-Clark Bates (Christian Apologist) (Bio at end of article)
Four Key Differences With just a brief look at the most popular of the lost gospels, it becomes fairly clear that there are some major differences to the four canonical gospels in the New Testament. I think it’s possible to identify at least four key differences between them:
1. A re-casting of YHWH in a negative light: All four canonical gospels depict Jesus as the fulfillment of the mission of YHWH in the Old Testament. Beyond this, the epistles and the narrative of Acts base the entirety of the Christian message on the words contained in the Old Testament. The Bereans in Acts are praised for the searching the Scriptures to confirm Paul’s message. Clearly the “Scriptures” they were searching was the Old Testament.
However, the writing in the Gospel of Judas is positively hostile to YHWH. The biblical God is no longer the supreme being but an evil deity known as Saklas (Aramaic for “fool”), subject to the Gnostic deity, “The Great Invisible Spirit”. What’s more, the disciples and all those who worship this deity or practice a reverence of the Old Testament are mocked and derided as being fools.
2. A re-imagining of the person of Jesus: Just as the message of the New Testament is one of fulfillment of the Old Testament, so too is the person of Jesus. The New Testament Gospels all depict Jesus as the one prophesied by Isaiah, the descendant of the Davidic king, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, a descendant of Abraham and a Prophet like Moses foretold in Deuteronomy. What this reveals, among other things, is that the four New Testament Evangelists were in close touch with early Judaism, saturated in the Old Testament. Jesus himself constantly quotes from the Old Testament as an indispensable guide to the interpretation of his activity.
Yet in the Gospels of Thomas, Mary and Judas, we find a Jesus entirely removed from the world of Judaism. He is so removed that were anyone familiar with the world of the New Testament Gospels to read Judas or the others, it would be utterly dumbfounding. It is like stepping into an entirely separate world. It is a world more informed by Platonic thought and Hellenistic categories than Scripture or fulfillment.
3. A shift from public ministry (not in a corner) to private unverifiable revelation: Additionally, in the New Testament we have a consensus from the early witnesses that Jesus ministry was conducted openly and in full display. Paul is recorded in the book of Acts as saying that the life, death and resurrection of Christ was “not done in a corner” (Acts 26:26). The Gospels record his ministry as being in public places and even has Jesus saying that “I have spoken openly to the world” (John 18:20). The recipients of this public ministry are not single individuals but groups, creating an “us” and “we” motif in all the epistles.
In contrast, the Gospel of Judas begins with the line that it is “the secret message of the revelation which Jesus spoke to Judas Iscariot.” All of the Gnostic texts abandon the premise of public ministry and plural reception in favor of secret revelations to individuals. Therefore, in abandoning the plural witness of the apostles to public events, there would be no way for those of the time to establish what Jesus had taught and what he had not.
We have an example of this in the Gospel of Mary wherein Mary claims to have a special revelation given to her by Jesus in private. The disciples Andrew and Peter dispute her claims as not reflecting the Lord’s teaching, but ultimately, the only one who can know is Mary herself. This is the same situation for the Gospel of Judas and hinted at in the closing verses of Thomas. When revelation moves from public to private, it can no longer be verifiable and the truth is moved into the realm of subjective experience alone.
4. Eyewitness Testimony:We make much of the eyewitness character of the canonical gospels as it relates to positive aspect of reliability to the testimony of Jesus, however there is a negative aspect that should also not be ignored. The existence of the disciples and followers of Jesus in the first century also served as means to keep fantastical traditions about Jesus in check. If we use the three main Gnostic Gospels presented here as a guide, and include the other accounts, it is possible to chart the actual evolution of belief from the history of Jesus to the Gnostic Jesus.
One result of the Gospel of Judas coming from the mid-second century is that at the time of its composition all the eyewitnesses of the events involving Jesus and Judas were long dead. While it might be overly simplistic to say that the accuracy of historical details is in direct proportion to their proximity to the events, useful testimony must ultimately go back to contemporaneous people and artifacts. Because of the late dating, there is no way to know if the author had any direct contact with the sources that go back to the time of the real Judas and Jesus.
On the other hand, the overwhelming consensus of the four canonical gospels is that they were written within, at the latest, 60 years of Jesus’ death. In these two generations after Jesus ministry there were disciples who knew him directly. There were living witnesses to the events and to the lives of Jesus and the twelve. We mustn’t minimize that the family members and recipients of healing by the Lord would have gone on to serve active roles in the church. Their accounts would contribute to the pool of information that framed the story of the gospel and the life of Jesus.
We have examples of such instances in the canonical gospels themselves. In Mk. 15:21 we read that the name of the man who carried the cross of Christ was Simon the Cyrene, “father of Alexander and Rufus”. Whether this Rufus is the same as the one mentioned at the close of Paul’s epistle to the Romans or not, it largely accepted that Mark includes this detail because he knows that some of his readership would know these sons. In Mk. 15:40 he also includes the women looking on at the crucifixion, by name as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the less and Joses and Salome. This is also suggestive that they were known in the community and probably lended their testimony to the account of what occurred.
Conclusion: The Four Canonical Gospels are the only examples which can confidently be dated to before 100 CE and they share their most important concerns in common. All four Gospels center on Jesus’ coming as Messiah in fulfillment of Old Testament promises, on his death and resurrection, and on the salvation which he accomplishes. However, in the early second century, after the eyewitnesses, we begin to see the Gospels emerging which sit rather more loosely to these central tenets. The Gospel of Thomas still sees Jesus as savior and redeemer but not by virtue of his death and resurrection and not in fulfillment of the scriptures, while the Gospels of Judas and Mary portray a Jesus even farther removed from the Savior of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, with Judas depicting a Jesus even hostile to their teaching. What we have in the first century is a clear unanimity on the central tenets of the faith found in the NT Gospels and it is only later, with the explosion of the other gospels that we see a different form of Jesus. For many who propose that the noncanonical Gospels hold the key to seeing a fuller or clearer picture of Jesus, the question must be asked “how?” What part of these Gospels reveals anything of substance about Jesus that does not derive its information from the four canonical gospels? Rather than opening up new horizons regarding the “real Jesus” the noncanonical gospels do nothing more than demonstrate the evolution of a corrupted form of Christian theology meant to rewrite history for a particular theological agenda. In the end, we may say with the second century church father Irenaeus,“It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the pillar and ground of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh . . . He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.” (Adv. Haer. 3.11.8) 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.