The Invisible Things

Articles in Apologetics

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 1

with 6 comments

As the recent release of the so-called “Gospel of Judas” seems to suggest, many skeptics and scholars today allege that in addition to the four Gospels found in the contemporary New Testament, many other gospels were written and yet withheld from the canon for various sinister reasons. In fact, in his book ‘The DaVinci Code,’ Dan Brown suggests (by way of one of his ‘expert’ characters) that more than eighty gospels were considered for inclusion in the New Testament! I would like to briefly examine the veracity of this claim and suggest that, in reality, the number of other documents that could even be (mistakenly) construed as a legitimate gospel is roughly half the total Brown suggests.

Contrary to the popular suggestion of “gospel” rivalry during the growth of the early church, no other gospels were even suggested by first-hand authors for inclusion in the canon, or even by followers of such supposed authors. Only two gospels were mentioned in a favorable light during the time prior to the establishment of the canon, though not judged for canonicity. They include the “Gospel of the Hebrews” and the “Gospel of Thomas.” The “Gospel of the Hebrews” has actually never been found, though it is mentioned among the apostolic fathers’ literature and was said to resemble the Gospel of Matthew. The “Gospel of Thomas,” found among the Nag Hammadi literature, is a compilation of sayings of Jesus rather than a documentary account of His ministry. While a portion, perhaps a third, of the recorded sayings resemble those of the canonical Gospels, the remaining are Gnostic in nature and do not conform to the teachings of Christ as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Interestingly, the Jesus Seminar, a collective of radical liberal Biblical scholars, included “Thomas” as the fifth Gospel in their famous study which sought to prove that little of the words attributed to Jesus actually came from Him. In the case of “Hebrews,” there is no physical evidence allowing for even a debate as to whether it should have been included within the canon; the consensus of the early church is apparent from its lack of preservation. In the case of “Thomas,” its late date and obvious Gnostic corruption set it outside of the body of literature produced within the first century and among the followers who were directly connected to Christ, making the possibility of inspiration or even canonical qualification a non-issue.

During the second and third centuries of church growth, unorthodox teachers began to assemble groups based upon heretical teachings and recommend the use of spurious literature. Three so-called “gospels” tended to be referred to in such instances. They included the “Gospel of Peter,” “A Different Matthew” and, again, the “Gospel of Thomas.” These documents, as I wrote earlier, were written well after the time of the names associated with them, meaning that the authorship was forged. Additionally, like “Thomas,” these documents were thoroughly indicative of Gnostic corruption. In fact, I briefly examined the a passage from the “Gospel of Peter” in my previous post, “The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 2 (The Empty Tomb),” which showed the remarkably strong influence of mythic symbolism and religious iconography that would not have been present in an early document (see that post for more and a quote from a passage recounting the resurrection of Christ).

There are another nine remaining documents, of which fragments still remain, which bear the name “gospel,” though for similar reasons to the three mentioned above, are apocryphal. These include, the “Gospel of Truth,” “Gospel of Philip,” “Gospel of the Egyptians,” “Gospel of Mary,” “Gospel of Bartholomew,” “The Apocryphon of James,” “The Ascent of James,” the “infancy” “Gospel of Thomas,” and the “Gospel of Nicodemus.” Again, these documents are today, and were at the time of the early church, rejected on the basis of spurious and late authorship, as well as corrupted and Gnostic-influenced doctrinal teaching. In the interest of time and space, I will discuss the “Gospel of Philip,” and the “Gospel of Mary” in more detail in a forthcoming post.

Roughly six or seven additional fragments were found among the documents at Oxyrhychus, which I mentioned in my previous post, “A Survey of New Testament Documents,” that contained duplicate accounts of Jesus’ miracles found in the New Testament Gospels, though they seem to originally be from separate documents. These fragments, however, present nothing controversial, nor do they include extra-Biblical teaching that would have been suppressed. The possible seventh document is of a bit more interest, though it is difficult to even call it a document. In 1958, scholar Morton Smith visited an Egyptian monastery where he claims to have viewed a letter from Clement of Alexandria, who lived around AD 200. Smith said that this letter contained a quote from a distorted version of the Gospel of Mark, which Clement was endeavoring to refute. The quote mentions a young man who visits Jesus in the night wearing nothing but a linen garment, and is “taught the secrets of the kingdom” until the morning. Sadly, it is this quote, having never been verified by one shred of evidence beyond Smith’s verbal account, which leads some to outrageously infer that Jesus was a homosexual. Clearly, and even if it were genuine, the passage overtly contains nothing of the sort. Smith did return to the monastery once more to take photographs of the document, which were reportedly last seen in 1973. Since then, some scholars have attempted to suggest that this “distortion” of the Gospel of Mark was actually the original, of which the Biblical Gospel of Mark was a distortion! Not only is there no evidence to verify that the ancient letter of Clement actually exists, there is no existing evidence to corroborate the supposed distortion of Mark nor the hypothesis that the New Testament Gospel of Mark was a later version of the one cited by Clement. For skeptics, the pre-Mark “gospel” may just be wishful thinking. Finally, among ancient documents, scholars have found twenty-eight other references to texts simply called “gospels,” though none of these have ever been found or corroborated by additional sources.

It appears that, despite the frequent claims of skeptics, the allegation of numerous “gospels” that competed for canonical inclusion is quite incorrect. In fact, the cumulative total of all the documents I have cited here (including the supposed distorted “Gospel of Mark”) is 48 documents. This, by the way, is roughly half the number suggested by Dan Brown. This data is ultimately convincing that the suggestion that there were eighty other “gospels” is quite disingenuous.

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6 Responses

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  1. How do you decide that Gnostic tendancies are a sign of corruption? Gnosticism predates Christianity. Perhaps anti-Gnostic elements are the later reaction against the orginal?

    abdul-halim

    July 8, 2006 at 1:26 am

  2. Though I believe the Gospel of Thomas has been corrupted, I do not think it should be discounted entirely.

    For example, it appears to come from a seperate oral tradition. It gets the wine skin parable backwards. How would this happen unless word of mouth is the reason for the distortion?

    Lastly, there is a passage from Paul which he attributes to scripture, but it is only extant in Isaiah 64:4 partially, but preserved even closer in Thomas.

    Gospel of Thomas 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.”

    1 Corinthians 2:8 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”

    Gospel of Thomas 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.”

    1 Corinthians 2:8 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,”

    Gospel of Thomas 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.”

    1 Corinthians 2:8 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,”

    The Thomas quote is closer than Isaah. Was Paul quoting proto-Thomas? In 1 Timothy 5:18, he quotes Luke 10:7 and claims it is “scripture.” Assuming Titus is real (which it probably is not,) there would be some precedent for Paul to consider written Jesus sayings scripture, because he never met the guy.

    I actually devised a list of the Gospels’ correlation with the Epistles here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Wikilagata/Internal_Biblical_Evidence_of_Jesus%27_Historicity

    Quique Trujillo

    July 30, 2006 at 6:44 am

  3. reading books is my hobby and Dan Brown is one of the best authors that i have known ,*.

    Arthritis Pain Relief

    November 25, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    • You’re in trouble then. There are far better writers.

      Philip Feeley

      July 10, 2012 at 7:28 pm

  4. xxx

    Tokologo

    April 19, 2011 at 2:21 pm

  5. To the first posting “Gnosticism predates Christianity” perhaps, perhaps not. If you’re referring to man’s knowledge of elite evidence of a path to God perhaps. However, if you are referring to the Gospel that Paul was so strongly against (Galatians 1.8), it probably originated out of Alexandria at or just before Paul’s trip to Rome. Gnosticism traces its roots back just after the beginning of the Christian Church. You may be citing the recent discovery of documents in Egypt. Most of them have been discredited as frauds from the 200 to 400 A.D. and the ones that have not, have been dismissed by most academic researchers. You make a simple statement without providing any documented proof as to its verifiability. What we do know about Gnosticism is gained from the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, and some later manuscripts discovered in the eighteenth century such as the “Codex Askew, Codex Bruce, the Berlin Gnostic Codes and, most recently, the Nag Hammadi collection. Nag Hammadi is a town in Upper Egypt near ancient Chenoboskion and 13 codices discovered were discovered about 1945. The danger of gnosticism is easily apparent. It denies the incarnation of God as the Son. Paul called this belief as a heresy, and there is nothing new which denies his synopsis.


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