The mainstream media loves the apocryphal gospels. When discussing Jesus – usually around Easter or Christmas – it’s typically hinted that the real story of Jesus appears in these lost gospels. The juicy story is that nothing was agreed upon for the first four centuries of Christianity and that there were hundreds of stories about Jesus. Only after Constantine’s arrival that the church decided to keep Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and suppress the rest. The implication is that the four gospels have no more historical validity than that of the so-called gospels of Thomas, Peter, or Judas.
Conspiracy theories sell like hotcakes, but we should note that the apocryphal gospels have been known for ages, despite the recent discovery of some of their ancient manuscripts. But I’ll get to that in just a moment. First, let’s look at the internal evidence for some of these books. How did they get their attribution?
Before we dive in I should say that I could devote an entire series to apocryphal gospels, but to keep things short, let’s briefly consider just four of the earliest: The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and The Gospel of Peter. Scholars generally date them to the second century.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
The books directly assert that they were written by Jesus’ apostles, unlike our four Gospels. Let’s start with the Gospel of Thomas, which starts off by saying: “I, Thomas the Israelite, tell unto you, even all the brethren that are of the Gentiles, to make known unto you the works of the childhood of our Lord Jesus Christ and his mighty deeds…” (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 1)
The book tells some rather weird miraculous stories of the young Jesus, but here’s the weirdest one:
“But the son of Annas the scribe was standing there with Joseph; and he took a branch of a willow and dispersed the waters which Jesus had gathered together. And when Jesus saw what was done, he was wroth and said unto him: O evil, ungodly, and foolish one, what hurt did the pools and the waters do thee? Behold, now also thou shalt be withered like a tree, and shalt not bear leaves, neither root, nor fruit. And straightway that lad withered up wholly, but Jesus departed and went unto Joseph’s house.”(Infancy Gospel of Thomas 3:1-3)
Yikes. Jesus sounds like a Harry Potter villain in the making. The meek and humble Jesus of the four Gospels is a far cry from this. In any case, the point here is that these stories about the boy Jesus are coming from someone who claims to be the Apostle Thomas.
The Gospel of Thomas
Let’s move on to the Gospel of Thomas, which reads quite differently from the Infancy Gospel. This gospel contains 114 hidden sayings that Jesus allegedly spoke to Thomas. Again, the book starts off by claiming to be written by the Apostle. “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymas Judas Thomas wrote down.” (Gospel of Thomas Prologue)
Notice the emphasis on ‘secret sayings’. There are plenty of noteworthy sayings in this Gospel, and it even includes 13 of the 16 parables found in the Synoptics. But probably one of the most famous sayings is the ending, which is…well…a bit weird:
“Simon Peter said to him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I shall lead her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”(Gospel of Thomas Saying 114)
Um…yeah, so there’s that. Again, this seems to be quite different from what we see from Jesus in our New Testament.
The Gospel of Judas
Then there’s the Gospel of Judas. Again, it starts off suspiciously by saying who wrote it: “This is the secret message of judgment Jesus spoke with Judas Iscariot over a period of eight days, three days before he celebrated Passover.” (Gospel of judas 33)
Like with the Gospel of Thomas, “Judas” is about to drop some confidential wisdom from Jesus, words that were spoken privately and not publicly. It is this top-secret atmosphere that permeates the entire Gospel. It’s chock full of esoteric exchanges between Jesus and Judas about immortal aeons with weird names, like Barbelo and Yobel. The book is obviously gnostic.
The Gospel of Peter
Finally, we’ll look at the Gospel of Peter. The book ends with what the disciples did after the resurrection in the first person: “But I, Simon Peter and Andrew, my brother, having taken our nets, departed out to the sea…” (Gospel of Peter 58) The book includes a comic-book-style description of what it looked like when Jesus rose from the grave, including a giant Jesus and a talking cross. Check it out:
“Now during the night as the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers stood guard in pairs of two at each watch, there was a loud voice from heaven; and they saw the heavens were opened, and from there, two young men came down having great radiance, approaching the tomb. Then the stone which was placed at the door, rolled away on its own, and partially gave way; and the tomb opened and the two young men went in. Therefore, having seen this, the soldiers woke up the centurions and elders, for they were also keeping watch. And while they were describing to them the things they had seen, behold, they saw three men coming out of the tomb, with the two young men supporting the One, and a cross following them. And the head of the two reached unto heaven, but the One of whom they led out by the hand, His head reached beyond the heavens. And they heard a voice from heaven asking, ‘Did you preach to those who sleep?’ And a response was heard from the cross saying, ‘Yes!’”(Gospel of Peter 33-38)
Well, that makes the four gospels’ resurrection stories look rather tame in comparison. Wild tales like this are more what you’d expect if someone is inventing a story.
Now, there are many reasons why scholars reject that these works were written by eyewitnesses. Compared to the four gospels, these books do not contain Jewish names. They don’t contain much Palestinian geography. They lack knowledge of Jewish Scripture and practices and smack of 2nd-century Gnosticism. Again, most scholars date these works to the early-to-late second century.
Early Church Fathers on the “Lost” Gospels
In contrast to our four gospels, these four were roundly rejected by the early church. And that’s the difference here. The media sensation surrounding these texts is that they provide some kind of fresh insights, but they were known by the early church and rejected as spurious.
Remember our young wizard Jesus found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas? Irenaeus had a bit to say about it:
“Besides the above [misrepresentations], they adduce an unspeakable number of apocryphal and spurious writings, which they themselves have forged, to bewilder the minds of foolish men, and of such as are ignorant of the Scriptures of truth. Among other things, they bring forward that false and wicked story which relates that our Lord, when He was a boy learning His letters, on the teacher saying to Him, as is usual, Pronounce Alpha, replied [as He was bid], Alpha.”(Against Heresies 1:20:1)
While he doesn’t explicitly mention the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, if you read the book, he’s obviously referencing it. Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp, and Polycarp was a student of the Apostle John. So he’d be in a place to know what he was talking about. He wholeheartedly attributes our four Gospels to their traditional authors while rejecting the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Irenaeus also does the same thing with the Gospel of Judas. Here’s what he had to say:
“They declare that Judas the traitor was thoroughly acquainted with these things, and that he alone, knowing the truth as no others did, accomplished the mystery of the betrayal; by him all things, both earthly and heavenly, were thus thrown into confusion. They produce a fictitious history of this kind, which they style the Gospel of Judas.”(Against Heresies 1.31.1)
Next up, there’s the Gospel of Peter. Serapion, the second-century bishop of Antioch, was at first open to the Gospel of Peter being genuine. At least until he read it. Here’s what he had to say about it: “For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles of Christ; but we reject intelligently the writings falsely ascribed to them, knowing that such were not handed down to us.” (Quoted in Eusebius, Church History, 6.12.4)
Lastly, let’s look at the Gospel of Thomas. Cyril, the Bishop of Jerusalem, didn’t mince words when it came to this so-called Gospel. “Let none read the gospel according to Thomas, for it is the work, not of one of the twelve Apostles…” (Catechesis 6:31) Cyril said the book was spurious and stunk of Manichaeism.
It seems unlikely that ancient Christians couldn’t tell authentic writings from forgeries. They didn’t care if it claimed to be apostolic; they wanted external evidence that these books went back to Jesus’ disciples. The books were rejected without hesitation when they lacked that. Plus, I’m sure that the weird teachings and heretical doctrines didn’t help, either.
Didn’t Clement of Alexandria like the apocryphal gospels?
Now you might say Irenaeus was just being a curmudgeon, but you don’t see these works cited approvingly by the fathers as you do with the four gospels. Critics often point to Clement of Alexandria as an early church father who preferred both canonical and apocryphal writings equally. He lived around the same time as Irenaeus. In light of Clement’s frequent citations, however, this claim is unfounded, as he clearly preferred the New Testament books to apocryphal literature or other Christian writings.
Clement references Matthew 757 times, Luke 402 times, John 331 times, and Mark 182 times. Clement cites apocryphal gospels only 16 times, in comparison. (Bernard Mutschler, Irenäus als johanneischer) Evidently, Clement didn’t have any doubts about which works he regarded as canonical. He doesn’t cite any apocryphal gospel that we looked at. And importantly, none of these rival gospels are quoted by the earliest Christian writings such as the Didache, Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and so on. But as we talked about in a previous video, the four gospels are copiously quoted by these early bishops and apologists.
Finally, let’s consider manuscripts from the early 2nd and 3rd centuries. We have 30 combined fragments of Matthew and John’s Gospels. By comparison, the most popular apocryphal gospel according to the manuscripts was Thomas, for which we have only three. NT Scholar Larry Hurtado argues that the low number of apocryphal manuscripts “do not justify any notion that these writings were particularly favored” and that whatever sects used these writings “were likely a clear minority among Christians of the second and third centuries.” (The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 21-22)
The sexier thing would be to show that apocryphal books have been suppressed by the Catholic church and Constantine. The truth is, however, much less sensational. According to historical evidence, the vast majority of early Christians preferred the gospels in our New Testament. Church leaders did not “create” the canon arbitrarily in the 4th and 5th centuries while conspiring to suppress the other gospels. Instead, the later church’s affirmations reflected what had already been the case for a long time.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.