The gospel according to conspiracy theorists

September 4, 2012

Philip Jenkins, a church historian and an expert on trends in global Christianity, debunks a popular recent myth that says that the Church Fathers covered up the “real” truth about Jesus and his disciples—as revealed in the many non-canonical gospels—in order to suit its political agenda. Not that I’ve read it, but I assume that Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code trades in these sorts of conspiracy theories.

By all means, there were plenty of other gospels, but all of them—even the famous Gnostic text, The Gospel According to Thomas—came much later than the four in our New Testament. As Jenkins writes:

As I discussed some years ago in my book Hidden Gospels, the fact that a text circulated among the “early Christians” (anywhere from the first through fourth centuries) is irrelevant to what it can tell us about Jesus or his world. Contrary to the Telegraph account – and good grief, this is a conservative paper – the reason early church leaders privileged those particular four gospels was that they were so evidently the earliest and most authoritative texts, without serious competition. No body of cranky patriarchs sat around and said, “Well, we have to vote out Mary because it’s, um, a tad sexual. John can stay because it spiritualizes everything, and that’ll be useful in a century or so when we get political power.” If you read the actual church debates over which texts should be canonized or excluded, you will be deeply impressed by the historical logic and good sense they demonstrate, and their powerful sense of history and chronology.

Forgive me for the obvious remark, but they never seriously contemplated adding most of the Nag Hammadi texts because they had not even been written in the mid-second century, and in any case, these relied on the Big Four for any historical descriptions. I can point confidently to chains of historical evidence and authority linking the apostles to Mark, and on to the other synoptics, and John has its distinctive foundations. Literally no other gospel – including Thomas – has anything vaguely comparable.

In other words, we have the Big Four gospels that we have because they are, by far, the oldest and most reliable accounts of Jesus, not because there were dozens and dozens floating around at the same time, all of which were equally well-attested, and the Church chose the four that it liked the most.

What would a gospel written at least 80 years after the earliest gospel (Mark), which relies not on apostolic and other eyewitness testimony but on the Big Four gospels themselves, have to teach us about Jesus that we ought to know?

Not a thing.

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