Everyone has heard of them: those “books that didn’t make it into the Bible.” What about them? Are they evidence of “competing Christianities” in the early centuries? Are the Gospels that “made the cut” the only accounts we can trust? Or do the lost Gospels show a cover-up by power-hungry church leaders? Are these reliable histories that tell the truth about Jesus?
These are important questions for every Christian to tackle, which is why it surprises me I never heard a sermon on them growing up. I never heard an intelligent treatment of them in seven years of seminary either, but in conversations with real people harboring real doubts they are a (understandably!) commonplace concern.
I recently taught on the lost Gospels in our house church and the feedback was extremely positive. A friend shared, “I honestly questioned the validity of the Bible because of the ‘lost’ gospels and why they weren’t included. This cleared a lot up for me.” Since churches often avoid messy topics, we figured Rogues might as well jump in.
Just a warning though – this is hardly exhaustive. It’s really more a taste, and we encourage you to dig deeper. The lost Gospels and other “extra-biblical” books are freely available online and plenty of books about their content have been written by scholars. Here is what you need to know:
- None of these books are “new” – or even “newly discovered.” According to New Testament scholar Brant Pitre, they “were almost immediately rejected as fakes and forgeries. Far from being the recent discoveries they are so frequently touted to be, the existence of these books has been known for a very, very long time.”
- None of these documents go back to the 1st century. While some are early, dating to the second century, it’s not surprising mythological “fan fiction” would arise around a figure of immense growing popularity as Jesus. While the accepted Gospels look nothing like legend (Gospels: History or Folklore?), these “lost” versions do.
- The character of Jesus is strikingly consistent and admirable in the accepted Gospels and scarily different in the lost gospels. A young Jesus kills a kid for bumping into his shoulder in the Infancy Gospel of Jesus, for instance.
- The miracles of Jesus are incredibly purposeful in the accepted Gospels yet completely arbitrary in the “lost” accounts. The Infancy Gospel of Jesus shares a story of young Jesus doing a miracle: he makes water pool together for fun. Another child is surprisingly able to undo Jesus’ miracle with a willow branch, so kid-killer Jesus strikes him dead for the terrible offense. Even those who doubt the biblical miracles will admit they are more purposeful – feeding and healing people, or even pooling water for people to cross (like the Red Sea or the Jordan) – than these petty and vindictive miracles.
- The teachings of Jesus are consistent in the accepted Gospels, yet the lost Gospels present teachings that clash with the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament. In the Gospel of Thomas, Peter tries to send Mary away because “females are not worthy of life.” The Old Testament was incredibly progressive on women’s issues compared to the barbaric times it was written in, and the New Testament took the next step. Early Christians were disproportionately female, as women found the faith liberating and empowering compared to first century Roman culture. Jesus himself consistently treats women with respect, elevating and empowering them in the accepted Gospels. Yet in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus doubles down on Peter’s sexism: “Behold, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter heaven’s kingdom.”
- The teachings of Jesus are often clear or explained in the accepted Gospels. The lost
Gospels instead focus on keeping mysteries, cryptic messages and secrets – clear marks of later Gnostic movements and mystery cults. The Gospel of Judas promises to be “The secret word” where “Jesus, knowing Judas was thinking of something lofty, said to him, ‘Separate from the other disciples, and I will tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.” Lost Gospels sound more like the grapeshot prophecies of Nostradamus or random musings of Confucius.
- The accepted Gospels are extremely Jewish, while later lost Gospels have more influence from Greco-Roman culture. In the Gospel of Peter, Jesus says, “My power, my power, you have forsaken me!” Not only does this miss the point that Jesus was quoting David when crying out “My God, my God” but also replaces God with a very Greek oriented concept – dunamis, “power,” the root of our modern words dynamic and dynamite.
- The lost Gospels are often full of glaring mistakes that show they are later fabrications by people unfamiliar with the places, people, and events the accepted Gospels discuss. The Infancy Gospel of Mary discusses virgins kept in apartments within the Temple in Jerusalem and how they served God in the Holy of Holies. Yet anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Judaism and the Temple know no one could enter the Holy of Holies except the High Priest, and women were not allowed in the Temple at all – or even the courtyard immediately around it. Virgins serving in temples was another imported Greco-Roman practice, showing this gospel to be a fake from later times.
- Finally, early Christians immediately recognized these as fakes and rejected them. They were in a position to know, better understanding the languages, the literary forms, and being far closer to the evidence. Irenaeus discussed “an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings” that were “forged” and full of “fictitious history.” Serapion decided to read the Gospel of Peter to decide for himself and concluded, “We reject intelligently the writings falsely ascribed” to the apostles. Eusebius pointed out, “To none of these has anyone who ever belonged to the ecclesiastical teachers ever thought it right to refer in his writings.”
It is important for Believers to understand with confidence that the writings passed down to us are accurate and original, and to understand that lost Gospels were never serious contenders. Often news reporters trying to make a great headline or popular media such as The DaVinci Code present a view full of distortion, as if these books were taken seriously until some council voted them out of the canon. The opposite is true, that early Christians knew the difference from the start. There was no confusion in the early church over which were authentic and which were false.