-Clark Bates (Christian Apologist) (Bio at end of article)
You’ve probably seen the headlines before. “New Gospel Discovery Shakes Christianity to its Core!”, “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife will Change the Faith Forever!”, “Four Bible Gospels not the Only Christian Gospels!” Without fail, sensational headlines like this will always pop up when a manuscript discovery is made. The challenge for believers is taking the time to sift through the grandiose claims for the truth. As it relates to the idea of “Lost Gospels”, meaning books that speak of Jesus but are not part of the Christian New Testament, the truth is that in the first few centuries of the church, there were books written about Jesus in addition to the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For those who doubt the claims of Christianity, the existence of such books automatically proves that the depiction of Jesus in the New Testament can’t be considered as accurate and shouldn’t be considered as trustworthy. But how should Christians think about these so-called “lost” Gospels? The best way to answer any question about teachings that lie outside the realm of the New Testament Canon, is to look directly at those teachings and examine them against what we already have in the four Gospels of Scripture. The space for this article cannot adequately dissect every “lost” gospel, so we will only discuss the three most popular non-canonical gospels currently in circulation. The Gospel of Thomas It’s been said that, if there is one early Christian gospel that has a career both famous and infamous, it is the Gospel of Thomas. It’s been called a ‘direct and almost unbroken continuation of Jesus’ own teaching-unparalleled anywhere in the canonical tradition, and it has equally been dismissed as a heretical, Gnostic perversion of Christianity. What it is, is 114 sayings, supposedly attributed to Jesus, without any contextual background, dated to approximately 140 CE. Early scholarship sought to depict the Gospel of Thomas as a pre-canonical gospel not because of its date but that it contained source material from an earlier Jewish Christian Gospel that was earlier than the canonical gospels. Probably spoken in Aramaic. Most of the arguments for this position were from attempts to identify certain sayings the Gospel of Thomas with extra-canonical gospels. This position fell out of favor in the 1960’s however, given that the comparisons were being made to Greek texts, not Aramaic texts, and none of the sayings were exact enough to warrant a positive conclusion. While many sought to identify the Gospel of Thomas as Gnostic, it doesn’t contain most elements that fit major aspects of Gnostic thought, which has led to some positing it as a “proto-Gnostic” text.
Given its likely origin in an illiterate and oral community, a plausible suggestion has been proposed that the Gospel of Thomas was not a document compiled in one sitting, but one added to through years as different circumstances arose in the community. Essentially, it’s the compiling and adjusting of various Jesus “sayings” that were intended to guide this community through life. In its introduction, The Gospel of Thomas begins, “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and Didymus Judas Thomas wrote them down.” Pay attention to the use of the word “secret”, for while Thomas is not considered an overtly Gnostic gospel, the idea of secret revelation is fundamental to later Gnostic writings. A clear use of earlier Synoptic writing, is found in verse 20, (20) “The disciples said to Jesus: Tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like. He said to them: It is like a grain of mustard-seed, smaller than all seeds; but when it falls on the earth which is tilled, it puts forth a great branch, and becomes shelter for the birds of heaven.” Compared with the Gospel of Matthew, 30 And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? 31 It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth,32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Matthew 13:30-32 ESV And again, in verse 6, (6) “His disciples asked him and said unto him: Wilt thou that we fast? And how shall we pray? Shall we give alms? And what rules shall we observe in eating? Jesus said: Do not lie; and that which you hate, do not do. For all things are revealed before heaven. For there is nothing hidden which shall not be manifest, and there is nothing covered which shall remain without being uncovered.” Compared with the Gospel of Matthew, “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” Matthew 10:26 ESV Some of the more puzzling sayings of Jesus found in Thomas are, (17) Jesus said, "I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind." And , (53) His disciples said to him, "Is circumcision beneficial or not?" He said to them, "If it were beneficial, their father would beget them already circumcised from their mother. Rather, the true circumcision in spirit has become completely profitable." Wherein it appears that Jesus is quoting the apostle Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 2:9; Rom. 2:25-3:2)! This being a rather incredible feat, given that historical records indicate Jesus had died roughly 20+ years before Paul had written these words! More puzzling passages left to the reader to discern are, (50) Jesus said, "If they say to you, 'Where have you come from?' say to them, 'We have come from the light, from the place where the light came into being by itself, established [itself], and appeared in their image.' If they say to you, 'Is it you?' say, 'We are its children, and we are the chosen of the living Father.’ If they ask you, 'What is the evidence of your Father in you?' say to them, 'It is motion and rest.’” (108) Jesus said, "Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him." (112) Jesus said, "Damn the flesh that depends on the soul. Damn the soul that depends on the flesh." And of course, the most notorious, (114) Simon Peter said to him, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." The manuscript tradition for Thomas is sparse (3 manuscript fragments in total), leaving even the content of what we know uncertain. In addition, its reliance on Synoptic Gospels and the writings of Paul reveal a much later tradition than that of the canonical Gospels. The Gospel of Mary The Gospel of Mary is largely believed to be about Mary Magdalene however the text doesn’t identify her as such. It is entirely a recent discovery as it has only come to light in the modern era as a result of fragment discovery, and It is not attested to anywhere outside of the fragments or cited in any of the church fathers; neither is it cited by any canonical list in any generation of the church. It survives today in three manuscripts, all of which are fragmentary. The most extensive is the text that exists within the Berlin Codex BG850, written in Coptic and dating to the fifth century. It is likely from much earlier material, given that the other two existing fragments are in Greek and date to the early third century. The fact they are using earlier material as well would suggest that the Gospel of Mary should be dated to somewhere near the end of the second century. There are no clear chapter or verse distinctions in the fragmentary remains, and large portions are missing, but from what we can recover in the text, Jesus is almost always referred to as the Savior, and the teaching deals with the ultimate dissolution of matter, followed by a commission to preach what he has told them. Seen here, “The Savior replied, ‘Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other. They will dissolve again into their own proper root. For the nature of matter is dissolved into what belongs to its nature. Anyone with two ears able to hear should listen!’” "’Go then, preac[h] the good news about the Realm. [Do] not lay down any rule beyond what I determined for you, nor promulgate law like the lawgiver, or else you might be dominated by it.’ After he had said these things, he departed from them.” The disciples are troubled by what they have heard from him but Mary appears on the scene to comfort them, prompting Peter to say that the Savior loves Mary more than all other women. “But they were distressed and wept greatly. ‘How are we going to go out to the rest of the world to announce the good news about the Realm of the child of true Humanity?’ they said. ‘If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?’” “Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, addressing her brothers and sisters, ‘Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true Human beings.’ Peter said to Mary, ‘Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women. Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, the things which you know that we don't because we haven't heard them.’ Mary responded, ‘I will teach you about what is hidden from you.’ And she began to speak these words to them. She said, ‘I saw the Lord in a vision…” Mary tells them her vision which seems to detail a journey of Jesus’ soul after death wherein he encounters hostile powers that try to prevent his passing unless he answers questions (very Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Mary’s vision receives a negative response from some disciples, but is defended by Levi who repeats that the Savior loved Mary more than all others. “Peter responded, bringing up similar concerns. He questioned them about the Savior: ‘Did he, then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?’ Levi answered, speaking to Peter, ‘Peter, you have always been a wrathful person. Now I see you contending against the woman like the Adversaries. For if the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her? Assuredly the Savior's knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us.’” The Gospel of Mary clearly has knowledge of the canonical Gospels, given its repeated use of phrases such as, “He who has ears let him hear”, “My peace I give to you” and even using Mary Magdalene as a witness to the risen Christ, which is taken from the accounts in the New Testament Gospels. While some challenge whether the Gospel of Mary is Gnostic, there are clear affinities with Gnostic thought in the extant manuscripts. There is the discussion of the inferiority of matter, the casting off of the physical in favor of the spiritual, the battle of the soul with other evil aeons (lesser gods), and the idea that secret or special knowledge is required for true salvation. There is no mention of redemption through the cross or need for repentance of sin. Sin itself is depicted as being solely the realm of the physical and not inherent to the person themselves. “Then Peter said to him, ‘You have been explaining every topic to us; tell us one other thing. What is the sin of the world?’ The Savior replied, ‘There is no such thing as sin; rather you yourselves are what produces sin when you act in accordance with the nature of adultery, which is called 'sin.' For this reason, the Good came among you, pursuing (the good) which belongs to every nature. It will set it within its root.’” Therefore, the classification of the Gospel of Mary as “Gnostic” is a fairly accurate category. Unlike the canonical gospels, Mary is focused less on Jesus and more on Mary herself. While she doesn’t play a leading figure per se, given that it is ultimately Levi that takes charge at the end of the document, it is the revelation given to her that is central to the dispute. Here in we see another difference in this form of “gospel” than those of the NT. The canonical gospels focus on Jesus and his ministry, while many of the Gnostic Gospels revolve around a specific follower and their connection with Jesus. The Gospel of Judas Although the Gospel of Judas was discovered in the 1970’s, through various mishaps and criminal actions, the manuscript was not revealed until 2006, by National Geographic. It contains possibly the most sordid past of any Gnostic document to date which has led many to question its authenticity. Because of its mishandling, the manuscripts available are more deteriorated than any others, leaving it incredibly difficult to read. Most scholars date the manuscript between roughly 140-220 CE. The main focus of the Gospel of Judas is on the secret revelation given by Jesus to Judas Iscariot concerning the nature of the world and the true means of salvation. It’s worth noting that the image of Judas Iscariot over the centuries increasingly worsened. He essentially became emblematic of Satan and was even used as an anti-Semitic stereotype of all Jews. Some see the depiction of Judas in the Gospel as a way to redeem him, but if it’s read carefully, he’s not exactly the hero. One thing that is true, is that there is a clear change in how the disciples and Jesus are depicted. The text begins similar to the Gospel of Thomas, “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot during a week, three days before he celebrated Passover.” Following the introduction is a shocking interaction between Jesus and the twelve in which he mocks them for observing the Eucharist! “One day he was with his disciples in Judea, and he found them gathered together and seated in pious observance. When he [approached] his disciples, gathered together and seated and offering a prayer of thanksgiving over the bread, [he] laughed. The disciples said to [him], ‘Master, why are you laughing at [our] prayer of thanksgiving? We have done what is right.’ He answered and said to them, ‘I am not laughing at you. are not doing this because of your own will but because it is through this that your god [will be] praised.’ At its outset, the Gospel of Judas seeks to separate the teaching of Jesus from that known in the Synoptic tradition. This follows with the statement from Jesus that none of them actually know Him. “They said, ‘Master, you are […] the son of our god.’ Jesus said to them, ‘How do you know me? Truly [I] say to you, no generation of the people that are among you will know me.’” This is in direct challenge to the writings in the Gospel of John wherein Jesus speaks to them as friends and those that truly know him. Immediately following this statement, it says that the disciples started to blaspheme Jesus in their hearts! Jesus even calls them foolish at this point. Then Judas enters. “Judas [said] to him, ‘I know who you are and where you have come from. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you.’” Here’s where we get the real Gnostic flare, and what sounds like a line from a bad sci-fi film. This is also where we see the real character of Gnostic texts. “And look, from the cloud there appeared an [angel] whose face flashed with fire and whose appearance was defiled with blood. His name was Nebro, which means ‘rebel’; others call him Yaldabaoth. Another angel, Saklas, also came from the cloud. So Nebro created six angels—as well as Saklas—to be assistants, and these produced twelve angels in the heavens, with each one receiving a portion in the heavens. “Then Saklas said to his angels, ‘Let us create a human being after the likeness and after the image.’” There is an emphasis on secret knowledge, but more so is the clear departure from Jewish teachings. The Old Testament is entirely absent in Gnostic writings, because a central tenet of Gnosticism is that the god of the Old Testament was an evil demiurge. We don’t have the space to analyze the Gospel of Judas here, but of the three, it enters into the longest discourse regarding Gnostic views of creation. Judas is given several revelations by Jesus about a coming age of the “strong and holy”. A generation that neither he nor the other apostles will be a part of. Then comes the big revelation for Judas himself. “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” Even though Judas is not going to be part of the “strong and holy generation” he is elevated above the other disciples. The Gospel then closes with a recounting of the canonical Gospels story of Judas going to the chief priests and taking money. In so doing, while Judas is not the hero, his image is clearly re-imagined as one far nobler than the Synoptics portray. Links: http://www.exejesus.com https://www.facebook.com/exejesus1/ https://twitter.com/crbates1 https://www.instagram.com/exejesus1/
Clark Bates has been serving the local church in various ministries for more than a decade. He has acted as an interim pastor and guest speaker for churches along the Southern Oregon Coast and lectured on apologetics and theology in Oregon, California, Michigan, Missouri, and Illinois. Clark holds a Bachelor’s degree in Religion from Liberty University, graduating magna cum laude, as well as a Master’s of Divinity degree from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently working on a second Master’s of Theology with Concordia Seminary, to eventually pursue a PhD in New Testament Studies. He is a two-time graduate of the Cross Examined Instructor’s Academy, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and actively involved with Reasonable Faith, St. Louis Chapter, and actively involved with transcription and collation of manuscripts with the Institute For New Testament Research in Munster, Germany. He has appeared on Trinity Channel’s Apologetics Marathon opposite Reason to Believe’s Ken Samples covering the topic of Belief in the Deity of Christ in Church History and was recently featured on Ratio Christi TV’s broadcast “Truth Matters” discussing the Reliability of the New Testament. Currently, Clark writes and produces videos for his website http://www.exejesus.com.