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.