Faith and those “Other Gospels”: What’s a Pastor to Do?

Pheme Perkins

Folks from church are used to the dazed look in my eyes when they come up in the parking lot or supermarket and begin a sentence with, “Did you read, hear, see…” followed by the latest mass-market Jesus “facts.”

John’s gospel concludes with a remark that the whole world couldn’t contain the books that would be written if everything Jesus did were recorded (John 21:25). And the evangelist hadn’t even met up with the World Wide Web!

By the end of the second century CE most Christians would have agreed with St. Irenaeus that the four gospels found in our Bibles represent the authentic witness about Jesus handed down from the apostles (Haer. 3.1). They confirm the fundamental truths about the one God, creator, and the Son and Savior, Jesus, predicted by the prophets, who died and has been raised to God’s right hand. At the same time, Irenaeus had to construct an argument that there had to be four gospels, no more and no less (Haer. 3.11). On the one hand, some might argue for a single gospel as the basis for Christian teaching and worship. On the other, the Gnostic sects appealed to other gospels said to convey a higher teaching that Jesus had given privately.

Just as our culture continually produces new versions of Jesus, so the widespread adoption of the four-gospel canon did not end the emergence of narratives about Jesus in the ancient church. The official gospels leave many gaps to be filled in by the imagination. What sort of child was Jesus? Sometimes his miraculous powers get out of control. A tantrum leads to the death of a playmate in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (ch. 4). What about the Virgin Mary? Anna and Joachim send the child of their old age to be brought up in the Temple (Protoevangelium of James). What really happened in Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate? Nicodemus turns up in defense of Jesus, so does the woman Jesus healed of hemorrhaging (Acts of Pilate 5-8).

One could go on. Whether it’s the popular media today or apocryphal gospels in the ancient and medieval church, Christian imaginations have roamed outside the canon. Even though the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (condemned at Nicea II, 787 CE) and the Protoevangelium of James (condemned by Gelasian Decree, late fifth cent. CE) were rejected by church authorities, they remained part of Christian piety. Unlike the canonical gospels, which are transmitted in a very stable textual form by the fourth century CE, the noncanonical gospels vary widely from one copy or translation to the next. The imagination remained at work even after a particular writing was in circulation. Phenomena such as the extra scenes and alternate endings on a movie DVD or interactive video game stories exhibit similar flexibility in today’s media market.

If flexibility and imagination are the name of the game, why have a four-gospel canon at all? Even church members who have never looked beyond their Bibles come up with statements about Jesus that they think are in the gospels but are not to be found there. Many a preacher, just after reading a gospel passage, delivers a sermon replete with details that are either taken from one of the other gospels or not in the Bible at all. I’m pleased when someone from the Tuesday Bible study whispers in my ear, “that’s not right, is it?” But such experiences show how much of our faith is attached to “other gospels” of some sort or other.

To put it more academically, the widespread adoption of a four-gospel canon is the necessary condition for the vast proliferation of apocryphal gospels from the second and third centuries on. Without something akin to official versions of the life and teaching of Jesus, the other gospels, ancient or modern, are nearly unintelligible. Even the second- and third-century Gnostics, who alleged to have secret revelation from the risen Jesus, presumed some familiarity with the public stories being read in Christian assemblies. A secret tradition requires a public orthodoxy.

Heresy and Entertainment

Not all of the noncanonical gospels present themselves as secret tradition. The various infancy and childhood stories mix entertainment with legend. Early second-century tradition said Mark had collected the reminiscences of an aging Peter before the disciple’s martyrdom in Rome (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 2.15). A quarter century earlier, according to Galatians 1:18, Paul had spent two weeks with Peter in Jerusalem, presumably acquiring information about Jesus and his movement. The brief narrative in the Gospel of Mark could not embrace everything Peter had said about Jesus during those many years. A gospel attributed to Peter himself was circulating in Asia Minor during the second century CE Initially, Bishop Serapion of Antioch considered this Gospel of Peter acceptable for reading and teaching in the church (Hist. Eccl. 6.12). Upon being informed that it included a heretical picture of Jesus, Serapion changed his mind even though much of the work in question accorded with the Savior’s true teaching.

The selection from Serapion’s letter preserved in Eusebius indicates that the bishop never thought this gospel had been written by Peter. The fact that he initially permitted its use suggests that the church in question did not have copies of the four canonical gospels. So we can imagine that for smaller communities at some distance from the urban centers of Christianity, knowledge of Jesus was dependent upon whatever gospel-like narratives were to hand. As long as such writings were in accord with the common rule of faith, as Irenaeus put it (Haer. 1.10.1–2), they did not pose difficulties for the faithful.

Expanded use of the four-gospel canon by the end of the second century CE meant that fewer communities were using apocryphal gospels. Evidence for many of them is fragmentary or based on translations into other languages. Gospel of Peter was unknown until 1886, when an eighth-century codex that contains a passion account from the hand-washing scenario through a resurrection appearance at the sea of Galilee was found (see J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993] pp. 150–58).

Serapion claimed that Gospel of Peter incorporated the heretical views of “Docetae.” Various second-century groups held that the divine Christ could not die. Consequently, the one who died on the cross had to be different—either a Jesus abandoned by the inner spiritual self or a substitute like Simon of Cyrene. Though much of Gospel of Peter is an imaginative retelling of episodes from the four canonical gospels, one could consider its version of Jesus’ death hospitable to docetic Christology. Jesus appears to feel no pain. His dying words might refer to such an inner self—“My power, O power you have forsaken me!”—but they could just as well be an oral variant on the familiar Mark 15:34.

Initially, scholars treated Gospel of Peter as a pastiche based on the canonical gospels. Some scholars now take the opposite view. They use Gospel of Peter to reconstruct a passion account earlier than the one found in Mark. In this version, for example, the criminal who admits his guilt and insists on Jesus’ innocence never receives a promise of paradise from Jesus as in Luke 23:40–43. His protest causes the executioners to lengthen his suffering instead (Gos. Pet. 4:13–14).

Prime-time Apocrypha

Overall, the results have not persuaded most scholars. However, working with a tenth grade confirmation class on Palm Sunday, I discovered that their religious education version of Jesus’ resurrection was loaded with details from the Gospel of Peter! Not even their teacher noticed that her story had no basis in the gospel stories we read in church.

But a modern habit of reading Gospel of Peter as though it were a movie script opens up a number of visual possibilities, similar to the expanded Jesus story running on Discovery Channel that same Palm Sunday evening. Gospel of Peter focuses more attention on events at the tomb of Jesus than any of the canonical versions. A formal guard was posted. Crowds came from Jerusalem in the morning. Unlike the official version, the resurrection events have what amounts to a TV crew on site, capturing new details. Angels descend from heaven. The tomb opens and, “they saw three men come out … the heads of the two reaching to heaven, but that of him who was being led reached beyond the heavens” (Gos. Pet. 10.40). After this drama has been reported to Pilate, who agrees to suppress the story, Gospel of Peter returns to the more familiar tale of Mary Magdalene and the women at the tomb. Notably, the seniors Bible group preferred the Discovery Channel version because it gave the impression of being “really historical” despite anti-gospel bits in its version of the crucifixion.

The anxieties over what had happened at Jesus’ tomb, evident in Gospel of Peter, have their counterparts today. TV productions have focused on wild speculations about the “tomb” that have the same status in our popular culture as the apocryphal gospels did in theirs. Radical scholars like J.D. Crossan insist that Roman executioners would never have permitted a criminal to be buried. Bodies would be left to rot, then tossed in a common grave.

Parsing Judas

At the other end of the spectrum, every few years another “Jesus family tomb” story pops up in the bogus archaeology media. Most scholars and pastors are weary of both. Our creed says, “he died and was buried. On the third day…” Jesus did not escape any of those harsh events associated with death and burial. One can see the unusual tomb story in Gospel of Peter, affirming the triumph of God’s power over multiple dimensions of death, protesting against the sparseness of the canonical reports. In that sense it affirms a truth of Christian faith even though it tells us nothing about the historical Jesus.

Another noncanonical gospel that had been completely unknown until the twentieth century created media buzz when the Gospel of Judas was published in 2006 (see Marvin Meyer, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. [New York: HarperCollins, 2007] pp. 755–69). Unlike Gospel of Peter, this text claims to be secret teaching that distinguishes elite believers (the Gnostics) from ordinary Christians who are captive to the ignorant teaching of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Judas receives visions of Jesus’ divine nature, the heavenly domain of those who know the truth, as well as fearful scenes in which the Twelve seek to stone him. All the events occur in the week before the passion. Gospel of Judas ends abruptly with Judas showing authorities the room in which Jesus has gathered with the Twelve.

Scholars disagree over whether Judas is a fully enlightened Gnostic in this work or remains the despised outsider. This gospel contains a variety of scenes that involve Jesus and his disciples as well as sections of Gnostic mythology. It is not the Judas perspective on the passion events promised by National Geographic publicity, which had suggested a first-hand explanation by one of Jesus’ closest followers. Its Savior mocks the Twelve, who are offering a “Thanksgiving” as well as sacrificial rites associated with the Temple. Jesus is not the Son of the creator god. Jesus’ disciples respond angrily. Only Judas confesses that Jesus has come from a higher realm, “I know who you are….You have come from the immortal realm of Barbelo, and I am not worthy to pronounce the name of the one who sent you” (p. 761). Gospel of Judas rejects the ordinary Christian faith for a new version of God, of salvation, and of Christianity’s Jewish heritage.

Two other gospels that often feature in the media also claim to represent private teaching that Jesus conveyed to an individual, Gospel of Thomas (Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pp. 133–56) and Gospel of Mary (pp. 737–47). Could Jesus transmit the highest spiritual teaching to or through a woman? Both texts depict Peter’s opposition to that proposition. Jesus defends the possibility of a woman “making herself male” and thus becoming “a living spirit resembling you males” (Gos. Thom., p. 153). In Gospel of Mary Levi defends Mary against Peter’s anger, insisting that the disciples not question the Savior’s knowledge of her true nature (p. 745).

Women today find the figure of Mary Magdalene an empowering symbol for their own struggles to attain spiritual and intellectual parity with male colleagues in the churches. At the same time both stories have ambiguous edges. Does “becoming male” or having a powerful male defender remain the price of entry?

The Imagination of Faith

Because Gospel of Thomas is a compendium of Jesus’ sayings that preserves variants of sayings and parables found in the canonical gospels, it plays a role in discussions of early Jesus material. Some scholars find its focus on the image of the Kingdom of God within to be closer to Jesus than the apocalyptic motifs found in the synoptics. Jesus’ exhortations to “become like little children” point toward restoration of a unified self prior to the differentiations of gender and culture. Disciples can achieve the eternal life for which humans were created. Many Christians today find a spirituality of inner transformation a more persuasive image of salvation than anticipating cosmic judgment. But a collection of sayings and parables that lacks the narrative context that Matthew and Luke give deprives faith of an important point of reference, a lived example.

Who is the source of the wisdom hidden in these noncanonical sayings? For the disciple who perceives their truth, none of the human categories apply, not even “righteous angel” or “wise philosopher.” Thomas confesses, “my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like” (Gos. Thom. 13). Although this exchange challenges the canonical stories of Peter’s confession that Jesus is Messiah (Mark 8:27–30 par) or source of eternal life (John 6:68–69), it hints at the value of exploring other gospels. Jesus is always more than human languages or images can represent.

With the recent national survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life informing us that millions of Americans join congregations different from those in which they were raised, one can hardly be surprised by the popularity of noncanonical gospels. Similarly, pseudo-histories that celebrate women in the Jewish Scriptures such as The Red Tent or Jezebel are more inspiring to many than the Scripture itself.

What’s a scholar or pastor to do? Both the “other gospels” from antiquity and the assorted media and pop-culture variants today tell us something about the imagination of faith, about what feels credible to people. At the same time familiarity with the canonical Scriptures is eroding even among those who regularly attend services. So at the end of the day, perhaps the Paul-on-the-Areopagus approach is needed. Begin with their interests, their questions being sparked by the noncanonical stories, and reintroduce the genuine appeal of the Scripture itself.

Pheme Perkins teaches in the theology department of Boston College. Her recent books include Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels (Eerdmans, 2007); Abraham’s Divided Children: Galatians and the Politics of Faith (Trinity Press International, 2001); Ephesians (Abingdon, 1997); Gnosticism and the New Testament (Augsburg Fortress, 1993).