POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Archaeological Finds and So Called Lost Gospels


There have been some amazing archaeological finds in the last six decades dealing with the early centuries of the Christian faith. Many are familiar with the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran which contains the scrolls of an apocalyptic sect of Judaism known as the Essenes. This find in 1947 was a fascinating find and of great particular interest to Old Testament Scholars. What the scrolls provided was a look at copies of many of the books of the Old Testament which date back to the time just before Christ. Due to the fact that the earliest still existing Hebrew manuscripts dated to the 10th century AD, the scrolls of Qumran gave us an opportunity to examine the transmission of the books over a gap of some 1000 years. What we found is that the text had been copied quite faithfully even over this long period of time.

Perhaps a less known discovery took place in 1945 in the Egyptian dessert at Nag Hammadi. It had been known for millennia that in the 2nd century the Christian church combated a heresy known as Gnosticism. This teaching held a radical dualism between matter and spirit with spirit being good and matter evil. Through secret gnosis (Greek for knowledge) people could escape the bondage of the physical world and achieve salvation. The Christian version of this teaching held that Jesus was not really a human being, but merely appeared as such. As the human Jesus suffered and died, the divine Christ hovered above laughing at the confusion of people taken in by the appearance. This hyper-divine Christ would reveal secret knowledge to his elect via religious experience rather than conveyed truth in the apostolic writings. Early church fathers such as Iraneus wrote against these 2nd century teachings including many of their writings which he enumerated by name (To see his reference to the content of the gospel of Judas, see this segment of Against Heresies. Additionally, the early church historian Eusebius also named many of these writings. The point to be made is that these writings: Gnostic gospels, epistles and apocalypses were known to the church and rejected by the Christians as false. The great interest of the archaeological find at Nag Hammadi is that some codices (early books) of these works were actually dug up. Believe it or not the discovery was made by a guy named Mohammed Ali (no, not the one who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee).  This of course shed light on the early debates within Christianity and the sources of the doctrines which the church rejected.  A great archaeological find.

Why then all the buzz about “Lost Gospels” of Thomas, Judas, Mary etc. (Greg Koukl has a good commentary on the use of the term - Lost Books of the Bible) First, for the most part many people, Christians included, are ignorant of church history and have no idea about the world in which the church was birthed, grew and confounded false teachings. Second, there is a new school of scholars and practitioners who paint the early Christian world as a battle between equally valid, possible expressions of Christian faith. Therefore the poor Gnostics, losing the popularity contest years ago, need a new hearing today. Third, the media sensationalizes these things with titles like “Lost books of the Bible” being recovered, etc.

What believers need to know is this. The first several centuries of the church were filled with theological spaghetti and a myriad of writings. This in fact led the church to recognize and canonize the apostolic witness found in the 1st century gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That which was false, which did not match the tradition handed down from the apostles was rejected and not included what eventually became the collection of the 27 books of the New Testament. The gospel of Thomas, The Apocalypse of Peter, and the gospel of Judas were never part of the Christian Bible, nor will they be. They were lost to history, but not to the Word of God. They were lost to us in manuscript form, many of which we have now recovered. This is a great thing for our understanding of the Gnostics, who they were, what they taught. But it is not ground shaking in that it gives us a “new Christianity.” It simply gives us an up close look at beliefs that were deemed not Christianity at all. And that was decided a long time ago; by the Christians. 

Now don’t get me wrong, people are welcome to believe the Gnostic teachings if they choose (but they are pretty convoluted and esoteric); but let us not come up with some nonsense that the Gnostic way is just another way of being a Christian. This is simply not the case.