A couple Catholic school teachers recently asked me how much weight we should give, if any, to the “other gospels” out there, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.
Usually when I’m asked about “apocryphal” works, it’s in connection with defending the authenticity of the so-called “deuterocanonical” books of the Old Testament, which truly are part of the Bible.
Now, however, instead of explaining why certain Old Testament books are in, I’m being asked why certain alleged New Testament books are out.
First, let’s be clear that the four Gospels that the Church does accept as “canonical” (i.e., part of the Bible) are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As such, we accept that they are inspired by God and thus free from error. Here’s what Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation had to say about them:
“It is common knowledge that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our Savior.
“The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John [citing St. Irenaeus].
“Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1)” (nos. 18-19).
All that is well and good, but what about the dozens of “other gospels” that the Church considers apocryphal? For that matter, what does “apocryphal” mean in this context?
Generally, “apocrypha” refers to writings that, under the guise of divine inspiration, approximate the style and content of biblical books. One common feature is that they purport to have the authority of a patriarch or prophet (Old Testament) or apostle (New Testament) as a means of demonstrating their credibility.
The Church, which defined the New Testament canon in the early centuries of Christian history, rejected these pseudo-gospels as lacking authenticity and reliability, thus determining that these books should not be considered part of the Bible.
Some apocryphal gospels seem to represent sincere attempts to supplement what we know about the hidden life of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, which receives but sparse attention in the canonical Gospels. However, these works contain pious fabrications and legends that are not the “Gospel truth.”
Most of the better-known non-canonical gospels, though, were produced by the various branches or schools of Gnosticism, a heresy that flourished in the second and third centuries. These spurious gospels are unreliable historically and theologically, despite their popularity these days in religious fiction (e.g., The Da Vinci Code) and among some heterodox pop theologians. These pseudo-gospels were written long after the “real” Gospels and were never considered canonical, in part because of their decidedly anti-Christian character.
Indeed, the Gnostic “gospels” are not really gospels at all in the sense that Christians understand them. Christ preached a Gospel of “good news,” while Gnostics view their knowledge as something to be kept hidden. As evidenced by the lives of the early Christians, the followers of Jesus were called to be a city on a hill and a lamp on a stand (cf. Mt. 5:14-16), not a hidden cult for the intellectual elite.
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the various versions of the Gospel of Thomas, among others, contain bizarre statements that at times contradict basic Christian beliefs.
In never taking seriously these spurious writings, the Church was certainly not trying to suppress some secret text as part of a conspiracy or power struggle. It has been said that these are “the gospels the Church left behind,” but it would be more accurate to call them “the gospels that left the Church behind.” Gnostics used Jesus as a “teacher” that conformed to their beliefs. They did not recognize Him for who He was or who He claimed to be.
I’ve declined to go into specific texts of the apocryphal gospels, such as the accounts of Jesus’ animating clay pigeons for sport as a child, or His alleged denial of the reality of sin. Rather than focus on these texts, I think it’s far more important for us to meditatively study the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, through the sacred liturgy and personal prayer, rather than waste our time on counterfeits.
May we come to more deeply appreciate the Christian Gospels as an endless source of spiritual insight. St. Therese of Lisieux sums up it beautifully:
“But above all it’s the Gospels that occupy my mind when I’m at prayer; my poor soul has so many needs, and yet this is the one thing needful. I’m always finding fresh lights there; hidden meanings which had meant nothing to me hitherto.”