by Ryan Turner
There are a number of popular myths about these supposed "lost Gospels" that are not in the New Testament. The following is a response to these general misunderstandings.
Myth #1: The Lost Gospels should be in the New Testament.
Contrary to the claims of some, there were not hundreds of Gospels that were written about Jesus in the first century. The early Church only had access to four first-century Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This is why there are only four Gospels in the New Testament. The simple fact is that there were not any other first-century Gospels in existence at that time.
Furthermore, the criteria which the early Church used to discover which books were from God include the following:
- Was a book written by an apostle or associate of an apostle of Jesus? (Apostolicity)
- This was the first and main criterion for allowing a book to be in the canon of Scripture. If a book was written by either an apostle or an associate of an apostle (i.e., Mark was an associate of Peter and Luke was an associate of Paul), then the book could be in the canon. An apostle was someone who had seen the resurrected Jesus and who had a close fellowship with Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1). However, if the book was written over a hundred years after the time of Jesus, as is the case with most of the Gnostic Gospels including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, etc., then such books were obviously not written by an apostle and should not be in the canon. The last apostle who lived was the apostle John who died around 100 A.D. Any epistle written after that time was definitely not apostolic.
- Did the book agree with undoubtedly authentic writings? (Consistency)
- Another criterion was whether such a book agreed with obviously authentic books of the New Testament. For example, the book of James was questioned because there was some doubt whether it agreed with Paul's writings (i.e., Romans and Galatians). No one seriously questioned whether Paul actually wrote a core number of epistles such as Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians. Interestingly, even if we did not have the rest of the New Testament books, we probably could build most of our essential Christian doctrine on the book of Romans alone!
- Was the book circulated amongst various churches? (Catholicity)
- Another criterion, but less important, was whether a book was circulated amongst various churches. This criterion was known as catholicity or universality. This would help the church leaders to know where the Gospel or letter originated so they could trace its roots and determine if the book was apostolic.
Myth #2: The Lost Gospels taught that Jesus was only a man.
Actually, many of the "lost Gospels" or "Gnostic Gospels" taught that Jesus was God, but not man. This is a heresy known as Docetism, which was prevalent in the second and possibly even first centuries. In fact, the popular Gospel of Thomas likely teaches that Jesus is a divine teacher, but it is quite doubtful whether he is even human. Many of the infancy Gospels, such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, etc., were written to explain how Jesus was basically non-human by having the child Jesus perform amazing miracles.
Myth #3: The Lost Gospels are earlier than the New Testament Gospels and/or Epistles.
The vast majority of critical scholars today argue that the New Testament Gospels are earlier than all the other "lost Gospels" in their present form. Some scholars argue that there may be a saying or two in the Gospel of Thomas, or Gospel of Truth, etc., which may date back to the first century, and possibly even go back to Jesus. However, most of these scholars view these Gospels as late embellishments of the stories in the Gospels. For example, see how the infancy Gospels embellish the stories of Jesus' early childhood and how the Gospel of Peter embellishes the resurrection accounts of Jesus (see: Does the Gospel of Peter belong in the New Testament?).
Myth #4: The Early Church only picked those Gospels which were in accordance with their theological beliefs.
It is certainly true that the early church allowed certain books into the canon which accorded with their beliefs. However, their beliefs were based on a core list of undisputed books of the New Testament such as the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the main letters of Paul (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians). The early church was not arbitrary in their decision making, but generally took into consideration the three criteria listed above: apostolicity, consistency, and catholicity.
Myth #5: The Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) determined which books should be in the New Testament.
The Council of Nicea did not deal with canonical questions, or questions regarding which books should belong in the New Testament. Instead, the Council of Nicea dealt with a heresy known as Arianism (held by modern day Jehovah's Witnesses and Christadelphians), which taught that Jesus was a man, but not God. The final list of the twenty-seven books which are in the New Testament actually came from Bishop Athanasius in 367 A.D. However, most of the books in the New Testament were already accepted and used by various churches well before then. In fact, the bishop Irenaeus wrote around 180 A.D. about the four Gospels being compared to the four directions of the winds. Various other second century writers also were extensively using the New Testament including Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Papias, and Athenagoras to name a few.1
- J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: What the Davinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don't Tell You, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006.
- 1. Some scholars debate to what extent Ignatius and Polycarp quote from the New Testament, but they at least refer to many of the same traditions. Justin Martyr, however, extensively refers to the New Testament writings.