This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 8 No 3 (June 2014)
Slowly the public has learned that the Gospels in the Bible are not the only ones that were written. Some of these other half-forgotten texts have survived in whole or in part; some have vanished, known only by their names and, perhaps, by a few quotations in the works of other writers. Of some of them we do not even know the names.
Were these Gospels suppressed and kept secret because they contain knowledge about Jesus that the established church did not like? Do they tell us any more about the life of Jesus than do the texts in the Bible? Is there any value to them at all?
To try to answer these questions, it may be best to start by defining just what a Gospel is. The English word is a translation (via the Latin evangelium) of the Greek word euaggelion (euangelion), meaning “good message” or “good news.” The original word in Old English, godspell, or “good tale,” had much the same meaning.
Thus a Gospel is an attempt to convey the “good news” about Jesus Christ. It presents his teachings and as much of his life as is relevant to those teachings. It is not a biography. The genre of biography was known in the ancient world, but the Gospels do not try to fit into it. Hence we know very little about the life of Jesus apart from his public ministry.
The Gospels all share another striking feature. None of them – or, for that matter, any of the texts in the Bible – were written by anyone that knew Jesus personally. Nor do they claim to be. The Gospel of John has a curious statement at the end: “This is the beloved disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). This verse seems to start by saying that this Gospel was written by Jesus’s mysterious “beloved disciple” (usually identified with John), but then it says, “we know that his testimony is true.” No one who had been an eyewitness to Jesus’s life, or who had written the text himself, would have any reason to say this. The other Gospels are even more elusive about their connection to their subject. They were written by people who knew of Jesus only at second or third hand. It’s useful to remember this fact when looking at Gospels of any kind.
In order to piece through the enormous amount of scholarship that the Gospels have inspired, we might start with some basic hypotheses that are accepted by most reputable (i.e., non-fundamentalist) scholars, although they are little known to the public.
Marcan & Q Hypotheses
The first is the Marcan hypothesis. This refers to the idea that Mark was the first of the New Testament Gospels to be written (one widely accepted date is c.70 CE). By intense textual analysis carried out over many decades, scholars have shown that Matthew and Luke are familiar with Mark and base their works on his, rather than the other way around. Because of their similarities, these three are called the synoptic Gospels. While they differ in important ways, their stories more or less parallel one another. The last, John, differs in many more ways from these three than they do from one another.
The second is the Q hypothesis. Q, taken from the German Quelle, meaning “source,” is a document, now lost, that most scholars believe was used as source material by both Matthew and Luke – meaning they share elements with each other that they don’t share with Mark (including the Lord’s Prayer, the Golden Rule, and a number of the parables). Q did not have a narrative; it did not tell a story. Instead, it appears to have been a simple collection of Jesus’s sayings.
If this is true, it is very strange. What would have almost certainly been the first Gospel has been lost. Even its name has been forgotten; the nickname “Q” is just a scholarly appellation. Did this work contain material that the later church tried to suppress? Or was it lost simply because everything in it was duplicated in Matthew and Luke? We simply don’t know.
Notice one other fact about this widely accepted theory. It holds that the earliest writings about Jesus were one, possibly more, collections of his sayings. They did not contain any narrative whatsoever.
The Gospel of Thomas
This fact is extremely interesting to consider in light of the most important and exciting of all the secret and suppressed Gospels: the Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with another surviving Gospel of Thomas, which deals only with Jesus’s infancy). Until the mid-twentieth century it was known only by name and from a few scattered fragments of the Greek original. But in 1945, a cache of texts was discovered in Egypt. They have become known as the Nag Hammadi scriptures, and they contain a complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas, translated from the original Greek into Coptic.
The Gospel of Thomas strikingly resembles the early lost collections of Jesus’s sayings that scholars had posited. It has no narrative. There is no nativity, no crucifixion or resurrection story. It is simply a collection of Jesus’s utterances, some of them familiar from the other Gospels, others previously unknown (“Cleave a [piece of] wood, and I am there. Raise up a stone, and you will find me there.” Note: bracketed and parenthetical material in this and other quotations have been inserted by the translators).
Many of the sayings in Thomas resonate with the teachings of the so-called heresy of Gnosticism. Like the Gnostics, the Gospel displays a deep contempt for the world – “He who has known the world has found only a corpse” – and an emphasis on gnosis or spiritual awakening: “He who knows the all, (but) fails (to know) himself, misses everything.”
It is difficult to fit this Gospel into what was hitherto believed about early Christianity. The usual claim is that Gnosticism did not arise until the second century CE and that all Gnostic texts date from that time or later. But Thomas does not resemble these other works in some crucial respects – for example, it does not show any familiarity with the synoptic Gospels or any other Christian writings, so it cannot be proved to be later than these. As the scholar Beate Blatz concludes, “This collection is to be regarded as a phenomenon parallel to Q, and belongs to the early history of the formation of the Gospels.”
Parallel to Q? But Q is usually dated to around 40-50 CE, very soon after Jesus’s lifetime. If the Gospel goes back that far, then Gnosticism in some form must go back that far as well. This fact poses problems for the old-fashioned view that the apostles all held to the same teaching, which would later be christened the “apostolic faith.” Rather it suggests that Jesus’s own disciples understood his teachings in very different ways right from the outset, and that these differences would give rise to what were later described as heresies – including Gnosticism – as well as to proto-catholicism.
What about gnosis? Did the apostle Thomas make this up? Was he distorting the teachings of Jesus? Or did Jesus instruct individual disciples differently according to their interests and capacities? The Gospel of Thomas alludes to this possibility: “And he [Jesus] took him [Thomas], withdrew, (and) spoke to him three words. Now when Thomas came (back) to his companions, they asked him: What did Jesus say to you? Thomas said to them: If I tell you one of the words which he said to me, you will take up stones (and) throw them at me; and a fire will come out of your mouth and burn you up.”
It may be the case, then, that the disciple Thomas understood or wanted to understand Jesus’s teaching in a deeper, more mystical way, and that Jesus taught him accordingly. Since the Gospel of Thomas is (for various reasons) thought to have been written in Syria, where the apostle was held in particularly high esteem, we may guess that soon after Jesus’s death Thomas found his way to Syria and started an esoteric school (or church, if you like) emphasising gnosis. Another tradition has Thomas going to India and starting churches there, some of which survive to this day; a cathedral in Chennai claims to have been built over his tomb. We could thus posit that Thomas went first to Syria and then to India, where he died.
Other Secret Gospels
I’ve dwelt at length on the Gospel of Thomas because it alone, of all the secret and suppressed Gospels, could be as old or older than the ones in the New Testament. But it is far from the only other Gospel that survived. Someone who peruses the New Testament apocrypha (meaning quasi-scriptural works that were excluded from the final canon) will find a wild farrago of texts: Gospels allegedly by each of the twelve Apostles (even a recently discovered Gospel of Judas); Gospels ascribed to female disciples (such as the Gospel of Mary); a Gospel of Nicodemus, which is mostly about Pontius Pilate; even a Gospel of Eve, whose only certain surviving fragment reads: “I stood upon a high mountain and saw a tall man, and another of short stature, and heard as it were a sound of thunder and went nearer in order to hear. Then he spoke to me and said, I am thou and thou art I, and where thou art there am I, and I am sown in all things; and whence thou wilt, thou gatherest me, but when thou gatherest me, then gatherest thou thyself.” The mystical nature of this passage – with motifs such as “I am thou and thou art I” – suggests a Gnostic context for this mostly forgotten Gospel of Eve.
Except for Thomas, all the apocryphal Gospels are acknowledged to be later than, and often based on, the four that made their way into the Bible. Some were accepted as scripture by various faith communities, some never commanded much allegiance. Many of them are known only through quotations (often contemptuous) in the works of the early church fathers.
But it would be mistaken to believe that the apocryphal Gospels did not leave their mark on Christianity. To begin with, they left a deep mark on Christian art and iconography. To take perhaps the best-known example, one of the most charming details of the nativity story is the adoration of the infant Christ by the ox and the ass. This detail does not appear in any of the four canonical Gospels. It was inspired by a passage in a second-century text called the Protevangelium (“first Gospel”) of James, which describes not only the birth of Jesus but the birth and childhood of Mary. The first direct reference to this motif appears in an early medieval compilation of infancy stories, known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew: “On the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ holy Mary went out from the cave, and went into the stable and put her child in a manger, and an ox and an ass worshipped him.” This detail has been reproduced in countless depictions of the nativity of Christ down to this day.
Other major issues with these suppressed Gospels cannot be covered here. Some of the most difficult are connected with various Gospels written in Aramaic and used in the early Jewish-Christian communities. (None of these have survived in their original language.) It is not clear even how many of these Gospels there were – the church fathers often seem to know them only by hearsay – and they have been preserved only in quotations. But their existence attests to the fact that in the earliest days of Christianity, there was a wide overlap between Christians and Jews, and they were not always easily distinguished. There have been Jews for Jesus from the very beginning.
How the New Testament Came To be
All this granted, how were the canonical Gospels selected? This subject has attracted an astonishing amount of misinformation, reproduced by such authors as the actress Shirley MacLaine in her New Age-inspired books, and in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in which one of his characters asserts, “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”
This statement is false. Constantine the Great, who reigned from 306 to 337 CE, is best known for issuing an edict of tolerance for Christianity in 313. He also convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 to enable the squabbling bishops to decide once and for all whether Jesus was coequal with God the Father or merely another of his creations (they decided that the Father and the Son were equal). Constantine converted to Christianity soon before his death. But he had nothing to do with the creation of the biblical canon.
The canon of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, was more or less established by the Jews by the end of the first century CE. The New Testament canon was created by, and grew up organically with, what later came to be known as the Catholic Church. Fundamentalist Protestants thus are wrong when they say the church was based on the Bible: the two came together and are inextricably intertwined.
In the first century, when most of the New Testament texts were written, there was no established canon of Christian scripture. Many Christian communities had only one of the Gospels, or none, relying instead on oral tradition. Only during the second century did certain texts come to be accepted as scripture. These included the epistles of Paul (not all of which were actually written by him) as well as a collection of Gospels that came more and more to be narrowed down to the three synoptic Gospels, which were, as the church acknowledged, among the oldest and the most authentic. The Gospel of John was written later than the synoptics. It is dated between 80 and 110 CE, whereas the composition of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is generally placed between 60 and 95. John also came to be accepted later, partly because it differed so much from the other three.
One of the first church fathers to insist upon the canonicity of the four Gospels was Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-c.200), whose work Against the Heresies also gives a detailed, though vitriolic, account of the Gnostics. In this text Irenaeus writes: “The Gospels could not possibly be either more or less in number than they are. Since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is spread over all the earth, and the pillar and foundation of the Church is the gospel, and the Spirit of life, it fittingly has four pillars, everywhere breathing out incorruption and revivifying men.”
It would be hard to overemphasise Irenaeus’s importance on the development of the Catholic Church; he is sometimes regarded as its first real theologian. His delineation of four canonical Gospels – no more, no less – would eventually be accepted as authoritative, although the process of acceptance was long and spanned two centuries.
The first complete list of the twenty-seven New Testament books as we have them now appears in an Easter letter from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367. “These are the springs of salvation,” Athanasius wrote, “in order that he who is thirsty may refresh himself with the words contained therein. Let no one add anything to them or take anything away from them.”
Note that this letter was written by Athanasius. It was he who led the victorious party at the Council of Nicaea in 325, when Christ was proclaimed as equal to God the Father. This is the only real connection that the Council of Nicaea has to the New Testament canon, and it is an extremely thin one. Contrary to what some have said, the Council of Nicaea did not throw many texts out of the canon (it did not deal with this subject at all), nor did it mention or condemn the doctrine of reincarnation, as it is sometimes also said to have done. Reincarnation has, contrary to the beliefs of many, never been a significant doctrine in mainstream Christianity.
Athanasius’s letter may have some connection with the Nag Hammadi texts, which, as we have seen, were found in Egypt, where Athanasius had his diocese. Although he wanted the heretical texts to be burned, it is possible that a Christian community defied him by burying them instead. If so, then we ironically have Athanasius to thank for the preservation of these scriptures.
Now that we have some idea of these despised Gospels and how they came to be cast out, it’s time to ask what we can learn from them. Do they tell us anything about the historical Jesus? No: they are all much later than the Gospels in the Bible, except for Thomas, and Thomas has practically no biographical information about Jesus. The rest of these Gospels are much later, dating to between the second and fourth centuries. They may represent some genuine snatches of truth here and there, but at this point there is no way of telling which snatches those might be. The value of these Gospels lies chiefly in what they tell us different Christian sects and schisms believed.
To take one example, let’s turn to the Gnostic Gospel of Philip, dated to the second or third century. It includes this tantalising passage: “The S[aviour] loved [Ma]ry Mag[da]lene more than [all] the disciples, and kissed on her [mouth] often. The other [disciples]… said to him: ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Saviour answered and said to them : ‘Why do I not love you like her?’”
This passage, along with some legends that have long circulated orally, led some to claim that Jesus had some kind of sexual or romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene. Some even argue that she was his wife, a theory reinforced by a newly discovered papyrus fragment, of disputed authenticity but probably dating to eighth-century Egypt. This fragment has the words “Jesus said to his wife…” The text breaks off, so we don’t know who his wife was supposed to have been or what he is supposed to have said.
By all accounts, both this papyrus fragment, recently dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” even if it is genuine, and the Gospel of Philip date to much later than the time of Christ. What does this mean? While this evidence suggests there was some belief that Jesus had a wife, who could have been Mary Magdalene, we cannot go further and say he actually did. The evidence shows nothing more than there was a later tradition to this effect. It could be handing down an authentic piece of fact, but the best we can say is that we simply don’t know. We could say much the same thing about practically everything we learn about Jesus from the apocryphal Gospels.
The quest for the historical Jesus – the obsession of theologians for some two hundred years – remains unfulfilled. Apart from the Gospels in the Bible and the Gospel of Thomas, there is little contemporary evidence about him. One of very few references that are even remotely contemporary appears in the Antiquities of the Jews by the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, and it is not about Jesus, but about his brother James. Actually it is about one Ananus, the high priest of Jerusalem in 62 CE, who, we learn, “called the Sanhedrin to judgment and brought before it the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ, James by name, and some others, and accusing them of transgression of the law had them stoned.”
Another passage in Josephus, the so-called Testamentum Flavianum, also mentions Jesus. It goes as follows:
At that time lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed may one call him a man. For he was a doer of incredible deeds and a teacher of men, who with joy received the truth. And he attracted many Jews, and also many of the Greek sort. This was the Christ. And although Pilate at the insistence of our leading men punished him with crucifixion, those who loved him at first did not cease loving him. For he appeared to them on the third day living again, as the divine prophets had prophesied this and a thousand other wonderful things about him. And even to this day the tribe of the Christians which is named after him has not vanished away.
Few scholars take this passage at face value. Some see it as the work of a later Christian apologist who inserted it into Josephus’s text. But most scholars believe that Josephus actually wrote some parts of this passage, although they by no means agree about which parts those are. Some look very much like interpolations (“This was the Christ”); others may belong to Josephus’s original.
These passages, along with the four canonical Gospels, Thomas, and other parts of the New Testament (notably Paul’s epistles), constitute the sum total of the surviving material that was written about Jesus in the first century CE. While it would be excessive (as some have done) to conclude from this that Jesus was a fictional creation based on motifs of dying and resurrected gods, the evidence about him remains skeletal. It is even more so if – to reveal another scholarly secret that has not really made its way to the public – we concede that even the earliest Gospels contain some admixture of fact and legend. (Scholars for the most part agree about this point, but they differ wildly about how much is myth and how much is legend.)
To sum up, someone approaching the secret and suppressed Gospels for knowledge about who Jesus was and what he did will probably go away disappointed. These texts are valuable more for what they say about early Christianity than for what they say about Christ. Others, however, going to these Gospels – particularly the Gnostic texts – for inspiration and illumination about the spiritual path may be better rewarded. As the Gospel of Thomas says, “He who seeks, let him not cease seeking until he finds; and when he finds he will be troubled, and when he is troubled, he will be amazed, and he will rule over the All.”
Quotations from the New Testament apocrypha and from Josephus have been taken from Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., The New Testament Apocrypha, volume 1, translated by R.McL. Wilson, Cambridge, UK: James Clarke, 1991.
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