The DaVinci Inquest part 3
What About Those Other Gospels?
by Greg Hanson
Sunrise Wesleyan Church
May 28, 2006

 

Main Passage: Acts 20:29-32 (NLT)

 

For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about The DaVinci Code and some of the claims it makes about Jesus and the Church and Christianity. Today, we’re going to examine its claims about the Bible.

• Is the Bible really just a product of man?
• Did the Roman Emperor Constantine actually decide which books were to be included?
• Were there 80 other gospels that didn’t make the cut?
• Do those banned gospels really reveal the true, human Jesus?
• Were they the earliest Christian records?
• Has the Bible changed through the years through translations, additions, and revisions?

Those are the claims of The DaVinci Code; what’s the truth? Well, this morning we’re going to take a look at how the Bible was put together and whether or not it’s reliable. And we’ll talk some about those other Gospels… the Gnostic Gospels… which Dan Brown refers to in The DaVinci Code and we’ll examine why they’re not included in our Bible. Okay? And I want to warn you right up front, it will feel a little bit like school this morning. There will be a lot of information which we’ll have to cover fairly quickly. But don’t worry, I’m not going to test you on this. You don’t have to remember everything. But I do want you to understand some of the process that led to the formation of the New Testament, and I want you to know that you can trust it. So let’s start there…

 

The Formation of the Christian Bible:

Now, in The DaVinci Code, Sir Leigh Teabing says “The Bible did not arrive by fax from heaven." Well, that much is true. It didn’t. So where did it come from? Well, if you’ll all just hop in my time machine, let me take you back. Let’s go back to the year 50. Because it was right about that time that Paul was writing some of his letters. In particular, his first letter to the church in Corinth, written sometime between AD 48 and AD 60. And in that letter, in chapter 15, this is what Paul wrote…

1 Corinthians 15:1-6 (NLT)
Now let me remind you, dear brothers and sisters, of the Good News I preached to you before. You welcomed it then and still do now, for your faith is built on this wonderful message. And it is this Good News that saves you if you firmly believe it--unless, of course, you believed something that was never true in the first place.
I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me--that Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the twelve apostles. After that, he was seen by more than five hundred of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died by now.

That’s what Paul wrote as a contemporary of Jesus. He was alive while those things happened. He may have been witness to some of what he wrote about; He at least talked to eyewitnesses. And most of those eyewitnesses were still alive to verify that what he wrote was true.

Paul is writing this within a generation of what had happened. And the closer the writing is to the actual events, the more likely it is to be accurate. There were witnesses still alive. And any journalist… any lawyer… any investigator… they’ll tell you, that the earlier the testimony, and with the presence of witnesses, it serves to verify what really happened.

So here’s Paul, writing very early and summing up the basics of the Christian faith. And his validation is that he has talked with eyewitnesses… that he has actually worked alongside the original disciples of Jesus… the ones who were there through it all.

And then later, those others would write. So we have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Two of them were original Apostles of Jesus. The other two worked alongside them. Mark wrote down what he learned from Peter. Luke wrote down what he saw and what he learned while traveling with Paul. We’re going to talk more about Luke in a little while.

But the fact is, every book contained in the New Testament was written within the first century. And some strong arguments can be made that they were all written before AD 70, though some say the Gospel of John and perhaps Revelation weren’t written until closer to the end of the century.

Of course, when they were written, they were not immediately compiled into the New Testament. Take the letters of Paul, for example. Many of those letters were written to specific churches and were then to be shared with other churches. So the early Christians began circulating these letters around.

If you’re a M*A*S*H fan, you might remember one episode when BJ received a novel in the mail. Everyone in the camp was starved for something to read, and so they tore the book into separate chapters and started handing it around throughout the camp. (episode: The Light That Failed)

Well, that’s kind of like what happened with the New Testament. Certain books began to be circulated throughout the churches. That’s how it started. But before long, they began to be grouped together.

There was no Council that did any of this. In fact, because of persecution, the early believers had spread throughout the known world. They were living in diverse geographic regions and in various cultures, ranging perhaps from India to Palestine and Egypt and Asia Minor and into Europe. And because of the threat of persecution or even execution, it was impossible for the early believers to meet together to talk about which books they’d accept. At the same time, the Church was growing at a phenomenal rate numerically, including people coming from a plethora of backgrounds and cultures and beliefs.

Dan Brown was right when he said that the Bible didn’t drop from Heaven like a fax. They didn’t have fax machines. Or phones, or the Internet, or telegrams… and so there was no immediate and reliable form of communication for those early churches. They were separated by months of travel, and they were forced underground by persecution. And it’s remarkable to discover how despite all of this, there was an amazing uniformity in which books were considered to be Scripture.

Many of the books, such as the four Gospels, began circulating together around the end of the first century. There are records dating back to the first half of the second century which refer to all four Gospels together. Some have even proposed that the four Gospels were circulating together as early as the year 69.

There’s another manuscript that was written between 150 and 200, when refers to all the books that are now included in our New Testament with the exception of Hebrews, James, and 1 & 2 Peter. (The Muratorian Fragment.)

And by the year 200, the four Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the book of Acts were all packaged together. That’s 4/5 of the books of the New Testament which had been circulating independently or in smaller groups before that time, but had always been viewed as authoritative by all Christians everywhere and were now packaged together.

The remaining 1/5 of the books were simply not well known yet in certain parts of the world. Remember… a letter written to a church in Rome in the western part of the Roman Empire would take a while to circulate all the way to Galatia in the east or even all the way to India. But as they became known, they were gradually accepted. And when Christianity became legal, believers were freed to meet together and discuss issues of doctrine. And councils and declarations in AD 350, 367, 393, 397, and 417 all affirmed the Books of the Bible which were considered to be inspired.

This is important: those councils didn’t decide which books were included – no council ever did. They merely affirmed the ones which were already accepted… the ones which had already been circulating in one form or another for 250 years. And they didn’t declare any book to be inspired. Only God can inspire. But they affirmed which ones they believed had been inspired by God.

And by the way, Constantine and the Council of Nicaea had nothing to do with it. Nothing. The topic never even came up there.

 

Okay, so the books of our present-day Bible were circulating in an organic form dating right back to the contemporaries of Jesus. But was there some form of criteria to determine which books would be accepted? Or were all the early writing accepted regardless of the content?

Well, yes there were criteria which needed to be met. Three in particular:

 

The Criteria for Inclusion in the New Testament:

1. Authority of the Apostles

All the writing needed to have the authority of the apostles attached to them. In other words, an apostle had to write it or sanction it. The Gospels of Mark and Luke were accepted because they were written by coworkers with the apostles – another book, the Shepherd of Hermas, was not included because it wasn’t written until sometime in the 2nd century and therefore could not have that apostolic authority.

And by the way, the New Testament in several places verifies itself. In 2 Peter 3, Peter endorses the writings of Paul. Jude quoted from Peter (Jude 1:17-18). Paul quotes Luke (1 Timothy 5:18). So there’s a cross-verification going on.

 

2. Consistency with the Old Testament and teaching of Apostles

This is one reason why the book of Hebrews was included. No one’s sure of who wrote it… maybe Paul, maybe Barnabas, maybe Luke, maybe Apollos, maybe Silas, maybe Priscilla… they’ve all been suggested. We don’t really know who wrote it. But we do know that it was written in the second half of the first century, possibly before AD 70. So it was written at the time of the apostles.

But the reason it was accepted was because it so powerfully shows how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies and laws and rituals. It’s remarkably consistent with other Scripture.

 

3. Widespread and continuous acceptance

Here’s what we’ve already been talking about. The books were not voted on by a Council. And that’s actually a great thing. Because it virtually eliminates the possibility of it all being engineered and edited for political reasons. There were hundreds and possibly thousands of copies being circulated very early in the life of the Church, and believers throughout the world were discovering first-hand that the books were inspired… that they were practical… that they were true.

Plus, within a generation of the end of the apostolic age, every New Testament book had been referred to as being authoritative by some church father. The 27 books that gelled together so quickly did so because it was natural for them to do so. They fit. They are consistent with each other and with the Old Testament, and they have proven themselves time and time again over the past nearly 2000 years.

 

But yet, there is one nagging question… Could the Church have made a mistake?

I mean, even good-intentioned people make mistakes. We’re all fallible. Could the early believers have made mistakes in determining which books would be included and which ones wouldn’t be? Well, yeah, they could have. It’s theoretically possible. But I seriously doubt that happened, and let me tell you why.

 

How Can I Trust the New Testament Books?

1. The criteria for inclusion were sound.

It makes sense. It’s logical. Authoritative, consistent, and accepted. Pretty good standards.

 

2. There were no other credible claims.

There were books… and not just the Gnostic writings… books like the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas which didn’t make the cut. Why? Because they didn’t meet the criteria.

And if you think that mistakes were made when the Bible was being formed, then tell me, which books should have made it that didn’t? Build the case for it. Or which books were included that shouldn’t have been? Build the case for that.

 

3. The 27 books have amazing uniformity.

All the books of the New Testament… in fact, all the books of the Bible… fit together perfectly. There’s an incredible consistency, especially considering the geographical and cultural differences. Plus, including the Old Testament, you have the time factor. 40 authors over 1600 years, all contributing to one overarching story of redemption. Almost as if God was guiding. Which leads me to…

 

4. God protects His Word.

I do believe that while God worked through human authors… each with their own style and perspective… that God guided the process. And I believe that God was involved as false writings were weeded out and as the authoritative books gained acceptance. It was all part of His providence.

 

5. They have been proven through time.

No other book has ever withstood such scrutiny as the Bible, and yet it continues to stand. The New Testament books in particular have been attacked time and time again, but yet they stand. In fact, many people who set out to disprove the Bible have turned right around and have accepted it as Truth.

One example: Sir William Ramsay was one of those. He was one of the greatest archaeologists who ever lived, and when he began his work, he was very skeptical of the Biblical writings, especially the writings of Luke. He expected to disprove the Bible through archaeology. But after examining the archaeological evidence, what did he conclude?

“Luke is an historian of the first rank… This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”
~ Sir William Ramsay

And that makes sense. After all, Luke was a doctor. He was an educated man. He knew what it meant to study and do research. And he knew about logic. And look at what he wrote…

Luke 1:1-4 (NLT)
Most honorable Theophilus: Many people have written accounts about the events that took place among us. They used as their source material the reports circulating among us from the early disciples and other eyewitnesses of what God has done in fulfillment of his promises. Having carefully investigated all of these accounts from the beginning, I have decided to write a careful summary for you, to reassure you of the truth of all you were taught.

Who was Luke writing for? He was writing for Theophilus. That must be “theophilus” name I’ve ever heard. We don’t know who Theophilus was, but we do know that Luke referred to him as “Most honorable Theophilus.” So he was probably someone of some importance. Perhaps he was a believer, or perhaps Luke was writing to show him the evidence. Regardless, Luke would have wanted to do a good job and be as accurate as possible.

Luke says that there were lots of people talking about Jesus and about what they had seen. And so he went to them and interviewed them himself. And he was painstakingly accurate in everything he wrote, including information about cities and ships and seas and geographic regions. That accurate attention to detail is what convinced William Ramsay. Surely Luke paid just as much attention to the actual account of Jesus.


Okay, so that’s our existing Bible. But what about the Gnostic writings that Dan Brown refers to? What were they, and why were they rejected?

 

Those Other Gospels:

Gnosis = Greek word for “knowledge”

Well, first of all, the word “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnosis”, which means “knowledge” and it referred to a secret knowledge which was only available to those who were enlightened. And so, a Gnostic was someone who was seeking after this knowledge. According to Gnosticism, we don’t need forgiveness; we need knowledge. And so while Jesus might be helpful in that process, 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, Greek philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity.

Now, most of what we know about Gnosticism comes from the discovery of some Gnostic texts near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. That’s about 300 miles south of Cairo. Back in 1945, 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 Gnostic writings.

Now, Dan Brown says they were scrolls. They weren’t. They were actually codices, which are like books. He also says there were over 80 Gnostic gospels in the Nag Hammadi library. Well, there were 52 books… take out the repeats and there were 45… and only 5 of them were gospels. So once again, he’s not doing so well on the accuracy which he claims his book has.

These Gnostic Gospels… they do bear some rather familiar names… The Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas… Using those names to gain credibility. But 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.

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. We’ve already talked about Les Dossiers Secret, which Pierre Plantard created in the 50s, 60s, and 70s but which claim to have been written centuries earlier. Or how about 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.

Happens in schools. How many times do students pay someone else to write their essays, and then they sign their own names. Happens in music. Milli Vanilli.

And that’s the case with the Gnostic books. 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. And pretty much every scholar will attest to that… from the most conservative to the most liberal.


Now, what did these Gnostics believe? It’s actually difficult to sum that up, because they believed several different things. But let me tell you three beliefs that most Gnostics shared…

 

Basic Gnostic Teachings:

A. The deity that created the universe is not the supreme and true God.

Instead, they would say that the creator was an evil deity and was probably the God of the Old Testament. Jesus, on the other hand, had been sent by a greater, higher deity. So they believed in a hierarchy of several gods, some good, some evil… like in Greek mythology.

 

B. Everything physical is evil.

Since creation was created by an evil deity, then everything he created must be corrupt and evil. So anything that is material… anything that is physical… is evil. And this extended to any sexual expression of the physical. So with a few exceptions, the Gnostic writings viewed sexuality as disgusting and vile—especially the woman’s part in procreation. Some would say that Paul was warning against 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 what we believe… These teachers are hypocrites and liars. They pretend to be religious, but their consciences are dead. They will say it is wrong to be married…

 

C. Because everything physical is evil, Christ only seemed human.

Last week we talked about how Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man. The Gnostics 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 was inhabited by the spirit of Christ at his baptism, and that spirit left him on the cross before he died. Others would say that it wasn’t really Jesus on the cross, because Jesus wouldn’t have had an actual body. This was the specific issue the Apostle John was addressing when he wrote…

1 John 4:2 (NLT)
If a prophet acknowledges that Jesus Christ became a human being, that person has the Spirit of God.

 

So let’s take another look at what Dan Brown claims in The DaVinci Code. He says the Gnostic writing were the earliest Christian writings. Earliest Christian writings? Well, he’s one-third correct. They were writings… but they were neither earliest nor Christian. The earliest one, the Gospel of Thomas, was written between AD 130 and 150… at least a century after the time of Jesus, and perhaps a century after the first writings of Paul and 50-80 years after the entire New Testament.

Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code claims they were written in Aramaic. They weren’t. They were written in Coptic. And that will be really important next week when we talk about Mary Magdalene.

Dan Brown also says the Nag Hammadi library emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. But most Gnostics actually denied that Jesus was human. Whereas the Gospels in our Bible do portray Him as being fully human and fully God.

Dan Brown claims that the Gnostic writings show that you can find God through sexual rituals. But according to the Gnostics, sexuality was evil.

Dan Brown claims that the Gnostic writings promote the sacred feminine… the worth of women. But 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.” 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.”

Right. Time for that sex change operation.

The DaVinci Code also claims that the Gnostic Gospels “highlight glaring historical discrepancies and fabrications.” Actually, the Gnostic writings provide 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.

So the Gnostic writings were written far too late to be seriously considered as reliable, plus they contradict the already accepted Scripture of the Old Testament, and they’re packed full of strange and even foolish says. I already read what Jesus supposedly said about Mary. Let me read 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

Again Jesus said: Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy.
~ Gospel of Thomas

And then Teabing in The DaVinci Code says about the Gnostic Gospels…

“Troublingly, they do not match up with the gospels in the Bible."
~ Sir Leigh Teabing

I’m really not that troubled by that. I’m actually kind of glad they don’t match up.

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.


There’s one more claim that The DaVinci Code makes about the Bible that I want to address here this morning. In the book, Sir Leigh Teabing says that…

“[The Bible] has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions.”
~ Sir Leigh Teabing

 

How Do I Know My New Testament is Reliable?

I’m sure all of you have played the game of telephone at one time or another. You know… you have twenty or thirty people together, the first person whispers something in the second person’s ear, they repeat it to the third, all the way around the circle until the last person receives the message. And what always happens? It’s always something different than the first person had said.

We could try that here this morning… I could whisper something in your ear, and by the time it reached the back of the room, it would be something entirely different. And if that could happen in a room this size in just a matter of a few minutes, what could happen when the message crosses cultures and crosses languages and crosses continents and crosses the centuries? Sound like a realistic problem, doesn’t it?

But think it through. First of all, the message wasn’t being whispered. And the there was plenty of opportunity for the original speakers to clarify what they had said. If the listener got it wrong, the speaker could correct them and say, “No, you misunderstood… this is what I said.”

But still. It’s been two thousand years. How do I know today that my Bible hasn’t been corrupted through the centuries? It’s actually pretty simple. We have ancient documents to examine.

The New Testament was originally written in Greek. We have over 5000 ancient manuscripts in Greek, some dating back very early.

Also, the New Testament was translated into other languages of the region. And we have over 25,000 manuscripts in these other languages.

Plus, we have the other writings of early church leaders. Just from the first 300 years… before Constantine and the Council of Nicaea… we have 30,000 quotations. In fact, if we lost all the other manuscripts and only had the writings of these church leaders to go on, we could completely reconstruct the New Testament with the exception of 11 verses. And the historical context of the Bible is verified in other Jewish and Roman writings. We have some very reliable evidence that our Bible is accurate.

In your notes you’ll see a chart. This is a chart to give you a sense of the reliability of the New Testament as compared to other ancient writings…

 

 

The Bible is by far the most reliable historic document in existence. We have 20,000 ancient documents which confirm that. In fact, listen to this. If you were to examine those 643 copies of Homer’s Illiad, you would discover that there’s a variance of 5% in the text… there are 764 lines of text which scholars aren’t quite sure of.

For the New Testament, on the other hand, looking at 20,000 copies, there’s only a 0.5% variance, and in no way does the non-confirmed text alter our perception of Jesus or the Gospel. Scribes have been extremely careful through the centuries as they’ve made copies. In fact, if they made one slip of a pen while copying a page, the entire page was burned. That’s how seriously they took their task.

Oh, and those Dead Sea Scrolls? They contained a copy of Isaiah which was 1000 years older than our next oldest copy at the time of its discovery. So there was a lot of curiosity about what differences there might be. And what they found was that there was no difference of any consequence. The differences there were, were mainly just variations of spelling, like we have a variation between how we spell the word “centre” with an “re” and the way Americans spell “center” with an “er”. The Dead Sea Scrolls which Dan Brown referenced in The DaVinci Code actually support the accuracy and the reliability of the Bible.

In The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown lists Sir Isaac Newton as one of the Grand Masters of the Priory of Sion which supposedly knows the true story about Jesus and follows the Gnostic Gospels. Well, that makes it really interesting for Sir Isaac Newton to say this…

"There is more reliable truth in the Bible than any other record of world history."
~ Sir Isaac Newton


Just as I finish up, I want us to look at one more passage…

1 John 1:1-3 (NLT)
The one who existed from the beginning is the one we have heard and seen. We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is Jesus Christ, the Word of life. This one who is life from God was shown to us, and we have seen him. And now we testify and announce to you that he is the one who is eternal life. He was with the Father, and then he was shown to us. We are telling you about what we ourselves have actually seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

What’s John saying here? Why so much repetition? Well, Gnosticism was already starting to develop. But here’s John, and emphasizing, “I was there! I was with Jesus. I’ve seen Him, I’ve touched Him, I’ve heard Him. And I’m telling you exactly what happened!”

The Bible is reliable. It’s the authentic Word of God. You can trust its teachings, you can follow it’s directions, and through it, you can encounter Jesus.
 

 

 

 

Copyright © Greg Hanson, 2006 SunriseOnline.ca