Could it be that Jesus did not die at Golgotha, as the Bible says he did, but survived? Is it possible that he married Mary Magdalene and fathered children by her? Or might he have been an ascetic mystic who rejected all pleasures of earthly life? Is it possible that he taught doctrines that differ from what we read in the Bible?
SUCH speculations have flourished in recent years, a resurgence that is due, in part, to popular movies and novels. Besides fanciful fiction, there have also been many books and articles that focus attention on apocryphal writings from the second and third centuries C.E. that claim to reveal facts about Jesus omitted from the Gospels. Could such claims be valid? Can we be sure that the Bible tells us the whole, truthful story about Jesus?
To answer such questions, it is helpful to consider three basic subjects. First, we need to know important information about the men who wrote the Gospel accounts and when they wrote them; second, we need to learn who established the canon of the Scriptures and how; and third, we need some background on the apocryphal writings and how they differ from canonical writings.*
When Were the Christian Greek Scriptures Written, and by Whom?
According to some sources, the Gospel of Matthew was written as early as the eighth year after Christ’s death, that is, about 41 C.E. Many scholars favor a somewhat later date, but there is general agreement that all the books of the Christian Greek Scriptures were written during the first century C.E.
Eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were still living then; they could verify the Gospel accounts. They could also easily expose any inaccuracies. Professor F. F. Bruce observes: “One of the strong points in the original apostolic preaching is the confident appeal to the knowledge of the hearers; they not only said, ‘We are witnesses of these things,’ but also, ‘As you yourselves also know’ (Acts 2:22).”
Who were the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures? They included some of Jesus’ 12 apostles. These and other Bible writers, such as James, Jude, and probably Mark, were present on the day of Pentecost in 33 C.E. when the Christian congregation was formed. All the writers, including Paul, were closely united with the original governing body of the early Christian congregation, consisting of the apostles and the elders in Jerusalem.—Acts 15:2, 6, 12-14, 22; Galatians 2:7-10.
Jesus commissioned his followers to carry on the preaching and teaching work that he had started. (Matthew 28:19, 20) He even said: “He that listens to you listens to me too.” (Luke 10:16) Further, he promised them that God’s holy spirit, or active force, would give them the power they needed to do that work. So when writings came from the apostles or their close fellow workers—men who gave clear evidence of being blessed by God’s holy spirit—the early Christians naturally accepted such books as authoritative.
Some Bible writers testified to the authority and divine inspiration of their fellow writers. For example, the apostle Peter referred to the letters of Paul and put them on par with “the rest of the Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:15, 16) Paul, for his part, recognized that the apostles and other Christian prophets were inspired by God.—Ephesians 3:5.
The Gospel records therefore have a strong claim to reliability and authenticity. They are not mere legends and tales. They are carefully recorded history, based on eyewitness testimony, written by men who were inspired by God’s holy spirit.
Who Selected the Canon?
Some authors have claimed that the canon of the Christian Greek Scriptures was chosen centuries after the fact by a church that was an established power under the direction of the Emperor Constantine. However, the facts show otherwise.
For example, note what Professor of Church History Oskar Skarsaune states: “Which writings that were to be included in the New Testament, and which were not, was never decided upon by any church council or by any single person . . . The criteria were quite open and very sensible: Writings from the first century C.E. that were regarded as written by apostles or by their fellow workers were regarded as reliable. Other writings, letters, or ‘gospels’ that were written later were not included . . . This process was essentially completed a long time before Constantine and a long time before his church of power had been established. It was the church of martyrs, not the church of power, that gave us the New Testament.”
Ken Berding, an associate professor whose field of study is the Christian Greek Scriptures, gives this comment about how the canon emerged: “The church did not establish a canon of its choosing; it is more proper to speak of the church recognizing the books that Christians had always considered to be an authoritative Word from God.”
However, was it merely those humble first-century Christians who selected the canon? The Bible tells us that something far more important—and powerful—was at work.
According to the Bible, one of the miraculous gifts of the spirit that were given in the early decades of the Christian congregation was “discernment of inspired utterances.” (1 Corinthians 12:4, 10) So some of those Christians were given a superhuman ability to discern the difference between sayings that were truly inspired by God and those that were not. Christians today may thus be confident that the Scriptures included in the Bible were recognized as inspired.
Evidently, then, the canon was established at an early stage under the guidance of holy spirit. From the latter part of the second century C.E., some writers commented on the canonicity of the Bible books. These writers, however, did not establish the canon; they merely testified to what God had already accepted through his representatives, who were guided by his spirit.
Ancient manuscripts also provide compelling evidence to support the canon that is generally accepted today. There are more than 5,000 manuscripts of the Greek Scriptures in the original language, including some from the second and third centuries. It was these writings, not the apocryphal writings, that were regarded as authoritative during the early centuries C.E. and therefore were copied and widely distributed.
However, the internal evidence is the most important proof of canonicity. The canonical writings are in harmony with “the pattern of healthful words” that we find in the rest of the Bible. (2 Timothy 1:13) They urge readers to love, worship, and serve Jehovah, and they warn against superstition, demonism, and creature worship. They are historically accurate and contain true prophecy. And they encourage readers to love their fellow humans. The books of the Christian Greek Scriptures have such distinctive marks. Do the apocryphal writings measure up?
How Are the Apocryphal Writings Different?
The apocryphal writings are quite different from the canonical writings. These apocryphal books date from about the middle of the second century, much later than the canonical writings. They paint a picture of Jesus and Christianity that is not in harmony with the inspired Scriptures.
For example, the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas ascribes a number of strange utterances to Jesus, such as saying that he would transform Mary into a male to make it possible for her to enter into the Kingdom of heaven. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas describes young Jesus as a mean-spirited child who deliberately caused another child’s death. The apocryphal Acts of Paul and Acts of Peter emphasize complete abstinence from sexual relations and even depict the apostles as urging women to separate from their husbands. The Gospel of Judas depicts Jesus as laughing at his disciples for praying to God in connection with a meal. Such notions are at odds with what is found in the canonical books.—Mark 14:22; 1 Corinthians 7:3-5; Galatians 3:28; Hebrews 7:26.
Many of the apocryphal writings reflect beliefs of the Gnostics, who held that the Creator, Jehovah, is not a good God. They also believed that the resurrection is not literal, that all physical matter is evil, and that Satan was the source of marriage and procreation.
A number of the apocryphal books are attributed to Bible characters but falsely so. Did some dark conspiracy exclude these books from the Bible? One expert on the apocrypha, M. R. James, said: “There is no question of any one’s having excluded them from the New Testament: they have done that for themselves.”
Bible Writers Warned About an Apostasy to Come
In the canonical writings, we find a number of warnings about an imminent apostasy that would corrupt the Christian congregation. In fact, this apostasy had already started in the first century, but the apostles restrained its spread. (Acts 20:30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 6, 7; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:18, 19; 4:1-3) Such warnings shed light on writings that began to crop up after the death of the apostles, writings that contradicted Jesus’ teachings.
Granted, such documents may appear old and venerable to some scholars and historians. But consider: What if scholars were to collect a pile of dubious writings printed today, perhaps gleaning them from gossip magazines and the publications of radical religious cults, and then were to seal the papers in a vault? Would the passage of time render those writings truthful and reliable? After 1,700 years, would the lies and nonsense in those papers become true simply because the documents were very old?
Of course not! It is similar with claims that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and other outlandish statements from the apocryphal books. Why trust such unreliable sources, especially when reliable ones are at hand? Everything that God wants us to know about his Son is right there in the Bible—a record we can count on.
The word “canon” refers to the collection of Bible books that give convincing proof of being inspired of God. There are 66 books that are generally recognized as canonical and are an integral and indispensable part of God’s Word.