After a sixteen hundred year market lull, gospels are once again a growth industry.
Publishers now are rushing to market to supplement the only standbys — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — with some ancient castoffs: the so-called gospels of Judas, Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Philip, among others.
These are the “apocryphal” (“hidden”) gospels, purported portraits of Jesus that were spurned as phony or heretical by the early Church. For years, they were a curiosity indulged only by scholars. Now, they’re making a popular comeback.
Browse your local bookstores, and you’ll likely find a dozen collections of apocrypha, most of them released by major publishers in the last five years. Titles are provocative: “The Other Bible,” “The Complete Gospels,” “The Hidden Teachings of Jesus” and “The Lost Books of the Bible.” All suggest that the standard Christian Bible is missing something essential. One volume boasts that it contains “Everything you need to empower your own search for the historical Jesus.”
Many Catholic scholars, however, dismiss the fad.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” said Father Peter Stravinskas, author of The Catholic Church and the Bible. “When I was in grade school, some sisters would tell us syrupy stories from the infancy gospels, and they would be reprimanded by their superiors for teaching such nonsense.”
The infancy gospels — fanciful accounts of Jesus’ childhood — make up just one category of apocryphal literature. There are also collections of Jesus’ alleged sayings, full-scale biographies, apocalyptic tracts (similar in style to the biblical Book of Revelation) and letters attributed to the apostles.
Most arose in the first three centuries of Christianity, before the Church officially proclaimed the “canon,” or definitive list of New Testament books.
Some of the apocrypha were dismissed out of hand by the Fathers of the Church because of the narratives’ patent absurdity or crude style. Others were seriously considered for inclusion in the canon, but were eventually dropped because their contents did not stand up to scrutiny.
Lists had long been in use in local churches. A Milanese fragment, the Muratorian Canon, survives from the second century. And St. Athanasius, in the mid-fourth century, published a list that is identical with New Testament as we know it today. The matter of the Christian canon was definitively settled with the Synods of Hippo (A.D. 393) and Carthage (397 adn 419), which were guided by the brilliant St. Augustine. These synods confirmed the list of the Roman synod of 382, attended by Jerome and presided over by Pope Damasus. The same list appeared in a letter of Pope Innocent I in 405. Rome had spoken; the matter was settled, right?
Well, sort of. Even afterward, however, some Christian apocrypha continued to influence popular piety and art. Yet few people seriously considered these “gospels” sacred, or even historically reliable — until recently.
Some years back, I interviewed William Farmer, who was then the general editor of the International Bible Commentary. Farmer (a remarkable scholar, who has since passed away) traced the resurgence of interest in Christian apocrypha to an archeological find in 1945: “The single most important factor has been the discovery of the fourth-century Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. The texts included a copy of the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of purported sayings of Jesus.”
Scholars differ on the exact date of the Gospel of Thomas, but most agree that it is of great antiquity. Some — though not in the mainstream — believe it to be older than books that were included in the New Testament.
The Gospel of Thomas, like all the texts in the Nag Hammadi cache, is Gnostic in character. Gnosticism, a religious movement contemporary with early Christianity, held that salvation came through secret knowledge (in Greek, gnosis) given only to a spiritual elite. Gnostic Christians, whom the Church rejected early as heretics, taught that Jesus’ mission was to reveal this secret knowledge and separate the saved “knowers” from the ignorant rabble.
Most Gnostics took a dim view of the material world and especially of the human body, which they saw as a prison for the spirit. As a result, they minimized (or denied) the importance of Jesus’ bodily incarnation, His suffering and His resurrection, emphasizing instead His spiritual reality and teaching. Thus they also minimized the uniqueness of the witness of the twelve apostles.
Gnostic Christians taught, instead, that any one of the elite could have a spiritual encounter with Jesus and write a “gospel” that was just as authoritative as those by the apostles.
And write them they did — leading St. Irenaeus to complain, in 180, that “every one of them generates something new, day by day, according to his ability; for no one is deemed perfect who does not develop some mighty fictions.”
The Nag Hammadi find included mighty fictions attributed to James, John, Peter, Paul, Thomas and Mary Magdalene. Some 30 years after their discovery, the texts reached a wide audience through Elaine Pagels’ popular paperback The Gnostic Gospels, which some critics described as an “altar call” for a Gnostic revival.
Pagels, however, did explain why the institutional Church could not peacefully coexist with Gnostic members.
The Church proclaimed universal salvation, while Gnostics reserved the gift only for an elite. The Church taught that the death and resurrection of Jesus were decisive historic events; Gnostics saw them as metaphors or illusions. The Church looked to the apostles for authority, while Gnostics looked in the mirror.
St. Irenaeus railed against Gnostic arrogance: “They consider themselves mature so that no one can be compared with them in the greatness of their knowledge, not Peter or Paul or any other apostles!”
The most famous Gnostic gospel, that of Thomas, is a collection of sayings, some of which also appear in the canonical Gospels, while others portray a Jesus unrecognizable — a savior who denies he is “master” to his followers.
Yet “Thomas” has gained a following, recently, among fringe groups in academia. The Jesus Seminar, a free-standing research institute, published Thomas with the four canonical Gospels in a single volume titled The Five Gospels.
Father Alfred McBride, O. Praem., author of many Catholic Scripture studies, sees the book’s title as significant. “Those who speak for the Jesus Seminar show a great deal of interest in elevating Thomas to canonical status,” he told me in a 1998 interview. “And in so doing they reduce the importance and authority of the present New Testament canon. They have their reasons: Thomas has no passion narratives, no miracles, not much that’s supernatural. It’s Jesus the wisdom teacher, which suits their idea that religion is merely humanitarian common sense.”
Participants in the Jesus Seminar also produced The Complete Gospels, an anthology of more than a dozen apocrypha packaged with the canonical four — implying a level playing field for what they call alternative “early Jesus traditions.” Yet they fail to emphasize that the apocryphal gospels rarely gained more than small, local followings, and that many were condemned as heretical from the get-go, while others were dismissed as inaccurate or tawdry.
The Gospel of Nicodemus, for example, is a moving courtroom drama, attempting to portray the small details of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Doctrinally, it checks out; stylistically, it passes muster. But ultimately it failed the test for the Church Fathers because it is wildly inaccurate in its depiction of Roman jurisprudence and Jewish custom. It also stretches credulity by purporting to describe Jesus’ descent into hell.
“You find a tendency toward sensationalism in the apocrypha,” said Father Stravinskas. “In the canonical Gospels, there’s a reverential silence on some matters The apocrypha, however, are ebullient in divulging intimate details about Our Lady and Our Lord.”
Indeed, while canonical Luke and Matthew merely state that Mary is a virgin, the author of Infancy-James goes so far as to drag in a skeptical midwife to perform a physical examination.
The boy Jesus, for His part, appears in the infancy gospels as a sort of wonder-working Dennis the Menace. In Infancy-Thomas, Jesus breathes life into clay birds, stretches beams in His father’s carpentry shop and strikes dead a teacher who dared to punish Him. In the Arabic Infancy Gospel, He turns cruel playmates into goats. According to Infancy-Thomas, the boy’s neighbors lived in constant fear, moving St. Joseph to cry out: “Do not let [Jesus] go outside the door, because anyone who angers Him dies!”
More troubling, the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Philip strongly suggests that Jesus was physically intimate with Mary Magdalene: “Christ loved her more than all the disciples,” it alleges, “and used to kiss her often on the mouth.”
Most of the apocrypha offer not a different perspective on the historical Jesus, but rather a different Jesus, and some, indeed, purvey a different religion.
According to Father Stravinskas, this accounts for some of their appeal today. “This is a resurgence of Gnosticism,” he said. “These people claim to have a better grasp of the truth than anyone else in the Church, including the magisterium.”
He said the apocrypha also appeal to prurient interests of more mainstream Catholics: “It’s in synch with a tendency to rely on extraordinary revelations: apparitions, visionaries and messages of a doomsday nature.”
Father McBride pointed out that the marketing of these books relies on anti-Catholicism to tease readers with a taste of forbidden fruit. “The message is that the Catholic Church has been keeping secrets, once again chaining up the Bible, not letting people know the real story.”
But, for scholars, the recent surge of interest presents an opportunity, according to Farmer, who enjoyed a distinguished career in biblical studies at Southern Methodist University and converted late in life to Catholicism. “The emergence of these new materials gives us an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the canon,” he said. “I hope that Christians who regard the canon as decisive for faith might come to a better understanding of why the Church has preserved some books and not others.”
Still, all the dialogue in the academy won’t change the list of approved books, Farmer said. And Father McBride agreed: “The canon belongs to the Church, not the university.”
Father Stravinskas explained why: “Karl Rahner said that the Church, in deciding the canon, was like a mother at work in her apartment, and down below in the courtyard there could be 40 children screaming or crying — but she could hear the voice of her own and know it.”