Thursday, September 27, 2007

What about Those Other Gospels?

Bernini's Saint Thomas and Saint AndrewBy Nathan Busenitz

This is the next installment in our series on why we can trust the New Testament gospel accounts. Today we consider a ninth reason in our list of ten.

Ninth, the biblical gospels are clearly superior to other supposed gospels.

It sometimes surprises, or even frightens, contemporary Christians to learn that there are other “gospels” outside of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But they need not be afraid. “The apocryphal gospels, even the earliest and soberest among them, can hardly be compared with the canonical gospels. The former are all patently secondary and legendary and obviously slanted.”[1] Of these extra-biblical traditions about Jesus, “only a tiny proportion have even a slight claim to being genuine. The vast majority of the material is quite worthless as a historical source for knowledge of Jesus, and their real value lies more in highlighting the quality of information preserved in the canonical gospels themselves.”[2]

It is possible, of course, that we might find some factual accounts about Jesus outside of the biblical gospels. The gospels do not claim to be exhaustive biographies of the life of Jesus. In fact, John closes his gospel by stating: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). What the gospels do claim, however, is that the information they provide is both accurate and sufficient, so that when you read them “you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).

It is also important to recognize that the New Testament continually warns against the reality of false teachers—those who would distort the truth for their own gain. In their letters, the apostles warned their readers about the danger of certain heresies, including lies that might affect their understanding of Jesus and His redemptive work (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:13–14 Gal. 1:6–10; Col. 2:4; 1 Tim. 4:7; 1 John 4:1–3; 2 Peter 1:16; Jude 3–4).

Among these heresies, gnosticism was a growing concern. “The name gnosticism comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning ‘knowledge,’ and stresses the character of this heresy. Gnosticism was a philosophical system built upon Greek philosophy that stressed matter was evil but spirit was good.”[3] The gnostics believed that matter was evil, which caused them to reinterpret and distort the incarnation of Christ. If matter is evil but Christ is good, the gnostics reasoned, then He could not have possessed a physical body. To solve this problem the gnostics invented two possible explanations: “one view was that because matter was evil, Jesus could not have actually come in human form; He only appeared in human form and only appeared to suffer. The other view suggested that the divine Logos came upon the human Jesus [at His baptism] and departed prior to the crucifixion.”[4]

In either case, the gnostic view of Jesus was completely incompatible with that taught by the apostles (cf. Titus 3:9; 1 Tim. 4:3). In the words of the apostle John, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:2–3). Paul likewise warned Timothy to “avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ [gnosis]” (1 Tim. 6:20).

The gnostic gospels, along with other grossly imaginative accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, were rightly rejected by the early Christians.

The emergence of documents with strange fairy-tale-like stories about Jesus and skewed theological ideas in works such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and indeed the Gospel of Truth (which in fact is not a gospel in the sense of Gospel genre but more of a theological treatise) bear witness to the necessity in the church for authoritative Gospels to combat the growth of deviant views and fanciful legends concerning Jesus. To peruse these noncanonical documents and reflect on the stories about Jesus preserved in them and other early documents gives the reader the immediate sense of the genuine reserve and feeling of authenticity that is present in the canonical presentations concerning Jesus.[5]

Following the warning of the apostles, the early church rejected these gospels. They were either so fanciful or so theologically skewed (by gnosticism or the like) that their historical authenticity was clearly lacking. In some cases, such as the Gospel of Thomas, they are little more than a collection of sayings, and therefore not really “gospels” at all.

By contrast, the four New Testament Gospels all contain orderly accounts of the birth, life, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They also point to the glorious “good news” of redemption in Jesus Christ, and are therefore “gospels” in the truest sense of the word.[6]

The New Testament gospels are clearly superior—both in terms of being straightforward accounts of Jesus’ life, and also by being theologically consistent with what the apostles taught in the rest of the New Testament. This again affirms the trustworthiness of the NT gospels, and helps explain why the early Christians, from the earliest points of church history, were able to distinguish between the true gospels and the counterfeits.

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[1] Edwin Yamauchi, cited in Geisler and Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 311.

[2] J. W. Drane, Introducing the New Testament (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2000), 227.

[3] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1997), 415.

[4] Ibid., 416.

[5] G. L. Borchert, John 1-11 NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001), 33.

[6] Ron Rhodes, “Crash Goes the Da Vinci Code,” Online Source.

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