The Canon Conspiracy: Do We Have the Right Gospels in the Bible?
There are good reasons the Bible includes the books it does.
Along with my regular posts at SeanMcDowell.org, I am now featuring some of my former students in the Biola Apologetics Program. This post is by my friend Timothy Fox. Fox helped me with both the Awana Advocates curriculum and the updated and revised Evidence that Demands a Verdict. He also blogs at Free Thinking Ministries and you can follow him on Twitter at @TimothyDFox. Enjoy! — Sean McDowell.
I’ve always been intrigued by conspiracy theories. New World Order, Illuminati, stuff like that. Christianity has its own share of conspiracy theories. One of them is the existence of “lost” gospels suppressed by the Church. However, we all must wonder why the Bible contains the books that it does. What if there really are texts purposely omitted from the list of accepted books, also called the “canon”? What if they would have produced a radically different Christianity? This isn’t just conspiracy theory. It’s an important claim to explore. So, let’s briefly examine three of the most infamous “lost” gospels:
The “Lost” Gospels
Gospel of Thomas
The Gospel of Thomas is the most popular of all “lost” gospels. It was discovered in 1945 within a collection of texts near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Thomas seems very primitive, being a collection of sayings with no clear narrative and no mention of Jesus’ death and crucifixion. Thus, its proponents consider it an extremely early gospel source.
However, scholars believe Thomas was heavily influenced by the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). It may also have been influenced by Paul’s writings and other ancient Christian texts. (Gnosticism was a loose grouping of second-century religious beliefs claiming that salvation was gained through acquiring some sort of secret knowledge.)
Also, gnostic elements within the text discredit an early origin. Gnostic reinterpretations of Christianity hadn’t surfaced until the 2nd century. Thus, Thomas should be rejected as an early, independent account of Jesus’ life.
Gospel of Mary
The idea that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were lovers was popularized by Dan Brown’s bestselling book, The Da Vinci Code. However, its roots lie in the so-called Gospel of Mary. Fragments of it were found in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it advances a radically different message than what is contained in the Bible. Mary’s proponents herald it as proof of the patriarchal suppression of women within Christianity.
Its small size makes dating difficult. Scholars place it at the end of the second century, though, much too late to be considered reliable. Also, no scholar takes the Jesus-Mary coupling seriously. It is mentioned nowhere else in any other early Christian writings.
Gospel of Judas
A gospel written by the scoundrel who betrayed Jesus?! Now this is juicy!
A gospel written by the scoundrel who betrayed Jesus?! Now this is juicy! Do we get to see the other side of the story? Sorry, Judas is an obvious fake. In fact, church father Irenaeus smacked down this false gospel way back in 180 AD, condemning it as heretical, gnostic fan fiction.
Let’s now examine some general arguments and statements concerning “lost” gospels:
The Internet loves lists, and so did the early Christians. In The Canon Debate, Lee McDonald compares thirty lists of New Testament books ranging from the second to sixth century. Of these, the Gospel of Thomas is the only “lost” gospel to appear on any list. And it only appears on one. That’s right, one. Out of thirty. The Christians closest to Jesus’ time did not consider these “lost” gospels worthy to be included in the biblical canon. Why then should we?
Canon by Chance?
If there really is a God who inspired the Bible, do you honestly think he’d leave its compilation to chance or human opinion? Of course not. We should be confident that the Bible contains exactly the books God wants.
Ehrman Closes the Case
For the final nail in the coffin, let’s turn to Bart Ehrman, agnostic (thus, non-Christian) New Testament scholar. In Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, he writes:
The oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus… are the four Gospels of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This is not simply the view of Christian historians who have a high opinion of the New Testament and its historical worth; it is the view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hardcore atheists.
Theorizing about secret gospels and canon conspiracies may be fun for some. But there is no truth behind it whatsoever. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the only legitimate Gospels that contain reliable information about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
For a more in-depth examination of these and other alleged “lost” gospels, check out chapter 5 in the updated Evidence That Demands a Verdict, “Gnostic Gospels and Other Non-biblical Texts.”
Originally published December 2, 2017 at SeanMcDowell.org. Republished with permission.
[Editor’s note: For in-depth information on all the non-canonical “gospels,” see the series of articles by J. Warner Wallace at ColdCaseChristianity.com.]