BIBLE CANON: Why were some books not accepted as Scripture?
In recent years, the so-called lost books of the Bible have enjoyed revived interest. For example, Dan Brown built much of the storyline of his best-selling book, The Da Vinci Code, on the premise that the church selected the four canonical Gospels from eighty similar books.1 The others, it is said, were stamped out by “a Church that had subjugated women, banished the Goddess, burned non-believers, and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred feminine.”2
In fact, however, even by the most generous count there are fewer than thirty “gospels.”
Only the canonical Gospels date from the first century. The earliest of the others was written more than one hundred years after Jesus lived. Most of them are dated at least two hundred years after Jesus. Contrary to false accusation, not one of these “lost gospels” was hidden by the church. Furthermore, no “lost” gospels have been discovered. All of the discovered books were referred to in the church fathers’ writings because the Fathers knew of their existence but simply did not consider them sacred Scripture. Some older or more complete copies of them have been discovered, most significantly in the Egyptian Nag Hammadi site. Peter rightly called these kinds of claims about lost gospels and suppressed teachings about Jesus “cleverly devised myths” with no basis in fact or reality.3
There is no reason to be concerned about any lost gospels containing truth that we need about God. Anyone curious about their truthfulness should simply read them. The Gospel of Philip supposedly says that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. In fact, it says, “And the companion of the [ . . . ] Mary Magdalene, [ . . . ] her more than the disciples [ . . . ] kiss her on her [ . . . ]. The rest of [ . . . ]. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’” (The ellipses in brackets indicate where the papyrus is broken and lost.) To say the least, this is extremely slender evidence for Jesus’ marriage that some purport, even if this very late, clearly Gnostic gospel was accepted as authentic, which it is not.
The Gospel of Thomas is one of the earlier and most widely affirmed of the Gnostic gospels. It is not a gospel in the sense of a narrative that tells the story of Jesus. Rather, it consists of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which clearly parallel sayings in the canonical Gospels.
But that is where the similarity ends. It was written at least a century after the four biblical Gospels, long after the eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ were dead. It clearly reflects Gnostic theology built on a belief system that despised earthly and material realities and exalted the “higher” spiritual plane. The “god” of Thomas is a second-rate angelic being who rebelliously created this physical world. Humans are presented as spiritual beings ensnared in a wretched physical body. The only attention given to the humanity of Jesus was when trying to excuse it. The canonical Gospels, however, provide a very different picture of Jesus: a man who is fully human, in body and spirit, and who had disciples and friends, both male and female.
To make the differences between the real Gospels in the Bible and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas clear, just read its final adage:
Simon Peter said to him, “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.” (114)
Regarding the wrongly termed “lost gospels,” New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg has said:
In no meaningful sense did these writers, church leaders, or councils “suppress” Gnostic or apocryphal material, since there is no evidence of any canon that ever included them, nor that anyone put them forward for canonization, nor that they were known widely enough to have been serious candidates for inclusion had someone put them forward. Indeed, they would have failed all three of the major criteria used by the early church in selecting which books they were, at times very literally, willing to die for—the criteria of apostolicity (that a book was written by an apostle or a close associate of an apostle), coherence (not contradicting previously accepted Scripture), and catholicity (widespread acceptance as particularly relevant and normative within all major segments of the early Christian community).4
To be fair, there are a handful of other ancient books that have some good content. Books such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache were appreciated by the early church and are akin to some popular Christian books today that can provide some insight but do not rise to the level of Scripture or fall to the level of heresy. But only a few individual churches and teachers wanted them included in the canon. In simplest terms, they were not accepted because they were not God’s Word for his whole church.
From the very earliest days, the church knew which books were God’s inspired word for them. They read them, studied them, obeyed them, lived them, and passed them on. We should do the same without adding anything to the Scriptures. Proverbs 30:5–6 commands just this, saying, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”
Why do you think there is an ongoing desire for people to add books to the Bible?