The Missing Gospels (2 of 3)
Mr. Mark Yarbrough: Welcome to DTS Dialogue: Issues of God in Culture. I am your host, Mark Yarbrough, Executive Director of Communications at Dallas Theological Seminary. Today our discussion topic is "The Missing Gospels."
Dr. Hall Harris: One of the important things that you also need to remember in this regard is the idea of the formation of the canon of the New Testament, that is which books belong in our Bible are related to this process. Many people have the idea that the early church decided what was in the canon or wasn't, but there is a very significant, different way to look at what constitutes canon or the books that should be in the Bible. That is that the early church didn't really decide. The early church simply recognized the books that they already felt belonged, so they didn't create it, they rather just acknowledged it. But that's a key difference in this discussion.
Dr. Darrell Bock: And it is important to recognize that in this recognition process that we are talking about, we're talking about a process that took time because it was engaged in very carefully, very thoughtfully.
There were some books in some lists that didn't end up being in the final listing, that kind of thing. And there was this concern to be sure that texts were old, that they had this "rootage" that we talked about, this traditional "rootage," and that they reflected the theology, the core theology of the church, which these Gnostic texts and missing gospels really don't reflect, even a text like the Gospel of Thomas, which is probably the most well-publicized of these missing gospels. It is an interesting text. It is 114 sayings supposedly coming from Jesus, and if you read through the Gospel of Thomas for your devotions or just on the side you will find that about 25 percent of it sounds very familiar because it is very much like Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Another 25 percent of it is sort of like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And another 50 percent of it you read and you think, "I've never seen or heard that before!" because it is not at all like Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
Dr. Daniel Wallace: And that 50% you think, "What in the world did he just say?"
Darrell: That's exactly right in some cases. So it really is a mixed bag. Well Thomas is a gospel that clearly has some of its origin in the traditions of the church, some of which showed up in our gospels. It is also clear that some of it doesn't come from there. I think in the end that's one of the reasons why it didn't make it. In fact, we have statements from Origen in the early third century. He talks about what gospels we don't read in the churches because they are not recognized. Interestingly enough, he mentions Thomas by name.
Mark: Don't you think that's an important piece of this discussion? Because if we all have friends and neighbors and family members who join this discussion, missing gospels, the very implication is that something has been lost, that there is an incomplete set. That's why, Hall, I am glad you brought that up. It is a discussion of canonicity: why we have what we have. The gospels that we do have are complete, and there is nothing missing. In other words, what you are arguing for, if I can phrase it this way, is that the early church knew exactly what it was. They assessed it. They looked at it, and they put it aside. Is that fair?
Darrell: Yeah, I think so. I think that very much is the sense you get. There were some works that ended up in the collection known as the Apostolic Fathers: Shepherd of Hermas, Didache, First Clement, that they read and they said, "This is Orthodox. There is no doubt about that. This is a reflection of our theology." But its "rootage" wasn't such that it was close enough to this emerging period of the origins of Christianity that it was included.
So you had some works like that. Then you had other works that clearly didn't even fit theologically. You go to plug it in, and it's like using a Phillips screwdriver on a normal screw. It isn't going to turn anything.
Mark: And what you are saying about a lot of these books, a lot of these writings, is that there are pieces that do fit that sound very familiar to us. Then there are other extremes that it's way out there. It's not even close.
Dan: If I could add, I think basically what we are looking at here for the ancient tests of canonicity are three things. First was "antiquity". Was it something that was written by the Apostles or associates of the Apostles? It had to be a first century document.
Dan: And so when you said these other gospels were set aside, well that could only be true after these other gospels were written.
Dan: And that would mean, once we are getting into the second century, some of them were not written until the ninth century, so some of them were really late on the scene. But that is the first test of canonicity: apostolicity or antiquity.
The second is catholicity. Was it something accepted widely by the churches? This is where these Gnostic gospels simply fail the test abysmally.
Thirdly is orthodoxy. Does it comport with the orthodoxy that we already read in the Scriptures. So when you have got the Muratorian Canon, which is the second-earliest canon list we have in the second century, it talks about the Shepherd of Hermas, and it says, "Hey, this thing's orthodox. Go ahead and read it. Just don't read it in church because it is of recent vintage, so it doesn't pass the test of antiquity, even though it passed the test of orthodoxy and even catholicity."
Darrell: In catholicity, it is important to explain comes from a word that means the idea of something being universal. We are not talking about Roman Catholicism or something like that.
Mark: Right, right.
Darrell: It is something completely different. So this standard is the idea that it was universal because it reflects the theology of the entirety of the church.
Hall: I think another point, though, that is also worth throwing in here as a comment. That is, why all the interest in these missing gospels suddenly? Especially in the fact that they have been known for quite a few years in some cases, but suddenly they are becoming very popular in the media. I think you have to deal with the darker side of this whole picture. That is that a lot of people love a good conspiracy theory. So the idea that somehow the church - through its history in some form or other; whether it's the eastern church or the Roman church or whoever, suppressed or hid or kept under cover some of these documents so that they wouldn't interfere with official doctrine - intrigues a lot of people. It's like, it's very difficult for some people to get around the fact that they just believe that somebody has been in work to monkey with this in order to distort doctrine or preserve tradition or to serve the interest of some group or other.
Darrell: In fact, I think it is important to realize that a lot of what goes on here is that there are half truths about the history of this that get played on in a very significant way. It is true that once we get to the fourth century and we begin to move toward the solidification of the canon, because really it was a process that we can trace its emergence from the end of the second century until the point where the canon starts to be solidified in the middle of the fourth century with Athanasius. Anyway, what sometimes is said is, "Well the church suppressed these works. They used their power to put them out of circulation." And that, actually, for the fourth century is completely true. They did do that. If they found them, these texts were burned. The reason we have Nag Hammadi is, someone took these text, put them in a jar, hide them away so that they would not be found. The person who got them will know where they were and they can get access to them.
There is some element of partial truth in some of what you hear. Another, what you hear is, history is written by the winners. That is, certainly, often the case. Although, every known then you get a loser who manages to get their writing out there and good circulation. But, sometimes winners win because they deserve to win historically. That is historical features such not that is a fortuitous combination that leads them in the power or something like that but because there is a momentum that is gerund generated sociologically by a movement that means that it reflects the origins of what this movement was and is.
And that is the case with the Christian materials. Yes, the winners win but the replies; winners write the history but replies sometimes those winners deserve to win, by the way, sociology and history actually developed.
Dan: I think, you can see that when you look at our New Testament Gospels compared to Gnostic gospels. There is continuity with all testaments and how they view God as creator and how they view God interacting with the world where you do not have that in the Gnostic gospels. And so, if Gnosticism had one, you have a really different kind of religion today. It does not have continuity with the Old Testament. It does not really view God as the same God at all.
Darrell: Right. There is a sense which Gnosticism is really anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic in the sense. In the Jewish conception of God which Christianity inherited there is one creator God, there is one supreme God that God is the God of Israel. But in these Gnostic texts, as we already alluded to, the creation is the project of an underling god. And some versions like the Gospel of Judas, about which received so much attention earlier in the year, you are really down to the third level God.
I mean, we are talking about, if I can use a sports analogy, it is a god that comes out of the double-A minor league.
Dan: I knew you would.
Darrell: That is right [laughter]. It is a minor league god who botches the job and then, God has to go about the works, the process of recovering what has been done. In the way he does it Gnosticism is he puts this divine sparker spirit in the people and the only thing that lives in the redemption process is this divine sparker spirit that is inside the people. There is no real discussion of sin or human responsibility, very different picture from both the Old Testament and what we see in orthodox Christianity.
The point is that when you look at the theology of this material and compared to what we have in the New Testament, it is so distinct, often the question is in fact, my son likes do this. He likes reproduce discussions that he is going to have and the discussion goes like this: "Have you heart about Jesus?" You know about the Jesus of gospels in someone will say, "No, I do not. Will you really take a look at it?
The next response is "Yeah, but have you heart about all those gospels that did not make it in to the Bible. What is going on with them? Do you know they are not in the Bible?" that often becomes the conversations stopper.
Well, simple answer is, if we look at these gospels and see what they say, we can understand why they did not make it in. They did not fit. They did not fit it all theologically. They fit in their view of God, not just their view of Jesus. They did not fit in their view man, not just their view of Jesus. There was a disconnect at several levels which meant that when they were produced, they really never had a chance to be considered orthodox. They really were a reconfiguration or a revision of what Christianity was in effort to reformulate what Christianity was. They did get some momentum in the second century but eventually was recognized as being very fringe.
Mark: What would you say would be the greatest thing that the Gnostic writings teach us about Christianity? I mean, is it just the opposite? That is what we can see, in other words, we can see what is counter fit, if you will? What good is there that we can gleam from reading this material?
Dan: Let me suggest something first. We probably all have five different opinions among the three of us. I think one of the things that they teach us, they have a high view of Christ in terms of his divinity in many respects. They do not have much in views of humanity but what interesting is when you read Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code it speaks about these eighty gospels I am not sure where he got that number from that Constantine rejected. He says he got rid of the ones that emphasized the humanity of Christ and kept the ones that emphasized the deity. That is just the opposite of what we really have.
New Testament Gospels really put a strong emphasis on the humanity of Christ. You just do not see that in this Gnostic books. You see some of them say two of them, in fact say I saw Jesus walk in this feet did not touch to ground. He left no footprint. You know, you got this kind of thing one of them have some what this head in the clouds, literally in the clouds. He is not a human Jesus but they do put emphasis on his spirit or in the sense on his divinity, which shows that the early church had an appreciation of the deity of Christ early on. Gnosticism just went in one direction but not the other.
Darrell: The Apocalypse of Peter has an interesting text because in it Peter has a vision of the crucifixion scene and sees a figure laughing in heaven while the crucifixion is going on. So he asks Jesus about this. Jesus' response is, well, what is going on is the spirit that occupied Jesus' body departed before the crucifixion. It was actually the substitute that was crucified. Meanwhile, Jesus was laughing in heaven because again if I can use another sports metaphor he's faked them out.
They think they are crucifying him but, in fact, they aren't. He's in heaven watching this pseudo-crucifixion going on. Well, it's a real crucifixion for the substitute but it's not a crucifixion for Jesus. And in that process we see this very different expression of what the death of Jesus is all about and the point is that the spirit occupies a body but we don't have a true incarnation, we don't have real human Jesus.
And in that sense this material has Jesus be more divine than even, or more exclusively divine a better way to say it more exclusively divine than the way the gospels portray it. Another interesting text is in the Gospel of Thomas set of texts. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says in one text, "I am the all. Split a piece of wood on there, lift up a stone and I am there." That's a quality of deity at the expense of his humanity.
So, again, Dan Brown's claim these texts were excluded because they presented a human Jesus missed it.
If he were in my class here at Dallas Seminary, he would still be in my class.Transcription by CastingWords
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