“THIS is big. A lot of people are going to be upset.” “This changes the history of early Christianity.” These dramatic statements came from scholars welcoming the publication of the “Gospel of Judas,” a text thought lost for over 16 centuries (shown above).
There is renewed interest in such apocryphal gospels. Some people claim that these texts unveil momentous events and teachings from Jesus’ life that were long kept hidden. But what are the apocryphal gospels? Can they really teach us truths about Jesus and Christianity that we cannot find in the Bible?
Canonical and Apocryphal Gospels
Between 41 and 98 C.E., Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote down “the history of Jesus Christ.” (Matthew 1:1) These accounts are sometimes called gospels, meaning “good news” about Jesus Christ.
While there may have been oral traditions as well as other writings about Jesus, these four Gospels were the only ones considered inspired of God and worthy of being part of the Holy Scriptures
In time, though, other writings started to appear that were also given the name gospels. These other gospels were called apocryphal.*
At the end of the second century, Irenaeus of Lyon wrote that those who had apostatized from Christianity had “an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings,” including gospels that “they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish men.” Hence, the apocryphal gospels ended up being considered dangerous not only to read but even to own.
However, medieval monks and copyists kept those works from going into oblivion. In the 19th century, interest in the subject increased greatly and many collections of texts and critical editions of the apocrypha, including several gospels, came to light. Today there are editions published in many of the major modern languages.
Apocryphal Gospels: Far-fetched Accounts About Jesus
The apocryphal gospels often focus on people who are spoken of little or not at all in the canonical Gospels. Or they tell of alleged incidents regarding Jesus’ infancy. Consider some examples.
▪ The “Proto-Gospel of James,” also called “The Birth of Mary,” describes Mary’s birth and childhood as well as her marriage to Joseph. For good reason, it has been described as religious fiction and as a legend. It promotes the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary and has clearly been written to glorify her.
▪ The “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” concentrates on Jesus as a child
▪ Some apocryphal gospels, such as the “Gospel of Peter,” dwell on events related to the trial, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Others, such as the “Acts of Pilate,” a part of the “Gospel of Nicodemus,” focus on people connected with those events. The invention of facts and even people discredits these texts completely. The “Gospel of Peter” seeks to exonerate Pontius Pilate and describes Jesus’ resurrection in a fanciful way.
Apocryphal Gospels and Apostasy From Christianity
In December 1945, near Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, peasants chanced upon 13 papyrus manuscripts containing 52 texts. These fourth-century documents have been attributed to a religious and philosophical movement called Gnosticism. Mixing elements of mysticism, paganism, Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity, the movement was a contaminating influence on some professed Christians.
The “Gospel of Thomas,” the “Gospel of Philip,” and the “Gospel of Truth,” found in the “Nag Hammadi Library,” present various mystic Gnostic ideas as if coming from Jesus. The recently discovered “Gospel of Judas” is also counted among the Gnostic gospels. It portrays Judas in a positive light as the only apostle who really understood who Jesus was. One expert on this gospel notes that it describes Jesus as “a teacher and revealer of wisdom and knowledge, not a savior who dies for the sins of the world.” The inspired Gospels teach that Jesus did die as a sacrifice for sins of the world. (Matthew 20:28; 26:28; 1 John 2:1, 2) Clearly, the Gnostic gospels are intended to undermine, rather than strengthen, faith in the Bible.
The Superiority of the Canonical Gospels
A close consideration of the apocryphal gospels exposes them for what they are. Held next to the canonical Gospels, they betray a clear lack of divine inspiration. (2 Timothy 1:13) Written by people who never knew Jesus or his apostles, they reveal no hidden truths about Jesus and Christianity. Rather, they contain inaccurate, invented, fanciful accounts that are of no help in getting to know Jesus and his teachings.
On the other hand, Matthew and John were among the 12 apostles; Mark and Luke were close associates of the apostles Peter and Paul, respectively. They wrote their Gospels under the guidance of God’s holy spirit. (2 Timothy 3:14-17) For this reason, the four Gospels contain all that is needed for a person to believe that “Jesus is the Christ the Son of God.”
The term “apocryphal” comes from the Greek word that means “to hide away.” The word originally indicated a text that was reserved for the followers of a particular school of thought and was hidden to the uninitiated. However, it eventually came to denote writings not included in the authentic Bible canon.
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