Part 5: Why non-canonical texts are useful according to Tony Chartrand-Burke

Tony Chartrand-Burke of Apocryphicity has put up a terrific post on the questions we have been discussing the last couple of days. His post is called, Do non-canonical texts make you uneasy? I am in 100% agreement with what he says. If you want to read the entire post (and it is worthwhile to do so) click here. I copy some of his main (and well articulated) points below as an applause and a "second."

Tony Chartand-Burke says:

My approach to the CA in my research and teaching is guided by several principles:

  • All Christian literature, canonical and noncanonical, are created equal—i.e., they are all expressions of Christian thought of one flavour or another. Whether the group that values the text is in the majority or the minority at any given time is irrelevant.
  • All Christian literature, canonical and noncanonical, and all Christian groups, orthodox or heretical, are similarly equal. As scholars and historians we should not favor one or the other simply because we find their theology, practices, etc. attractive to us.
  • All Christian literature, canonical and noncanonical, are the products of authors who felt no hesitation in altering the facts (or better: their sources) to suit their needs (be they theological, christological, social, or political). A text’s canonical status is no guarantee of historical accuracy.
  • All that said, Christian texts do not have the same utility. The Synoptic Gospels and the letters of Paul remain our best sources for the Historical Jesus and the emerging Jesus movement. Simply put, they are earlier and closer in perspective to the Palestinian Jewish milieu from which the group emerged. Certain later texts may contain echoes of the interests of first century groups (e.g., Ps.-Clement and the Ebionites) but one must use these with caution when trying to reconstruct the views of their ancestors.

I suspect these principles are not particularly radical. Nevertheless, they might be a useful corrective to the portrayal of CA scholars by Christian apologetic writers. In their view we are all modern Gnostics attempting to replace canonical gospels with noncanonical texts, texts that we all believe to be earlier and better than the “Big Four.” Some even say we are influenced by the “powers of darkness.” The apologists may find such invective useful for warning naïve Christians away from the CA, but it has no place in scholarly debate.