Egypt is a land of untold mystery and treasure. Among those that have been discovered in the sands, one is particularly valuable to Christians: the Nag Hammadi Library, discovered by accident in 1945 by two fellahin (peasants) in Upper Egypt. These seven codices (ancient books) have been a boon to New Testament scholarship. This compilation of canonical and noncanonical texts and philosophical works of early Christians has shed light on the beliefs of their church.
Through the Nag Hammadi library we’ve been introduced to the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene—which serve as the basis for ideas in Dan Brown’s best-selling book, The Da Vinci Code. Certainly, as the movie is released this week, sales of the book and copies of these noncanonical gospels will skyrocket as people begin “searching” for the truth of the historical Jesus. In addition, another more recent textual discovery was that of the Gospel of Judas. Although just announced by the National Geographic Society this April, its existence has been known since the 1970s when it was found in Middle Egypt. The themes of the Gospel of Judas are the same as those explored by Nikos Kazantsakis in his The Last Temptation of Christ (as well as the subsequent Martin Scorcese film by the same title).
If you’re like most people, the existence of gospels other than the four canonical books may seem puzzling, confusing and, perhaps, even threatening. “Pastor, why didn’t you tell us there was a Gospel of Mary Magdalene?” Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has many Christians scared, fearing it will undermine the credibility of the Bible’s claims about Jesus Christ. As a student asked me, “Aren’t you worried about this?”
The fact of the matter is, we’ve known about this genre of other gospels and the variety of literature for some time. The different gospels, other than the four well-known canonical versions, have been studied for more than 1,800 years.
The early church fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian, writing toward the end of the second century, provided a great resource with their list of various Christian groups that used an assortment of texts, including the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Judas (as well as Peter, Pilate and Phillip). They were intent upon clarifying orthodox and heterodox Christian theology and practice. Long before any creeds defining what was acceptable Christian belief were established, Christians tried to understand who Jesus was and what his life meant. Long before there was an “orthodox” understanding of Jesus and his work of salvation, Christians pondered the meaning of the incarnation and God’s intention. Even long before there was a neatly defined Bible with 27 books of the New Testament, which was accepted as canonical, Christians read from different sources.
And yet, one current that runs throughout this genre of Gospel literature is that the earliest texts written and read by Christians were the four canonical gospels—Mark, Luke, Matthew and John (in historical order). These four became the backbone of the gospel genre to which all others referred or referenced. We know of this through various sources—most prominently from the early church fathers (pastors and lay leaders) who quoted them in their letters.
As Christians read through or, rather, listened to the accounts of Jesus’ life from Mark and Matthew, for example, they began to ask questions. In any good congregation, they began to wonder about the texts they were reading and looked to their pastors and teachers to provide answers. What happened to Jesus when he was a boy? What did Jesus say to Elijah and Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration? What did Jesus say and do during his 40 days after the Resurrection? Which of the disciples did he really like the best? And then they waited for the interesting homily each Sunday for a personalized touch of Christ’s life.
Prompted by John 20:30-31—“Jesus worked many other miracles for his disciples, and not all of them are written in this book. But these are written so that you will put your faith in Jesus the Messiah and the Son of God”—the early Christians wanted to know what else Jesus said and did that wasn’t written in the earliest records. Thinking through the “what-ifs,” the gospel genre produced an assortment of material from the simplistic yet sometimes strange Gospel of Thomas, to the highly regarded Gospel of Peter, to the way-out Gospel of the Egyptians, and the intriguing Arabic Infancy Gospel.
Thinking through the “what-ifs,” these Christians came up with some good, some fascinating and some really bad ideas—at least as far as the earliest body of Christian literature is concerned and what it intended to say about Jesus.
Rather than helping us discover something new about the “historical Jesus,” this later body of material tells us about the Egyptian and Syrian Christian believers. Through these texts we learn a great deal about the life of the early Christians in Egypt and Syria (where most of these texts come from) and the development of Christian theology and reflection on Jesus. For this reason these writings are vitally important: They show us exactly why these noncanonical texts were never considered canonical. What they don’t reveal is some ancient hidden secret about who Jesus was and why the Vatican has hidden away these secrets for its vested interests.
So when The Da Vinci Code comes to town, enjoy the show. Posit with millions of other Christians before you the “what-ifs.” Enjoy the story. But in the end, it’s a tale told to entertain.
The reality of these ancients texts is that when push came to shove the earliest Christian congregations would say, “It’s kind of catchy, this story of Mary and Jesus in the garden ... but it doesn’t really cut to the point like John does. In fact, there might be a little bit too much embellishment for my tastes”; “Judas, yeah, maybe he does get the short shrift of it all, but let’s live with the anxiety that shows actions have consequences”; “Peter’s vision of hell on the Mount of Transfiguration, wow! What a video game—or at least a good Renaissance painting, but let’s let Mark’s and Matthew’s words sink in and wait for next year’s Transfiguration sermon to see what the pastor says happened!”
Hopefully, there will be some really good sermons this summer about the “what-ifs.”
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