Exactly one month ago, I published a TGC article on the recently discovered ‘gospel’ manuscript from Oxyrhynchus, P.Oxy. 5575. This new manuscript is noteworthy for many reasons (which I cover in the article), but mostly because it includes material from the Gospel of Thomas laid alongside material from Matthew and Luke.
While such a discovery certainly deserves academic attention, the internet “buzz” generated by this new manuscript has been fascinating to watch. Indeed, it reminds me that there always seems to be a disproportionate cultural fascination with “lost” Gospel or “hidden” texts about Jesus. Write an article about the canonical Gospels and you might get a few hits. Write an article about a new, lost, or forgotten Gospel—and how it changes everything we know about Jesus—and there’s a reasonable chance it might go viral.
Our culture’s insatiable appetite for all things lost has not been missed by publishers. Books are more likely to sell if you can find a way to get some key words in the title: “lost,” “forgotten,” “secret,” “hidden,” etc.
To this point, here’s a quick sampling of real titles just over the last couple of decades: Lost Scriptures: Books That Did Not Make It Into the New Testament; Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew; Secrets from the Lost Bible; The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel; Hidden Records of the Life of Jesus; Forgotten Scriptures: The Selection and Rejection of Early Christian Writings.
So, what’s going on? Why are people so intrigued by the concept of ‘lost’ books of the Bible? Let me mention two main considerations.
The Allure of the Hidden
In 2001, Phillip Jenkins published an intriguing little book that has not received the attention it deserves: Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (OUP, 2001). Jenkins tackles this issue head on, arguing that modern scholarship has been derailed by an imbalanced quest to replace the canonical Gospels with alternative versions like the Gospel of Thomas.
While Jenkins explores many motives and causes that lay behind our culture’s fascination with lost Gospels, he homes in on one in particular. In the Western world, particularly in America, there is a perpetual distrust of authority, particularly religious authority. Jenkins writes: “Also quintessentially American is the distrust of external authorities such as the clergy, and the sense that through their affected learning, the priests have hidden the truth from the people” (18).
In other words, the Western world is inherently drawn to conspiracy theories. We love the idea that for generations we thought the truth was one thing, only to discover anew that the truth is really something very different. And usually such a “discovery” is achieved through the earnest and tiresome work of intrepid reporters or investigators who are working against the machine. After all, if “The Truth is Out There,” then you just need a Mulder and Scully to uncover it.
But there’s a reason why such conspiracy theories are so attractive. If one can believe that the church (or Christianity) has been wrong for thousands of years, then exposing that wrongness suddenly becomes a work of justice and liberation. It allows scholars (or reporters, or even lay-people) to feel that they have a worthy cause to fight for. They are now on a righteous quest to free people from religious oppression.
So, argues Jenkins, these lost Gospels are perfectly suited to meet this cultural need. They provide an opportunity for people to believe what they always wanted to believe anyway.
The Quest for Pluralism
But I think there’s more going on here than just a proclivity towards conspiracy theories. The draw towards these lost gospels is also driven by another quintessentially American cultural value, namely a desire to give every view an equal standing alongside every other view.
In other words, lost Gospels are attractive to our culture because they are a reminder of the diversity of viewpoints about Jesus that are out there. They demonstrate that not all understood Jesus in the same way. They reveal that the landscape of religious viewpoints is vast and wide.
And, of course, this is true. There are many religious positions out there. There is a great diversity of religious perspectives. And there are countless opinions about the identity and person of Jesus.
But, it’s not the existence of diversity that’s the issue. Rather, it is the implications that our world draws from that diversity. Our culture moves, rather subtly, from merely observing diversity to insisting that diversity must mean that no one view can possibly be right.
So, lost Gospels are attractive precisely because it allows a person to say, “See, I told you that there are other legitimate perspectives out there about the person of Jesus.”
Particularly influential in this regard was the work of the German scholar, Walter Bauer. He published a book in 1934 entitled, Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity. In short, he argued that in the earliest centuries there was no such thing as “Christianity.” Rather, there were many different “Christianities” (plural), each claiming to be the original, authentic version. And, argues Bauer, each of these different versions of Christianity had their own books; their own gospels about what Jesus said and did.
Why does Bauer’s theory matter? Because it effectively means that all gospels are the same. We only value Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because those were the Gospels valued by the version of Christianity that eventually prevailed. If another Christian group had prevailed, maybe we would be reading the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Mary.
In sum, some people are drawn to alternative gospels because (at least in their mind) it provides the opportunity to pick the version of Jesus they prefer. If all versions of Jesus are equally valid, then I can just pick the one I happen to like.
A Better Way
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being intrigued by lost gospels. Personally, I would say that I am intrigued by lost gospels! A large portion of my academic career has been devoted to studying them.
But we always have to make sure that we are not studying any gospel—including the canonical gospels—merely to satisfy or justify our pre-existing preferences about the way we want Jesus to be. We don’t simply get to create the Jesus we like or the Jesus we prefer.
Instead, we need to discover the Jesus as he actually was. And the only way to do that is to engage in a historical investigation into whatever gospel is in front of us, asking whether there are reasons to think it accurately captures the Jesus of history.
If we fail to do this careful historical work, then we will quickly discover that our quest for Jesus is not what we thought. Rather than finding Jesus, we will just end up finding ourselves instead.