The Bible Today is a wonderful publication about various aspects of the Bible, published six times a year by Liturgical Press. The current issue discusses the apocryphal gospels, like the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, that feature so prominently in many television programs on the History Channel and National Geographic.
These programs have their limitations, according to Bible Today’s editor, Fr. Donald Senior, CP. “In many instances the format of a television program allows only brief comments by experts. In a more leisurely setting they might add some needed nuance. And often, in the interest of stirring audience interest, the producers of such programs look for more provocative and unqualified statements rather than the carefully modulated views the complexity of biblical history requires.”
Underlying these presentations is the question why did the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and other Christian writings become accepted by the majority of Christians as the New Testament and other writings did not?
“In the view of some scholars” Fr. Senior says, “the driving force in the selection of the gospels, for example, was a combination of ecclesiastical control and imperial politics–a view presented in a popular format by Dan Brown’s novel, The DaVinci Code. The four gospels were selected because they favored the established powers, while the more creative and charismatic extracanonical materials were suppressed.”
A better explanation for the selection of our four gospels, Fr. Senior says, is “that the majority of the early Christian communities cherished the four gospels, used them in their liturgy, and circulated them widely soon after their composition–a much more compelling reason why the four ‘made the cut.'”
The articles in The Bible Today put the apocryphal writings in their place. Early Christians “had access to a wide array of gospel –type writings beyond those that were eventually recognized as canonical,” writes Christopher Matthews, an expert on the early Christianity. These writings “preserve a valuable heritage that enables scholars to understand the social and theological history of early Christianity, and especially popular piety.” They do not shed much light on the life, teachings and significance of the Jesus of history, but “they do tell us something about those who seek to know more about such things…”
Fr. Ronald Witherup, SS, in his article on the Gospel of Judas, a recent favorite of National Geographic, writes, “What is clear from the hype that surrounded the publication of the Gospel of Judas is that some scholars have tried to use it to push their own agendas to limit the influence of the mainline Christian churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church. Thus some have claimed that this gospel shows that diverse forms of Christianity that were (wrongly) rejected for their lack of revealed truth were just as ancient and valid as what became mainline, orthodox faith. This is fanciful thinking.”
Thanks to The Bible Today for taking on an issue that can color how we see the beginnings of the Christian faith.