This is the third installment of a new series reviewing the History Channel series entitled Bible Secrets Revealed (for others, see here and here). The newest episode is entitled, “The Forbidden Scriptures,” as is definitely one of the most provocative so far. It is designed to argue that certain books were “banned” or “forbidden” from the New Testament.
This episode makes numerous claims about the development of the New Testament that, once again, prove not to be the whole story. Many such claims were made, but I will only mention a few of the key ones here.
1. Was the canon just a power-play? This episode repeats the standard narrative that the canon was chosen by men with an agenda trying to preserve the power of the church. The canon is just about politics, we are told.
Kathleen McGowan makes this point in the video: “There were a group of men with specific agendas determining what would and what would not become canon. And this agenda was about preserving the power of the church.”
But, there are problems with this sort of claim. One major problem is that there was no unified political or ecclesiastical infrastructures during the first centuries that could have accomplished such a feat. The church had no real political power until Constantine in the fourth century. And, the ecclesiastical structure of the church was quite undeveloped in the earliest stages. Even if a group wanted to force their books on others, it would have been difficult to pull such a thing off.
What is remarkable is that despite this lack of infrastructure, the church did seemed to have a “core” canon of books that they agreed upon by the middle of the second century. Thus, in the earliest phases of the church there are appears to be a canon of sorts that is decidedly NOT the result of politics.
There are also problems with referring to apocryphal books as “left out” or “banned”. While such terminology adds to the dramatic nature of the documentary, it is inherently misleading. Such books were not “left out” because they were never “in” to begin with. Take the Gospel of Thomas as an example. It was not “banned” from the canon because it was never a real contender in the first place. It never makes it into any canonical list anywhere. Indeed, when Thomas was mentioned by the church fathers it was most often done to condemn it!
It should also be observed that Kathleen McGowan is not even a biblical scholar. She is not a professor and has no advanced degrees in biblical studies (not sure she has any degrees in biblical studies). On the contrary, she is a popular novelist committed to discovering the “divine feminine” and believes she is descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
Why in the world is she being presented as an expert on the NT canon? This raises series questions about the credibility of the History Channel in my opinion. But, the next point may provide an explanation.
2. Was Mary Magdalene an apostle? Next, the documentary turns to the Gospel of Mary in order to present Mary Magdalene as having the same level of authority as the twelve and to present Jesus as the first feminist. It is then suggested that the the authors of the canonical gospels “suppressed” this story of Mary in order to protect male authority in the church.
Aside from the fact that this sounds a lot like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, there are serious historical problems here. For one, there are very few reasons (if any) to think that the Gospel of Mary is representative of authentic Jesus tradition. It is clearly a second-century composition with no credible claim to be an eyewitness account, has been substantially influenced by the canonical Gospels, and is evidently a further development of traditional canonical material. Even Christophter Tuckett declares, “It seems likely that the Gospel of Mary is primarily a witness to the later, developing tradition generated by these [canonical] texts and does not provide independent witness to early Jesus tradition itself.”
As a result, the Gospel of Mary was so removed from the flow of early Christianity that it was never mentioned by any church father—not in their discussions of canon, nor even in their discussions of apocryphal gospels. Indeed, we would not have known of the gospel if not for the original manuscript discovery at the end of the nineteenth century. Thus we are hard pressed to think that this gospel represents a wide-spread and popular way of thinking in early Christianity.
The simple point is this: There is zero reason to think this inscription is representative of early Israelite beliefs. More likely, it is simply representative of the belief of the single author who wrote it.
In the end, we are again left with a very disappointing episode. Yes, it was entertaining. It was certainly provocative. Unfortunately, it is simply not not historically accurate. For a History Channel production, that proves to be sadly ironic.