Posted by: Hugh Griffiths | May 10, 2006

Da Vinci Code: Questions | 02

What about other 'gospels'?

“More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them…. The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great ….[who] omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike.”
Leigh Teabing in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code

One of the major assumptions written into The Da Vinci Code is that the four gospels in the bible cannot be relied upon as accurate eyewitness accounts about Jesus. Instead, the historian portrayed in the novel claims that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were selected from dozens of 'gospels' circulating in the early church to present an idealistic view of Christ that was far from the truth. The idea expressed in the book is that the emperor Constantine chose from competing 'Christianities'and used Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to support his preferred version of events.

Yesterday's post provided several reasons why the four gospels can be trusted by everyone but it is helpful to briefly address the question of other 'gospels'. Are they important and should be we believe them?

Suggestions made in Da Vinci Code and well as the recently restored 'Gospel of Judas' document has reawakened interest in non-biblical works supposedly providing the real Jesus story. For example, instead of looking to the Bible, Teabing the fictional historian suggests that the Nag Hammadi texts are the earliest Christian records and that documents such as the Gospel of Philip provide the truth about Christ.

How should we respond? What is the truth about these 'other gospels'?

  • This is not a new error

The idea of 'secret truth' about Jesus that challenges the canon of Scripture is not new. Right from the first few centuries of the church, gnostics claimed that salvation came not through Christ's death and resurrection but through special knowledge. Many of their writings, including the Gospel of Judas, were composed to spread their errors. Instead of providing eyewitness accounts, these 'gospels' were gathered or composed to support their unorthodox ideas.

  • They do not provide trustworthy accounts

Even from an academic perspective, these additional writings cannot be trusted. Many date from the third and fourth centuries and so do not provide contemporary or eyewitness accounts. For example, The Gospel of Philip is one of the oldest and has been dated to the century after the four biblical gospels were written. Even the Nag Hammadi texts are many generations removed from Jesus' time and are probably 200-300 years later than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Their material is inconsistent and contradictory, often offering a fanciful, speculative or simply strange viewpoint. For example, here is the final verse of Philip's 'gospel':

“Simon Peter said to [Jesus], ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male … For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’”

This is in sharp contrast to the one gospel provided consistently across the canonical books.

  • They were not used by the early church

For the first 300 years no church writer used or referred to these non-biblical books, Instead it appears that the four canonical gospels were widely and exclusively accepted so that even by A.D. 150 they were listed as Scripture. Even heretical groups such as the Ebionites or those following Marcion acknowledged the four rather than a wider body of writings.

  • They were formally rejected by the early church

Not only were these writings not used, they were also deliberately considered and rejected by the church as a whole. They did not stand scrutiny and were never considered as serious contenders for truth or Scripture. From the early list of Bible books prepared in the second century (the Muratorian canon) through the many subsequent debates and councils from the fourth century onwards, all of them exclusively affirmed the four books now in our Bible.

Even though the academic disciplines have already largely dismissed the reliability of 'other gospels' through research, history and textual criticism, we can be confident that our Bible can be trusted. Many centuries before our contemporary scholars and writers wrestled with these documents, Christian leaders and teachers had already exercised godly wisdom and judgement to condemn them. Their clear decisions taken through prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit allowed us to receive the New Testament as we now have it.

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