We’re going through the frequently asked questions on the radio program “Unbelievable” now. A link to the program can be found from this blog. I highly recommend it to everyone as what I’ve heard so far has been most pleasing. I am especially pleased that this is coming from the U.K. which has generally been seen to be overridden by secularism.
Today’s question is about the apocryphal gospels. Why aren’t they included?
In a table here in my living room, I have a book called “The Essential Gnostic Gospels.” I’ve read through some of it, though not all at this point. To those who wonder about why the gnostic gospels aren’t included, I have a piece of advice.
Now some might think that sounds strange to say, but honestly, go read them. They are often quite nonsensical speaking in esoteric language that thankfully, doesn’t have to be taught in a Sunday School lesson, and are certainly written to convey gnostic teachings.
However, an astute reader will raise an objection, “So they’re difficult to understand and gnostic. That can’t be it. It can’t be they’re not in there just because you don’t like them.”
For this then, we start with the gospels we have. Why do we accept them? Now I’m not going to go into a full-fledged argument here. I’m just going to list some basics.
First off, the manuscript evidence is tremendous. We have more manuscripts of the NT than any other ancient document and we could re-create the entire NT from the quotes of the Early Church Fathers alone sans 13 verses. It is inconceivable that someone would be able to alter all the quotes in all the manuscripts in all the languages.
The archaeological evidence is there also. Archaeology has time and time again attested the validity of the NT and this is best shown in the book of Acts. Luke has been shown to be accurate in the most minute of details. It is hardly likely that a writer so keen to minute details and wanting to convey a message of truth would error on the major details.
Also, we can date the gospels early. The book of Acts does not contain mention of such events as Nero’s persecution, the deaths of Peter and Paul, or the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. for the most likely reason that they hadn’t happened yet. Acts is seen as the sequel to Luke placing Luke earlier. Luke is said to have used Matthew and Mark placing them even earlier.
John is for another thread, but I see no reason to date any gospel later than 70 A.D.
There is also prophetic fulfillment in the texts. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is attested to in the Olivet Discourse in the three synoptics. This description is so accurate that it is insisted that it is written after the fact. Unfortunately, that is dating simply by personal bias. When dating is done based on the manuscript itself, it is easily dated to before 70 A.D.
What about the others?
First off, they are dated to the second century at the earliest. Thus, these cannot be seen to be eyewitness accounts. The gospels on the other hand are. These stories have no way of verifying them often and contain numerous errors, such as a high priest spending the night in a graveyard. (Let the astute reader figure out why that would not be.)
Second, they were then most definitely not written by the people whose names were on them. Instead, these gospels would be given these names in order to lend credibility to them, which was a common tactic of the day. The gospels are interesting on this point as one like Matthew is hardly noticed in the gospels, but he has one. It would seem a church wanting to make a name to attribute were it fake would choose a more noticable name. (And why choose Mark and Luke for that matter?)
Third, they contradict what we do have in the orthodox gospels we know we can trust. Take for instance, the teaching in the gospel of Thomas that Mary must make herself male so that she can inherit the kingdom. I’m really not sure what that process would involve and frankly, I don’t think I want to know. Some things are better left not known. Ignorance is bliss in this case.
As for the selection of what books were in the canon, this was hardly random. One can see lists by the Early Church Fathers and realize that there is little if any change and when they were ratified, it is simply what the church knew all along. Other gospels weren’t suppressed. They never had a large following to begin with! The true gospels did.
The simplest answer though to the skeptic is simple. Read them. Test them and compare them. Do so with the canonical gospels then and I believe the answer will be clear.