Mystery vs. History

Who would you be more likely to believe—someone who says, “Hey, I’ve got some secret facts that were mysteriously revealed to me,” or someone who says, “I’ve searched all the evidence and history and here it is for you to make up your mind on”? Keeping that question in mind, consider these two statements, the first from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas (c. 110-150 A.D.) and the second from the New Testament’s Gospel of Luke (c. 55-70 A.D.):

Gospel of Thomas (c. 100-150 A.D.)

These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Judas Thomas the Twin recorded.¹

Gospel of Luke (c 55-70 A.D.)

Many people have written accounts about the events that took place among us. They used as their source material the reports circulating among us from the early disciples and other eyewitnesses of what God has done in fulfillment of his promises. Having carefully investigated all of these accounts from the beginning, I have decided to write a careful summary for you, to reassure you of the truth of all you were taught. (Luke 1:1-4, NLT)

Do you find the open and aboveboard approach of Luke appealing? And do you find the fact that it was written closer to the original events to be in favor of its reliability? If so, that’s what the early church thought as well.

New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger revealed why the Gospel of Thomas was not accepted by the early church: “It is not right to say that the Gospel of Thomas was excluded by some fiat on the part of a council: the right way to put it is, the Gospel of Thomas excluded itself! It did not harmonize with other testimony about Jesus that early Christians accepted as trustworthy.”²

The Gospel of Thomas is one of the “Gnostic” gospels, which are often promoted by those who wish to attack the truth of Christianity. Dan Brown, author of the fictional book, The Da Vinci Code, has planted seeds of doubt in many people’s minds through the deceptive claims in his book.

The Da Vinci Code states that Constantine suppressed all documents about Jesus other than those found in our current New Testament canon (recognized by the church as authentic eyewitness reports of the apostles). It further asserts that the New Testament accounts were altered by Constantine and the bishops to reinvent Jesus. Another key element of The Da Vinci Code conspiracy is that the four New Testament Gospels were cherry-picked from a total of “more than 80 gospels,” most of which were supposedly suppressed by Constantine.³

The Gnostic gospels are attributed to a group known as (big surprise here) the Gnostics. Their name comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.” These people thought they had secret, special knowledge hidden from ordinary people. ??Of the 52 writings, only five are actually listed as gospels. As we shall see, these so-called gospels are markedly different from the New Testament Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

When it comes to the Gnostic gospels, just about every book carries the name of a New Testament character: the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Judas, and so on. (Sounds a little like roll call at a parochial school.) These are the books that conspiracy theories like The Da Vinci Code are based upon. But were they even written by their purported authors?

The Gnostic gospels are dated about 110 to 300 years after Christ, and no credible scholar believes any of them could have been written by their namesakes. In James M. Robinson’s comprehensive The Nag Hammadi Library, we learn that the Gnostic gospels were written by “largely unrelated and anonymous authors.”4 Dr. Darrell L. Bock, professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote,

“The bulk of this material is a few generations removed from the foundations of the Christian faith, a vital point to remember when assessing the contents.”5

New Testament scholar Norman Geisler commented on two Gnostic writings, the Gospel of Peter and the Acts of John. (These Gnostic writings are not to be confused with the New Testament books written by John and Peter.):

“The Gnostic writings were not written by the apostles, but by men in the second century (and later) pretending to use apostolic authority to advance their own teachings. Today we call this fraud and forgery.”6

The Gnostic gospels are not historical accounts of Jesus’ life but instead are largely esoteric sayings, shrouded in mystery, leaving out historical details such as names, places, and events. This is in striking contrast to the New Testament Gospels, which contain innumerable historical facts about Jesus’ life, ministry, and words.

As Christianity spread, the Gnostics mixed some doctrines and elements of Christianity into their beliefs, morphing Gnosticism into a counterfeit Christianity. Perhaps they did it to keep recruitment numbers up and make Jesus a poster child for their cause. However, for their system of thought to fit with Christianity, Jesus needed to be reinvented, stripped of both his humanity and his absolute deity.?? In The Oxford History of Christianity, John McManners wrote of the Gnostics’ mixture of Christian and mythical beliefs.

“Gnosticism was (and still is) a theosophy with many ingredients. Occultism and oriental mysticism became fused with astrology, magic. … They collected sayings of Jesus shaped to fit their own interpretation (as in the Gospel of Thomas), and offered their adherents an alternative or rival form of Christianity.”7

Contrary to Brown’s assertions, it was not Constantine who branded the Gnostic beliefs as heretical; it was the apostles themselves. A mild strain of the philosophy was already growing in the first century just decades after the death of Jesus. The apostles, in their teaching and writings, went to great lengths to condemn these beliefs as being opposed to the truth of Jesus, to whom they were eyewitnesses.

Check out, for example, what the apostle John wrote near the end of the first century:

“Who is the great liar? The one who says that Jesus is not the Christ. Such people are antichrists, for they have denied the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:22)

Following the apostles’ teaching, the early church leaders unanimously condemned the Gnostics as a cult. Church father Irenaeus, writing 140 years before the Council of Nicaea, confirmed that the Gnostics were condemned by the church as heretics. He also rejected their “gospels.” However, referring to the four New Testament Gospels, he said, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are.”8

Christian theologian Origen wrote this in the early third century, more than a hundred years before Nicaea:

I know a certain gospel which is called “The Gospel according to Thomas” and a “Gospel according to Matthias,” and many others have we read—lest we should in any way be considered ignorant because of those who imagine they possess some knowledge if they are acquainted with these. Nevertheless, among all these we have approved solely what the church has recognized, which is that only four gospels should be accepted.9

There we have it in the words of a highly regarded early church leader. The Gnostics were recognized as a non-Christian cult well before the Council of Nicaea.


The above post was excerpted from the Y-Jesus article Was There A Da Vinci Conspiracy?


¹Quoted in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures (HarperCollins, 1990), 126.

²Quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998), 68.

³Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 231.

4Robinson, 13.

5Darrell L. Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nashville: Nelson, 2004), 64.

6Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 156.

7John McManners, ed., The Oxford History of Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 28.

8Bock, 114.

9Bock, 119-120.