I get email occasionally from skeptics who challenge the historicity of Jesus due to what they see as a deficiency in the historical record. If a man such as Jesus really existed, performing miracles and rising from the dead, wouldn’t his life and resurrection have created a much larger historical “ripple” in antiquity? Wouldn’t such a life result in more than four Gospels? As it turns out, the life of Jesus produced the kind of response we would expect if it was actually true. Authors in the first four hundred years following the life and resurrection of Jesus produced a varied plethora of non-canonical writings about His incredible appearance on planet earth. Unsurprisingly, Jesus’ life did not go unnoticed by the ancient world. Dozens of documents emerged in locations all around the Mediterranean, written by authors with a variety of motivations. These authors often co-opted the person of Jesus for their own purposes, crafting a lie upon the foundational truths of the accurate canonical Gospels. The result? A number of untrustworthy legends and distortions in the following categories:
These texts were written in order to supplement information lacking in the four Gospels related to the childhood of Jesus. Early believers hungered for more information about this period of Jesus’ young life, and these gospels sought to satisfy that hunger. Most of these stories about Jesus are based on the “Infancy Gospel of James” and the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas”, and they appear in history well after the canonical Gospels (as they are written in response to these eyewitness accounts).
There were many groups of Jewish converts in early Christianity who retained their strong Jewish identity. As a result, these groups typically upheld and maintained the Mosaic Law, and their gospels reflected this theological leaning. The “Gospel of the Ebionites”, the “Gospel of the Hebrews” and the “Gospel of the Nazoreans” are the three texts representing this group. None of these texts have survived, but we do see references to them in letters written by Early Church Fathers who were critical of their theology and their representation of the life of Jesus.
Some early non-canonical texts related to Jesus are nothing more than a collection of sayings lacking a narrative that ties these sayings together. The “Gospel of Thomas” is one such example.
Several ancient texts are specifically focused on the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. These accounts say nothing about His life prior to the passion. The “Gospel of Bartholomew” is one such example.
There are a number of ancient texts discovered in Gnostic collections (like the “Nag Hammadi Library”) affirming the Gnostic view of esoteric, hidden knowledge. These Gospels often appear early in history because these groups were already in existence and well developed even before Jesus was born. As a result, many Gnostic groups simply co-opted the narrative of Jesus for their own purposes. Many of these Gnostic documents portray Jesus in a series of dialogues, providing hidden knowledge intended for those few believers who were part of the sect.
Competing and Altered Gospels
Some groups and sect leaders attempted to provide a competing view of Jesus, claiming their view either included facts omitted in an earlier gospel, or excluded what they believed to be incorrect about an earlier gospel. These texts were often attacked by the Early Church Fathers as heretical, and most of these documents have been lost over the centuries. What little we do know about them is what was described by the Church Fathers.
Given the religious climate of the cultures surrounding the Mediterranean in the first four centuries, this this collection of non-canonical literature is precisely what we would expect if the New Testament Gospels are true. Dozens of documents were written about Jesus by groups who wanted to harness this incredible moment in history. The non-canonical gospels, although they appear too late in history to have been written by eyewitnesses, exhibit the kind of legendary response we ought to expect if Jesus actually lived, worked miracles and rose from the dead.