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Gospels, Gospels Everywhere?

Gnosticism and the New Testament Canon

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Such disparate beliefs about Jesus' identity and saving work made for an easy decision when excluding Gnostic texts from the canon.

Why are we still talking about the Gnostic gospels? After all, the church has successfully weathered The Da Vinci Code storm, despite the tumultuous frenzy it caused. As New Testament professor Ben Witherington quipped, "When people calmed down, they realized it was closer to hysterical than historical fiction." (1) Furthermore, when the Gospel of Judas was unveiled a few years ago, the overblown attention it received from the media seemed to dwindle relatively quickly. Even scholars known for their affinity for Gnosticism helped diminish the fanfare. April DeConick strongly chastised National Geographic for its disingenuous translation, (2) and James M. Robinson acknowledged he wrote his book about Judas prior to inspecting the actual document. (3) Accordingly, the dust from these trials has settled and biblical Christianity has emerged untarnished.

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1 [ Back ] Ben Witherington, "Oh Those Pesky 'Angels and Demons'," Beliefnet (17 May 2009), online at bibleandculture/2009/05/oh-those-pesky-angels-and-demons. html.
2 [ Back ] See April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 45-65.
3 [ Back ] See David P. Scaer, "Musings of the 2007 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL)" Concordia Theological Quarterly, 72 (April 2008), 184.
4 [ Back ] For example, 1 John 4:1-3 warns against those who said Jesus did not come in the flesh.
5 [ Back ] Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternate Christianities (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 19-20.
6 [ Back ] Some Gnostics thought aeons were emanations of the true unknowable god's characteristics or aspects, such as Life, Truth, and Wisdom. They were distinct from and lesser than this transcendent god, yet (somewhat confusingly) they also made up the totality of god. Archons were considered rulers of the lower realms of heaven and served the imperfect creator god. They could create angels to assist them in their tasks.
7 [ Back ] DeConick, 28-32.
8 [ Back ] The Jesus Seminar attempted to determine which sayings of Jesus were authentic and which were put into his mouth later. Members cast their votes with one of four different colored beads, each signifying the level of likelihood that Jesus really said or meant what the text reports. Starting with the assumption that he would never have claimed to be God, never would have quoted the Old Testament, never would have spoken in parables, and so forth, members voted out over 80 percent of Jesus' words in the New Testament. For a critique of the seminar's highly questionable methodology, see Craig L. Blomberg, "Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?" in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, eds. Michael J. Wilkens and J. P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 18-21.
9 [ Back ] All quotations from the Gospel of Thomas are taken from The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. James M. Robinson, revised edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), 126-38.
10 [ Back ] All quotations from the Gospel of Mary are taken from The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 524-27.
11 [ Back ] Some scholars argue that this manuscript, known as the Akhmîm fragment, may not be the Gospel of Peter after all. See Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 78-85.
12 [ Back ] See Evans, 81-85. Raymond Brown's translation of the Gospel of Peter is available online at pen-pg/peter/gospel_of_peter.html.
13 [ Back ] See C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 91-94.
14 [ Back ] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III.xxv.1-7. The Fathers' texts are from the public domain and can be found in the online Christian Classics Ethereal Library (
15 [ Back ] 1 Clement 49:6.
16 [ Back ] 1 Clement 19:2-3.
17 [ Back ] 1 Clement 23:1-26:3.
18 [ Back ] 1 Clement 13:1-2; 46:7-8.
19 [ Back ] Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 4:2.
20 [ Back ] Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 19:3.
21 [ Back ] Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians 9:1-2.
22 [ Back ] Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 3:1-2. Cf. Luke 24:39-43.
23 [ Back ] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.iv.1.
24 [ Back ] Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians 7:1-2.
25 [ Back ] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III.xi.9.
26 [ Back ] Some examples: Helmut Koester, "Q and its Relatives" in Gospel Origins & Christian Beginnings, eds. James E. Goehring et al. (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1990), 49-63; Karen King, The Gospel of Mary Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003), 115-16; Ron D. Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Non-Canonical Gospel Texts (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 78.
27 [ Back ] For the oldest papyri of the New Testament Gospels, see Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 26, 32.

Mark A. Pierson (M.A., Concordia University, Irvine, California) is a contributor to Learning at the Foot of the Cross: A Lutheran Vision for Education, eds. Joel D. Heck and Angus J. L. Menuge (Austin: Concordia University Press, forthcoming 2010). He is obtaining his M.Div. through Concordia Theological Seminary and serves as vicar at University Lutheran Chapel in Los Angeles, a parish dedicated to campus ministry.

Issue: "Canon Formation" May/June 2010 Vol. 19 No. 3 Page number(s): 28-32

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