Part one of this post, leaves the question of, what was it about these documents that separated them from others unanswered. Why was it these books and not those so called lost Gospels? Well, to answer that question, we have to look at what has come to be known as the “criteria” of canonicity. I think that term isn’t the most helpful, but that’s the popular terminology, so were kind of stuck with it. These aren’t really external criteria that the church used to autonomously judge whether or not these books belonged and the others didn’t. They are more internal qualities that these books had that were recognized by the church.
So, Keeping that in mind, the first “criteria” is that it had to be written by an Apostle or from the eyewitness account of an Apostle. Basically, it had to have a direct connection to the authority that the Apostles had. The second “criteria” is that it had to be ancient. It had to come from the time of the Apostles. It had to have been written in the first century. If it was written after the third century, it was not considered legitimate.
The third “criteria” was that it had to basically line up everything that they knew to be true of the faith. It couldn’t contradict the clear teaching of what they already knew to be Scripture. The fourth “criteria” is that it had to be used for teaching in the church. It had to be in circulation and read publicly.
Now again, we have to stress that these criteria were not chosen or selected, these are the qualities that the books that became the NT all had in common. So when another book popped up that didn’t have these it was typically ignored, or not taken seriously. So lets take a look at some of these allegedly lost books.
First up is probably the most important one, and the most controversial one today, The gospel of Thomas. It’s date is most likely the mid to late 2nd century. It depicts Jesus as a revealer of wisdom and basically argues that salvation is granted to intelligent people who access secret wisdom. Classic Gnosticism. There is no real storyline to it, it is really just a bunch of sayings. Some of the sayings are pretty familiar and that is probably because the author was dependent upon the already written and circulated Gospels.
Some of the sayings are really weird. The last saying in the entire book is this… “Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.”Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of Heaven.”
Does that sound like something Jesus would say? I mean we see all throughout the 4 Gospels that we have in the Bible that Jesus loves women and that some of his closest followers were women. In Luke 7 a prostitute comes to him and washes his feet with her tears and drys them with her hair. And Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven and that her faith has saved her. In Mark 5 a woman seeking to be healed touches his robe and he turns to her and says “daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace and be healed of your affliction.” In John 4 he has a tender conversation with a woman in Samaria. In Matthew 28 it is women who discover that Jesus’s tomb is empty.In none of those stories does Jesus demand that they become male in order to even be considered a living spirit.
So by the dating of it, by the authorship not being from an apostle, and from the incongruent content, it’s no surprise that the Gospel of Thomas didn’t catch on. You can imagine the second century Christians reading this and being very confused. It would have seemed as weird to them as it does to us. On top of all of that, there is just no evidence that it was ever included among the other 4 Gospels.
Now, the Gospel of Peter. It was also written in the 2nd century. It certainly wasn’t written by Peter. There is a bunch of weird stuff in this one too. There are giant angels, and one section where Jesus is walking around and he’s standing at about 150 feet tall. There’s another part where after the crucifixion there was an animate wooden cross that is walking around and having conversations with people. Yeah, it’s weird. It also has a very anti-jewish tone to it, which would be weird since it’s claiming to be written by Peter… A Jew. There is also a clear development of ideas that are found in our Gospels, so it is a safe bet to say that it is dependent upon them.
Now there are these infancy Gospels that talk about Jesus as a child. One is the Protoevangelium of James which was written in the mid 2nd century and focuses on the miraculous birth of Mary, and theres some weird stuff going on in there too. Another is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This one is really weird. It tells these stories of a volatile child Jesus who actually kills a couple of his playmates. One of them bumps Jesus’ shoulder, so little kid Jesus kills him. Another messes up a puddle he was playing in so Jesus causes him to drop dead on the spot. This Children of the Corn-esque Gospel was rightfully rejected.
Then there is the Epistles of Paul and Seneca which is a fake exchange of letters between Paul and one of his later contemporary philosophers. Basically this is like fan-fiction. It’s as if two guys were sitting around thinking “You know what would be awesome, if Paul and Seneca went at it in a debate. Who do you think would win?” And then they just wrote it up themselves.
Another is the Shepherd of Hermas, this one was actually refuted by the Muratorian Fragment that we talked about in part 1. The Muratorian Fragment was basically says that everyone knows that this was a fabrication and was written long after Paul died.
Basically, all of these read pretty much like entertainment. So when people are reading these they weren’t dumb and realized that it probably wasn’t legitimate. It would be like if someone today was like “We just found this book, it was definitely written by Abraham Lincoln, and he is talking bout how he was actually, truly, a vampire hunter.” You would know, that that’s ridiculous. A few eccentric weirdos might hop on the bandwagon, but after enough time, it would fall out of favor and get ignored.
It should also be noted that the time between the event’s are comparable, a couple hundred years. Abraham Lincoln lived a couple hundred years ago and we are (for the most part) all familiar with his history. We can spot what seems weird, unlikely, and generally silly. The rejection of these books was an organic thing, these books just weren’t important enough to last. It’s not that they were suppressed or that there was some conspiracy to silence them.
There was no smoky back room where the CEO’s of the ancient church decided which direction they wanted to take the church. They didn’t sit back and decide which books were in and which books were out. There was no official decision made. It all just kind of happened.
One Scholar named C.E. Hill put it this way “We won’t understand the formation of the NT canon until we understand that the Church essentially did not think it had any choice in the matter.” Another named Herman Bavinck said it like this “The recognition of these writings in the churches occurred automatically, without any formal agreement. With only a few exceptions, the OT and NT writings were immediately, from the time of their origin and in toto, accepted without doubt or protest as holy, divine writings…The canonicity of the Bible books is rooted in their existence. They have authority of themselves, by their own right, because they exist.”
So basically, We have the New Testament books that we have not because the Church championed them and squashed all the competition, but rather, because no one could stop them.