Why Shouldn’t We Trust the Other Non-Canonical Texts Attributed to the Gospel Authors?

Why Shouldn’t We Trust the Other Non-Canonical Texts Attributed to the Gospel AuthorsWe’ve already examined many of the non-canonical texts falsely attributed to Peter, James, Thomas and Bartholomew. In this post, we’ll evaluate a trio of ancient texts falsely attributed to authors who wrote legitimate Gospel eyewitness accounts. Like other late non-canonical fabrications, these texts were rejected by the Christian community even though they sometimes contained nuggets of truth related to Jesus. They are elaborate stories, legends and fabrications, written by authors who were motivated to alter the history of Jesus to suit their own purposes. These texts attributed to Mark, Matthew and John, like the others we’ve already examined, are alternative narratives fabricated from the foundational truths of the original Gospels. Much can be learned about the historic Jesus from these late lies, including these non-canonical documents falsely attributed to the Apostle Bartholomew:

The Secret Gospel of Mark (100-205AD)
The Secret Gospel of Mark is described in a letter attributed to Clement of Alexandria (150-215AD), although this alleged letter has been attacked as a forgery by many scholars. The letter is the only source referencing the gospel; there are no existing manuscripts of The Secret Gospel of Mark. Clement was allegedly writing to another Christian leader named Theodore, advising him about the existence of a more expansive version of the Gospel of Mark containing additional stories and sayings of Jesus. This allegedly extended version of Mark’s Gospel was reportedly known only to Jesus’ innermost circle. Clement told Theodore to beware a false teacher (named Carpocrates) who further expanded this version of Mark’s Gospel to include his own heretical ideas.

Why Isn’t It Considered Reliable?
Many scholars simply reject the claims of Morton Smith (who reported finding Clement’s letter in the Mar Saba monastery in 1958) and maintain the letter is a forgery. Some of these scholars have observed a similarity between Smith’s claim and the 1940 novel, “The Mystery of Mar Saba”. In addition, the text is not supported externally; no other early church leader mentions this secret gospel. The majority of those scholars who do accept the legitimacy of the letter believe the Secret Gospel of Mark to be a late Gnostic adaptation of Mark’s Gospel.

How Does It Corroborate the Life of Jesus?
Regardless of the legitimacy of the Secret Gospel, it does confirm many historically accurate details related to the life of Jesus. The few elements that are included in the letter affirm that Jesus performed miracles (such as restoring a dead man to life), had disciples and followers (James, John and Salome are mentioned specifically), and taught about the Kingdom of God.

Where (and Why) Does It Differ from the Reliable Accounts?
As described in Clement’s alleged letter, the Secret Gospel of Mark (if legitmate) contained hidden teachings of Jesus intended for a select few privileged believers. In fact, one passage of the Gospel describes Jesus teaching some of these hidden truths to a young man he has just raised from the dead. If the letter is legitimate, it appears these alterations to the reliable Gospel of Mark were late modifications made by the Gnostic group described by Clement, (the Carpocratians).

The Apocryphon of John (120-180AD)
The Apocryphon of John is a Sethian Gnostic text (Sethians were named for their reverent adoration of the Seth, the son of Adam and Eve, who they described as a divine incarnation and the ancestor of a superior race of humans). Like others Sethian texts, it was first discovered as part of the Nag Hammadi Library collection in Egypt in 1945. Three copies were discovered at that time, and another copy was later discovered in Egypt. All of these copies date to the 4th century, but scholars place the writing of the text in the 2nd century. The Apocryphon of John describes an appearance of Jesus to the Apostle John (after Jesus’ ascension) in which Jesus provides John with secret knowledge, much like other narratives in the tradition of Gnosticism.

Why Isn’t It Considered Reliable?
The early Church leader, Irenaeus refers to the Apocryphon of John in his defense of the faith entitled “Against Heresies” (written in approximately 185AD). From a very early date, this book was identified as a Sethian Gnostic fabrication and late document with no Apostolic eyewitness connection to the Apostle John. As Irenaeus wrote, the text was one of “an indescribable number of secret and illegitimate writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish people, who are ignorant of the true scriptures.”

How Does It Corroborate the Life of Jesus?
The Apocryphon of John presumes the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It also affirms John was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee, and an important disciple of Jesus (who is described as a Nazarene). Jesus is also given the title “Savior” (although the meaning of this term is different in Sethianism).

Where (and Why) Does It Differ from the Reliable Accounts?
The Apocryphon of John is concerned primarily with an account of the creation of the world. The text was discovered in the Nag Hammadi library as the first document in a series of Sethian Gnostic texts and it includes the most detailed Sethian creation mythology. The role and position of Jesus in the Godhead is very different from orthodox canonical descriptions as a result of the presuppositions of Sethians who wrote this text. Sethian believers appear to have accepted the historicity of Jesus but attempted to place Him within their preconceived Sethian beliefs.

The Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (750-850AD)
This text is yet another example of Apocrypha which attempts to fill in details of Jesus’ childhood missing from the canonical Gospels. Like the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, this document borrows heavily from the earlier Infancy Gospel of James (for material related to the Virgin Mary) and Infancy Gospel of Thomas (for material related to the childhood of Jesus). It also provides additional information (from an unknown source) related to the flight into Egypt. In ancient times this document was known as “The Book About the Origin of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior”. It appears to be a collection of fragments or excerpts. It begins with what purports to be a letter from Jerome to Bishop Comatius and Bishop Heliodorus in which the Bishops attempt to validate the earlier apocryphal Infancy Gospels by claiming this text was recently discovered and written by the Apostle Matthew in Hebrew. Scholars reject the authenticity of these opening letters.

Why Isn’t It Considered Reliable?
In addition to the fact scholars reject the “authenticating” letters prefacing the text, scholars have also determined the excerpts for this text were collected and assembled between the 8th and 9th centuries, making this document an exceedingly late apocryphal text. It is based on two known pieces of fiction (the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas) and is also very similar to the Arabic Gospel of the Infancy, another known late, fraudulent apocryphal document.

How Does It Corroborate the Life of Jesus?
While much of the Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew concerns itself with the flight to Egypt and Jesus’ life as a child (areas that are not covered in the canonical Gospels), there is a great deal of information recognizing and affirming the truth of the canonical Gospels, particularly related to the nativity narrative. Mary is again described as a virgin, visited by an angel who told her about the miraculous coming of Jesus. Joseph discovered her pregnancy but is also then visited by an angel. As in the canonical Gospels, Joseph and Mary return to Bethlehem for the census, and a star miraculously marks the event of Jesus’ birth. After His birth, Mary places Jesus in the stall of a stable and “Symeon” and Anna later adore Him. The persecution of Herod and the murdering of the children is repeated here, and an angel warns Joseph as in the Biblical narrative. Once again, the Holy Family escapes to Egypt.

Where (and Why) Does It Differ from the Reliable Accounts?
Like other late documents of this type, the Infancy Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew venerates Mary to an extraordinary degree, borrowing from the Infancy Gospel of James to describe her childhood and dedication. Interestingly, the fictitious details surrounding the flight into Egypt became an important part of the mythology of the early Coptic Church in Egypt, as it describes several stops along the way with a variety of events recorded throughout Egypt. The text also had popular interest and was included in later editions of legendary stories (like the 13th century “Golden Legend”. Other texts were also born from the section related to Mary (like the “Libellus de Nativitate Sanctae Mariae”), thus extending the legends related to the veneration of Mary that have become an important part of the Roman Catholic tradition.

These ancient texts, although attributed to the same men who wrote legitimate Gospel accounts, are late fictional narratives. When assessed under the template we typically use to determine eyewitness reliability, they simply cannot withstand the scrutiny. The four canonical Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) are still the earliest reliable record of Jesus, written within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses who knew Jesus personally.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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