Many Christians are unaware of the ancient legends, distortions and stories about Jesus known as the “non-canonical gospels”. Maybe that’s why opportunistic skeptics are able to make outrageous and profitable claims about Jesus every Christmas and Easter season. In just the past few years we’ve endured the timely arrival of the “Gospel of Judas”, a version of the “Gospel of Barnabas” and the dubious “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”. Promoters are now working hard on yet another “lost” gospel due to be released next Easter with all the fanfare of an accompanying a book and documentary. These skeptical “experts” would like us to take these documents seriously today, even though the experts who observed their arrival in antiquity excluded them from the canon of Scripture. The non-canonical legends, distortions and stories about Jesus are just that: legends, distortions and stories.
The authors of these texts hoped that they would be taken seriously. In fact, most of these non-canonical writings were utilized by one group or another for some period of time alongside the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. As regional groups of Christians began to scrutinize their own spiritual texts and think about the criteria making these texts authentic, they eventually came to reject the late, non-authentic accounts of Jesus. Thousands of years later, we too need to understand these non-canonical accounts are little more than legend, and there is no reason to trust their contents:
Just Because They Claim to Have an Important Author
The authors of the non-canonical gospels often tried to present their claims by applying the name of an apostle or eyewitness to the text as though this person authored the account. Those early Christians who were closest to the action recognized that these legends appeared late in history, (after the death of the alleged authors), and typically identified them as late forgeries. Non-canonical accounts are not legitimate simply because they claim to have been written by an apostle.
Just Because They Were Accepted By a Group or Leader
Several early Christian leaders accepted one non-canonical account or another alongside the four Gospels (or in place of them). Many of these leaders had their own theological agenda, but some also accepted theologically “benign” non-canonical writings. These non-canonicals added nothing to the theological truths of the four Gospels. Non-canonical accounts are not legitimate simply because they may have been accepted for a short period of time by one historic leader or another.
Just Because They Have Been Copied Repeatedly
Some of the legends of Jesus became popular and were copied repeatedly until those who knew the truth about their late entry made an effort to stop their influence. For this reason, several of these texts appear in more than one set of religious collections. Non-canonical accounts are not legitimate simply because they many have been popular for some short period of time in a specific region of the ancient world.
Just Because They Include Some Elements of Truth
Like all good works of fiction (and many effective lies) the non-canonical texts always contain some measure of truth. The authors recognized their versions of the Jesus narrative needed to be complimentary to the accounts already accepted as authoritative. Non-canonical accounts are not legitimate simply because may contain aspects of truth repeated from the reliable Gospels.
There are dozens of ancient non-canonical legends related to Jesus. That’s shouldn’t be surprise us. Given the nature of Jesus and his impact on our world, we should expect to find such a reaction to his life and ministry. In fact, the explosive body of ancient literature related to Jesus is a testimony to both His historicity and Divine nature. Only the Son of God could provoke such a response. It’s our job, however, to eliminate the late stories and isolate the early eyewitness accounts.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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