Occasionally, I get asked about non-canonical literature; the books which for one reason or another are not included among the core canon — either Protestant or Orthodox or Roman Catholic — available in modern Bibles.
My first piece of advice on this is really basic: Don’t get interested in any of these unless you know for sure that you’ve read each and every book in the Bible you already own. There is a tendency among some Christians to want to grab the remote control and see what else is on. As an Evangelical, my Bible contains 39 books in the first testament and 27 in the second. I believe that’s a minimum prerequisite for going off-road to look at things like The Gospel of Thomas or others of that genre.
Once we’ve got that out of the way, I confess that I’ve often struggled with reading the non-canonical books. Either the form is unusual, or the content is bizarre, the available text is fragmented, or there’s just something about the tenor of the book that suggests it’s out of place. But I say that knowing that believers in past centuries felt the same way about Esther or Revelation or James or the R-rated Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs, aka Canticles).
Enter Jewish researcher Joel M. Hoffman, writer of The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor (2014, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press). What I appreciated here was instead of reprinting and analyzing the texts, the author tells me about the various narratives in his own words. While purists may question the attraction of this second-party account, to me, it fits the bill perfectly.
Not that the texts themselves are not problematic to one raised in Evangelical Christianity:
- Abraham’s dad was an idol-maker
- The snake in the Garden of Eden had a crush on Eve and wanted to marry her
- Cain was the world’s first materialist
- The Tower of Babel was built for height, not fame; it’s a post-Flood account, after all.
There are other stories as well, some more fanciful than what I’ve listed here.
There’s also background on confirming documents.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls may be been discovered, but it’s more of an ongoing story to this very day
- The Septuagint is fraught with unusual word choices sometimes hinging on a single vowel or letter fragment, or a combination of word meanings that create a completely different reading of a particular phrase
- Josephus was great when he painted in broad strokes, but sometimes a bit off on details; and to call him an opportunist is a bit of an understatement.
A week later, recalling the book from memory, these are just a few things that come to mind.
I found the writing a bit uneven, though a friend who bought the book praised the author’s writing style. Another person who borrowed my copy for several chapters objected to the author presenting something very academic on one page, and then being too casual and informal on the next. In fairness, there was much disparate material covered here.
The book did whet my appetite for reconsidering collections such as The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden (a title I’ve held in my hands on a few occasions, but didn’t get more than a dozen pages in) but I’d be more likely to return to this one than to attempt to navigate through the original writings (the opposite choice of many, I realize).
Hoffman has other books, such as And God Said, but this title is the one most easy to access or afford to purchase.
…Just because it’s on the cutting room floor doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; but what we can be confident in as that God has given us in the core canon the books He wanted us to have.