What can the secret gospels tell us, asks JOHN DICKSON in an extract from his new book "The Christ Files'.

A rumour is being bandied around that the four New Testament Gospels were officially accepted only very late and that various other Gospels were secretly excluded for devious political ends.

This conspiracy theory is wonderfully described by Sir Leigh Teabing, one of the main characters in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. In that extraordinary 10 page tirade against traditional Christianity in chapter 55 of the book, Brown lets his character say all sorts of interesting things about Jesus, the Gospels and the rise of the church.

Minor historical inaccuracies aside (10 by my count), of particular interest is the claim of Brown (via Teabing) that, somehow, the "original Gospels' have been kept out of the public's sight (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip and so on) before being rediscovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi (Egypt).

Frankly, no professional historian in any university in the world would think that the Nag Hammadi collection (discovered in Egypt in 1945) contained the "original Gospels'. The so-called Gospel of Thomas, for instance, was written pseudonymously (under a false name) in the second century, in the judgement of most historians. The real Thomas had been dead for a century.

Having said that, because oral tradition was so widespread in ancient Christianity, mainstream scholars do remain open to the possibility that a handful of the 114 verses in the Gospel of Thomas (perhaps as many as five) recall authentic sayings of Jesus that did not make it into the New Testament Gospels. For example, verse 82 is considered a possible candidate:

"Jesus said: He who is near to me is near the fire, and he who is far from me is far from the kingdom."

The other four possibly authentic sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are 42, 81, 97 and 98. I should be quite clear, however, that Thomas is the only "Gospel' outside the New Testament which mainstream scholars think might contain genuine items from the Jesus tradition. Unfortunately, without any corroborating texts it is impossible to arrive at a firm judgment. What is clear, however, is that even if we were to accept as genuine all five of these sayings (and I am perfectly happy to do so), the Gospel of Thomas would add nothing to our overall picture of the historical Jesus. Indeed, one of the main reasons these five sayings are regarded as possibly genuine is that they sound similar to some of the sayings in the Gospels of the New Testament.

Here is another example from the Gospel of Philip, also written in the second, or perhaps third, century:

"The S[aviour lov]ed [Ma]ry Mag[da]lene more than [all] the disciples, and kissed on her [mouth] often. The other [disciples] " [  ]. They said to him: "Why do you love her more than all of us?' The Saviour answered and said to them [ ]: "Why do I not love you like her?'."

The bracketed parts of the above quotation indicate sections of the manuscript (written in Coptic) that are illegible or corrupted. The letters and words within the brackets, then, indicate scholars' best guess at what was in the original text (though this is not always possible).

I quote this passage for the same reason Dan Brown does in The Da Vinci Code: because it is the only historical text from which one can possibly extract the idea that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children with her. As you can see, the text says nothing of the sort; a "kiss' is all we get.

What is more disappointing for those of us who quite like the idea of Jesus the romantic is that historians actually think the reference to "kissing' here is religious not romantic, since kissing fellow believers was widely practised in early Christianity. The New Testament itself urges: "Greet one another with a kiss of love' (1 Peter 5:14). A romantic interpretation of Jesus' alleged frequent kissing of Mary would make a nonsense of the disciples' question ("Why do you love her more than all of us?'), since it would imply romantic jealously on the part of the male disciples. This might be an attractive interpretation for some modern readers but it is utterly implausible for historians. Furthermore, Jesus' reply ("Why do I not love you like her?') is clearly intended to throw the disciples' question around, forcing them to ponder their inferiority to Mary not as lovers but as disciples. The point being made by this second- or third-century text is that Mary was the ideal disciple to whom all other disciples should aspire. Romance is not in view.

So, how did texts like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip come about? The first-century Gospels now collected in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) unwittingly spawned a virtual Gospel-writing industry in the second and third centuries.

As Christianity spread throughout the Mediterranean world, various splinter groups began to imitate, extend and sometimes re-write the older teachings of Jesus. They produced their own gospels in the names of former biblical greats (like Thomas, Philip, Mary Magdalene and so on). That way, they could claim that Jesus himself had taught their idiosyncratic views.

One of the reasons the majority of ancient Christians rejected such gospels is that they seemed to appear out of nowhere. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had been known throughout the churches for 50"100 years, and then, suddenly, one Christian group claims to have "discovered' a book written by Thomas or Judas or whomever. You can understand why the other churches might be suspicious, especially since these new "Gospels' bore a striking resemblance to the peculiar teachings of recent splinter groups and had little in common with the four earlier Gospels.

Are these "other Gospels' of value to the modern historian? Yes and no. Because these documents reveal something of the views of some second and third century Christian groups, historians study these texts to gain a broader perspective on what we call early "Christianity'. Because these books were composed so late, and because their teachings cannot be corroborated by any other texts, mainstream scholars typically consider these apocryphal Gospels inconsequential for the study of the Jesus of history. 

I realise it does not make for a good headline, but in the ongoing study of Jesus the texts at the centre of historical research are still the New Testament Gospels.

They are the earliest, most plentiful and most reliable accounts of Jesus' life available to us.

Dr John Dickson is an award-winning author and evangelist. His new book, The Christ Files, is published by Blue Bottle Books. RRP $14.95. 

The Christ Files is available online at [url=http://www.publications.youthworks.net]http://www.publications.youthworks.net[/url] or by phoning Blue Bottle Books on (02) 8268 3344.

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