By Jesse Jost
Ideas are funny things: they don’t have to be true in order to be powerful. Once an idea is believed, fiction can become fact. Today, certain ideas about the formation of the New Testament are masquerading as fact. And in our current state of historical illiteracy, these ideas are planting roots in the minds of our young people. The consequences can be devastating, such as the undermining of the authority of the New Testament. With faith in the New Testament gone, Jesus Christ becomes shrouded in mystery and sloppy historical revisionism. The identity and purpose of Jesus will be open to private interpretation, and a counterfeit Jesus will replace the true living Jesus. The counterfeit Jesus will not be able to save you, and herein lies the deadly danger of these pernicious ideas.
These dangerous myths include the idea that there were hundreds of gospels and portraits of Christ which paint an entirely different picture of Him than the one contained in the New Testament and that Constantine set up church councils that only selected the gospels that fit his church’s agenda – in other words, gospels portraying Jesus as claiming to be God. Supposedly, the rest were destroyed. Many of these ideas are laughable groundless fiction conveyed by novelists such as Dan Brown. However, a popular pseudo scholarship is suggesting that certain Gnostic gospels (discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammâdi in 1945) portray a different Jesus and a different Christianity that is more accurate than the one presented in the four gospels. The Gnostic Jesus revealed in these writings tells us to look inside ourselves for the light instead of to him, and tells us to seek salvation in mystic revelation rather than in him. Which is the real Jesus? Can we know the truth about Jesus? Did the church suppress legitimate gospels and only choose the ones that fit their agenda? If mortal men decided what would be in the New Testament and what was out, how do we know they made the right choice?
In this article, I want to look at these two issues. In Part 1, I explore the first issue: Who composed the Canon? How did the Church decide which books would make up the Bible as we know it? In Part 2, I will try to answer these questions: How do these Gnostic gospels compare with the New Testament? Do they deserve equal attention?
How was the canon determined?
In the days of the apostles, the accepted Bible was the 39 books of the Old Testament. These were the books that Paul said were God-breathed. Jesus also declared that the Old Testament “could not be broken”, thus declaring it infallible. But Jesus also promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the apostles’ teaching and give them authority. The early Church recognized the apostles’ authority, and the early epistles were received as “Scripture” (2 Peter 3:16), a term only used for the inspired Word of God. Jesus also promised that the Holy Spirit would bring to the apostles’ minds the things Jesus had said. This gave authority to the gospels that would later be written by His disciples (Matthew and John) or by scribes of a disciple, such as Mark (whose source was Peter). My purpose for this article is not to defend the reliability of these gospels (I have done that elsewhere). I am only mentioning what the early Church reportedly believed.
From the writings of the early Church Fathers, we discover that by the early second century, the church viewed the four gospels and Paul’s epistles as inspired. During the rest of the second and third centuries, almost all 27 books were viewed as authoritative, although a few, like Revelation and Hebrews, took a little longer before they were universally accepted. In the middle to late fourth century, when Christians were no longer being persecuted for their beliefs, some official councils discussed the canon of the New Testament. Their conclusions made official what had already been accepted by the majority of the church for hundreds of years. By the way, canon simply means rule or measuring stick. The books included in the canon were deemed to have the authority of God. It logically follows that if any of the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, He would make quite clear which books should be included – and that is what seems to have happened.
Apparently, the early church used primarily four tests or criteria to determine if a book should be included in the canon of the New Testament. 1. An Apostle Connection: The book in question had to be written by either an apostle (e.g. Matthew, John, Paul’s epistles, John’s letters), or someone who had first-hand information from an apostle (e.g. Mark, Luke, Acts) or someone who had seen Jesus (e.g. James and Jude were half brothers of Jesus). 2. Orthodoxy: The writings had to be consistent with the Old Testament and with the teachings of both Jesus and the apostles. As you will learn further on, the Gnostic gospels are anti-Semitic, and mock the God of the Old Testament. 3. Antiquity: The books had to have been written during the lives of the apostles; recent scholarship makes a compelling case that all 27 books of the NT were written before AD 70. 4. Universal acceptance: The books had to have a history of acceptance by the majority of the church.
As you can see, the Church did not simply arbitrarily decide what was in and what was out. They simply discovered what the Holy Spirit had already made quite clear. There is not a single known writing that fits all of the above criteria that was not accepted into the canon. While it is hard to make a clear case that the canon is closed, it is even harder to make a case that there are books that should be added to the canon.
We can have complete confidence that the books in today’s canon are historically reliable and have been carefully preserved for us. Next, let’s compare the Gnostic gospels with the New Testament writings and you can decide for yourself if the church made the right decision.
How do the Gnostic gospels compare with the orthodox gospels?
The Gnostic gospels and writings discovered in this past century paint an entirely different picture of Jesus. The uncovered in these writings is a puppet spokesman for Gnostic philosophy. The Gnostics believed that the way to salvation was through secret enlightenment, or gnosis, which means knowledge. Gnostics, while they varied on different points of doctrine, believed that matter was evil. It followed then, that they viewed the creator of matter, the Jewish God, as evil. But they also believed Jesus came to show us that the way to enlightenment was to separate ourselves from the evil effects of the world, to shut our minds off, and get in touch with our own inner divinity. Ancient Gnosticism actually has much in common with some of the ideas made popular today by people such as Eckhart Tolle, Oprah Winfrey, and Deepak Chopra. Modern Gnosticism denies the existence of a personal God who holds His creation accountable, and replaces Him with an impersonal divine energy that lies deep within each of us. The New/Old Spirituality attempts to satisfy our spiritual longings without restricting us with morality. This explains the widespread fascination with these antiquated Gnostic gospel documents and the desire to validate them. The Gnostic writings, driven by their anti-matter worldview, show great disregard for historical accuracy, for human sexuality, and for women. In fact, the Gospel of Thomas records Jesus telling Peter that Mary must make herself male before she can enter the kingdom of heaven.
The early church rejected Gnostic writings as heretical on theological grounds, but they also should be rejected on historical grounds. By the historian’s standards, how do these Gnostic writings compare with the New Testament?
1. The age of the books. Books that are written close in time to the events they record are deemed to be more historically reliable than books that are written much later. The later a book is written, the greater the chance of legendary influence. The NT Gospels were written between 50 and 70 AD. Paul’s epistles were penned between 40 and 65 AD. In other words, the New Testament was written during the lives of those who witnessed the events of Jesus’ ministry, the resurrection, and development of the early church. The Gnostic writings were written over a hundred years later, during the latter half of the second century.
2. Eyewitnesses. The New Testament writers take great pains to carefully document the names and places of the events they record. By their own admissions as well as the details they include, it is clear that each writer is recording eyewitness history. Modern archaeology has confirmed the accuracy of names and places mentioned in NT writings. In contrast, the Gnostic gospels show blatant disregard for history and only seem focused on advancing their theological ideas. Compare also the restrained, simple language of NT writers with fantastical descriptions in some Gnostic gospels. For example, in the Gospel of Peter, the resurrection account includes a description of two men whose heads reach into the sky coming from the tomb; this word picture is followed by a giant cross thundering that he has preached to the spirits in prison. Dan Brown claims that the texts portraying Jesus as an ordinary man were destroyed, while those emphasizing His deity were preserved. In reality, the Gnostic Gospels that the church rejected contain more mythical, out-of-the-ordinary elements than the NT does!
3. The criterion of embarrassment. Authors of the orthodox gospels show a willingness to record facts as they happened, even when doing so appears to hurt their agenda. For instance, the four Gospels have been accused of falsely painting Jesus as God, yet these same gospels also record Jesus’ baptism by sinners, His inability to do miracles at different times, and His statement that “the Father is greater than I.” If the Gospels were airbrushed to make Jesus appear divine, why weren’t these difficult facts also smoothed away? Gnostic writings record Jesus saying whatever is necessary to confirm Gnostic ideology; He is only a puppet. In contrast, the NT writers clearly refuse to tamper with Jesus’ actual words even when doing so would have greatly simplified things. For instance, the early church wrestled with whether a person needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, how to define the role of women in the church, and what place the gift of speaking in tongues had. Yet nowhere in the four Gospels does Jesus address these issues. This would have been a perfect time for the Gospel writers to tamper with the text, had they been willing to do so. They could have simply written into the text an instance in which Jesus addressed the early church’s problems and church division would have resolved quickly. But the writers did not do this. They knew that eyewitnesses who were still alive would be able to deny anything falsely attributed to Jesus. The Gnostic gospels, written over a hundred years later, do not seem bothered by such nuisances as fact.
The Gnostic gospels cannot begin to compare with the reliability of the New Testament. When there is a contradiction, the New Testament meets the necessary credentials to be an authoritative voice.
You will encounter people who claim that the early church was biased when they chose the books of the New Testament, or that Jesus’ deity was a fourth-century invention of the church. When you hear such statements, you need to point out the underlying chicken-or-egg fallacy by asking some pointed questions. If Jesus was a mere man who never claimed to be God and never rose from the dead, how then did the church even come into existence? Where did the idea come from that Jesus was God? Secular historians record that, in the region where Jesus lived and died, many people willingly died for their belief that Jesus was God. And this, within a few decades of Jesus’ death! In the first century, many men claimed to be the prophesied Messiah. During their lives they amassed a following, but when each of these counterfeit messiahs died, their followers disbanded, and the movements came to an end. How do you account for the emergence of the early church? Obviously, it wasn’t for money or power, because joining the church meant a loss of these things. How do you account for the transformation of the disciples from cowards in to fearless world changers? How do you explain Paul’s drastic change from bitter antagonist to staunch defender? It simply will not do to suggest that the church is responsible for turning Jesus into the God-Man. Those who assert this must also provide an explanation of the origin of the church.
The Christian need not fear investigation in the historical records; the New Testament has weathered assault after assault. It continues to remain against all odds because it is the word of God. And the Word of God abides forever.