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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The New Testament Apocrypha Books

Don Stewart :: What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Gospels?

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What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Gospels?

The New Testament Apocrypha – Question 2

The life and ministry of Jesus Christ is recorded for us by four independent witnesses; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They are the only accurate, authentic testimony that we have concerning what Jesus said and did. However, we know that at an early date, a number of accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were circulating. We can make the following observations:

1. There Were Other Gospels Circulating Early

That there were a number of false gospels which circulated at an early date is documented in the Gospel of Luke. He tells us of other gospels that were circulating at his time. Luke writes:

Many people have tried to tell the story of what God has done among us. They wrote what we had been told by the ones who were there in the beginning and saw what happened. So I made a careful study of everything and then decided to write and tell you exactly what took place. Honorable Theophilus, I have done this to let you know the truth about what you have heard. (Luke 1:1-4 CEV)

From his prologue, we note that many had already undertaken to write about Jesus. Luke tells us that his aim was to tell the “exact truth.” We are not certain of the motivation of the authors who wrote these other gospels or how accurate their accounts of Jesus may have been.

Indeed, believers were warned to beware of lives of Jesus that were inaccurate. We find both Jesus and Paul warning of such false accounts.

2. Jesus Warned of False Christs Who Would Appear

Jesus warned about “false Christ’s.” We read about this in the Gospel of Matthew. It says:

Many will come using my name. They will say, I am the Messiah, and they will deceive many people. “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. Don’t be alarmed! These things must happen, but they don’t mean that the end has come. (Matthew 24:5-6 God’s Word)

These false Christs brought a message contrary to that of Jesus. The message of the false Christs would be written in false gospels. Consequently, we have the warning of Jesus that false Christs would appear and actually deceive many.

3. There Was Also a False Gospel Being Preached

Indeed, Paul also warned of false Christs and a false gospel. He wrote the following to the church at Corinth:

I am as concerned about you as God is. You were like a virgin bride I had chosen only for Christ. But now I fear that you will be tricked, just as Eve was tricked by that lying snake. I am afraid that you might stop thinking about Christ in an honest and sincere way. We told you about Jesus, and you received the Holy Spirit and accepted our message. But you let some people tell you about another Jesus. Now you are ready to receive another spirit and accept a different message. (2 Corinthians 11:2-4 CEV)

The Apostle Paul was aware of people who preached an incorrect message about Jesus. These people were preaching “another Jesus.” Therefore, we should not be surprised to find evidence of such false gospels.

Paul also warned the Galatians against a false gospel. He wrote:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! (Galatians 1:6-8 NRSV)

Even at this early date in the history of the church, a false gospel was spreading.

Some of the Popular False Gospels That Appeared

There were many false gospels that appeared in the early years of the church. This is a fact of history. They can be placed into two different categories. First, there were works which wanted to take the place of the four gospels, and second, there were those writings which wanted to add to our knowledge of Jesus. Thus, some of these gospels were attempting to fill in missing information while others were attempting to give the “real” story about Jesus.

The False Gospels Are Not Anonymous

Interestingly, while the four gospels are anonymous, in the sense that the name of the writer is not contained in the text, the apocryphal gospels all claim to have been written by an apostle or other eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life. Since the name of an apostle, or some other important figure, was attached to these apocryphal gospels, it was necessary for Christian leaders to speak out against them.

For convenience sake, we can categorize these false gospels as follows:

The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostics, who were early opponents of Christianity, believed in “secret” knowledge. A number of gospels came from Gnostic sources, or at least showed Gnostic tendencies. Consequently, these Gnostic gospels attempted to take the place of the four gospels as authoritative depictions of the words and deeds of Christ.

Some of the more prominent Gnostic gospels include the following:

The Gospel of Thomas

One of the earliest works that presented a Jesus different from the one that we find in the New Testament was the Gospel of Thomas. Interestingly, there was more than one work that circulated in the early church with the title, “The Gospel of Thomas.” The one under consideration here consists of over one hundred sayings that were purportedly made by Jesus. There is no historical setting for any of these sayings. Some of them are similar to those found in the four gospels, while others are absurd. For example, saying 114 reads as follows:

Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life” Jesus said: “Lo, I shall lead her, so that I may make her a male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The Gnostic nature of this work is evident, though some argue that this is not necessarily a Gnostic work.

The Gospel of Peter

Peter is one of the most prominent characters in the New Testament. In the early years of the church, a number of false works were written that were attributed to him. The Gospel of Peter is one of them. This Gnostic work has Jesus remaining silent as He was on the cross as though He did not suffer any pain. In addition, His cry of agony has been re-worded to read as follows:

My power, my power, you have left me.

This is consistent with the secret teachings of the Gnostics. The Gospel of Peter also records the words of the “talking cross.”

The Gospel of Mary

Mary, the mother of Jesus, had a gospel named after her. This one also showed Gnostic tendencies. Though supposedly the story of Mary, it does not show familiarity with the customs and geography of the Holy Land. This work has no basis in fact.

The Gospel of the Egyptians

Written around the middle of the second century, this document promotes unbiblical doctrines such as the rejection of marriage. Interestingly, it was accepted in some parts of Egypt as canonical. Some of the sayings in this gospel attempt to eliminate the distinction between male and female. As is true with these other apocryphal gospels, the unbiblical nature of the content is obvious.

Gospels That Attempted to Supplement the New Testament

There was another group of gospels that were written by those who were believers, or at least sympathetic toward Christianity. Instead of trying to replace the four gospels, they added details to supplement them.

Some of the most prominent are the following:

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

This is not the same as the “Gospel of Thomas.” This particular work gives details of the life of Jesus from age five through twelve. It fills in the silent years before Jesus’ famous exchange with the elders in the temple. In this work, the child Jesus performs a number of miracles; some of them bordering on the absurd.

The Gospel to the Hebrews

An early work that circulated in the church was known as the Gospel to the Hebrews. While this work is referred to by a number of early church writers, no copy of it has survived. We are only left with quotations from it in the writings of early Christians. Most likely written in the middle of the second century, this Jewish-Christian gospel was in use until the fourth century. It seems to have been originally written in either Hebrew or Aramaic.

One statement that has been preserved has the Holy Spirit taking Jesus by His hair and then transporting Him to Mount Tabor! In another place, this work records a conversation of Jesus with His brother James after the resurrection. The church never considered this work worthy of being placed in the canon. Indeed, it seems to have been composed about one hundred years after the life of Christ.

The Protevangelium of James

One popular early work was known as the Protevangelium of James. It tells the story of the early years of Mary; her birth and childhood. It also records here the eventual marriage to Joseph. According to this account, Joseph was a widower who had a number of children. Consequently, the virginity of Mary can be upheld after she gave birth to Jesus. This account also records details surrounding the birth of Jesus in a cave. Though popular in some circles, its factual basis is suspect.

The Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate)

This work is known by two names; “the Gospel of Nicodemus” and the “Acts of Pilate.” It claims to give details of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate as well as Jesus’ descent into the unseen world after His death. Again, there is no basis for believing anything contained in this work is authentic.

Fragments from an Unknown Gospel (Egerton Papyrus 2)

In the middle of the twentieth century, some papyrus fragments were published that contain parts of an “unknown gospel.” This is also known as Egerton papyrus 2. This work has been dated to the first part of the second century A.D. (from A.D. 110 to 130). Three of the fragments have stories that parallel the gospels, while another fragment contains a story of Jesus performing a miracle on the banks of the Jordan River. This particular miracle is not recorded in the New Testament.

None of These Gospels Have Anything Authoritative to Say to Us

This is just a small sampling of the many apocryphal gospels that were written and circulating during the early years of the church. As mentioned, they were written to either supplement the New Testament account of Jesus, or to take the place of the four gospels. As we have noted, none of these apocryphal gospels have any real claim to authority.

Summary — Question 2
What Are Some of the Important Apocryphal Gospels?

The good news of Jesus Christ, as found in the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are the only authoritative works we possess about the life and ministry of Jesus. Yet, a number of accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry appeared soon after His ascension into heaven. These books were composed and became popular because people wanted as much information as possible about Jesus. The gospels are only selective in what they tell us about Him and only contain a small fraction of His words and deeds. Consequently, these works filled in the blanks.

Some of the more popular false gospels were the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Mary. They attempted to take the place of the four gospels in the minds of the people.

Other gospels had different purposes in mind. Basically, it seems that their intent was to fill in the gaps of the life and ministry of Jesus that is not found in the New Testament.

While these works have no historical basis whatsoever, and can add nothing to our knowledge of Jesus and His ministry, they still were popular with large numbers of people. Though it is possible that some of them may contain authentic elements of Jesus’ sayings and deeds, there is no way for us to determine the degree they have accurately reflected Jesus.

What Is the New Testament Apocrypha? ← Prior Section
What Caused the Apocryphal Gospels to Be Written? Next Section →
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