The Apocryphal Jesus

Course No. 6371
Professor David Brakke, Ph.D., M.Div.
The Ohio State University
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Course No. 6371
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Gain new insights into early Christianity by studying non-canonical texts that help you fill in the critical gaps and resolve New Testament contradictions
  • numbers Study a wide range of apocryphal literature to learn more about the Jesus, his family and the apostles (as though they were characters in a novel)
  • numbers Deepen your knowledge of early Christian history and theology, including an introduction to key writers and church leaders

Course Overview

The New Testament gives us 27 canonical texts—gospels, letters, and more—but these works are only a tiny fraction of the many volumes written about the life of Jesus, his family, and the apostles. This alternative body of literature falls under the category of “apocrypha,” which means “hidden” or “secret,” and it offers fascinating insights into the early Christian world and how different groups understood the teachings of Jesus and the first apostles.

These early Christian apocryphal works, which range from infamous texts such as the Gospel of Thomas to obscure fragments such as the Gospel According to the Egyptians, are more than historical curiosities. The canonical Bible is one of the most influential books in all of Western history, but you might be surprised to find out how many gaps and contradictions the New Testament contains. For instance, if you only read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you might wonder:

  • Why does the Catholic Church venerate the Virgin Mary when she plays such a surprisingly minor role in the canonical gospels?
  • How did many come to believe that three wise men visited the infant Jesus? And who were they and where did they come from?
  • Where did the story of Peter’s upside-down crucifixion come from?

Much of what we know about Jesus today actually comes from apocryphal sources rather than the Bible. The Apocryphal Jesus is your chance to learn about the breadth and depth of the early Christian world from a variety of sources—many of which were considered heretical at various times in history. Over the course of 24 revealing lectures, Professor David Brakke of The Ohio State University takes you on a tour of this world and surveys the major apocryphal works that have survived. From forged letters to recently discovered gospels, The Apocryphal Jesus explores the stories and ideas that shaped the foundations of early Christian thought—and continue to influence Christianity today.

Deepen Your Understanding of Figures from the New Testament

In the early centuries of Christianity, there was a concerted effort among church leaders to shape a single narrative, which led to the New Testament canon. Because it has widely been accepted as the official version of Christian doctrine, we tend to think of the New Testament as complete and comprehensive—which you will discover is far from the truth. Early Christian writing contained genres galore, including:

  • Gospels
  • Letters
  • Novels
  • Apocalypse narratives
  • And more

Early Christian authors wrote reams of literature about Jesus, his family, and the apostles, drawing from an even larger oral tradition. Because of the sheer volume of this material, these writers often struggled to create a signal through the noise, with some writers resorting to penning forged works under the guise of better known figures, including Paul and even Jesus himself. Other writers declared their works “secret” or “hidden” as a way to drum up interest.

Even though only a tiny portion of apocryphal works survive today—many as mere fragments discovered recently in the 20th and even 21st centuries—reviewing this literature gives us a host of new angles on well-known figures from the Bible, as well as insights that can’t be found anywhere in the New Testament. In this course, you will:

  • Examine the cult of Mary and her special status in the Church through the Proto-Gospel of James and the Gospel of Mary.
  • Consider how Mary could be a virgin while married to Joseph—and why Joseph seems to disappear from the record of Jesus’ life and where he may have been.
  • Explore what Jesus may have been like as a boy, and learn how he may have debate the apostles through various “dialogic gospels” and “agrapha” during his ministry.
  • Re-consider Judas Iscariot with the Gnostic vision presented in the Gospel of Judas.
  • Learn about the strengths and weakness of Peter as he performs miracles and is ultimately martyred in the Gospel of Peter and Acts of Peter.

By studying these works and more, you will fill in many of the gaps and resolve contradictions from the New Testament. Not only will you learn more about the names you already know, you will also see how the ideas from these works made their way into mainstream Christian belief, even if they were excluded from the Bible itself.

Gain New Insights into Early Christian Thought and Culture

Professor Brakke explores a wealth of apocryphal narratives, giving you deep insights into the stories and ideas of the early Christian era that were omitted from the accepted version of the New Testament. For instance, in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, you will meet Jesus as a child and see that, while he may always have had a spark of the divine inside him, he also may have experienced the same restlessness and rebelliousness as ordinary children.

One of the most fascinating apocryphal works is the Gospel of Thomas, which has been deemed heretical and inspired the Hollywood film Stigmata. What you’ll learn is that this gospel is a collection of Jesus’ sayings, a wisdom book like Song of Solomon or Proverbs in the Old Testament, and it promotes a radically different interpretation of Jesus’ teachings than the traditional narrative, a sort of “road not taken” for Christian theology.

Together, these stories do more than reveal new perspectives on theology. They tell us much about early Christian thought and culture, including:

  • The relationship between Christianity and Jewish law
  • The value of celibacy versus marriage
  • The role of women in Christian society and the church
  • The nature of Hell and the afterlife

You’ll also find out how the Roman Empire shaped early Christianity. The Roman Pontius Pilate may have crucified Jesus, but that fact became awkward once the seat of the church moved to Rome. Books like the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Acts of Pilate refashioned him as a sympathetic figure—perhaps even a saint—thus exonerating the Romans from the crucifixion.

The Ideal Course for Skeptics, Seekers, and Believers

Throughout this course, Professor Brakke explores more than 20 New Testament apocryphal texts, giving you a comprehensive look at the early Christian world as well as a sensitive reading of complex and often contradictory narratives. Along the way, you will discover the early Christians’ view of human nature and the world, their conception of God, and their reactions to the life and teachings of Jesus.

The Apocryphal Jesus is a must-have course for anyone interested in rounding out their knowledge of early Christianity. Skeptics, seekers, believers, and audiences of all backgrounds will find something new and exciting to learn here, and you will come away with a better understanding of the foundations of Christianity, and learn how the echoes of early Christian ideas can still be heard today.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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Your professor

David Brakke

About Your Professor

David Brakke, Ph.D., M.Div.
The Ohio State University
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...
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The Apocryphal Jesus is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 69.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting and informative Dr. Brakke did a fine overview of the non canonical ancient Christian literature out there almost all of which I was not even aware of. The Gnostic heresies were interesting as I did not know what Gnosticism was. The various "acts" stories were action adventure novels for those could read back then and had the leisure time for such entertainment. I had never heard of Thecla or that she had a Byzantine church named for her even though she probably only existed in "The acts of Paul and Thecla".
Date published: 2020-03-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Heresy is in the eye of the beholder Thought provoking about the beliefs of early Christians. Attempts to explain areas of the New Testament which had areas of questioning. Going back to excluded roots gives more meaning to Orthodox dogma.
Date published: 2020-03-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another fine peek behind the New Testament As a fan of Professor Erhman's 'Lost Christianities', I thoroughly enjoyed Professor Brakke's clear, well-organized presentation of his examination of non-canonical Christian literature from the first through fourth centuries CE. Unlike Erhman, Brakke presented more measured descriptions early Christian writings that most people (most notably, Christians) are completely unaware. Mostly importantly, Brakke places these writings in the context (time) in which the proto-orthodoxy was written...what authors may have been influenced by earlier apostles. One of the apocryphal gospels clarified an aspect of the Jesus story giving me new information about the birth and childhood of Jesus and about the background of Mary, his mother, while others explained the story of Joseph, Jesus’s alleged human father. Turns out that old Joe had been previously married, with kids of his own (hence Jesus' brothers). His marriage to Mary was more of a divine arrangement that was never consummated! I encourage all interested in considering these lectures to refer to the review by really sums up my thoughts on this great course. Coupons and sales are not apocryphal, but well defined and should be consummated!
Date published: 2019-10-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Illuminating Review of the Apocrypha This is actually the second course I've taken now on the "apocryphal" Christian writings. The first one was pretty good. I thought Professor Brakke was even better. It's not that the material he presents is uniformly better, but I liked his style better. In fact, in some areas the first course presented more information. In some other areas, Brakke is more informative. It turns out there's enough material in the "apocryphal" category that 12 or 18 hours of lecture cannot possibly present all of it and lecturers have to make choices. Brakke is pretty careful not to present his personal opinions about this material, but he does present consensus views of the scholars (or sometimes both majority and minority opinions) as to the authorship, the general date and origin of these various texts. Generally speaking there is good reason why these books were not included in the New Testament. However they certainly illuminate a vast shadowland of Christian thinking -- a whole plethora of myths, stories, legends, and differing attempts to understand the theology of Jesus's teaching or sometimes, to reconcile it with other, similar belief systems of the times. Brakke tries whenever possible to point out how some of this apocryphal literature has crept into mainstream Christian traditions. He also has what I can only call a gentle and kind approach as an educator. Good course.
Date published: 2019-08-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not really a history course, more like literature I have listened to most of TTC courses on early Christianity and Judaism as well as most of the history of Mesopotamia courses. This course is less a history course than many of these others and much more of a literature course. To many, this may be a feature, not a bug.... :) This approach does have the benefit of really neutering any potential conflict over religious theology. These texts are all treated as reflections on or of particular sectarian groups and not as challenges to received orthodoxy. There should be little here that offends religious sensibilities. (Having said that, he does treat as the received scholarly wisdom that between 3 and 6 of Paul's letters are pseudonymous and that the John of Revelation is not the same John as the author of the Gospel. Take your pick as to whether that might be offensive or not.) Prof. Brakke goes through a methodical review of the Apocryphal documents (gospels, acts, epistles, and apocalypses) listed in the course. He covers both the content and the context of each of the documents he covers. And it is interesting to hear both the ancient context in which they were written as well as the modern contexts in which they were discovered. He then goes through the content of each of the documents, often in great detail. The stories are interesting and Prof. Brakke often goes over the impact that these apocryphal stories have had on our modern view of the "story" of Jesus. However, as mentioned, these lectures treat the subject as literature, and the history we get is largely incidental rather than central. Prof. Brakke is engaging and fun to listen to. (I have the audio course.) My interest didn't flag through the whole series and I tore through it in pretty quick fashion. I believe most listeners who have an interest in the history of the early Church, the stories of Jesus, and/or the Bible, will enjoy these lectures.
Date published: 2019-03-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fun review of the alternate fantasies about Jesus After Jesus died, imaginations ran wild with stories about him, his teachings, his nature, and so on. It is from this rich set of stories that the fantasies of the New Testament were selected, putting them into perspective. Here are many fascinating (and contradictory) stories (the apocrypha) about all the central characters, based on rumors, speculations, fabrications, and the kinds of distortions that come from people repeating (or mis-repeating or embellishing) stories they have heard. These stories evolving, or emerging, and circulating for decades and centuries after Jesus died. It is no wonder that the actual canon of the New Testament is loaded with contradictions, and amazing omissions - for example why incredible events told in a later gospel, which if true should have been a key feature in any story about Jesus, is omitted entirely from earlier gospels. Only four stars because it becomes a bit tedious by the end.
Date published: 2019-03-01
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Unable to download...defective files, no help I bought the online version of this audiobook and it doesn't download. Great Courses has no helpline or chatroom to figure out what it wrong. I've never had a problem before but they have completely crashed and burned this time.
Date published: 2019-02-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have not really viewed this DVD as of yet. However, I will be viewing it shortly as I will be using it in teaching my adult Sunday School class
Date published: 2019-01-20
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