The process is akin to an artist creating a mosaic from shards of glass that have been broken or retooled or rearranged to fit a new vision. Some of the shards end up in the trash while others are placed side-by-side in such a way to create a new pattern. Unlike the artistic process, the process of maintaining communal memories is largely unconscious.
This means that the early Christian literature not only is a remaking of the past for the present, but it is a fragmentary past that is recreated. To understand the fragments, the reader has to be privy to the bigger picture to which it relates, or the frame that holds it all together. The text will not tell us the whole story, but only bits of the story, and it assumes the rest. Our job is to try to understand the assumptions, the rest of the story that is missing.
This also means that the fragments have been chosen and rearranged, not willy-nilly like someone heaving a basket of shards down a stairway. But the unconscious process is driven by conscious agendas, to understand the past in certain ways that will explain or justify the present. There is a sense of normation going on, bringing the shards into an order to provide the normative picture for the group.
So there will be shards that are forgotten or diminished in importance. Here I think of my work on the Gospel of Judas - how this text provides us with some of the shards that went missing from the apostolic tradition particularly in terms of the normative struggle over the faith tradition, its rituals, and its authority.
The apocryphal literature is SO IMPORTANT for many reasons not the least of which is its preservation of the lost shards. Much of this literature shows us that the story created by the apostolic churches about the faith that was handed down to them from the Twelve (the same everywhere in all the churches across the world), is a story they created as their normative story. The apostolic churches in the second century were not the dominant, although they told the story in such a way that they appeared dominant. And when they became dominant, they burned the literature of those who represented other opinions, so that it came to appear that they were the only Christians who had anything to say.
So again, we return to the theme of this blog. If we want to really understand early Christianity, we can't do it from the canonical literature alone. We have to try to recover the lost shards and the diverse voices of other Christians whose communal memories are different from the apostolic (and our own).