Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

If you read our last post, you saw why the early Christians accepted the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as authentic. But we also hear people talk about the “Gospel of Thomas,” the “Gospel of Peter,” and the “Gospel of James.” (These writings and others like them are often called the “Gnostic gospels.” I’ll explain why below.) Some even refer to these as “alternative” or “competing” gospels of Jesus. What do we make of these writings? Why did the early Christians reject these other accounts of Jesus?

The simplest answer is that the New Testament Gospels met all the criteria of the early Christians, and these other self-claimed gospels did not. Let’s look again at what these criteria were:

When was it written?
Let’s put this into historical perspective. Jesus’ ministry took place either in the late 20s or early 30s of the 1st century. The Christian apostle Paul wrote his letters from the 40s to the 60s. Most scholars agree that Mark’s Gospel was written by the 60s, that Matthew’s and Luke’s were written by the 70s (although many scholars date all three much earlier), and John’s Gospel was written by the 90s.

The Gnostic gospels, on the other hand, were written much later. While a few have tried to argue otherwise, there is no historical or literary evidence placing the writing of any of these other gospels before the middle of the 2nd century. This means they couldn’t have been written by eyewitnesses and their authors couldn’t even have directly interviewed eyewitnesses. Their late dates call their authenticity into question.

By the time these gospels were written there was already widespread agreement among Christian leaders as to which writings they considered Scripture. This is especially true concerning the Gospel accounts of Christ. Despite the rhetoric of some sensationalistic critics, these Gnostic “gospels” weren’t considered by the earliest Christians as alternative or competing gospels because they didn’t exist yet.

Who wrote it?
This may surprise some readers, but all scholars agree that none of these later Gnostic gospels were written by the people they claim to be written by. The Gospel of Thomas was not written by Thomas, the Gospel of Peter wasn’t written by Peter, etc. These gospels are what we call “pseudonymous,” they were written in the name of someone famous (even someone long dead). This was done intentionally in the ancient world to attract a wider reading.

While Gnostics and other groups followed such a practice, the early Christians viewed these falsely claimed letters with disdain. These believers saw this attribution to famous dead people as inauthentic and grounds for immediate rejection. Not only did they not know who wrote the books or what connection they had with the apostles, but they felt the books were misleading and deceitful. Because Jesus was a literal, historical person, and because they claimed the events recorded in the Gospels actually took place, they were very serious about the trustworthy nature of the accounts of Jesus’ life and words.

Had it been widely accepted and used by the churches?
These other gospels fare poorly on this question as well. They weren’t old enough to have been around for the formative years of the early Christian movement. The churches simply didn’t use them, even as merely inspirational works. These gospels were propagated by groups of people outside of the Christian churches (more on this below). Not only did no one know who wrote these gospels, but the Christians viewed much of their content as strange and not in harmony with the apostolic teaching at the heart of the Christian faith. It’s not just that they weren’t widely accepted by the churches, they were consistently panned and rejected. Thankfully, we have writings from Christian leaders of this period showing their quick and decisive rejection of these so-called gospels. They were aware of the “gospels” now loudly hailed by a few speculative critics; they were not impressed.

To understand these later gospels, it’s helpful to know a bit about the ancient religious system known to us today as Gnosticism. This religion gets its name from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” These people sought secret or hidden knowledge that was supposedly only known to a select few, so they were called “Gnostics.” Through their writings we know what some of this “secret knowledge” was.

The Gnostics were heavily influenced by some forms of Greek philosophy. They viewed the spiritual or immaterial to be pure, and the physical to be innately corrupt. They believed the physical world was created by an evil god (the god of the Jews), and that salvation could only be attained through secret knowledge. These secrets were said to reveal how to escape the prison of physical, bodily existence. Some Gnostics taught that Jesus was an “emanation” of God who came to teach them this secret knowledge. They denied the physical existence and humanity of Jesus.

It’s important to know that Christianity was rooted in 1st century Jewish beliefs. The beliefs of the Gnostics were hostile to both Jewish religious tradition and early Christian beliefs. They borrowed some of the terms Jews and Christians used, but redefined them according to their own unique purposes. One example of this is the way they “borrowed” Jesus. Similar to New Age proponents who speak of a Christ-consciousness but don’t believe in the biblical Christ, these Gnostics adapted the story of Jesus to fit their new religion.

Scholars agree that the Gnostic faith developed during the 2nd century. Gnosticism didn’t exist during the 1st century, so there’s no way for there to have been Gnostic gospels written that early. This was a religion that developed independently of Christianity, but sought to draw new followers from the Christian churches. Because Christians put great stock in the teachings of the apostles, these Gnostics wrote “gospels” of Jesus that claimed to be written by Peter, James, Thomas, etc. Of course, the fact they weren’t written in the 1st century was a problem, but they also depicted a distinctly Gnostic Jesus and worldview, which were incompatible with the existing beliefs of the Christians. Because of this, these so-called gospels were universally rejected.

Gospel of Thomas
Let’s use the Gospel of Thomas as an example. The Gospel of Thomas was rediscovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. (Because of this, some people refer to the “Nag Hammadi gospels.”) It’s not what we would ordinarily think of as a “gospel.” It doesn’t tell the story of Jesus, but merely records things he was supposed to have said. Much of the material is clearly Gnostic in nature. The book begins:

These are the secret words that the living Jesus spoke and Judas, even Thomas, wrote.

The book goes on to tell us of the secret or hidden teachings of Jesus. These teachings are meant only for the spiritually elite, not for the common people. Instead of being taught to have faith, the reader is urged to discover the hidden interpretations that will reveal the secret knowledge necessary for salvation.

In the midst of this, we find statements that are strikingly similar to what we read in the biblical Gospels. Does this mean the Gospel of Thomas is actually from the 1st century, maybe even older than the New Testament Gospels? A few (very few) scholars would say yes, but most other scholars—Christian and non-Christian—see these critics as clutching at straws. The evidence is just too convincing otherwise.

We have no historical evidence placing the Gospel of Thomas before the mid-2nd century. And the Gospel of Thomas includes quotes of Jesus that are in common with all four of the biblical Gospels. Not only that, but it quotes from later variations of these Gospels, not the earliest readings. The Gospel of Thomas also references works we know weren’t written until the 2nd century. And even when it quotes the Bible, it often twists the statements of Jesus into Gnostic variations. Despite the efforts of a few who try to find a 1st century fragment within the Gospel of Thomas, the vast majority of scholars accept that it couldn’t have been written before around 170 CE (or AD).

Conspiracy theories
I can’t help but comment on the sensationalistic writings of Dan Brown and his ilk. Even though his writings are fictional, many surprisingly still labor under the false assumption his books are carefully researched. Nothing could be further from the truth, as countless reviews have demonstrated. For instance, Brown claims the New Testament Gospels were later revisions and the Gnostic gospels were the earlier writings. This turns all of our historical evidence and scholarly consensus on its head. It would be laughable if it wasn’t taken seriously by some.

Brown also claims the Gnostic gospels defended a human Jesus from the Christians who wanted to turn him into a god. We’ll explore in a future post just when the Christians started believing in Jesus’ divinity, but Brown shockingly gets completely backward the nature of his own cherished alternative gospels. It was the New Testament Gospels who portrayed a Christ who was not only divine but also profoundly human. And it was the later, Gnostic gospels who denied the humanity of Jesus, and insisted he was purely divine! [Note: The Gospel of Thomas doesn’t specifically deny the humanity of Jesus, but it does strongly emphasize his divinity, and even encourages us to recognize our own divinity!] Again, such subterfuge could be humorous if not for the surprising influence it has somehow garnered.

Lastly, Brown repeatedly claims these Gnostic gospel-writers were seeking to defend the rights of women and somehow protect the “feminine divine.” I’ll quote the end of the Gospel of Thomas, and you decide whether this gospel intends to protect the feminine divine (and whether there’s any reason to accept this as an authentic statement of Jesus):

Simon Peter said to them: “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.”

Jesus said: “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Some may be asking, ‘Why are you talking about Dan Brown of all people?’ Sadly, far too many believe that even though his stories are fictional, his historical research is legitimate. This is definitely not the case. Brown is an extreme example, but there are other highly speculative, sensationalistic sources out there that contradict what we know from history. I challenge everyone to not just assume these kinds of books (or internet sites) are correct; do the homework for yourself. If you’d like, I can recommend good books representing different perspectives on these issues.

These later gospels give us a lot of helpful insight into the nature of 2nd century Gnostic beliefs, but they don’t tell us anything about the historical Jesus. They were written too late by unknown authors with an alternative agenda. The early Christians consistently rejected these gospels, and for good reason. So this brings us back to the New Testament Gospel accounts of Jesus. Now we know why these Gospels were accepted by the early followers of Jesus. But does this mean they’re historically reliable? How sure can we be about what Jesus did and said? We’ll explore these questions next week.

The historical Jesus series:

The search for Jesus

Did Jesus really exist?

Was the story of Christ copied from other religions?

Why did the early Christians accept the New Testament Gospels?

Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”? [see above]

How reliable are the New Testament Gospels?

What can we know about the historical Jesus?

What good is a dead Messiah?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

8 thoughts on “Why did the early Christians reject the “alternative gospels”?

  1. When Mark did not pen the gospel of his name, nor Luke, Matthew or John, and none of them could agree on exactly who was present when Mary Magdelene, Salome and Mary, mother of Jesus, went to annoint the dead body of Jesus, how can anyone believe anything that is written in the bible? Mark’s Gospel even had to have extra passages added to keep it in tune with the message the Roman Catholic Church wanted to convey to the masses. The Jesus story is a beautiful story, it is only a pity the original scriptwriters made such a pig’s ear of recording it.

  2. Hello, K.D. Thanks for your comment. Could you clarify exactly what bothers you about the varying accounts of the women going to Jesus’ tomb? Normally, it’s accounts that are word-for-word the same—where every detail is described using the same language—that are cause for suspicion. They give the appearance that the witnesses have ‘gotten their story straight’ and are all telling the same rehearsed account. But slight variations in the details or perspective actually make us more confident in the veracity of the accounts, or at least that there wasn’t any collusion between witnesses, as long as there remains essential agreement regarding the key events.

    And variations in recounted details should not necessarily be thought of as contradictions. Let’s say that you and I have two mutual friends named Sue and John. I run into the two of them, but speak primarily to Sue about a specific project. Later, while discussing that project with you, I tell you, “Oh, I saw Sue earlier, and we discussed this.” But then you hear me tell another friend, “Yes, I ran into Sue and John this morning.” Have I contradicted myself? Am I being somehow deceitful or misleading? Isn’t this actually quite common in ordinary conversation? If one account of the women going to Jesus’ tomb describes two angels with only one of the angels primarily interacting with the women, and another mentions only this one angel with whom they spoke—why is this a problem?

    Is there anything in these accounts that constitutes a clear contradiction, or are these just variations in the details each included in their account? Remember, the Gospels can be valuable historical witnesses concerning Jesus even if one doesn’t accept them as error-free, divinely-inspired Scripture.

    I don’t agree that the Gospels were not written by Mark, et al, and I would ask you to substantiate your assertion. As far as Mark’s Gospel being added to, are you referring to the ending that was tacked on a few centuries after it was written? The one that all New Testament scholars know is not part of the original? If so, doesn’t the fact that we’re talking about it as a well-known, attempted addition actually serve to validate the work of textual critics and support confidence in the text of Mark’s Gospel? (And are you aware we have manuscripts of Mark that predate the Roman Catholic Church?)

  3. “It was the New Testament Gospels who portrayed a Christ who was not only divine but also profoundly human. And it was the later, Gnostic gospels who denied the humanity of Jesus, and insisted he was purely divine!”

    I don’t believe this to be entirely accurate. It is a misleading statement. The Gospel of Thomas infers that we are all divine and human, at the same time. Humanity IS divine. Thomas encourages all humans to recognize their own divinity, and acknowledge the energy force that runs through us. The energy force that feeds the world – this understanding brings “everlasting life.”

  4. Hi, Beth. Thank you for your comment. I apologize for the late response. Unfortunately, I just haven’t had the time recently to devote to this blog. I hope to free up some time for this in the future.

    The Gospel of Thomas can be tricky because in some ways it fits into the Gnostic Gospels and in other ways it does not. But your point is taken, and I’ve added a clarifying note to the original post. But this is still a view—as you mention—of humanity as divine. So this still supports the larger point I was making that the Gnostic Gospels were not presenting a merely human, un-divine Jesus.

  5. Great historical summary! I particularly like where you quote the Gospel of Thomas and demonstrate its sexism–I had always been led to believe that the Gnostic gospels were false but somehow feminist, but WOW…

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