Jesus in the Apocryphal Gospels

Darrell L. Bock

Often today one hears about a host of other gospels that tell us “other stuff” about Jesus. Most of these works come from the second or third century (cf. F. Lapham’s Introduction to the New Testament Apocrypha [Sheffield Academic Press, 2003], where he works through the various discussions on dates and settings for this material). These works are not written by the people that the gospels name at their point of origin. They are too late for that. Most of these gospels are associated with the significant discoveries of texts that surfaced from Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1946 (most can be accessed in J.M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library in English [HarperSanFrancisco, 1990]). There has been a great deal of hype around these works, with many books and articles written to represent them to the public. This has even led to the creation of several documentaries on this material airing on niche channels. Despite the hype and the fascination that naturally surrounds these materials, virtually all of these gospels are too late to put us in touch even with the living voice of those who knew Jesus, not to mention Jesus himself.

Many of these works belong to an approach to Christianity that emerged in the second century known as Gnostic Christianity (cf. the two classic studies on Gnosticism: B. Pearson’s Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature [Fortress, 2007]; K. Rudolph’s Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism [T&T Clark, 1998]; also, questioning the use of this term is K.L. King’s What Is Gnosticism? [Belknap, 2003]). This form of theology tried to combine Christian symbolism with Neo-Platonic dualism. Gnosticism was a Greek philosophical movement that probably also reacted to Judaism and its failure to make inroads into Greek culture. This movement claimed that (1) matter was evil and only the spirit (and the spiritual) was good. It also taught that (2) as a result of this dualism, creation was flawed from the beginning. So God did not create the cosmos but underling gods did.

Sometimes it was a female deity who introduced the flaws into the creation (e.g., Sophia in Apocryphon of John). The distancing of God from the creation is out of step with a key teaching of second temple Judaism from which Christianity emerged. This fact alone is enough to argue that where we have this alternative story of creation, we are not in touch with a tradition that goes back to Jesus, who held to such core Jewish beliefs. What Gnosticism sought to emphasize was appreciating our character as spiritual beings, with the material world counting for little. A person’s self-understanding as spiritual stood at the core of this teaching with a kind of self-discovery understood as key to a meaningful life. In many forms of Christian Gnosticism, Jesus pointed the way to this self-understanding. His death meant nothing. In fact, in some forms Jesus never went to the cross. Beyond this, the person of Jesus was primarily a guide into wisdom. In his person there was nothing special about him and his role other than to disclose this way of self-awareness (cf. my detailed analysis of key texts in The Missing Gospels [Thomas Nelson, 2006]).

We can see this alternative story of creation in a work like the Apocryphon of John. This work was a central text in the Nag Hammadi community, existing in several versions. The creation story found here is central to this alternative movement. Sometimes the public claim is that these gospels are newly known. In this mode, they might be called the secret gospels or new gospels. However, this claim is exaggerated. When the texts of Nag Hammadi were discovered, as scholars read the Apocryphon of John they recognized the story of creation there because Irenaeus in the late second century told us this story when he described Gnostic Christian theology. Thus, we have known about this kind of teaching and even the content of some of the key works for around eighteen hundred years.

We know these views of creation and evil cannot go back to Jesus, for Jesus and the disciples held to the views of the Hebrew Scriptures on basic issues like creation. The Hebrew Scriptures taught in Genesis, the Psalms, and Isaiah that God (not underling gods) was the Creator and that this creation was good at the start. So, many of these new gospels tell us about these newly emerging movements of the second and third century but do not go back to the first century time of Jesus. With this as the case, the portrait of Jesus tied to them is not really reflective of the earliest or best traditions about Jesus.

There are a few important exceptions to what I have highlighted about much of the Nag Hammadi materials. By far the most prominent of these new gospels is the Gospel of Thomas (see M. Meyer, Gospel of Thomas: Hidden Sayings of Jesus [HarperSanFrancisco, 1992]; E. Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003]; A. DeConick, Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and Its Growth [T&T Clark, 2005]). In fact, this work is not a gospel at all in the sense we think of it. It is simply a collection of 114 alleged sayings of Jesus. Its date is debated, some positing a date as early as the mid-first century, but this is a decidedly minority position. Most place it in the early second century. Still others have made a strong case for its origin in the late second century.

What makes for this debate is that the sayings within Thomas give indications of a variety of origins. Some (about a quarter of the whole) read like material in our four Gospels. Another quarter of the material reads like something close to our Gospels. The remaining half is material distinct from our Gospels. Indeed, Thomas has a hybrid and varied set of sources. This is the reason this gospel has generated so much discussion. It is not as Gnostic as others works I noted, lacking a creation story like other works. Yet here are some sayings that appear to be Gnostic. The work appears to have some material that has roots in the traditions that fed our four Gospels, but more importantly, it also gives evidence of accepting material from sources the church rejected. Origin reports that Thomas was not read in the churches, a sign of its rejection in the early third century.

Some examples of the unique emphases of Thomas include sayings 13, 77, 114, and 3. In saying 13 Jesus is described in ways that say he is indescribable. When Thomas confesses this about Jesus, he alone is taken aside by the Teacher and told things he cannot repeat to the Twelve. Jesus’ teaching is presented in elitist terms. This saying shows that this source wanted to demean the status of the rest of the Twelve. This piece of tradition shows an origin distinct from what the core group of disciples represented.

Saying 77 has Jesus represent that if one lifts a rock, Jesus is there or if one splits a piece of wood, Jesus is there. Interestingly, many fans of Thomas argue the book lacks any real Christology, claiming he is seen simply as a pointer to the way of wisdom and self-discovery that comes from appreciating we are primarily spiritual beings. Yet this text suggests Jesus is seen in some texts as having a presence that goes beyond mere human wisdom.

ThomasGospelof (341x599) (2)

Nag Hammadi Codex II, showing the end of the Apocryphon of John and the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas (source: Wikimedia Commons).

Perhaps one of the most famous of the sayings in Thomas is the final saying, number 114. Jesus says symbolically that the only way females can enter into heaven is if Jesus makes them male. Interpreters who defend this reading argue that it is only a way of picturing reconciliation in the end that gives us all equal status. However this “equality” emerges only by eliminating one of the genders God was said in Genesis to have created as a reflection of the divine image. The incongruence shows that Thomas is not a part of a theology that embraced a positive view of the creation, something earliest Christians would have believed. It also reflects incongruence with second temple Judaism out of which the original Christian movement emerged.

Perhaps the saying most reflective of the kind of thing Jesus teaches in this gospel is found in saying 3. According to this saying, Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” This text highlights the emphasis on self-understanding that is at the core of this perspective. Knowing yourself as a son of the living father is the most important truth. There is no ethical call to righteousness, no work of Jesus, no emphasized status to him, just an appreciation of our status as God’s children. This absence of an ethical dimension to the walk with God also falls outside of normal Jewish emphases at the roots of Christian origins.

So what are we to make of a gospel like Thomas? It is a gospel drawing on a variety of traditions and sources that do reflect a diversity of those who called themselves Christian in the second century. However, it does so with traits in some of these sources that can be identified as not belonging to the earliest strands of the tradition, strands that have little in common with Jesus or what he taught. This means that although a saying here or there in a work like Thomas may go back to Jesus, the bulk of the book has little if anything to do with what Jesus taught. Efforts to argue that these works take us in some way back to Jesus are, to use the cliché, wildly exaggerated (cf. N. Perrin, Thomas and Tatian: The Relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the Diatessaron [Society of Biblical Literature, 2002]).

For all the fascination these other gospels have generated, there is nothing in them that shows us they reflect as a whole the theology of the earliest disciples. In fact, much of what they show indicates that they are the product of views that developed long after the time of Jesus, with views Jesus and his followers, as good Jews, would never have held. The exception to this is Thomas. However, even in its case the book as a whole gives evidence of a theology that is not reflective of Jesus’ teaching.

Posted Feb 01, 2010