Most people have never read one of the “apocryphal” Gospels—that is, a gospel that was not included in our Bibles. For that matter, most people have never read one of the canonical Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Perhaps they’ve read snippets here and there, but very few have read them straight through.
Even so, there seems to be no shortage of opinions about the nature of ancient Gospels and how they functioned in the early church. Dramatic claims—typically filtered through blog articles and internet lore—are the order of the day. There were hundreds of “other” Gospels in the early church, we are told. No one knew which Gospels they should read. Eventually, the Gospels were picked by Constantine at the Council of Nicea. Other Gospels were suppressed. And on it goes.
Aside from the particulars, these discussions always seem to end up in the same place. Even though we are told we can’t be sure of much, we are told we can be sure of one thing: no Gospel is better than any other Gospel. They are all pretty much the same. The fact that some ended up in our Bibles and not others, is just the randomness of history.
Such a narrative will play well in our popular culture that is enamored with the idea that no one view (or one book, or one set of books) can be right. And if no one book can be right, then they must all be right (or all be wrong).
The problem with such a narrative, however, is that it bumps up against the real world. It bumps up against history. When we actually read these apocryphal Gospels, and compare them carefully to the canonical Gospels, one thing becomes unavoidably clear: All Gospels are not created equal. They are decidedly not the same.
For this reason, I am thankful for Simon Gathercole’s recent volume, The Apocryphal Gospels (Penguin Books, 2021). I reviewed the book for today’s Wall Street Journal. You can read the review digitally here (though access is required).
As a new English translation of all the Apocryphal Gospels before 300 A.D., this new volume provides exactly what is needed to cut to the heart of this debate. It allows people to read these “lost” Gospels for themselves.
My hope is that Gathercole’s book has its desired effect. I hope that people read these apocryphal texts with newfound interest and vigor. And when they do so, they might just learn that not all ancient gospels are the same after all. Reading the Gospels that were left out of our Bibles might just spark a renewed appreciation for the Gospels that were put in.
Edwina Eubanks says
I have always found the apocryphal books to be historically interesting – but just that. I would love to read your Wall Street Journal article but the link will not all me to read but a few lines – to read the whole article I must subscribe to WSJ.
PS: I very much enjoyed your presentation at Presbytery.
As a side note, I am reading a book that belonged to my Great Grandfather – it was published in 1856. The name of the book is “The Great Iron Wheel Examined” by William G. Brownlow, a Methodist minister who wrote the book in response to a book written J.R. Graves who was editor of the “Tennessee Baptist” newspaper. These fellows do not mince any words in their disagreements about faith – such name calling and accusations today would surely find them in court!!!
Bryant Williams III says
Timely post and excellent one at that.
“Such a narrative will play well in our popular culture that is enamored with the idea that no one view (or one book, or one set of books) can be right. And if no one book can be right, then they must all be right (or all be wrong).”
First, toy rightly note that how enamored popular culture is no one view is righr,
Second, two issues involved in the quote above. The first issue is epistemology. The second issue is a direct result of post-modernism: Truth is relative. Truth, then is subjective. There is no propositional truth.
Third, as you have said elsewhere, and bears repeating, “All the canonical gospels were written in the First Century CE.”
Fourth, again, as point out “not all gospels are equal.” It is amazing how different the various gospels of the mid-late Second Century CE are in comparison to the First Century CE gospels.
Fifth, it would be nice to read the Apocryphal gospels, but one should read the canonical gospels several times before reading the Apocryphal gospels with the understanding that the differences are so far off the chart in contrast to the Canonical gospels.