“They have become a tremendous success. They have inspired films that cost millions . . . and best sellers . . . Christian sects have adopted them. They have given rise to religions and conspiratorial theories.”—SUPER INTERESSANTE, A BRAZILIAN NEWS MAGAZINE.
WHAT was all the excitement about? The magazine was commenting on the recent popular interest and activities centered on a collection of pseudo gospels, epistles, and apocalypses discovered in the mid-20th century in Nag Hammadi and elsewhere in Egypt. These and other documents of this type have generally been referred to as Gnostic or Apocryphal writings.*
Was There a Conspiracy?
In an age when people generally are cynical about the Bible and orthodox religions, the Gnostic or Apocryphal writings seem to have struck a responsive chord. These writings have had a great influence on the way many view the teachings of Jesus Christ and Christianity itself. As one magazine stated: “The Gospel of Thomas and other apocryphal [works] speak to the heart of a group of people that continues to grow in modern times: those who are eager for spirituality but distrust religion.” It has been calculated that in Brazil alone “there are at least 30 groups whose beliefs are based on the Apocrypha.”
The discovery of these documents has popularized the theory that in the fourth century C.E., the Catholic Church conspired to cover up the truth about Jesus, that some accounts of his life presented in the Apocryphal writings were suppressed, and that the four Gospels found in modern Bibles were altered. Elaine Pagels, professor of religion, put it this way: “We now begin to see that what we call Christianity—and what we identify as Christian tradition—actually represents only a small selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others.”
In the opinion of scholars like Pagels, the Bible is not the only source of Christian faith; there are other sources, such as the Apocryphal writings. For example, a BBC program entitled Bible Mysteries, “The Real Mary Magdalene” observed that the Apocryphal writings present Mary Magdalene as “a teacher and spiritual guide to the other disciples. She’s not just a disciple; she’s the apostle to the apostles.” Commenting on the supposed role of Mary Magdalene, Juan Arias writes in the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo: “Today everything leads us to believe that the early Christian movement, founded by Jesus, was profoundly ‘feminist,’ since the first domestic churches were women’s houses, where they officiated as priests and bishops.”
For many, the Apocryphal sources seem to carry far more weight than the Biblical source. This preference, however, raises some important questions: Are the Apocryphal writings a legitimate source of Christian faith? When they contradict clear Bible teachings, which source should we believe—the Bible or the Apocryphal books? Was there really a conspiracy in the fourth century to suppress these books and alter the four Gospels to exclude important information about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and others? For answers to these questions, let us consider one of the four Biblical Gospels, the Gospel of John.
Evidence From John’s Gospel
A valuable fragment of John’s Gospel was found in Egypt at the turn of the 20th century and is now known as the Papyrus Rylands 457 (P52). It contains what is John 18:31-33, 37, 38 in the modern Bible and is preserved at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, England. This is the oldest manuscript fragment of the Christian Greek Scriptures in existence. Many scholars believe that it was written about 125 C.E., a mere quarter of a century or so after John’s death. The amazing thing is that the text of the fragment agrees nearly exactly with that in later manuscripts. The fact that a copy of John’s Gospel of such antiquity had already circulated to Egypt, where the fragment was discovered, supports the conclusion that the good news according to John was really recorded in the first century C.E. and by John himself, as the Bible indicates. The book of John is therefore the work of an eyewitness.
On the other hand, the Apocryphal writings all date from the second century on, a hundred years or more after the events they describe had taken place. Some experts try to argue that the Apocryphal writings are based on earlier writings or traditions, but there is no proof of this. Thus, the question is appropriate, Which would you put more faith in—the testimony of eyewitnesses or that of people who lived a hundred years after the fact? The answer is obvious.*
The Papyrus Rylands 457 (P52), a fragment of the Gospel of John dated to the second century C.E., was written only a few decades after the original
What about the assertion that the Biblical Gospels were altered in order to suppress certain accounts of Jesus’ life? Is there any evidence that the Gospel of John, for example, was altered in the fourth century to distort the facts? To answer this question, we need to bear in mind that one of the key sources of the modern Bible is the fourth-century manuscript known as Vatican 1209. If our Bible contains changes made in the fourth century, then these changes would be reflected in this manuscript. Happily, another manuscript that contains most of Luke and John, known as Bodmer 14, 15 (P75), dates from 175 C.E. to 225 C.E. According to experts, it is textually very close to Vatican 1209. In other words, no significant changes were made to the Biblical Gospels, and we have the Vatican 1209 to prove it.
There is no evidence, documental or otherwise, that proves that the text of John—or of the other Gospels—was altered during the fourth century. After examining a collection of manuscript fragments discovered at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, Dr. Peter M. Head, of Cambridge University, writes: “In general terms these manuscripts confirm the text of the great uncials [manuscripts written in large capitals that date from the fourth century on] which forms the basis of the modern critical editions. There is nothing here which requires a radically new understanding of the early transmission of the NT [New Testament] text.”
What Can We Conclude?
The four canonical Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—were universally accepted among Christians at least as early as the mid-second century. Tatian’s widely used Diatessaron (a Greek term meaning “through [the] four”), compiled between 160 and 175 C.E., was based on only the four canonical Gospels and none of the Gnostic “gospels.” (See the box “An Early Defense of the Gospels.”) Also noteworthy is an observation by Irenaeus of the late second century C.E. He asserted that there must be four Gospels, as there are four quarters of the globe and four cardinal winds. Though his comparisons may be questioned, his point supports the idea that there were only four canonical Gospels at the time.
What do all these facts show? That the Christian Greek Scriptures—including the four Gospels—as we have them today have remained largely unchanged from the second century onward. There is no strong reason to believe that there was a conspiracy in the fourth century to change or suppress any part of the divinely inspired Scriptures. On the contrary, Bible scholar Bruce Metzger wrote: “By the close of the second century, . . . a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament was attained among the very diverse and scattered congregations of believers not only throughout the Mediterranean world but also over an area extending from Britain to Mesopotamia.”
The apostles Paul and Peter were champions of the truth of God’s Word. Both of them strongly warned fellow Christians against accepting or believing anything other than what they had been taught. For example, to Timothy, Paul wrote: “O Timothy, guard what is laid up in trust with you, turning away from the empty speeches that violate what is holy and from the contradictions of the falsely called ‘knowledge.’ For making a show of such knowledge some have deviated from the faith.” Peter testified: “No, it was not by following artfully contrived false stories that we acquainted you with the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, but it was by having become eyewitnesses of his magnificence.”—1 Timothy 6:20, 21; 2 Peter 1:16.
Centuries ago, the prophet Isaiah was inspired to say: “The green grass has dried up, the blossom has withered; but as for the word of our God, it will last to time indefinite.” (Isaiah 40:8) We can have the same confidence that the One who inspired the Holy Scriptures also preserved them through the ages so that “all sorts of men should be saved and come to an accurate knowledge of truth.”—1 Timothy 2:4.
“Gnostic” and “Apocryphal” come from Greek words that can refer to “secret knowledge” and “carefully concealed” respectively. These terms are used to refer to spurious or uncanonical writings that attempt to imitate the Gospels, Acts, letters, and the revelations in the canonical books of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
Another difficulty as far as the Apocryphal writings are concerned is that very few copies remain. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, alluded to above, survives only in two small fragments and a longer one with probably half of the original text missing. Moreover, there are significant variations between the available manuscripts.