The Lost Books of the Bible?

Article ID: DG040-2 | By: Douglas Groothuis

THE LOST BOOKS OF THE BIBLE?

Although much excitement has been generated by the Nag Hammadi discoveries, not a little misunderstanding has been mixed with the enthusiasm. The overriding assumption of many is that the treatises unearthed in upper Egypt contained “the lost books of the Bible” — of historical stature equal to or greater than the New Testament books. Much of this has been fueled by the titles of some of the documents themselves, particularly the so-called “Gnostic gospels”: the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Truth. The connotation of a “gospel” is that it presents the life of Jesus as a teacher, preacher, and healer — similar in style, if not content, to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Yet, a reading of these “gospels” reveals an entirely different genre of material. For example, the introduction to the Gospel of Truth in The Nag Hammadi Library reads, “Despite its title, this work is not the sort found in the New Testament, since it does not offer a continuous narration of the deeds, teachings, passion, and resurrection of Jesus.”2 The introduction to the Gospel of Philip in the same volume says that although it has some similarities to a New Testament Gospel, it “is not a gospel like one of the New Testament gospels. . . . [The] few sayings and stories about Jesus…are not set in any kind of narrative framework like one of the New Testament gospels.”3 Biblical scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer criticized the title of Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels because it insinuates that the heart of the book concerns lost gospels that have come to light when in fact the majority of Pagels’s references are from early church fathers’ sources or nongospel material.4In terms of scholarly and popular attention, the “superstar” of the Nag Hammadi collection is the Gospel of Thomas. Yet, Thomas also falls outside the genre of the New Testament Gospels despite the fact that many of its 114 sayings are directly or indirectly related to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Thomas has almost no narration and its structure consists of discrete sayings. Unlike the canonical Gospels, which provide a social context and narrative for Jesus’ words, Thomas is more like various beads almost haphazardly strung on a necklace. This in itself makes proper interpretation difficult. F. F. Bruce observes that “the sayings of Jesus are best to be understood in the light of the historical circumstances in which they were spoken. Only when we have understood them thus can we safely endeavor to recognize the permanent truth which they convey. When they are detached from their original historical setting and arranged in an anthology, their interpretation is more precarious.”5Without undue appeal to the subjective, it can be safely said that the Gnostic material on Jesus has a decidedly different “feel” than the biblical Gospels. There, Jesus’ teaching emerges naturally from the overall contour of His life. In the Gnostic materials Jesus seems, in many cases, more of a lecturer on metaphysics than a Jewish prophet. In the Letter of Peter to Philip, the apostles ask the resurrected Jesus, “Lord, we would like to know the deficiency of the aeons and of their pleroma.”6 Such philosophical abstractions were never on the lips of the disciples — the fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots — of the biblical accounts. Jesus then discourses on the precosmic fall of “the mother” who acted in opposition to “the Father” and so produced ailing aeons.7Whatever is made of the historical “feel” of these documents, their actual status as historical records should be brought into closer scrutiny to assess their factual reliability.