has co-edited six volumes of scholarly essays and contributed nearly 40 articles to professional journals and volumes. From 2005 to 2015, he served as editor of the Journal of Early Christian Studies.

At Indiana University, Professor Brakke received recognition for his teaching and research, including the Outstanding Junior Faculty Award. He has held several important fellowships, including ones from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is currently preparing a revised edition of Bentley Layton's The Gnostic Scriptures.

Also By This Professor