Every Christmas and Easter skeptics (like Bart Ehrman in Newsweek) love to make provocative claims about missing Gospels, Lost Christianities (yes plural), and what we don’t really know about Jesus. Let’s just focus on one of the questions raised. Should lost Gospels be included in the Bible? (see my recent post on how we know we have the right books of the Bible for more on that question)
In 1945, fifty two papyri were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Lower Egypt and some of these texts had the word ‘gospel’ in the title. Now Scholars have known about these and other 2nd – 4th century documents for a long time, but only recently has the general public been introduced to them. This has caused quite a bit of controversy and speculation. Why?
Our culture is generally skeptical of authority and enjoys a good conspiracy theory; sprinkle in some high definition documentaries around Easter and Christmas with titles like ‘Banned Books of the Bible’ and the recipe for confusion is complete. Was there a cover up by the Church? Were we lied to about Jesus?
These so called ‘lost gospels’ fall into two categories: (1) New Testament Apocrypha (2) Gnostic writings.
Apocrypha means ‘hidden things’. These writings tried to fill in the gaps about two periods of Jesus’ life—his childhood and the three days between his death and resurrection. The motivations for these works ranges from entertainment to the comprehensive redefinition of the Jesus revealed in the 1st century writings of the New Testament.
The first time I heard about these ‘lost gospels’, it honestly made me nervous…until I read them. The juiciest of the apocryphal writings is probably the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Here are some things I discovered about Jesus’ childhood: he called a child an “unrighteous, irreverent idiot” (3:1-3). Another child bumped into Jesus, which aggravated him so much that Jesus struck him dead (4:1-2). Evidently those who provoked childhood Jesus fell dead a lot (14:3). No, I’m not making this up.
Then there are the Gnostic writings. Gnosticism can get kind of complicated, so here is a chart to help give you the basics of how different it was from the worldview of the New Testament (the Greek word gnosis means ‘knowledge’).
|Only One God and Creator||Multiple Creators|
|The World, Body, Soul, and Spirit are Good||The World and Body are Evil. Only Spirit and Soul are Good|
|Jesus is Fully Human and Fully Divine||Jesus Only Appeared Human; He Was Only a Spirit Being|
|Jesus Came to Restore Relationships Broken by Sin||Ignorance, not Sin is the Ultimate Problem|
|Faith in Christ Brings Salvation (available to all)||“Special Knowledge” Brings Salvation (available to only a few)|
The two most popular examples of Gnostic writings are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas (yes, that Judas). The two most popular examples of Gnostic writings are the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas (yes, that Judas). Scholars are still debating Judas’s role in the betrayal of Jesus in this new gospel, but it is clear that he gets special access to some secret revelation from Jesus that the other disciples did not have.
The Gospel of Thomas wins the most scandalous passage award: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘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’” (Saying 114). Again, not making this stuff up. Both of these documents were written long after the time of Jesus and his earliest followers.
The bottom line. These gospels were not lost to the early church; early Christians knew about them and rejected them for good reasons (cf. Irenaeus in A.D. 180). While historically interesting, these so called ‘lost gospels’ offer us nothing significant about the historical Jesus. The writings in the New Testament are still the earliest and most reliable witnesses to the words and works of Jesus.
*A form of this article first appeared in a contribution I made to the Apologetics Study Bible for Students, published by B&H.