Your book says Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can be trusted as history in a way that the Gnostic gospels of Thomas and Judas, etc., cannot. Why?
The short answer is that the rootage of these gospels either involves an apostolic figure or someone closely associated with an apostolic figure. In the traditional explanation of authorship, we’ve got John and Matthew, who would be apostles. We’ve got Mark, who’d be connected to Peter, and Luke, who’d be connected at least to Paul, if not to a whole series of early church leaders. Even less conservative people will acknowledge that, if they don’t accept that Matthew and John were responsible for those gospels, something influenced by those figures is at work. So, they’ve got apostolic rootage in a way that the Gnostic gospels do not.
The gospels that ended up in the Bible are all from the first century. No gospel of that [Gnostic] list that I’m aware of is actually dated in the first century. There are some people who try to date Thomas that early, but the normal date for Thomas is early second century, and there’s no other gospel that comes that early.
Why is there a debate over dating? Is it clear that one gospel originated in the first century and another originated in the second century?
There is a belief that the movement that’s reflected in a work like the Gospel of Judas might, in fact, be earlier. The problem is there’s no evidence for it.
A lot of the debate over Gnostic gospels is based on a group of ancient texts found in Egypt over 60 years ago. Why are we suddenly hearing a lot about these texts now?
It takes time to work through them; it was a good several decades’ process just to collect the texts and get them published, first in the originals and then in translation. And then, it took a while for people to digest this material. Initially, they were received with a great deal of skepticism as to how much they could actually tell us about the first century. Now, there’s been a whole body of scholarship that’s attempted to argue that they go back pretty early and are pretty significant.
What inspires that scholarship?
There’s a revolution that’s going on in the humanities about how to handle history. The old mantra is that history is written by the winners. Now we’re digging up material by the losers. You read the material by the losers, and then you tweak the history. In some cases you revise it. What I’m trying to do is to explain this movement and then [ask] whether the revision is actually historically valid or not. My premise is that, yes, history is written by the winners. But sometimes, the winners deserved to win.
What the Gnostic gospels show us is that there were discussions going on. There were a lot of people claiming the name Christian and trying to frame it in certain ways. The Gnostic texts have deepened my sense of appreciation for these discussions. But, as for changing the way I view the basic faith, the [Gnostic] material is too distant from the earliest generations of Christianity to have that kind of effect. And that’s not necessarily out of a theological concern. Most of the documents in the Bible are also our oldest documents about Christianity. They have a pedigree and a point of connection that these other texts lack.
Do you know any scholars whose views on the gospels, either the canonical ones or the Gnostic ones, have been changed by this discussion? Is anyone persuading anyone else?
Oh, yeah. If you read the material by Elaine Pagels or Bart Ehrman, they’re making a case that this material really should redefine the way we look at early Christianity.
What about in the other direction? Do you know anyone who began on the Pagels-Ehrman side, read the defense of orthodox views, and was persuaded?
The discussion is almost too new for that. The book that I’ve written on the missing gospels is probably the first book, from a conservative standpoint, to really engage this discussion directly.
What do you see motivating these alternative readings of early Christianity?
The goal is to communicate that Christianity is more diverse. Elaine Pagels has a statement in her Gnostic Gospels that this kind of revised history of Christianity is something that these materiasl demand that we write. When the Gospel of Judas came out, she made a very direct statement in an Op-Ed piece called “The Gospel Truth,” in which she said, “This proves the diversity of Christianity in the first century.” Well, the fact is it didn’t prove that at all. It proved the diversity of Christianity in the second century. But the goal was to suggest that Christianity was, at the beginning, very diverse and that it had very equal, competing options, as opposed to a movement that emerged through the apostles from Jesus, with offshoots that came later.
Another issue that has been raised by these Gnostic gospels, and especially by 'The Da Vinci Code,' is the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. When 'The Da Vinci Code' movie came out, a lot of people said that it didn’t matter to them whether or not Jesus was married. What do you think about that issue?
Had Jesus been married, it wouldn’t have resulted in the kind of conspiracy that Dan Brown was claiming it would, because it just would have been another affirmation of Jesus operating at the human level. The idea of His having children would have been more complicated, but the idea of him being married wouldn’t, in and of itself, be any offense. There are some who will argue that Jesus being married at all would be confusing. You know, you’d have the possibility of heirs and, if there was a child, how would that work theologically. Those are more complicated kinds of questions. Jesus being married as a hypothetical possibility is not a problem theologically. I just don’t think there’s any evidence for it.
The resurrection really does two things in Christian theology. One, it affirms that there is a life after death and, secondly, it works as a vindication of Jesus and who he is. If the tomb is empty, as he predicted it would be, then that’s an affirmation of his message. In the midst of making that prediction, he said that he would be at the right hand of the Father. So, it tells us not only that he is alive but where he went and the kind of authority that he bears.
The claim of the Gnostic gospels is that there is no physical resurrection, only a resurrection of the spirit. The redemption that God engages in, according to these Gnostic gospels, only involves the realm of the spirit and ideas. It’s not a total restoration of the creation.
These Gnostic works also believe that, at the start, the creation was flawed, [but] it was never in the position to be redeemed. The Christian message and the Jewish message was [that] the Creation comes from God himself, and we are all creatures who are accountable, and that which is flawed in the Creation is not the result of the Creator, it’s the result of Creation’s flawed response to the Creator. That's the difference.
This [Gnostic] material never had a chance to be in the Christian Bible. Christianity came out of Judaism, and [Gnosticism] was so fundamentally different at its starting point that it never would have been recognized as being an authentically Jewish possibility.