In 1945, 52 papyrus manuscripts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Some of the books were titled “Gospels.” These writings date from the second to fourth centuries AD. Scholars have known of their existence since the time they were written, but until 1945 the books were assumed forever lost. Their rediscovery caused much controversy and speculation. Upon reading the documents, skeptics charged that the early church lied about Jesus and suppressed the books that told His true story.
The so-called “lost gospels” fall into two categories: New Testament apocrypha and gnostic writings. Apocrypha means “hidden things.” The apocryphal writings deal with two periods of Jesus’s life barely covered (hence, hidden) in the New Testament: His childhood and the three days between His death and resurrection.
Motivations for writing such works apparently included entertainment and a desire to redeﬁne Jesus. The most shocking of the apocryphal writings is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. It includes a story in which the child Jesus calls another child an “unrighteous, irreverent idiot” (3:1-3). It features stories in which young Jesus strikes other children dead for oﬀenses like bumping into him (4:1-2; see also 14:3).
Then there are the gnostic (gnosis means “knowledge”) writings, which present Jesus as a gnostic philosopher. The following chart shows the sharp diﬀerences between Gnosticism and the biblical worldview:
|One God and Creator||Multiple creators|
|The world, body, soul, and spirit are good.||The world and body are evil.
Only spirit and soul are good.
|Jesus is fully human and fully divine.||Jesus only appeared human; he was only a spirit.|
|Jesus came to restore relationships broken by sin.||Ignorance, not sin, is the ultimate problem.|
|Faith in Christ brings salvation; it’s available to all.||“Special knowledge” brings salvation; it’s available to a few.|
Popular gnostic writings include the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas. In the latter, Jesus invites Judas to betray him. The Gospel of Thomas is even more scandalous. “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Saying 114). Both quotations ﬁt with the gnostic worldview but clash badly with the biblical one.
The apocryphal and gnostic gospels were not lost to the early church; rather, early Christians knew about and rejected them because they were written long after Jesus’s original followers had died and clearly contained fanciful and heretical ideas (see Irenaeus in AD 180). While historically interesting, the so-called “lost gospels” do not oﬀer us true information about the historical Jesus. As always, the New Testament writings are the earliest and most reliable witnesses to Jesus’s true words and works.
This post is an excerpt from the Apologetics Study Bible for Students by Holman Bible Publishers. It is used with permission. You can purchase this resource in its entirety here.
Published October 29, 2018