The Canon Conspiracy: Do We Have the Right Gospels in the Bible?

There are good reasons the Bible includes the books it does.

By Published on December 6, 2017

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.

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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.

General Arguments

Let’s now examine some general arguments and statements concerning “lost” gospels:

Bible “Buzzfeed”

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?

We should be confident that the Bible contains exactly the books God wants.

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.

Conclusion

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.]

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  • Deacon Keith Fournier

    Thank you for publishing this accessible, well written summary. It is much needed.
    Too many Christians, whether Evangelical Protestant believers, or faithful Catholic and Orthodox believers, get disturbed by the regular efforts of some in the media (including some sources identified as “conservative”) to claim the discovery of some “hidden” Gospel.

    The Lord promised to send His Spirit to guide us into all truth. He did. He does.

    And one of the ways that is so evident is that the leaders of the early Church guarded the deposit of faith so we’ll. A “teaching office” is a gift to all Christians. We can trust the biblical “Canon” as the measuring stick it is.

    Praise God.

    Deacon Keith Fournier

    • Chip Crawford

      I’m glad that guy is no longer around who used to feed on “Canon fodder” so much he never fed on the Bible.

  • Morduin00

    I have a problem with the logic behind the whole summary about the Gospel of Thomas. First, let us not discount a Gospel because it is not as well written as the others. That is just outright bias. Second… just because Thomas contains some “gnostic elements” does not immediately follow that Thomas was written during the gnostic movement. It could just have easily been in existence and served as a source for Gnostic belief.

    Mankind is rife with incidences of man, and the church, turning interpretations of early Christianity to their own points of view. That is the main reason, if any, to judge all books by their relevance to the bible and the Torah. Some books may have very little to offer in the way of Canon, but that does not mean they are any less valuable in teaching about the life and times if Jesus.

    WRT to Mary and Jesus, how is it so hard to believe that the Son of God, a being of flesh, would not be married as his peers are married. Why does that notion affect faith so much?

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