The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth behind Alternative Christianities

Darrell L. Bock Thomas Nelson, Nashville October 9, 2007
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Was orthodoxy just one among many competing “Christianities” in the earliest church that just happened to win out against the others? Did it then suppress the teachings and writings of the other groups? Or has there been a core of orthodoxy from the start and then over time a need arose to meet challenges by emerging groups that departed from this core belief structure? The latter has been assumed until recently. However, with recent discoveries and renewed interest in second-century Christianity, the notion that orthodoxy was one form of Christianity among relative equals (or even superiors) has been circulating. “New” discoveries have been in the news that some claim demand a reevaluation and revision of the traditional view. Those involved in making and defending such claims are often labeled the “new school.” With newspaper announcements, magazine articles, television documentaries, and best-selling books contributing to this idea, the average Christian with no substantive response to these claims can feel uncertain or even lost.

Bock has provided a tool that can help clear the air on this issue. Key to this discussion are the ancient sources themselves that are often inaccessible to the average Christian and/or are presented with confusing labels such as “missing gospels,” implying that such works are similar to the four canonical Gospels. Bock introduces readers to these sources, explains them and their significance, and places them in their historical context to help the reader get an accurate picture of the material. Readers are exposed to the sources themselves, and Bock presents substantive arguments that will prepare the reader to see through the hype generated by media outlets with their emphasis on the extraordinary.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction to people and periods that will be discussed in the remainder of the book. Bock considers three periods of the early church: (1) Jesus and the apostolic period (ca. A.D. 30–100); (2) the apostolic fathers and the rise of alternative works (ca. A.D. 100–150); and (3) the apologists and more alternatives (ca. A.D. 150–400). Period two will be the most important period for discussion.

In chapters 2–5 readers are introduced to a number of early movements, the most important of which is Gnosticism. Bock discusses various views of the gnostic movement and discusses the relevant scholars and their arguments. Some view Gnosticism as a development from (and reaction to) Christianity, while others view it as an independent or Jewish movement that Christianity needed to address. Until recently most have viewed it as a movement that arose from Christianity. The gnostic movement has no specific core, but some identifiable beliefs exist. The importance of “knowledge” for salvation and the belief that matter is evil are among the most central points in Gnosticism. Chapter 4 includes an interesting discussion of the Gospel of Thomas, and chapter 5 discusses the work of Walter Bauer in detail. In 1934 Bauer suggested that what is now considered orthodoxy was actually a minor group among many and ultimately “won out.” As a result this “orthodoxy” suppressed other forms of Christianity. Bauer is the starting point for the “new school,” which essentially uses his theory in various forms. Bock’s discussion of these issues is excellent. He focuses on the ancient sources and demonstrates serious problems with “new school” views on Thomas and the main theses of Bauer. Essentially Bock demonstrates that serious work in the sources themselves is the best way to approach these issues. Despite an essentially negative evaluation, Bock acknowledges that Bauer and the “new school” have made some positive contributions.

In chapters 6–13 Bock interacts with the sources on four central or core issues: God and creation; Jesus; humanity and redemption; and Christ’s death. Each topic is discussed in two chapters. First, the mostly gnostic texts from outside traditional orthodoxy (labeled “new material”) is surveyed on the topic. Bock avoids material written against the Gnostics and uses their own material, which allows them to speak for themselves. Next, the New Testament and later writings traditionally considered orthodox are discussed. The Gnostic type material proves to be “all over the map” on these issues. However, the New Testament and the later orthodox writers present a much more unified and simple picture, which is in line with the Old Testament. First, God in the new material ranges from one God to many (thus departing from monotheism). Often God does not participate in creation. Rather creation is a mistake or evil (pp. 59–82). By contrast, God in the New Testament and orthodox material follows Judaism. He is one and the Creator (pp. 83–96). Second, for the most part, in the new material Jesus is primarily seen as a heavenly figure (pp. 97–114). In one case (the Apocalypse of Peter), Jesus is detached so far from His human existence that He does not even suffer during the crucifixion; rather, He appears above the cross happy and laughing while His body (or a likeness thereof) is being nailed to the cross (pp. 106–7). By contrast, the New Testament and later orthodox position is clear, Jesus is both divine and human (pp. 115–30). Third, the new material generally presents creation as fallen or defective. Essentially only the spiritual part of humankind is redeemable, which involves the spiritual part returning to the perfect, which is the nonmaterial world. This comes through understanding and embracing the spiritual (pp. 131–46). The New Testament and orthodox writers present Jesus as having been resurrected bodily. Redemption will include all of creation, not only the spiritual (pp. 147–64). Finally, among the new materials, as well as the New Testament and orthodox, Jesus is often seen as the Savior figure; however, in the new material His work in the redemptive process is primarily that of a Revealer (pp. 165–82). By contrast the New Testament and orthodox material present Jesus as more than a Revealer. His work on the cross provides salvation through a sacrifice for sin (pp. 183–99). It is worth noting that in this detailed discussion of the sources, the New Testament is the oldest source and it includes material that is earlier than the documents themselves.

In the final chapter Bock acknowledges some positive aspects of the “new school” and then summarizes its problems. As a result, the shortcomings of the “new school” are clear. There is no need to revise the traditional view of Christian origins.

Despite rather in-depth discussions, Bock makes this a readable volume. Knowledge of the new sources is not assumed. He provides helpful introductory information on each of these sources.

The value of this book is enhanced with questions included at the end of each chapter, and with two appendixes. The first appendix is a list of relevant “new material” texts discussed in the volume. The second appendix is a list of key texts in the apostolic fathers with their themes. Also the book includes a helpful bibliography.

In conclusion the best approach to countering arguments against orthodoxy is to read and understand the important early sources. Bock’s volume is a solid discussion of these sources and the appropriate issues that will restore confidence to those faced with recent claims against traditional Christianity. In addition Bock’s work should contribute to related areas as well. For example the question of the biblical canon often revolves around criteria such as apostolic origin, church acceptance, orthodoxy, and extensive use. These arguments are problematic and not sufficient for the present debate. Bock has proven that there is a core set of beliefs that can be traced to the earliest tradition. This core among the early books may be the reason the canonical books were chosen.

—Joseph D. Fantin

January 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2009 vol. 166 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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