For those who like their reading accompanied by beautiful illustrations, the National Geographic HISTORY edition for March/April 2017 includes an article on the Gospels not in the Bible. Written by Antonio Pinero, The Forbidden Books of the Gnostics: Seeking the Hidden Gospels, takes the discussion on the establishment of the Bible into popular reading culture. The NG has supported a significant amount of biblical archaeology for many decades. This report gives support to the notion that what we have in the Bible misses a lot of material hidden for 1500 years. Found in jars in an Egyptian cave near Nag Hamadi, 13 bound papyrus books in Coptic Greek were discovered in 1945. More gospels have been discovered since then.
Gnosticism was not well known until the 19th and 20th centuries. Bishop Irenaeus had been effective in his offensive against the movement from around 180CE. By 367 Bishop Athenasius was the first was the first to list the 27 books including the canonical gospels of the New Testament. The Gnostic writings did not get a look in!
With the Jesus movement growing to more than 300,000 in Asia Minor alone by the end of the first century, and many more through the Roman Empire, this was a movement without any authorized texts or formal organisation. But there were at least three major factional groups putting their claim on the new Church.
The first, mainly Jews, was growing from the group who had been closest to Jesus. Jesus was the anointed Messiah, representative of God, who would one day restore God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus was fully human and certainly not God.
The second, those who had, in the main, been converted to the Christian faith under the influence of Paul. Paul’s radical theology took the idea of Jesus as Messiah a step further – as God the Father who sacrificed his son in order to eliminate the sins of the Jews and all humankind. It goes without saying, that this faction shaped the way that Christianity would develop over the 2000 years.
But it was the third faction – very small in numbers, that was a threat to Pauline Christianity or ‘orthodoxy’. The Gnostics believed one could know God through a life of inner transformation – ‘gnosis’ would help bring salvation. Gnostics taught that all people bear something of the divinity of the Creator (demiurge) and that this knowledge (salvation) was being revealed by a series of beings beginning with Adam to Jesus who revealed the ultimate truth. They believed that they alone understood this absolute religious truth. Salvation was an intellectual activity.
The Gospel of Mary discovered in 1896 is possibly Gnostic. It is not hard to understand why this gospel was not included in the Biblical canon in the context of an official church that could not contemplate women being prophets and preachers.
The apocryphal Gospel of Judas was identified in the 1980s. It had been referred to by Irenaeous in 180CE as ‘fictional history’.
The process of stamping out opposition to the emerging ‘orthodox’ church begun by Irenaeus was continued until the Roman Empire took the Pauline Church as the official religion and documents such as those found at Nag Hamadi were hidden from the authroities.