The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities
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There has been a flurry of discussion in recent days over the supposed “Lost Tomb of Jesus”, an intriguing documentary that attempts to refute Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension.
Without question, such a claim has the faith community sparring with filmmakers over the validity of their hypothesis. The sole fact is that as Christians, we believe that Jesus rose from the dead and went to heaven. This is a fundamental tenet of the Christian belief system.
Sadly, this is not the only fundamental tenet being challenged throughout Christendom these days. Edwin H. Yamauchi writes in the forward of Darrell Bock’s new book The Missing Gospels, “Some scholars assert that the selection of books in the New Testament was rather arbitrary, and that the emergence of orthodox or ‘traditional’ Christianity was based not on its merit but on the politics of the winning side.”
Yamauchi’s statement lends itself to a very good question. As a Christian, how much do you really know about the apocryphal books that were left out of the Bible due to “politics”? Furthermore, do you really need to know?
I recently sat down with Bock, a research professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, to discuss how the New Testament books were selected, the books that didn’t make it, and a Christian’s best argument to defend the validity of the Bible.
The early Christians worshipped Jesus Christ during His life and were guided by the Apostles after His death and resurrection. They had no texts to go by for direction. How then, do you explain the selection of books for the New Testament?
Well, it is a process that took time. What I am talking about is that in the First Century we don’t have the last of the Gospels written in all likelihood until the 90’s. So, you have a 60 year period in which you don’t have all the New Testament books nor have they been identified. And they are not functioning as a New Testament. So, the question then becomes how they taught theology in light of the development of those books particularly as those books began to circulate. It took time for certain books to reach certain regions. The way that happened is basically through three means: short doctrinal summaries that you see encased within some of the New Testament material, there is hymnic material which we also see encased in the New Testament material that tells us they were singing theology, and there are the various rights that symbolize theology like the baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So, these all re-affirm what the basic theology was.
When we hear about “missing gospels”, the name Nag Hammadi invariably is attached. What is the significance of Nag Hammadi? What was contained in these missing gospels? What makes them popular to people who question the authenticity of scripture?
We have 52 books that are not in our Bible from the second and third centuries that give evidence of a kind of Christianity that is an attempt to meld Greco-Roman philosophy and Christianity – and to make Christianity more palatable to a Greco-Roman world. That is really what those texts are about. We actually dug them up in 1945 (near Nag Hammadi, Egypt). So, they have been around for just over 60 years. We have known about them since the time of Irenaeus because he wrote about them in 180 A.D. The attention they have gotten is coupled with the cultural factor – that is that history is supposedly written by the winners and now we are hearing the voice of the losers. So, the thought is that we need to re-address the imbalance. Of course, the other half of the story is that sometimes the winners deserve to win. And that is part of the story I am trying to tell. I’m trying to explain why it is that this extra biblical material ended up not having an impact.
You mention Irenaeus. Who was he in the grand scheme of theological history?
He is a church father writing at the end of the Second Century. His first work was called “Against Heresies”. He was becoming alarmed by the rising up of various attempts to redefine Christianity. You have Marcion who is trying to remove anything Jewish. You have DeMontanus who is talking about access to a direct revelation. And then you have these Gnostics who are trying to find Greek philosophy in Christianity. So, he writes a work that is really against all of them but he spends the bulk of his time on the Gnostics.
For clarification, how would you define the Gnostic gospels?
Gnosticism comes from the Greek word for gnosis which means knowledge. It is a religion that claims to have secret knowledge above and beyond what most people have associated with religion. It includes ideas like what really counts is the spiritual. All matter is evil. God did not create creation, underling gods did. That creation was so flawed that matter will not be redeemed in you. This means that Jesus did not inhabit the flesh. There is no incarnation. It also means that there is no major discussion of sin and it also means that when the resurrection comes it will only involve your spirit going back to God. There is no resurrection of the body.
In theological circles I often hear people talk about canon. What is the canon?
Canon is s Greek word that means read or standard. So, it is a way of saying this is where we get the books that are the standard of our faith. That process of recognition of what was inspired took four centuries. The first person to list the 27 books that we have in our New Testament was a church father named Athanasius. He did it in 367 A.D. But the first portions of the New Testament to be recognized were the New Testament gospels, the Acts, and the epistles of Paul. That happened at the end of the Second Century, long before the process was completed. This is because these books were debated. Some of them were discussed as to whether they belonged in, like II Peter and II and III John. Books that didn’t make it in like I Clement Shepherd and Earnest. This is because they were on some lists but not on others originally. The factors that led to their selection included: did they go back to the Apostles or someone working very closely with the Apostles, were they theologically orthodox, and were they being used in a widespread way in the church geographically and through the passage of time. This was done to test their quality.
Why then, don’t you think some of these missing gospels were not included in the New Testament? I ask this based on the fact that in that era it was not nearly as easy to get the texts from one location to another. There was no technology to mail, email, or to broadcast in any way. They could have been just as valid.
The missing gospels were excluded from the New Testament mainly because they did not go back to the earliest generation. They didn’t have solid apostolic context or roots. Also, they had a very distinct theology, or competing theology. This is in regard to God in creation, with regard to the person of Jesus – which He could not have been incarnate, with regard to not dealing with sin. And so there were certain things that would have automatically excluded many of these works because of what they were teaching.
In relation to what you just said, here is an argument that has been popping up over the last several years mainly due to the Da Vinci Code. How do we know whether the New Testament as Christians know it is completely accurate? Man is frail and is prone to mistakes. Isn’t it possible that some of these early church fathers could have made errors?
There are really two questions and the first is how do we know the New Testament we have is an accurate reflection of what the New Testament was? First, before we can talk about what is accurate we have got to decide whether this really goes back. The answer to that question is that the amount of manuscript evidence that we have for the New Testament indicates to us that it has been transmitted with a good degree of care and what we have is very much a reflection of what existed at the start. Now, with regard to accuracy that is also a two level question. The issue of truth is a complex question. How do you prove truth? In some ways, when you are not dealing with science it is a very hard thing to do. So, what you are dealing with is that you want your hands on the best sources. You want your hands on those sources that the closest to what takes place. That is why the apostolic roots are so important. That is why the apostolic association of people is so important. Because if you look at our four gospels, most conservatives will say Matthew and John were written by the Apostles but Mark and Luke were not. Mark was an associate of Peter. Luke was close to Paul and had contact with many others. That is how you put that together. Then, the next thing is to ask yourself whether there is a coherence in what is going on in these texts. Do they make sense alongside one another? The answer to that question is yes. And the last thing is, does this explanation have more plausibility than other explanations for putting this together. Because you are dealing with the humanities and not the sciences you cannot come up with 100 percent proof. There is no experiment you can run that can replay the First Century. So, you are left in a situation where you are dealing with the plausibility of what is going on. The last factor, which is important theologically, but which most people don’t even think about is the role of spirit in opening up a person’s heart to what is going on in these texts. This is because of the claims that God is active in certain ways, even unusual ways. For some people this is a hurdle that they cannot get past.
For the average Christian, what is their best argument to defend the accuracy of the New Testament?
I actually think the best argument is to look at the behaviors of those who were closest to Jesus that we know about. Something changed them. The New Testament texts make it clear that something changed them. If I can say this, where they were wimps before the Cross, they were bold after the Cross. So, the very Peter who denied Jesus according to tradition was crucified for his faith afterward for standing up for Jesus. The very Paul who persecuted the Church and tried to remove Christians, put his life on the line and according to tradition he was also crucified as a result of defending his faith. If you knew you made it up … why would you die for it? That puts us into a plausibility position. What is more plausible to believe … that the early Church made this up and then died for it, or, this really happened and that explains the transformation?
Point blank, can these missing gospels do anything for us?
Historically, this stuff benefits us in understanding the debate that is going on between Christianity and these fringe groups. You get to hear from them directly. It is always helpful as a matter of history. But the bottom line question for most people is ‘does this stuff help us understand orthodox, real, authentic Christianity any better?’ The answer to that question is no. It doesn’t other than to provide a mirror against which we can see Christianity interacting with that which it views is not what Christianity is. To that extent it can be helpful.
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