Every so often someone finds (or finds that someone else has found) that there are other documents known as 'gospels.' Immediately they conclude that this somehow proves that Jesus was not the way the New Testament says He was. So what shouls Christians think of these things?
Christians should not worry about these discoveries at all, because they affect absolutely nothing. Contrary to all the hype, they have no affect at all on our understanding of who Jesus is. At best they help scholars to understand the heretical sects that produced them.
So why is there so much fuss about them? First of all, people talk about them because they can be used by unbelievers to undermine confidence in the Bible. A classic case in point is The Da Vinci Code’s claim that there were “more than 80” gospels considered for inclusion in the New Testament. This is utter nonsense. At no point was there ever a meeting that decided which books belong in the New Testament. But to say that the early Christians held various radically different views of Jesus means that we can pick and choose which Jesus we want to believe in ourselves. It is a way of avoiding Jesus’ claims.
Second, people love a good conspiracy theory. This is why The Da Vinci Code sold as well as it did. The conspiracy theory TV series The X Files ran for years. We live in a day and age when people tend to distrust authority, and so the claim that the truth about Jesus was covered up is a sure seller.
Thirdly, most people today, even Christians, are woefully ignorant about the Bible. A poll showed that the best-known Bible verse among modern American is “God helps those who help themselves” – which is not in the Bible at all. Thus people can make the wildest and silliest claims about these documents, and people still believe them.
One of the problems is with the language used of them. What we understand by a Gospel is a narrative like that in our Canonical gospels. The so-called “Lost gospels” contain nothing of the sort. Instead they are usually collections of sayings attributed to Jesus. My advice to anyone who is worried about the lost gospels is that they should read one or two of them. I have read all of the most popular ones myself. You will soon see that they are a radically different sort of literature from the canonical gospels. Another name they are known by is the “Gnostic gospels”. This refers to the fact that they are the product of a varied movement known as Gnosticism that flourished from the 2nd century and into the 4th century. The name comes from a Greek word meaning “to know”. To the Gnostics salvation was a matter of having esoteric knowledge – and that is what these Gnostic texts teach. Secondly, the “Lost Gospels” are all very late documents. None dates from before about AD 150, while our Gospels, particularly Matthew, Mark and Luke, can all be dated with confidence to before AD 70. Matthew and John were written by people who knew Jesus. There is an old tradition that Mark’s Gospel is based on the preaching of the Apostle Peter, and Luke explicitly states that he interviewed eye-witnesses. In contrast the Gnostic gospels were not written until more than a century after Jesus’ death, and have no connection at all with the eye-witnesses. No Christian group ever accepted any of them, for their teaching utterly contradicts the canonical Gospels. The Jesus of the Gnostic gospels came to give deep teaching, the true Jesus came to die for our sins. The Gnostic Jesus would never have been crucified.