In The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities, Darrell Bock has produced a much-need orthodox introduction to the major texts produced by the ancient heretics usually described as “Gnostic.” Until now, the most accessible introductions to Gnosticism and its “gospels” have been written by scholars who are sanguine toward the heresies and critical or dismissive of orthodox Christianity. Mainstream Christian scholars have mostly watched this game from the sidelines (or from the ivory tower), while the likes of Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman have scored repeatedly on the bestseller lists.
Bock, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, comes into the game late, but well trained for the task. He begins by giving non-academics a fascinating tour of the last century’s scholarship related to “early Christianities.” He outlines the particular problems related to the study of the ancient world in general and Gnosticism in particular. The term is indeed difficult to apply with consistency, since the polymorphous groups we usually call “Gnostic” recognized no earthly authority and produced no visible hierarchy. Still, Bock, like many scholars, is able to settle on a minimal list of attributes common to all Gnostic texts (the Gospels of Philip and Mary Magdalene, for example). Similarly, he is able to distill a minimal list of attributes common to all texts associated with proto-orthodox Christianity (the canonical New Testament and the apostolic fathers). Drawing from both sets of texts, he compares and contrasts both groups’ doctrines of God, Christ, salvation, and sin.
Though the book is measured and nonpolemical, Bock’s conclusion frankly confronts the limitations of the scholars who are re-imagining and promoting ancient heresies. They are dealing with comparatively late texts (second and third centuries) from a fringe movement that never quite gained momentum — and it fizzled out not because it was crushed by orthodoxy, but because it was singularly unappealing. When we see the Gnostic books as they are — as Dr. Bock has opened them up for us — we know why they went out of print after only one edition.
In stark contrast, may this book and its author prosper.
UPDATE: Someone asked how Dr. Bock’s book differs from Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, by N.T. Wright, which I reviewed last month. Bock’s book focuses particularly on the Nag Hammadi library, the large gnostic cache that was discovered in Egypt in the 1940s, while Wright’s book is a surgical strike on the more recently discovered Gospel of Judas. Wright’s book is also a more direct response to the modern Gnostic revival, and so is more immediately useful for apologetic purposes. The two books complement one another. A Christian who reads both is well prepared for the discussions that come up whenever the newsmags decide to trumpet Judas over Jesus.