In a recent presentation of online theology courses on the doctrine of revelation, taught to about 200 of our congregants, more than a few wanted to know more about the “lost” books of the Bible, or about variant gospels such as the Gnostic gospels. . That’s a good and fair question. And the answer is important to know.
First, with regard to the Bible, we did not choose the content. It was not something that a group of church leaders sat down one day and picked at random. Jesus had already embraced and affirmed the Old Testament as the Word of God; the first four books of the New Testament capture his own life and teaching when God himself in human form came to planet Earth; the rest of the New Testament was personally commissioned by Jesus, written by his chosen apostles, by a special action of the Holy Spirit as they wrote. When the old church formalized the Old Testament by the Council of Jamnia in 90 AD, and the New Testament in 397 by the Council of Carthage, it was not a selection process. It was simply a process of formal recognition of what had already been established.
We can also have great confidence in the integrity of the texts from which we translate the Bible into English. The integrity of any ancient writing is determined by the number of documented manuscripts or manuscript fragments available to us for examination. For example, there are only nine or ten good Caesar manuscripts Gallic Wars extant, the oldest of which is a copy dating back around 900 years after Caesar’s time. Yet no historian I know has serious doubts about the reality of Caesar or the integrity of the text itself. There are also fewer than 10 extant copies of Plato’s ancient manuscripts available to study and compare to determine the accuracy and quality of transmission of his writings over the years. The oldest of these manuscripts is a copy dating from around 1,400 years after it was originally written. Yet you don’t have scholars dismissing the historicity of Plato’s writings or expressing concern that what we have of Plato’s writings is far from faithful to his original thinking.
As far as the Bible is concerned, there are more than 5,000 Greek-language handwritten manuscripts in support of the New Testament alone who help us to ensure the accuracy of his writings. Many of the earliest copies are separated from the originals not by 900 years, let alone 1,400 years, but by only 25 to 50 years. The Old Testament is equally rich, underpinned by discoveries such as the famous Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, providing manuscripts 1,000 years older than any known Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible and representing almost all the books of Old Testament. Without a doubt, the Bible is the most documented ancient document in all of history in terms of textual credibility.
So what about all those “lost” books of the Bible you’ve heard about? No one denies the existence of other ancient writings in the first five centuries following the life of Jesus. No one denies that some of them contain things that go against the gospels and their eyewitness accounts. No one denies that there are documents with names such as “Gospel of Mary Magdalene”, or “Gospel of Thomas”, or even “Gospel of Judas Iscariot”. This is not news, neither now nor then. But even then they were uniformly understood to be forgeries, false in their information, and most written 200 to 300 years after the supposed time in their authors’ lives. And what they claimed went against everything that eyewitnesses in the early Christian movement knew to be true.
For example, the so-called “Gospel of Mary” denies the resurrection, opposes a second coming of Christ, and rejects the suffering and death of Jesus as the path to eternal life. The manuscript even claims that Jesus said that sin does not exist. This is why this writing, and others like it, never took root. Even the writings that appeared right after the life and death of Jesus. People at the time knew they were diametrically opposed to what Jesus actually said, and since they were present when he said it, these writings were never taken seriously. It was clear that these were blatant attempts to undermine the integrity of the actual records of Jesus’ life and teaching. The fact that such a document resurfaces nowadays through archeology does not mean that it should be given more credit than they gave it at the time.
Let’s say I wrote a book about the 2022 Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals. But, instead of writing that the Rams beat the Bengals by the score of 23-20, which we know to be what happened, let’s imagine me saying that my beloved Carolina Panthers beat a way to the big game and beat the Rams 34-3 the way I’m sure God originally intended. And let’s say in my book I quote all sorts of made-up statistics and play-by-play analysis and then I publish them myself as an eBook on Amazon as an actual record of what happened pass. My goal? To change people’s minds about who actually won because I’m anti-Los Angeles.
Would anyone buy this, unless it was a joke book for a Panthers fan? Would anyone really believe it as a historical document? Of course not. If it were intended to be a believable account of the 56th Super Bowl, it would be quickly denounced and become culturally irrelevant. Why? Because over 100 million people watched the game. But let’s say this book that I wrote ends up in a landfill and it’s buried, and in 300 years people will find it. They look at him and say, “Whoa, people back then didn’t believe the Rams won!” There is an alternative view. The Panthers might have won Super Bowl LVI. Look, it’s right here! And it’s 300 years old! Why, it’s as old as the official NFL records that we have!” Yeah, but we also know it’s a piece of… well, you know. And it was considered that at the ‘era.
This is why the first biographies of the life, teaching and ministry of Jesus, written by those who were eyewitnesses to his life and teaching, took root. When the first accounts written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John came out, there were still people who had seen and heard Jesus. They knew whether what was said in the gospels had happened or not. And they weren’t rejected. Instead, they sparked a movement that took over the entire known world.
People were there to say, “I know, it sounds unbelievable, but I was there. This is exactly what happened.
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, Christianity for Non-Christians: Unusual Answers to Common Questions (Baker), order on Amazon.