The "Lost" Books of the Bible
During a recent online theology class presentation on the doctrine of revelation, being taught to approximately 200 or so of our church attenders, more than a few wanted to know about the “lost” books of the Bible, or variant gospels such as the gnostic gospels. It’s a good and fair question. And the answer is important to know.
First, when it comes to the Bible, we didn’t choose the contents. It wasn’t something a group of church leaders sat down one day and randomly picked. Jesus had already embraced and affirmed the Old Testament as the Word of God; the first four books of the New Testament capture His own life and teaching as God Himself in human form come to planet Earth; the rest of the New Testament was personally commissioned by Jesus, written by His chosen apostles, through a special working of the Holy Spirit as they wrote. When the ancient church made the Old Testament official through the Council of Jamnia in A.D. 90, and the New Testament official in 397 through the Council of Carthage, it wasn’t a selection process. It was simply a formal recognition process of what had already been established.
We can also have great confidence in the integrity of the texts from which we translate the Bible into English. The integrity of any ancient writing is determined by the number of documented manuscripts or fragments of manuscripts we have available to examine. For example, there are only nine or 10 good manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic Wars in existence, the oldest of which is a copy dating about 900 years after Caesar’s time. Yet no historian that I am aware of has serious doubts about the reality of Caesar or of the integrity of the text itself. There are also fewer than 10 existing copies of the ancient manuscripts of Plato available to study and compare to determine the accuracy and quality of the transmission of his writings throughout the years. The oldest of these manuscripts is a copy dating approximately 1,400 years after it was originally written. Still, you do not have scholars discounting the historicity of the writings of Plato or expressing concern that what we have of Plato’s writings is less than true to his original thought.
When it comes to the Bible, there are more than 5,000 handwritten manuscripts in the Greek language in support of the New Testament alone that help us ensure the accuracy of its writings. Many of the earliest copies are separated from the originals not by 900 years, much less 1,400 years, but by only 25 to 50 years. The Old Testament is equally rich, supported by such findings as the famous Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, providing manuscripts 1,000 years older than any previously known Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible and representing almost every book of the Old Testament. Without a doubt, the Bible is the most documented ancient document in all of history in terms of textual credibility.
So, what about all of those “lost” books of the Bible you’ve heard about? No one denies the existence of other ancient writings within the first five centuries following the life of Jesus. No one denies that some of them contain things that go against the gospels and their eyewitness accounts. No one denies that there are documents with names such as the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” or the “Gospel of Thomas,” or even the “Gospel of Judas Iscariot.” That’s not news—not now, and not then. But even then, they were uniformly understood to be forgeries, false in their information and most written 200 to 300 years after the time their authors supposedly lived. And what they claimed went against everything the eyewitnesses of the early Christian movement knew to be true.
For example, what is called the “Gospel of Mary” denies the resurrection, argues against a second coming of Christ and rejects the suffering and death of Jesus as a path to eternal life. The manuscript even claims that Jesus said there is no such thing as sin. This is why this writing, and others like it, never took hold. Even the writings that appeared right after the life and death of Jesus. People at the time knew that they were diametrically opposed to what Jesus actually said and, since they were present when He said it, those writings were never taken seriously. It was clear that they were obvious attempts to undermine the integrity of the actual records of Jesus’ life and teaching. The fact that such a document surfaces again in our day through archaeology does not mean we should give it any more credence than they gave it back then.
Let’s say that I wrote a book about the 2022 Super Bowl between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals. But, instead of writing that the Rams beat the Bengals by the score of 23-20, which we know is what happened, let’s imagine that I claim that my beloved Carolina Panthers stormed their way to the big game and beat the Rams 34-3 the way I’m sure God originally intended. And let’s say that in my book, I cite all kinds of made-up statistics and play-by-play analysis, and then self-publish it as an eBook on Amazon as an actual record of what took place. My goal? To change people’s minds about who actually won because I am anti-Los Angeles.
Would anybody buy it, unless as a joke book for a Panthers’ fan? Would anybody actually believe it as historical record? Of course not. If intended to be a credible account of the 56th Super Bowl, it would swiftly be denounced and become culturally irrelevant. Why? Because more than 100 million people watched the game. But let’s say this book that I wrote finds its way to a garbage dump and it gets buried, and 300 years from now people find it. They look at it and they say: “Whoa, people back then did not believe the Rams won! There’s an alternate view. The Panthers might have won Super Bowl LVI. Look, it’s right here! And it’s 300 years old! Why, it’s as old as the official NFL records we have!” Yeah, but we also know that it’s a 300-year-old piece of... well, you know. And it was considered as much back then.
This is why the early biographies on the life and teaching and ministry of Jesus, written by those who were eyewitnesses to His life and teaching, took hold. When the earliest accounts written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John came out, people were still around who had seen and heard Jesus. They knew whether what was said in the gospels happened or did not happen. And they weren’t rejected. Instead, they ignited a movement that took over the entire known world.
People were around to say: “I know, it seems unbelievable, but I was there. That’s exactly what happened.”
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions (Baker), order from Amazon.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.