The Missing Gospels (1 of 3)
Mark Yarbrough: Welcome to DTS Dialogue: Issues of God in Culture. I'm your host, Mark Yarbrough, Executive Director of Communications at Dallas Theological Seminary and today our discussion topic is "The Missing Gospels."
I am happy to be joined in the studio by Dr. Darrell Bock sitting to my immediate right, Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Professor of Spiritual Development in Culture. Across the table from Dr. Bock is Dr. Dan Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies. Sitting directly in front of me is Dr. Hall Harris, Professor of New Testament Studies. Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time today on a busy Friday afternoon here at the end of the semester, greatly appreciate it.
Missing gospels. We've got several questions that we're going to walk through and looking forward to some good discussion. missing gospels is an interesting topic. It's all over the place. It is in a variety of books, some books that you all have been writing, as a matter of fact, shown up in a variety of articles in periodicals and things like that. So let's just jump right into the discussion and ask the question, missing gospels, what are the missing gospels? Who wants to field that?
Dr. Darrell Bock: Well, the missing gospels are texts that have, of course, now been found that formerly missing, that we actually knew quite a lot about. Irenaeus, among others, wrote about such works, particularly those tied to the Gnostics. In 1945 there was a find in the deserts of Egypt called Nag Hammadi which dug up 52 texts, many of which contained various gospels or works that dealt with the life and ministry of Jesus in one way or another.
Now, these weren't historical works primarily, but they did purport to tell the story of Jesus and created quite a sensation once they were published and starting in the late 1970's, 1979, Elaine Pagels published a book called The Gnostic Gospels. Information about this material began to saturate the public square and there was a lot attention drawn to these texts.
Mark: Let me get you to define "Gnosticism." You used that a minute ago and you said, "These Gnostic texts." A lot of people do not know what Gnosticism is. Give me a good definition of "Gnosticism."
Darrell: It's good to know what Gnosticism is because it comes from the word "gnosis", which means "knowledge." And so Gnostic Christianity was a kind of combination of Greek philosophy and Christian symbolism trying to make Christianity more palatable in a Greek philosophical kind of way. It emphasized a dualism, and that dualism was that ideas and the Spirit were good and all matter was corrupt.
It had a creation story that underling gods were responsible for the creation and basically botched the job. Some versions of that creation story involved the divine feminine, so if you're going to ask for the divine feminine you might think of the kind of divine feminine you're going to get.
But this material also didn't believe in a physical resurrection. It posited that Jesus, who was not completely human, in many cases, and so there were a variety of distinctions from what we know today as orthodox Christianity that made these works operate on the fringe of Christianity. They claimed the name to be Christian, and claimed to be Christian, but they really didn't hold to a Christian theology.
Mark: OK. When would you date Gnosticism, if you had to put a date, a time frame with it?
Dr. Hall Harris: Well, it's actually a very big problem because it's debated what the date actually should be and it revolves some time around the middle of the first century A.D. into the middle of the second century A.D., and that's where the debate is.
Generally speaking, some of the best experts in the field, like Dr. Ed Yamaguchi don't really want to talk about Gnosticism per se in the first century. They'll go so far as to refer to things like "proto-Gnosticism" that is incipient Gnosticism, that is, it's the beginnings or traces of it. But as a full-blown doctrine most, I think the majority of scholars would say it's early second to mid-second century A.D.
The other problem you have to remember is that Gnosticism is not an organized system of religion like Christianity or Judaism; it's a whole collection of beliefs, different brands, and different strands.
There is a pagan Gnosticism that has virtually no Christian elements in it that's just dualistic pagan philosophy in religion. There's Christian Gnosticism which Darrell mentioned a second ago where it's a kind of derivative heterodox, or non-orthodox Christianity or derived secondarily from Christianity.
So it's very difficult to put your finger on it, but the reason we have this discussion over missing gospels is that some of these Gnostic materials, including some of the Gnostic gospels are being presented in the media and by some scholars as being almost as old as, or even in a few cases, slightly older than the Christian Gospels in the New Testament, and that makes them an issue that has to be thought through because if they're that old, well, why would we think that they aren't giving us as good or better a take on who Jesus is than the canonical four Gospels in the New Testament? That's one of the issues.
Darrell: Or at least that there's an alternative form of Christianity out there who's dates are equal to anything that we know is Christianity and so that becomes a rationale for saying, "Well, there wasn't a Christianity, there's actually a variety of Christianities out there from the very beginning, and these alternatives that we've now become aware of deserve to have an equal kind of hearing to what we now call orthodox Christianity. So it's a form of historical revisionism.
There's debate about whether Gnosticism was its own independently produced view, or whether it was a reaction to Judaism, whether it was a reaction to Christianity. All those become possibilities because of the philosophical element of neo-Platonism, this dualism that we talked about that feeds it and is so prominent in it.
Mark: OK, so what I'm hearing you say is that one of the key issues is even a time discussion.
Mark: Is that correct?
Mark: Between when the Gospels, New Testament Gospels that we have, versus these missing gospels because of the fact that they are Gnostic, that the material is embedded in Gnostic teaching, that it is already further down the road from when we have our New Testament Gospels.
Darrell: That's correct and the other key feature here is whereas our Gospels either come directly from apostolic witnesses or from people who worked very closely with the Apostles, this material is generally regarded to not have that kind of pedigree. And so the question becomes who is really in touch with the tradition that is really associated with Jesus.
Some people are trying to push this material back into the early church tradition but there really is no good clean route back to this earliest layer of tradition which is very different from the case what we have with our four biblical Gospels.
Mark: OK, you hit on this a minute ago. I want you to bring some clarity to this. Why are people trying to push it back? Why are they trying to get back into the first century?
Darrell: Well, the main reason this is happening is because I think it allows a development of a kind of a revised understanding of Christianity in which the unique claims of orthodox Christianity end up being if not completely done away with at least weakened by the idea that there is another form of Christianity out there that isn't quite as exclusively orientated to the uniqueness of Jesus.
And so it feeds into our culture in the sense that our culture really wants a pluralistic and diverse approach to religion as opposed to an exclusivist approach to religion and so if we can soften the exclusive edges of Christianity and do away with that. We have done away with one of the great features about religion that makes it so competitive and so emotional and in the view of people who are going in this direction so potentially destructive to world culture. Of course, it doesn't have anything to do with claims about whether or not this is actually a true reading of Christianity but it is very much motivated I think in that kind of a direction.
Dr. Daniel Wallace: It fits in too with the design of spirituality that we have today where things don't need to be linked to history at all. The Christianity that we have in the New Testament is a Christianity that is firmly grounded in the history of how God invaded time, space and history as a human being. We don't have that in Gnostic gospels.
Darrell: By designer Christianity you mean the idea that each person can kind of design their own spirituality and their own faith.
Dan: And that they can divorce it from any kind of historical roots. That's how they can design it.
Mark: That really kind of leans goes back into our discussion of reliability of what we have in regards to the New Testament manuscripts. Let's talk about that for a minute because if you push back into the first century and we talk about the origin of our New Testament, it opens up that door and have a discussion now, OK? How reliable is what we have?
Dan: That's a great question. We have a number of manuscripts of the New Testament and we have very, very few manuscripts of these Gnostic gospels. In fact, the disparity is absolutely vast. For the New Testament just the Greek manuscripts alone we have 5,700 of them and still counting. Our earliest come from the second century. We have between 10 and 15 manuscripts from that century. They are all fragmentary. They are all partial but we have over 48 manuscripts through the first four centuries which is really remarkable and that covers the entire New Testament.
Over the 1400-year-period of handwritten copies up onto the time we have the printing press, the New Testament manuscripts grew in terms of the content by only about two percent. That's a pretty slow growth and the process that scholars have of trying to get back to the original text today is basically not that we have too little of the New Testament but we have too much. We are trying to burn off the dross to get to the gold, kind of thing. So as we look at these manuscripts we say maybe this guy added this word here, this guy added this here. Let's get back to the original text on the basis of comparison of these texts.
When we look at the manuscripts and we also look at ancient patristic writers, church fathers, scholars of the church who make commentaries on the text and we also look at versions of translations of the New Testament and other languages, what we discovered by this kind of triangulation is here's what the original text almost surely said and we can be sure of that in over 99 percent of the places.
In the other one percent, we still don't have to come up with conjecture. We don't have to guess at what the original said without any having the manuscript's testimony. We have the original reading either in this manuscript or in this one. There is nothing for conjecture when it comes to that. Ultimately, what that means is we can test to see whether these manuscripts got it right or not and I think the bottom line is even though we don't have exactly the original wording in our hands today and we are not sure in every place what the original said, what we are sure of is no essential doctrine is impacted by any of these plausible variants that could go back to the original.
Darrell: Of course that deals with just the trustworthiness of the text that we possess. Can we be sure that we actually go back to what was actually written?
A whole other question with regard to reliability is whether the actual contents that is written there is reliable or not. That gets into the whole issue of how our teaching abut Jesus comes to us and what kind of highway did it go down? Where did it come from this is where the role of the tradition of the church and the oral tradition of the church in a positive sense works. And also the role of eye witnesses who oversaw this transmission of the Jesus tradition. That's coming to be a new element of emphasis in New Testament studies when it comes to Jesus, the whole role of the morality of the texts that are coming down and the role of the eyewitnesses.
Interesting enough there has just been a book being published by Richard Balcom of St. Andrews called Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that is putting our old eyewitnesses and their testimony pretty much back on the table for New Testament discussion. It is a feature that has been largely ignored in the last 150-200 years and so this is an interesting time and an interesting development to see this emphasis on morality and the overseeing this tradition by people who were around and near Jesus becoming a part of the discussion.
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