May 5, 2006


Those other gospels

"Since many others have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, … I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence.”

So begins the Gospel according to Luke.

So we have known ever since the time of Luke that “many others” had already written about Jesus. It was hardly news, therefore, no matter how the news media blew it up, that there was a so-called Gospel of Judas, a Coptic translation of which was discovered in the 1970s. The Church had to have known about it at least in the year 180 because that’s the year when the bishop St. Irenaeus condemned it.

When the media report on new discoveries, the reaction seems to be, “Why isn’t that book in the Bible?”

Why should it be? If everything written about Jesus were included, the Bible would be gigantic. Choices had to be made about what should be accepted and what shouldn’t be.

Some documents were omitted because they preached heresy. The Gospel of Judas, for example, was a Gnostic document. Gnosticism, from the Greek word meaning “knowledge,” came in various forms—Valentinians, Manicheans, Mandeans—but it always preached that a special kind of knowledge came from God only to the elite.

It considered spirit morally good and matter (including our bodies) morally evil. In the Gospel of Judas, Judas was supposedly more enlightened than the other Apostles and helped Jesus discard his body so that his divinity could be revealed.

Not all of the other gospels were heretical, but they were different from those determined to be inspired and accepted as part of the canon.

Athanasius was the first to suggest the 27 books in the New Testament, and his decision was ratified by a regional council in Carthage in the fourth century, but the official Catholic decision about the canon didn’t come until the Council of Trent in the 16th century.

Here’s a quick look at a few of the early documents:

The Protevangelium of James, written sometime in the second century, recounts legends that supposedly happened before the events in the Gospels. It’s from this document that we get the names of Joachim and Anna, Mary’s parents, and the tradition that Mary was presented in the temple when she was 3. It recounts the birth of Mary, her betrothal to Joseph, and the birth of Jesus. Joseph is depicted as a widower with six children, an older man willing to accept Mary’s vow of virginity.

The Gospel of Thomas was frequently referred to by name during the third and fourth centuries. It’s a collection of sayings, parables, prophecies and proverbs attributed to Jesus similar to those in the canonical Gospels, but there’s no narrative structure. It may have been written about the time of the Synoptic Gospels.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, probably written in the second century, has stories about the boy Jesus, including miracles he performed. For example, he made clay birds, clapped his hands, and the birds flew away. But he was also malicious at times. After a boy accidentally bumped into his shoulder, the boy fell down and died. Jesus often exasperated Joseph, but he also helped him, for example, by stretching a piece of wood that Joseph had cut too small. There are lots of miracles, but shouldn’t be taken seriously.

There exists today only a fragment of the Gospel of Peter—a Passion narrative, an epiphany story, and a story of Mary Magdalene and other women discovering the empty tomb. It ends abruptly in mid-sentence with Peter, Andrew and Levi fishing.

The Gospel of the Hebrews, frequently mentioned by name in the early Church, was a Jewish-Christian document that tells of Jesus’ pre-existence and coming into the world, his baptism, some of his sayings and his appearance to his brother James after his resurrection.

Other early gospels include the Gospel of the Egyptians, of the Nazoreans and of the Ebionites. There’s the Dialogue of the Savior, the Apocryphon of James, the Secret Gospel of Mark and the Acts of Pilate.

These are only some of the early documents about Christ that are not included in the Bible.

— John F. Fink


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