Last week we took a fair amount of time to talk about where our Bible came from, focusing specifically on the New Testament. We talked about the wealth of manuscripts we have available of the New Testament from the first 2-3 centuries... Over 24,000 manuscript documents plus over 86,000 extra-Biblical quotes from other writings. Unmatched in the quantity and the short timespan between when the texts were first written and the dates of the earliest copies. Nothing else even comes close.
We talked about how, because of all these copies and because of how early they appeared, we can have great confidence that what we recognize as our Bible today is incredibly accurate to what was first written. A science called textual criticism shows us how our Bible has been handed down through the centuries without being edited, corrupted, or manipulated. The evidence shows the opposite. It shows how carefully the text of the New Testament books have been preserved.
That's not to say that there are no questions. We talked about how when all those ancient manuscripts are compared there's a 0.5% variance. Most of those are as simple as spelling errors or words in a different order, such as "Christ Jesus" instead of "Jesus Christ." And none of the differences... None of them affect any area of doctrine or changes what we know about Jesus--His life, death, and resurrection. But every one in a while as you're reading your Bible, you might come across a footnote that explains that some manuscripts say something slightly different.
So we talked about all of that, and we talked about who wrote the Books of the New Testament, how they started to be circulated together, and how they started to be viewed as Scripture. And the really interesting thing is how organic the whole thing was. There were no conferences or councils that got together to discuss what books should be viewed as Scripture, it just kind of happened by consensus. For the first few centuries, it was too dangerous and impractical for Christians from all over the then-known world to come together to talk about these things. Still, by the end of the first century, most of the books that a now in our New Testament we being grouped together and handed from church to church to be read as scripture.
Now, if you came last week and you had the idea that somehow the clouds rolled back and God handed down a book to the early Church, then you were probably disappointed. Because what we discovered is that the New Testament was written over the span of at least a few decades during the first century. Some of the books were quickly embraced and accepted as Scripture very early, such as the four Gospels and the letters of Paul. There was really never any debate about those ones.
But some of the other books took a while for people to warm up to. Some of the books were actually hot topics of debate, whether they should be viewed as Scripture or not. In fact, even today Protestant Churches, the Catholic Church, and the Ethiopian Church have slight differences in what books are accepted.
And so you may have been surprised by my response to the question of whether it's possible that mistakes were made... that the Bible might contain a book or two that doesn't belong, or that books that should be there didn't make the cut. Because my answer was, "yes, it is possible that mistakes were made." Even after considering the criteria for what books were accepted and why, and even after examining the apostolic authority connected to the books and how it was literally a life or death decision for the early Christians to know what books they were willing to die for, it's still possible that a mistake could have been made.
There. That's an admission you may not hear in every church. But it is possible, and that's why it's so important for us to remember that the Bible is not our focus, Jesus is. The Bible doesn't save us, Jesus does. The Bible doesn't forgive us, Jesus does. As we said last week, the Bible should be treated as a map, not the destination. The Bible is only useful as it helps us get to Jesus.
Okay, that was basically a review of what we've already talked about. But something we haven't talked about is a collection of writings that we know as the Gnostic books or the Gnostic Gospels.
Some of these books have made news over the past few years, and if you go to Indigo or any other bookstore you can see how popular these supposed "lost gospels" are right now. So here’s the objection we’re talking about this morning…
Objection #8: Aren’t there other gospels about Jesus (a.k.a. the Gnostic Gospels) that were either lost or hidden by the Church? And don’t they portray a different Jesus than the one that’s in the New Testament?
The answer to the second part of that objection is yes, they do portray a different Jesus. But that does not mean there has been some kind of conspiracy or that the New Testament lies about Jesus while these Gnostic gospels tell the true story. More about that in a few minutes.
As for the first part… no, the books were not lost; they were rejected. And no, there was no conspiracy on the part of the Church. In fact, the conspiracy goes the other way. It was these Gnostic gospels that attempted to rewrite history and portray a false image of Jesus.
• Most of what we know about Gnosticism comes from the discovery of some Gnostic texts near Nag Hammadi in Egypt.
Now let me clarify something here. Don’t mix up the Nag Hammadi texts with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Who knows where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered? Right, near the Dead Sea. Go figure. The Dead Sea Scrolls was a major discovery in the mid-1900s (from 1947 to 1956) near the ruins of the city of Qumran along the Dead Sea and included more than 800 documents. All of them date from between 200 BC and AD 68, and it’s believed that they may have been hidden to keep them safe during the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. About a third of the texts were copies of the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) and served to show just how accurately the Bible has been preserved throughout the centuries (as we talked about last week). Another third were Jewish stories and commentaries on the Old Testament books, and the rest just dealt with the day-to-day life of the Essene/Jewish community. One of the fragments may or may not come from the Gospel of Mark, and most scholars don’t really believe that. But even if it did, it would just serve to further verify the early writings of the New Testament books. No scandal there at all with the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Nag Hammadi library, on the other hand, is a different story. Nag Hammadi is an Egyptian city of about 30,000—just a little smaller than Charlottetown—located about 300 miles/500 km south of Cairo. Nag Hammadi was in the news just over a year ago (in January 2010) when 19 Christians were attacked and eight shot to death by three Muslim men.
Well, back in 1945, Nag Hammadi was news for a different reason. A couple of brothers were out looking for fertilizer when one of them named, believe it or not, Mohammed Ali threw a rock into a nearby cave. And he heard it hit something. So he climbed in to see what it was, and found a pottery container. He opened it, hoping to find gold, and instead found a collection of leather-bound codices (or books) that were later determined to be Gnostic writings.
There were 52 books… take out the repeats and there were 45… and only 5 of them were gospels. That was the major discovery, but there have been a few other Gnostic books discovered over the years as well.
And these Gnostic Gospels… they do bear some rather familiar names… The Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas… But here’s the thing… Mary and Philip and Thomas had nothing to do with those gospels. They were long dead before those gospels were even written. They were basically forgeries.
• The Gnostic “Gospels” were forgeries coming from the second through fifth centuries.
And it isn’t uncommon for this kind of thing to happen. There have been lots of forgeries. There have been lots of documents that claim to be written by someone who never wrote them.
You see the same thing with art. Every once in a while there will be a lost work of art which is rediscovered, and the experts have to examine it to determine if, for example, it was a genuine Picasso or if it was simply a painting by someone copying his style.
It happens in schools, too. How many times do students pay someone else to write their essays, and then they sign their own names.
Happens in music. Two words: Milli Vanilli.
And that’s the case with the Gnostic Gospels. They claim to have been written by such familiar Biblical names as Peter, and Mary, and Thomas, and Philip. But the truth is, they were written several generations later. In fact, some of them weren’t written until the 3rd, 4th, or even 5th century.
Even the earliest one—the Gospel of Thomas—wasn’t written until around AD 140, over a century after the time of Jesus and almost as long after the first writings of Paul and perhaps Mark appeared. Pretty much every scholar will attest to that… from the most conservative to the most liberal.
• The Gnostic writings say nothing about actual history.
The Gospels included in our New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—refer to real people and real events at a real time in history. A few weeks ago we spent a lot of time talking about the historical reliability of the Bible, and how archaeological evidence time and time again supports the historical claims of the New Testament.
But the Gnostic writings provide little or no historical context. They are writings about alleged conversations and sayings, but make no reference to actual places or events. Unlike the Gospels of the Bible which were written as narrative biographies with geographic and historic details which are continually verified by archaeology today. There has never been a discovery which has contradicted the Bible… there have been hundreds and even thousands which have validated it. But the Gnostic writings… no value or support at all in terms of actual history.
So what is Gnosticism, anyway?
• “Gnosis” = Greek word for “knowledge.” Gnostics claimed to have a secret knowledge.
Well, first of all, the word “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnosis”, which means “knowledge,” and so it referred to some kind of a “secret” knowledge that was only available to those who were enlightened. A Gnostic was someone who was seeking after this secret knowledge.
According to Gnosticism, we don’t need forgiveness; we need knowledge. And so while Jesus might be helpful in that process, Gnostics would tell you that He’s not essential. It was kind of a do-it-yourself religion in which you find your own way to enlightenment. And it tried to blend together Pagan mythology, eastern mysticism, Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity.
• Gnosticism attempted to blend together pagan mythology, eastern mysticism, Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity.
So what did these Gnostics believe? Well, that’s actually difficult to describe, because they believed several different things. But let me tell you three beliefs that most Gnostics shared…
Gnostics believed that…
A. The deity that created the universe is not the supreme and true God.
Instead, they would say that the creator was maybe an evil deity, or maybe a lesser God that they would also identify as the God of the Old Testament, and some Gnostics would say that it was an angel that created the world. Jesus, they would say, had been sent by a greater, higher deity than the one that created the world. And so the Gnostics believed in a hierarchy of several gods, some good, some evil… taken right out of Greek mythology.
But what does the Old Testament say? The Old Testament, which by the way, the Gnostics would have recognized themselves but then deviated from?
Isaiah 43:10 (NLT)
“But you are my witnesses, O Israel!” says the Lord. “You are my servant. You have been chosen to know me, believe in me, and understand that I alone am God. There is no other God—there never has been, and there never will be.”
Isaiah 45:18 (NLT)
For the Lord is God, and he created the heavens and earth and put everything in place. He made the world to be lived in, not to be a place of empty chaos. “I am the Lord,” he says, “and there is no other.”
And the reason for this first belief is this second belief…
B. Everything physical is evil and anything spiritual is good.
Since the universe was a physical creation, it couldn’t be good and therefore it couldn’t have been the supreme and true God who did it. He would never lower himself to have anything to do with anything physical. That’s what Gnostics would tell you. Anything that is material… anything that is physical… is evil. But the Bible tells us near the beginning of the Book…
Genesis 1:31 (NLT)
Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!
This view that anything physical is evil is even seen even in how the Gnostic writings deal with sexuality. With few exceptions, the Gnostic writings viewed sexuality as disgusting and vile—especially the woman’s part in procreation. In fact, some scholars would say that Paul was warning against an early form of this Gnostic teaching when he wrote…
1 Timothy 4:1-3 (NLT)
Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead.
They will say it is wrong to be married and wrong to eat certain foods. But God created those foods to be eaten with thanks by faithful people who know the truth.
Okay, so Gnostics believed that anything physical was evil. But if you think about it, that creates a bit of a problem. I mean, how about Jesus? Wasn’t Jesus flesh and blood? Well, this is how they dealt with that little problem…
C. Since everything physical is evil, Christ only seemed human.
We’ve talked here before about how Jesus was truly God and truly man at the same time. That’s the way the Bible portrays Him, that’s the way His followers saw Him, and that’s what Jesus claimed about Himself. The Gnostics, however, didn’t believe that. They maintained that Christ couldn’t have been human.
And there are some variations on that believe. Some Gnostics would say that Jesus was a man who became inhabited by the spirit of Christ at his baptism, and that the of Christ spirit left the man Jesus on the cross before he died. Others would say that it wasn’t really Jesus on the cross at all, because Jesus wouldn’t have had an actual body. It was just someone who looked like him.
This was the specific issue the Apostle John was addressing when he wrote…
1 John 4:2 (NLT)
If a person claiming to be a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ came in a real body, that person has the Spirit of God.
And then later in the next chapter, John added…
1 John 5:6-8 (NLT)
And Jesus Christ was revealed as God’s Son by his baptism in water and by shedding his blood on the cross—not by water only, but by water and blood. And the Spirit, who is truth, confirms it with his testimony. So we have these three witnesses—the Spirit, the water, and the blood—and all three agree.
Notice the emphasis that John puts on the blood of Jesus. He was emphasizing that Jesus was in fact human… that He had a physical body… and that He really died on the cross. It wasn’t an illusion, and it wasn’t a case of mistaken-identity. God became flesh, and He died for you and for me. And that’s why this time of year is so significant. Next weekend we’ll be remember the bodily death of Jesus followed by His bodily resurrection.
Much of this first letter of John was written to deal with an early form of Gnosticism. That’s why at the very beginning of his letter, he opened by saying…
1 John 1:1 (NLT)
We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning, whom we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life.
What’s he doing there? He’s starting right off by laying out his credentials. He’s saying, “I know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen Jesus. I’ve talked with Him. I’ve even touched Him,” again emphasizing that Jesus has a physical body but He wasn’t evil.
Later, John wrote…
1 John 2:21-22,26 (NLT)
So I am writing to you not because you don’t know the truth but because you know the difference between truth and lies. And who is a liar? Anyone who says that Jesus is not the Christ… I am writing these things to warn you about those who want to lead you astray.
1 John 3:16 (NLT)
We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us.
Again, attacking the Gnostic notion that Jesus was not really “the Christ”, nor that He actually died.
D. It was a curse to be female.
Repeatedly, the Gnostic writings condemn womanhood. One example… in the Gospel of Thomas, Peter is talking with Jesus about Mary Magdalene, and says, “Let Mary leave us; women aren’t worthy of life.” That’s what Peter supposedly said. Now, you’d expect Jesus to rebuke him, wouldn’t you? You’d expect Him to say, “Peter, where have you been? Haven’t you been paying attention? Time and time again I’ve validated women.” That’s the picture of Jesus we have in the New Testament, but in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, this is what Jesus tells Peter… “I will lead her to become male, so she can become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.” (saying 114)
Right. So if you’ve been thinking about that sex change operation…
Okay, so the Gnostic writings were written far too late to be seriously considered as reliable, plus they contradict not just the New Testament Gospels but the already accepted Scripture of the Old Testament, and they’re packed full of strange and even foolish sayings. I already read what Jesus supposedly said about Mary. Here are a couple of other sayings from The Gospel of Thomas…
“Jesus said: Blessings on the lion if a human eats it, making the lion human. Foul is the human if a lion eats it, making the lion human.”
~ Gospel of Thomas, saying 7
“If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.”
~ Gospel of Thomas, saying 14
Another one of these Gnostic writings that you may have heard about is the Gospel of Judas. Just four or five years ago, National Geographic released the first English translation of that book. And, of course, you’re familiar with the name Judas. Later this week as we head toward Good Friday and Easter, we’ll be reflecting on how Judas betrayed Jesus.
But according to the Gospel of Judas, Judas didn’t really betray Jesus after all. Instead, Jesus asked Judas to hand Him over to the Pharisees and the Romans. It was all part of their elaborate plan. In the Gospel of Judas, Judas is supposedly an enlightened person while the rest of the Disciples were quite ignorant. In fact, Judas and Jesus are pictured laughing at the rest of them. Judas and Jesus are essentially portrayed as equals, having a secret knowledge which was hidden from the rest.
One of things that confounds me about this is, if Jesus had actually asked Judas to betray him and had even promised him exaltation as a reward, then why would Judas have been so disturbed but his actions? Why did he feel so guilty that he actually hung himself?
Well, the Gospel of Judas also relates a bizarre account of creation, involving an angel named Nebro who created some other angels including one named Saklas who created some other angels who created Adam and Eve. So God wasn’t actually involved in the process.
Plus, there are a lot of other contradictions between the Gospel of Judas and the Gospels included in the New Testament.
Now, do I believe this Gospel of Judas is real? Yep. I mean, I believe it’s a real 4th century document, preserving a 2nd century work. It probably is legitimate in that respect. But that doesn’t mean it’s true. I have here this morning a legitimate first edition copy of Spiderman issue #1. But I don’t really believe there was a guy in red and blue leotards web-slinging through New York battling mutants. Although I haven’t actually been to New York for a while…
You see what I mean? Even if this Gospel of Judas is a verifiable ancient manuscript, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a work of fiction. Let me give you some of the context of this Gospel.
First of all, it wasn’t written by Judas. It was written about Judas. So while Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and included eyewitness accounts, we don’t really know who wrote the Gospel of Judas. But we do know that it was written 100-150 years later, long after all the eyewitnesses had died, and that the first reference to the Gospel of Judas dates back to Irenaeus who spoke against it in AD 180. So while some people today portray the Gospel of Judas as a new discovery, we’ve known about the Gospel of Judas for 1800 years! And it was rejected as being fanciful, unreliable, unhistorical, and heretical all the way back then.
Look, if you want to check out the Gnostic Gospels for yourself, go ahead. You can find them in the bookstore, they’ve been available online for over a decade. Go ahead and read some of them and you’ll see that there’s absolutely no credibility to them.
On the other hand, as we’ve seen over these last few weeks, the books of the Bible—the Old Testament and the New Testament—have proven themselves time and time again to be reliable, to have authority, to contain the testimony of eyewitnesses, to be confirmed through archaeology, to not just be a book about faith but also a book about fact, and a book that you and I should take seriously.
Okay, we’ve spent a lot of time at the start of this series talking about the validity of the Bible. We’re going to move on next week to talk about objections people have about Jesus. And obviously we’ll be focusing in on the Resurrection next Sunday.
Copyright © 2011 Greg Hanson