I love learning new things. I love researching things. From questions about how to take apart an old lawn tractor to how a house furnace works, I genuinely enjoy taking the time to delve into a subject and find out not only the answer on things, but what that answer is made of, where did it come from and whether there are alternative answers.
My wife will frequently ask me what I am thinking about as we sit together quietly. Though it should always be God and all His complexity, I often befuddle her with my truthful responses:
Well honey, I was thinking about what the effect of nationalism would have been on the war on the Eastern Front if Hitler had not been such a murderous psychopath, would the eastern european people have turned on Stalin and helped the Germans win…. and how would that have effected the outcome of World War 2 and the Cold War.
She just generally looks at me with pity and pretends that she did not hear the answer – so you were thinking about baseball, right?.
Just kidding, we are actually a lot alike so she understands what is going on and it often leads to fun conversations. Though the World War 2 one’s not so much, she is a lovely woman but no one is perfect…Dear Abby, why doesn’t my wife want to talk about the great tank battles of history with me? Is there something wrong?
I also just love exploring and probing whether the prevailing theories on things are correct. I admit that I do enjoy discovering when the things that I knew from history or science class in high school turn out to be wrong. It is just fun to learn new things and new ways of looking at old things.
When it comes to Jesus, this enjoyment gets magnified in a way that World War 2 on the Eastern Front or 1980’s TV trivia just cannot compare – yes, you can say it, the things that go through my mind are a bit strange.
New things from Jesus and the study of His Word are just so much better. Learning the Messianic aspect of a passage that I never realized was referring to Jesus or reading a section of Scripture and having the Holy Spirit bring it to life like I had never seen before is perhaps my favorite thing to do. Just getting more information on our Savior and Lord is just about the coolest thing in the world.
So when there comes out the periodic claim that there is a “NEWLY DISCOVERED GOSPEL” touted as genuinely one hundred percent grade A legitimate, there is part of me that wants to dive right in and start learning. Ooh, ooh what does it say, what does it say? Tell me more about Jesus, please! I just crave knowing more new stuff.
After all, who would not want to learn more about Jesus – what He was like as a child, whether He miraculously did chores or healed the other kids after dodgeball (dodgerock?) mishaps. What about His time in the desert for 40 days or what He was thinking for the 3 days that His body was in the grave – this would be some amazing information to have – I would pay good money for this.
You have probably heard about them or read them yourself, the claimed new gospels of Thomas, Mary, Mary Magdelene, Peter or James, just about every figure in the Bible has a book named after them. The content often fills in gaps on things we would love to know, what Jesus was like as a child, what He was thinking at a certain time or adds information to definitively decide a contested doctrinal issue. They are also written in a style that seems like it is very much like the Bible are also usually very old.
With people with fancy degrees pushing them as legitimate, read my book why this Gospel is actually really great and true – just $19.99, what are we as regular old Christians to make of them?
With our natural understandable desire to know more about Jesus, the oldness of all of the books of the Bible and what seems like respectable people pushing these new books that claim to be part of the Bible and sound legit, how are we to receive them? Should we read them? Are they what they claim to be? What should we do with them?
It can be super confusing on the face of it, but once you drill down a bit most of the answers are quite simple. The books that claim to be newly discovered, genuine, ground breaking and written by James or Peter or Mary clearly usually are none of the above – not newly discovered or genuine, not ground breaking and not written by the claimed author.
Since the time shortly after Jesus walked this earth in the flesh and the actual books that make up the Bible were written there has existed that same desire that we have to know more about Jesus and to explain things in the Bible better.
People seeing the desire to know more have sought to make money off of it. People having the desire to explain a doctrine better but not satisfied with the Bible have also written accounts of the life of Jesus according to their own beliefs with this goals in mind.
Thus, if people wanted to know more about the life of Jesus as a child people wrote books about that time period explaining what they thought it was like. For comparison, look at all of the “I died and went to heaven, this is what it was like” books out and how well they do. Adding on to the Bible just sells.
In the alternative, if people wanted to explain how Jesus did not really die on the Cross as believed and explained by the Bible, they wrote a book illustrating how this happened. They explained the life of Jesus through this lens. An unauthorized rewrite to suit an agenda.
Both groups of authors faced a big problem though at the time they decided to author these supposed gospels – everyone knew their motive and would never listen to them.
Who in the world would listen to Billy the Gnostic living a couple of hundred years after Jesus writing a new account of Jesus’ life when Billy’s book contradicted the clear writings of the men who lived and walked with Jesus. Everyone knew the Gnostic’s motivation and would judge their work with that motivation in mind.
Even more important for many of these authors, who would buy a book about Jesus’ early life or listen to it being preached if the author admitted that he/she was just making it up to suit their beliefs and sell books.
So as you can imagine, they solved their problems by picking a big name who had not written a gospel and dropped it on the book to give it legitimacy. So Billy the Gnostic was no longer the author of the Gospel of Thomas, it was Thomas himself. You must listen to Thomas, right? Who would not buy a book written by Thomas?
How do we know this is the case? Because the church itself dealt with the majority of these so called newly discovered books in its early history around the time they came out. For example, you will read early church writers saying as early as the 3rd Century that a new book has come out claiming to be the Gospel written by James, pay no attention to it as it is a recent fake.
The 3rd Century seems like a long time ago so the book seems ancient, but the point is that it is not ancient enough – that is at least a couple of hundred years after Jesus and after James died so there is no possibility that James wrote it or the author witnessed the events in question. This category of ancient fakes that were identified by the church covers the majority of the so-called newly discovered gospels.
A separate category is the new supposed newly discovered books that get trotted out now and then. I am not going to reproduce the whole history here as it is lengthy but if you are curious look up the backstory on the claimed Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It reads like you favorite spy fiction with false identities, clever forgeries and mysterious german sellers of claimed ancient manuscripts and false identities.
The short version is that much like the ancient version of the faux-gospels, someone had a belief that they knew the Bible better than what the Bible said and used an elaborate forgery in order to further their agenda. They then found a respected academic who was so totally invested in a doctrine that is not in the Bible who needed a biblical justification for her doctrine and “Viola” a legitimacy campaign for an obvious forgery was born. People love to be proven right. Man does not change much across the generations.
The contents of the Bible, the books that are inspired works of God written by the eye witnesses to the occurrences contained therein or their contemporaries recording their stories have generally been agreed upon for just about 2000 years now. The books that are not part of the Bible, not inspired, not written by the claimed author and that are generally just phony also have been generally agreed upon for that same 2000 years.
So what to do with the faux-gospels that pop up here and there? Should we treat them like the Bible or otherwise as helpful?
The clear answer for me is no, they are not real and they have been known to be not real for a very long time.
Should we read them? I don’t recommend it for two reasons.
First, they are written in a way that seems very bible like. It is so easy to get the false stuck in our brains or confused with the true when they are written to sound similar. It would be like reading false directions on how to dismantle a bomb. It is just too easy to get confused on something that is really important.
Second, the false gospels were often designed to push agendas that are inconsistent with the Bible. So they are designed to lead someone to a conclusion that is contrary the Bible. Their whole purpose is contrary to the Word of God so why would we waste our time on them?
Rather, do what Philippians 4:8 recommends:
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.