What Other Gospels are there?
After all the fuss about the De Vinci Code, what could be next on the Christianity bashing Agenda? Well it could be those other gospels that conspiracy theorists say have been deliberately squashed.
What other Gospels you may say? Hummm. What gospels indeed! For when I was at Sunday School I was taught that there were only four Gospels. These were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the four Gospels in the New Testament.
However, it is not quite as simple as that. In fact, did you know that there are actually five Gospels in the New Testament anyhow? I am no expert on ancient texts, yet in my cursory investigation over the years I have come to know of at least twelve gospels so far, and there could well be more! These are the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Thomas, Peter, James, Judas, Levi, Phillip and Mary.
The word ‘gospel’ literally means ‘Good News’, but it has gained other connotations with time. Not only is it a record of the ‘good news’ about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – a story line that offers spiritual insights and hope, but it has gained the extra meaning of ‘truth’. In other words if something is spoken of as being ‘gospel’ it is supposed to be ‘the truth’ of a situation. If it is ‘gospel truth’ then it is not to be doubted. Unfortunately the ‘truth’ of a gospel cannot help but be questioned when the gospels themselves refute each other – as these most certainly do! Also, unfortunately, that ‘gospel’ word is often taken as a mark of authority in itself, so it has often been deliberately used by less scrupulous authors to gain some kind of authority that their particular writing should not be awarded. I think we need to look at these other gospels in turn!
Of those well known Four, the earliest is thought to be the Gospel according to Mark. Mark is the shortest of the four, and all but one verse is included in either Matthew or Luke. That certainly means it had to be written before those other two, and as ‘paper’ was a premium in those days, then the content would have been chosen with the greatest of care. No extraneous or unnecessary additions would have been included, yet at times it reads with such detail that it looks as if it is a first hand account. It is a re-telling of what was actually seen, and the only person who is in all of these bits, apart from Jesus, is Peter. As the only verse not included elsewhere is about a boy spectator who was nearly caught at the time of the arrest of Jesus and who fled away naked, I believe that this boy was in fact Mark himself – hence the very personal touch and claim to fame. However, if Mark heard the stories directly from Peter’s lips, then the record would hold that eye witness sharpness of detail and could subsequently be accepted as being as true as any eye witness account could possibly be. It is now generally believed that this work was written very soon after the actual events, 15 -20 years after, about 50 – 60 AD, simply as a means of remembering the events in that great detail and before the stories got lost in time. It was looking for some kind of reaction from the reader.
Matthew’s Gospel contains lots of Mark’s verses (minus the small personal eye witness details), verses unique to Matthew and verses shared with Luke’s Gospel. Those shared just with Luke look as if they came from a special document that was just about Jesus’ teachings; a document academics have labelled ‘Q’. It is now generally believed to have been written soon after Mark’s work, making good use of that source, about 60 – 70 AD. Because of the style of Matthew’s original verses, and the way they point to fulfilment of prophecy in the Old Testament, it is easy to see the reason why Matthew wrote his Gospel – it is the Gospel specifically for the Jews.
Luke’s Gospel also contains many of Mark’s verses. It also has its unique parts and those shared Q bits. In this case, the style has several references to the gentiles (the non-Jews) and to women – unusual prominence for those days. In this way Luke’s Gospel is regarded as having been written for the expanding young church, especially as the Book of Acts (also written by Luke) continues the story of that expansion. It, like Matthew’s work, is generally regarded as being written about 60 – 70AD for the end of Acts does not include the death of Paul, and he was executed about 65AD. That, of course, is another pointer for the early writing of his source material, Mark’s Gospel.
The next Gospel is the Gospel according to John. This one is quite different to the other three and only uses its own source material. Once again there is a touch of the eye witness account here, but this gospel is centred around the last few days of Jesus’ ministry and time on Earth, having over half its contents on just these last few hours of Jesus’ incarnation. It contains the most symbols of the four, and John records the strange ‘I am’ sayings. It is the most mysterious or spiritual of them all. The composition of the Gospel suggests that it was probably written in stages, and could be as late as 85 or even 100 AD.
What of the fifth gospel in the bible? Well I suppose that is a bit of a cheat, for Paul’s letter to the Romans is not a story but a thesis on Christianity, and is subtitled ‘the Gospel according to Paul’. Look that one up if you doubt my word!!
Now we come to the real problem. Conspiracy theorists tend to claim that if a teaching was unpopular with those who held authority in the early church, then it was quietly dropped or called heresy. The theorists are quick to suggest that the early church leaders were corrupt, lacking in integrity and abused their positions of authority in order to get their way. However, look at the problem the early church leaders had to deal with. They had to put a stop to the questionable ideas that started floating around those early embryonic churches. Their brief was not to stop debate and squash ideas but counter heresy with irrefutable arguments. This they did brilliantly more often than not. Debate was a way of spreading the ‘good news’. Paul, in particular, wrote several letters to the early churches pointing out the error of their ways – hence the Gospel according to Paul, such letters that also later came to be included in the acceptable list of written material or canon – the New Testament. There are even clues within those writings that other letters also existed, unfortunately now lost.
Those early leaders also had to show where authority in the church lay, and for them it was in the founding members – the apostles. Even viewing just those early four gospels it can be seen that these included ideas that did not sit nicely in the existing ‘status quo’ dogma of the day, yet they were still included in the acceptable books despite any unexplained passage or passage that did not sit quite right. Hence we have two stories of the Nativity that although legend has brought together, are incompatible with each other. The criterion of acceptance was not their content but their source. There was no conspiracy to ditch uncomfortable doctrine or possible mistakes. That came later, if at all. The other gospels that were rejected were ditched because they lacked the authenticity of authorship – not a monopoly on ‘truth’.
So we come onto the James, Judas, Thomas, Phillip, Levi, Mary and Peter.
In every congregation of any faith there are bound to be dissenters. No matter how ‘orthodox’ or strictly held the doctrine of that faith might be, there will still be some members who see a different slant on things. Any arguments put forward will have to have some basis of authority, so if it can be claimed that a famous past leader of that faith expressed similar ideas, then ‘bob’s your uncle’. The counter argument must be to prove that the leader in question did not hold to those ideas at all. This applied to those other gospels.
James was the brother of Jesus, whilst Judas, Thomas, Phillip and Peter were apostles. Mary Magdalene, not Mary the mother of Jesus, was mentioned in the early Gospels. These were great names indeed.
I repeat I am no expert on the ancient texts, but let us apply a little commonsense.
The gospel of Thomas tells of stories about the early life of Jesus and of Mary. I am unsure as to why this was considered so important, but as Thomas was undoubtedly the founder of the Church of South East India – evangelising to the East whereas Paul went to the West, then he would have had to have written his gospel before Mark, in order for it to have survived in the central church area and still given him time to evangelise eastward. Yet this important work does not appear in India at all, and surely he would have taken his own work with him to help spread the ‘Good News’. Such an idea is insupportable and the early church leaders thought so as well. They gave it the thumbs down.
Similarly the gospel of Peter was rejected. Peter was a fisherman and not an academic of the day. His style of writing would have declared that from the rooftops. It could be argued that he dictated his stories to some unknown writer who ‘ghosted’ his stories for him, but as he had undoubtedly already done this through Mark, that whole idea grinds to a halt.
Judas defeats its own purpose, for Judas committed suicide soon after the death of Jesus. The only way for that story to be written is for it to be a work of fiction by someone else, pretending to be Judas and putting forward a fantasy or projected ideal. Shoot in its own foot.
I cannot claim any real knowledge of the gospel of James, except it puts forward the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary. As James was the younger brother of Jesus then this cannot possibly add up right! It is generally thought to have been written in the second century AD anyhow, long after James had died. Certainly this authorship did not stand the scrutiny of the early church leaders.
My knowledge is even less when looking at Levi and Phillip. I once owned a copy of the gospel according to Levi. Having lost it in the early 1980’s, for the life of me I cannot now remember what it was like! I do remember that it included stories of Jesus travelling to Egypt and India, him learning from the religions and psychics of those places, as well as containing whole swathes of Matthew’s Gospel. The point to bear in mind is that the Levites were the priestly family of Old Testament Judaism and that Levi is mentioned as being a toll or tax gatherer in the early Gospels. Matthew, of Gospel fame, was also a tax gatherer and his Gospel was written with Judaism in mind. So although Levi is not necessarily a name of fame of any single individual, the claim for authority is still present through that name and association with Matthew, as well as claiming the title ‘gospel’. Hence the claim of authenticity to those training stories not found elsewhere. Small though this may seem, it is still a point against the gospel if it needs this kind of connection to bolster its ideas.
I know absolutely nothing about the gospel according to Phillip!
Lastly we have the ‘secret gospel according to Mary Magdalene’. This now appears in the form of a novel written this century, however it is based on the scraps of a gospel discovered in the 19th century, found only in the Akhmim Codex. Despite the most thorough debunking of the De Vinci Code, the novel is another book of like genre. You may like reading such fiction and I am not crying down that book, however, it is another matter to claim a ‘gospel truth’. The author makes it plain that the work is a work of fiction, combining different ‘Marys’ into the bargain. Perhaps it is the publisher leaving the reader to make the assumption that there was a conspiracy to bury the gospel with its ‘secret’ knowledge. Good for sales figures. However, the book’s own publicity actually reads, “The Secret Gospel imagines an alternative history”, so what kind of ‘truth’ are we talking about? For me, it holds the least academic integrity of the 12 gospels and is placed squarely in modern New Age philosophy as that kind of work attempts to redress a long imbalance of gender and sexuality.
Like those early church leaders, we have a plethora of claims and counter claims for acceptance of ‘truth’. I, like them, use the same criteria of authenticity and do not simply accept or reject works that fit into my ideas of what ‘truth’ ought to be. So I am left with the original New Testament Gospels and find I have more than enough information to learn and sort through, just with these.