Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?
A Comparison of the Person, Teachings, and Works of the Jesus in the Non-Canonical Gospels
Originally published as: “Will the Real Jesus Stand Up? A Brief Comparison of the Person, Teaching, and Works of the Jesus of the Canonical Gospels and the Apocryphal Gospels.” (Enrichment Journal, Fall 2008).
NOTE: Numbers in brackets (H-S 1:322) denotes the number should be a superscript.
Before moving on to the next article or task on your to-do list, you might want to pause and assess your ability to respond to the member of your church who read the book or saw the movie and asks you why about 80 gospels were left out of our New Testament (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, p. 231). If you don’t know how to help the college freshman on summer break from the university who has been exposed to the Jesus Seminar and now believes the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Peter to be more ancient and therefore more reliable than the four canonical gospels (Robert W. Funk, New Gospel Parallels, vol. 1,2. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1990, pp. 3, 4, 25), you might want to read on. Not sure what to say when a board member brings a popular magazine with an article entitled “A Controversial Work Rethinks the Gospels: Did Early Christians Put Words into Jesus’ Mouth?” (Russell Watson, Newsweek April 4, 1994, pp. 53-54), or “Jesus Christ, Plain and Simple: A Trinity of new, scholarly books tries to strip away the traditional Gospel accounts of the man from Nazareth” (Richard Ostling, Time January 10, 1994, p. 38), or a local newspaper with the front-page headline “A controversial work rethinks the Gospels: Did early Christians put words in Jesus’ mouth?” (Dawn Peterson, Springfield [MO] News-Leader February 8, 1994, pp. 1A, 6A) to the meeting? The time has come to get equipped, because this issue is not going to go away. (For example, Jesus Seminar assertions and Da Vinci Code popularity were likely what inspired the sensationalistic “documentary” The Lost Tomb of Jesus, by Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron that was aired in prime-time by the Discovery Channel in 2007. In this video, the producers claimed to present incontrovertible evidence that Jesus was married and had at least one child by Mary Magdalene, the same claim made by The Da Vinci Code. J.H. Charlesworth wrote a devastating argument against the conclusions of the documentary. Charlesworth’s article is actually a brief report on the results of the international “Symposium on Afterlife and Burial Practices in Second Temple Judaism” held in Jerusalem January 13–16, 2008, which on scientific grounds rejected each piece of evidence and each conclusion presented in the “documentary.”)
Today, those of us in positions of spiritual leadership no longer have the luxury of remaining uninformed and giving smug, dismissive answers. Every day our people are being bombarded with challenges to the faith that appear to have the facts and “expert opinion” in their favor (cf. Gregory A. Boyd, Cynic, Sage, or Son of God?: Recovering the Real Jesus in an Age of Revisionist Replies. Wheaton, IL: BridgePoint/Victor/S P Publications, 1995, pp. 11–12). The old adages, “You have to fight fire with fire” and “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight” are true. Hiding behind, “Well sister, you’ve just got to take it by faith” and “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it” will not retain the current literate, educated, and tech-savvy generation and it will not attract the next generation to the message of Jesus.
It is therefore incumbent upon us all to engage the issues of the marketplace at the point of attack: does the evidence support the popularistic claims of The Da Vinci Code and the scholarly conclusions of the Jesus Seminar or not? Is Jesus divine or is he “a mortal prophet . . . a great and powerful man, but a man nonetheless . . . A mere mortal” (The Da Vinci Code, p. 233, cf. pp. 234, 245; John Dominic Crosson, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994, pp. 20, 21, 50; Robert Funk, The Five Gospel. New York: Macmillan, 1993, pp. 32, 33). Were “those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits” intentionally omitted from the New Testament in favor of those “embellished . . . gospels that made Him godlike” (The Da Vinci Code, p. 234, 244)? Was Jesus merely a good man and an inspiring teacher (Funk, The Gospel of Mark, pp. 30–34; John Dominic Crossan, “The Search for Jesus,” in The Search for Jesus: Modern Scholarship Looks at the Gospels, ed. Hershel Shanks. Washington, DC: Biblical Archeology Review, 1994, pp. 110, 121-123, 132; Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, pp. 17, 82, 85, 95, 190), or did he really perform miraculous works? Is it true that the authors of the biblical gospels and the early church intentionally marginalized women and that the non-canonical writings promoted the equality of women (The Da Vinci Code, pp. 238- 239)?
Popular authors like Dan Brown and works like The Da Vinci Code (both the book and the movie) stake their claims on the premise that we now have non-canonical gospels that are more ancient and more historically reliable than the canonical gospels (The Da Vinci Code, p. 234; Robert W. Funk, New Gospel Parallels, Vol. I,2: Mark. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1990, pp. 1, 3, 25; Robert W. Funk, The Gospel of Mark: Red Letter Edition. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1991, pp. 11ff.; The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1993, pp. 15, 16, 18, 26)? The reality is, however, that these extra-biblical gospels have been available for more than 65 years, and most were found among the very dubious writings of a heretical offshoot from the orthodox church called Gnosticism. Representative of the vast majority of responsible scholars, Ben Witherington, III has noted that there is no evidence to suggest that any of these non-canonical gospels date back to the first century (The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995, p. 49). In fact, almost all scholars date these texts somewhere between the late second century and the fifth century AD.
Unfortunately, none of this has restrained members of the radical Jesus Seminar from using these texts to reconstruct a very different Jesus from the one who emerges from the canonical gospels. Nor has it prevented best-selling authors like Dan Brown from marketing their conclusions to a culture that yearns for a more palatable, less challenging version of the Master. So to return to the major questions: Do these extra-biblical documents describe an exclusively human Jesus without divine attributes? Do they speak of a Jesus who was a “mere mortal” and not a miracle-worker? Finally, do they reverse the trend of discrimination against women the biblical gospels began for the purpose of producing a male-dominated church?
The purpose of this article is to provide the raw data required to answer these important questions so that as Christian leaders, we can provide an evidentially-based response rather than rhetoric, and can take the high ground of conclusions based on fact rather than uninformed personal opinion. As we consider each of these major questions, passages from two distinctly different groups of non-canonical literature will be considered. Not all extra-biblical material comes from heretical communities, so in each section, several texts will be reproduced to represent both Gnostic literature and orthodox literature. Where texts are available that contain both orthodox and heterodox elements, examples from this hybrid group will also be cited. (For the purposes of this study, five major volumes were used, all of which are available in any good theological library: Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, volumes 1 (=H-S 1) and 2 (=H-S 2). Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963 and 1965; revised edition of volume 1, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1991 (=H-S 12); Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, The Gospel of Judas. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2006 (=Kasser); and April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says. London: Continuum, 2007. Admittedly, this is not an exhaustive study of all relevant data. However, it is sufficiently large enough in scope to serve as a representative section and to facilitate detailed comparison while avoiding the vagaries of over-generalization.)
An Exclusively Human Jesus?
One charge commonly leveled against the canonical gospels is that they exaggerate the deity of Christ and downplay his human characteristics. It is maintained that the gospels which were excluded from the canon of the New Testament tell the true story that Jesus was only human. Are these assertions supported by the evidence?
Some orthodox extra-biblical texts claim that Jesus did not die a natural death as a man, “[Jesus said:] “Mariam, Mariam, know me: do not touch me…thy God did not die, rather he mastered death” (Coptic Psalm-book II, p. 192; H-S 1:353–354). The Acts of John, a text which contains both orthodox and heterodox elements, preserves this statement by the apostle, “…sometimes when I meant to touch him I encountered a material, solid body; but at other times again when I felt him, his substance was immaterial and incorporeal, and as if it did not exist at all…And I often wished, as I walked with him, to see his footprint in the earth, whether it appeared—for I saw him raising himself from the earth—and I never saw it (Acts of John 93; H-S 2:227). It also records Jesus as saying, “…nor am I the (man) who is on the Cross… (Acts of John 99; H-S 2:233) and “…I have suffered none of those things which they will say of me…You hear that I suffered yet I suffered not…and that I was pierced, yet I was not wounded; that I was hanged, yet I was not hanged; that blood flowed from me, yet it did not flow…” (Acts of John 101; H-S 2:234). Other documents that are thoroughly Gnostic in nature are equally insistent that Jesus did not live or die as a man. For example, The First Apocalypse of James states, “The Lord said: ‘James, do not be concerned for me or for this people! I am he who was in me. At no time did I suffer in any way, nor was I distressed. And this people did not do any harm to me. Rather it was imposed upon a figure of the archons’” (H-S 1:322). The Gospel of Philip claims, “Jesus deceived everyone. For he did not show himself as he was; but he showed himself as [they would] be able to see him… He [showed himself] [to the] angels as an angel and to men as a man” (26a; H-S 1:191). The Gospel of Bartholomew reads, “Bartholomew said to him: ‘Lord when you went to be hanged on the cross, I followed you at a distance and saw how you were hanged on the cross and how the angels descended from heaven and worshipped you. And when darkness came, I looked and saw that you had vanished from the cross…’” (1:6-7; H-S 1:488). One Gnostic text actually states, “[Jesus said:] ‘They thought that I was a mortal man’” (Conversation of the Risen Jesus with the Apostles; H-S 1:349).
From this representative list of texts a number of observations can be made. First, claims by popular authors and modern scholars that the apocryphal materials emphasize the humanity of Jesus have far exceeded the evidence. In actuality, the exact opposite is the case: orthodox texts, hybrid texts, and Gnostic texts alike generally deemphasize to the point of exclusion the earthly aspects of Jesus life and death. It is precisely the maligned canonical gospels that describe Jesus’ life and death in very real, human terms. From the texts of the New Testament, we hear of a Jesus who became tired, hungry, and thirsty. The canonical gospels do not shrink back from reporting that Jesus experienced frustration, anger, and confusion. In fact, the very authors accused of emphasizing the deity of Jesus to the exclusion of his humanity are the authors most willing to describe in detail his suffering and death.
Therefore, quite the opposite of needing to fear what the contents of the non-canonical texts say about Jesus, those of us who believe in the biblical version of the life and death of Jesus are actually able to marshal their testimony in support of our position. Ironically, the extra-biblical materials can be seen to strengthen our hand by providing a body of literature with which to compare the Jesus of the canonical gospels. As is readily seen from the results of this comparison, the biblical gospels fare quite well and give every indication of providing a realistic, credible description of the humanity of Jesus.
Before moving on to the next issue raised by popular and scholarly literature, it is necessary to pause and reflect on why in comparison to the authors of the non-canonical material the biblical authors chose to focus so carefully on the humanity of Jesus. One reason must be that they saw true incarnation (“in-fleshing”) as a requirement to fulfill prophecy (Isa. 52:14; 53:3). Another reason must have had something to do with Jesus’ full identification with mortal man (John 1:14; Rom. 8:3; Phil 2:7; Heb. 2:17). Yet another reason surely had something to do with his overcoming real temptations common to man (Heb. 4:15, a point denied by extra-biblical texts like, “And he [Jesus] said to me [John], ‘Let it be your concern from now on not to tempt him [Jesus] that cannot be tempted’” (Acts of John 90; H-S 2:226; cf., however, Matt. 4:1-11 and parallels) in order to serve as our perfect role-model. Most importantly, biblical characters and authors were aware that to be the culmination of the sacrificial system, to provide real atonement, and to be the first-born of a real physical resurrection that would serve as the basis for our hope of bodily resurrection, Jesus had to experience real physical suffering and death (Matt. 17:12; Mark 10:45; Luke 22:15; 24:46; Acts 3:18; 17:3; 26:23; 1 Cor. 15:1-49; Eph. 1:7; 2:15-16; 5:2; Heb. 9:26, 28; 10:12, etc.).
A Divine Jesus
Another charge often heard today is that the canonical gospels promote a divine Jesus that is theologically and politically convenient but historically inaccurate. Proponents sometimes claim that the non-canonical literature is more historically reliable in that it rejects the divinity of Jesus in favor of an exclusively human Jesus. In the previous section the last half of this claim was laid to rest. There the evidence from all three categories of extra-biblical material (orthodox, hybrid, and heterodox) demonstrated a trajectory toward denial of Jesus’ human attributes. In this section, the first part of the claim will be addressed using the same methodology. Do the non-canonical documents describe a Jesus who is not divine?
In orthodox documents from the post-New Testament period, the clarity of claims of the deity of Jesus increases exponentially. One example may be seen in a work entitled Epistula Apostolorum: “We know this: our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (is) God” (Epistula Apostolorum 3; H-S 1:192). Another orthodox text reads, “…there is no other God save Christ” (Acts of Paul 2; H-S 2:353). Later, the same work quotes Thecla, a disciple of Paul as saying, “Thou God of heaven, son of the Most High” (Acts of Paul 3.29; H-S 2:361). In the Infancy Story of Thomas, Jesus’ school teacher tells his father Joseph, “This child is not earth-born; he can even tame fire…He is something great, a god or an angel or what I should say I do not know” (Infancy Story of Thomas 7:2, 4; H-S 1:395). In yet another text, Peter states, “And I approached God Jesus Christ and said to him…And my Lord and God Jesus Christ said unto me…” (Ethiopic Apocalypse of Peter 16; H-S 2:681–682).
Theologically hybrid texts also emphasize the divine aspect of the Jesus’ nature. One reads, “But John stretched out his hands…and said to the Lord, ‘Glory be to thee, my Jesus, the only God of truth’” (Acts of John 43; H-S 2:237). Elsewhere Jesus is described as “the God of those who are imprisoned” (Acts of John 103; H-S 2:235) and “our God Jesus Christ” (Acts of John 107; H-S 2:255). Toward the end of this document, John prays just before his death, “O God Jesu…” (Acts of John 112; H-S 2:257). In another hybrid text, Peter asks, “Would it therefore be pleasing to you, our brother, to come in accordance with the commands of our God Jesus?” (Letter of Peter to Philip; H-S 12:348). In the Acts of Peter, Paul proclaims, “…Jesus the living God will forgive you…” (p. 47; H-S 2:281). Similarly, Peter prays, “Most excellent, the only holy one, it is thou that hast appeared to us, thou God Jesus Christ” (Acts of Peter p. 51; H-S 2:285). Shortly thereafter, a disciple of Peter says to him, “Brother [Peter] and Lord, partaker of the holy mysteries and teacher of the right way which is in Jesus Christ our God…” (Acts of Peter p. 52; H-S 2:286).
Even fully heterodox (Gnostic) texts openly declare the deity of Jesus. The Gospel of Truth declares, “But the name of the Father is the Son” (38:1-24; H-S 1:529-530). It also says of Jesus, “…he humbled himself even to death, although he was clothed with eternal life. After he had stripped off these transitory rags, he put on immortality…became perfection” (Gospel of Truth, Codex Jung, p. 20; H-S 1:237-238). In another Gnostic text, the apostle Thomas prays, “…Jesus…God of God…who didst rest from the weariness of the journey like a man, and walk upon the waves like a God…God from God Most High…” (Acts of Thomas 48; H-S 2:469), “…I praise thee, Lord Jesus…For thou alone art the God of truth, and no other…” (Acts of Thomas 25; H-S 2:455), “…O God Jesus Christ, Son of the living God…” (Acts of Thomas 60; H-S 2:476), “…O Christ…glory to thy Godhead…” (Acts of Thomas 80; H-S 2:485-486), and “My Lord and my God…” (Acts of Thomas 81; H-S 2:486). He describes the object of his proclamation as “the Lord and God of all, Jesus Christ whom I preach” (Acts of Thomas 26; H-S 2:456) and is himself described three times as “the apostle of the new God” (Acts of Thomas 42; H-S 2:466; 69 and 70; H-S 2:480). The Gospel of Bartholomew notes that after Jesus “had suffered and risen again…his appearance was not as it was before, but revealed the fullness of his godhead” (1:3; H-S 1:488). Describing Jesus’ descent into Hell, the texts reads, “Hades answered [Beliar]: ‘…It cannot be that God has come down. Woe is me! Where shall I flee before the face of the mighty great God?’” (Gospel of Bartholomew 1:19; H-S 1:489). In this same text, the narrator prays, “Glory be to thee, O Lord Jesus Christ…We praise thee as God” (Gospel of Bartholomew 4:69; H-S 1:502). Elsewhere, the document states that “Bartholomew came to her [the virgin Mary]…and said: ‘You who are highly favored, tabernacle of the Most High’” (Gospel of Bartholomew 2:4; H-S 1:492). Shortly thereafter, all the apostles declare, “In you [Mary] the Lord set his tabernacle and was pleased to be contained by you” (2:8; H-S 1:492) and Peter states, “You [Mary] were made the tabernacle of the most high God” (Gospel of Bartholomew 4:4; H-S 1:495).
From the evidence presented in this section, it is easy to see that the New Testament gospels are not alone in their proclamation of the deity of Christ. In fact, it is not difficult to see that all categories of extra-biblical texts (orthodox, hybrid, and heterodox) go considerably further than do the canonical gospels in the language they use to describe the divine aspects of the nature of Jesus. In comparison, the language of the New Testament gospels appears quite muted. Therefore, the conclusion this evidence requires is not merely that the authors like Dan Brown, John Dominic Crosson, Robert Funk, and Burton Mack are wrong when they claim that the biblical gospels offer false claims of a divine Jesus whereas the extra-biblical documents tell the real story of a “mere[ly] mortal” Jesus. Rather, they are actually guilty of reversing the emphasis of the non-canonical texts: not only do they not reveal a Jesus who is only human—they emphasize His deity even more than do the canonical gospels!
A Jesus Who Did Not Work Miracles?
From the Enlightenment to the “demythologizing” work of Rudolph Bultmann and the Form Critics to the conclusions of the modern Jesus Seminar, the tendency of “higher critical scholarship” has been to disregard ancient texts which testify to the miraculous works of Jesus. With the rise of the Jesus Seminar and the popularization of its conclusions by The Da Vinci Code, however, a new element in the argument against the reliability of the canonical gospels is being employed. Now the claim is that the extra-biblical materials provide more a more accurate description of Jesus as merely a teacher of wisdom who never worked miracles or performed exorcisms. As in the two previous sections, however, the question is whether or not the ancient evidence actually supports these assertions.
Orthodox extra-biblical texts exhibit a certain continuity with the canonical gospels with respect to doctrine. When reporting the miraculous, however, the tendency is toward more sensational or exaggerated claims. Many have heard about stories such as this from the childhood of Jesus, “When this boy Jesus was five years old…He made soft clay and fashioned from it twelve sparrows. But Jesus clapped his hands and cried to the sparrows: ‘Off with you!’ And the sparrows took flight and went away chirping” (Infancy Story of Thomas 2:1-4; H-S 1:392-393). The same text relates a similar story: “His father was a carpenter…And he received an order from a rich man to make a bed for him. But when one beam was shorter than its corresponding one…the child Jesus said to his father Joseph: ‘Put down the two pieces of wood’…And Jesus stood at the other end and took hold of the shorter piece of wood, and stretching it made it equal with the other” (Infancy Story of Thomas 13:1-2; H-S 1:396). In another incident during His childhood, “…while James [Jesus’ half-brother] was gathering the sticks, a viper bit the hand of James. And as he lay stretched out and about to die, Jesus came near and breathed upon the bite, and immediately the pain ceased, and the creature burst, and at once James became well (Infancy Story of Thomas 16:1-2; H-S 1:398). Another document reports an angel of the Lord saying to a woman with a withered hand who came to visit the baby at His birth, “Come near, touch the child, and you will be healed” (Protevangelium of James 20:3; H-S 1:385). During the flight to Egypt, “…they went to that sycamore tree, which today is called Matarea, and the Lord Jesus made to gush forth in Matarea a spring, in which the lady Mary washed his shirt. And from the sweat of the Lord Jesus which she wrang out there, balsam appeared in that place” (Arabic Infancy Gospel 24; H-S 1:409). Later on the same trip, “…lions and leopards worshipped him and accompanied them in the desert…showing (them) the way and lowering their heads (in worship); they showed their servitude by wagging their tails…” (Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 19:1; H-S 1:410). Yet another texts states that when He was brought before Pilate, “the images of the emperor on the standards bowed and did reverence to Jesus” (Acts of Pilate 5; H-S 1:452).
Hybrid texts exhibit the same tendency to exaggerate the miraculous. For example, in reporting Jesus’ resurrection, the Gospel of Peter states, “Now in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned…there rang out a loud voice in heaven, and they [the guards] saw the heavens opened and two men come down from there in a great brightness and draw nigh to the sepulchre. That stone which had been laid against the entrance to the sepulchre started of itself to roll [away]…” (9:35–37; H-S 1:224). The same work continues, “And whilst they [the soldiers guarding the tomb] were relating what they had seen, they saw again three men come out from the sepulchre, and two of them sustaining the other, and a cross following them, and the heads of the two reaching to heaven, but that of him who was led of them by the hand overpassing the heavens” (10:39-40; H-S 1:225).
Gnostic works appear to surpass orthodox and hybrid extra-biblical documents in their exaggerated claims of the miraculous. One of the best examples of this is Jesus’ claim in Pistis Sophia that He Himself was responsible for Elizabeth’s miraculous conception and Mary’s virginal conception, “[Jesus said:] ‘And when I set out for the world, I…had the form of Gabriel…I looked down at the world of mankind at the command of the first Mystery. I found Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist…and I sowed into her a power which I had taken from the little Jao, the Good, …that he [John] might be able to proclaim before me, and prepare my way and baptize with water…’ Jesus again continued in his speech and said: ‘…at the command of the first Mystery I looked down upon the world of mankind and found Mary, who is called “my mother” according to the material body, that I spoke with her in the form of Gabriel, and when she had turned upwards toward me, I thrust into her the first power, which I had taken from Barbelo, that is, the body which I have borne on high.
And in the place of the soul I thrust into her the power which I have taken from the great Sabaoth the Good…’” (Pistis Sophia 7–8; H-S 1:402–403). The Gospel of Bartholomew records Jesus as saying that during the crucifixion, “…when I [Jesus] commanded him [Michael] to go up, a flame issued from his hand, and after he had rent the veil of the temple he divided it into two parts as testimony to the children of Israel for my passion…” (Gospel of Bartholomew 1:27; H-S 1:491). At the Ascension, “…the disciples were sitting together on the Mount of Olives…[and] that power of light descended upon Jesus and surrounded him entirely and he shone exceedingly, and the light was beyond measure…and the light was of different kinds…one was more excellent than the other…boundless splendor of light; it extended from beneath the earth as far as the heaven…Jesus rose up or flew into the heights” (Pistis Sophia; H-S 1:253-254; cf. H-S 1:364).
From these examples it can be seen that all categories of extra-biblical material (orthodox, hybrid, and heterodox) display no tendency to eliminate the miraculous element in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, in much the same way in which they deal with the human and divine elements of Jesus’ ministry, these documents exhibit the tendency toward exaggeration. In no way can it be said that the non-canonical texts support the assertions of the Jesus Seminar and The Da Vinci Code that the ministry of Jesus did not contain demonstrations of the miraculous. Yet again, the textual evidence to which they point to buttress their argument actually argues against their position!
Misogyny in the Biblical Gospels?
A final claim made by the Jesus Seminar and popularized by The Da Vinci Code is that the biblical gospels demonstrate a generally negative attitude toward women and a specific tendency to suppress the part played women in the early church. This inequity, they say, can be rectified by reference to the materials that were intentionally left out of the canon of the New Testament and eventually suppressed with the help of a Christianized Roman Empire (cf., e.g., The Da Vinci Code, pp. 233–234, 238–239, 244). Again, the question must be asked: Do these radical assertions meet the burden of proof? The answer lies only in the documents they put forward as their “evidence.”
Because of the close doctrinal affinities the orthodox texts have with their biblical counterparts, decidedly few texts can be adduced to represent this category. One such text is the orthodox (H-S 2:992–395) Acts of Andrew, wherein the apostle Andrew declares, “…Adam died in Eve because of the harmony of their relationship…” (Acts of Andrew 7; H-S 2:411), which appears to be a reference to the first couple’s sexual union (cf. paragraph 5 above, etc. which demonstrates the typical extra-biblical tendency toward asceticism). The insinuation is that Adam did not fall because of disobedience but because of his sexual relationship with a woman.
Similarly, hybrid texts remain close enough to a biblical perspective that very few exhibit misogynous tendencies. An exception appears in a prayer of the apostle John, “When I regained my sight [you] didst disclose to me the repugnance even of looking closely at a woman” (Acts of John 113; H-S 2:257). This text exhibits the same ascetic tendencies as displayed by the Acts of Andrew above and throughout the corpus of extra-biblical material.
Ironically, it is the thoroughly heterodox (Gnostic) texts which display the highest degree of misogyny—ironic because the Gnostic texts are the category of extra-biblical most often invoked by the Jesus Seminar and the only category cited in the Da Vinci Code (pp. 245–247). For example, one of the favorite extra-biblical texts of the Jesus Seminar is the Gospel of Thomas. It says, “Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go out from among us, because women are not worthy of the Life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter the kingdom of heaven (Gospel of Thomas 114; H-S 1:522). In the minds of those in heretical movements like Christian Gnosticism, being born female was evidently an impediment to entrance into the Kingdom of God. The Gospel of Thomas is not the only text that reflects this belief, “Then arose Mary, saluted them all, and spoke to her brethren: ‘…Let us rather praise his greatness, for he hath made us ready, and made us to be men’” (Gospel of Mary; H-S 1:342; H-S 1:393). Evidently the Gospel of the Egyptians contained a similar teaching, “[Julius Cassianus, founder of Docetism] said, ‘And how could a charge not be rightly brought against the Saviour, if he has transformed us and freed us from error, and delivered us from sexual intercourse?’ … Cassianus now says, ‘When Salome asked when what she had inquired about would be known, the Lord said, “When you have trampled on the garment of shame and when the two become one and the male with the female (is) neither male nor female”’” (Gospel of Egyptians in Clement of Alexandria Stromateis 3.91ff.; H-S 1:168; H-S 12:211). Another passage from the same work reads, “The Saviour himself said, ‘I am come to undo the works of the female,’ by the female meaning lust, and by the works of birth and decay” (Gospel of the Egyptians in Clement of Alexandria Stomateis 3.63; H-S 1:166–167). The Gospel of Philip (a work quoted by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code in an attempt to demonstrate that the historical Jesus actually intended women to govern the church, a fact that the supposedly misogynous biblical gospels suppressed) reads, “When Eve was [i]n A[d]am, there was no death. But when she separated [from] him, death came into being. Again, if en[ter]s (into him) and he takes to himself, death will no longer exist” (Gospel of Philip 71; H-S 12:197; the same idea is expressed again in Gospel of Philip 78; H-S 12:198). In other words, the Gospel of Philip teaches that women have no chance of salvation unless their femaleness is eradicated and they are submerged back into the male—a teaching much like that seen in the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of the Egyptians above. The First Apocalypse of James also overtly denigrates the contribution of women, “…the work of femaleness hast attained to the work of this manhood” (H-S 12:325). The inferiority of women to men is also a theme often expressed, “Along with the true prophet [Adam] there has been created as a companion a female being who is as far inferior to him as metousia is to ousia, as the moon is to the sun, as fire is to light. As a female she rules over the present world, which is like her” (Epistle of Peter to James 3:22; H-S 2:117) and “While in this world[,] the union consists man and wife—representing power and weakness” (Gospel of Philip 103; H-S 1:201). Women are still the primary source of temptation, defilement, and deception, “Then the Saviour confirmed and said: ‘[Therefore it is] said: “Anyone who seeks the truth from her [a female] who is truly wise will make himself wings so as to fly when he has to flee the desire which burns the spirits of men…stinking pleasure…insatiable lust…the bitter bond of desire…They are constantly being killed, as they are drawn to all beasts of uncleanness (Book of Thomas; H-S 1:242-243)…Woe to you who love the company of women and the adulterated intercourse with them…masters of your body…evil demons” (Book of Thomas; H-S 1:246); “Proclaiming what pertains to the present world, female prophecy desires to be considered male. On account of this she steals the seed of the male, envelops them with her own seed of the flesh and lets them…come forth as her own creations…she promises to give earthly riches…believes that she herself will be deified…she destroys what she has. Pretending to make sacrifice, she stains herself with blood at the time of her menses and thus pollutes those who touch her…brings about wars in which much blood is shed…she prophesies errors…and thus deceives” (Epistle of Peter to James 3:23; H-S 2:117–118). The purity of prayer can even be adulterated by the mere presence of women, “Judas said, ‘…When we pray, how shall we pray?’ The Lord said, ‘Pray in the place where there is no woman’” (Dialogue of the Saviour 90–91; H-S 12:310).
In comparison to biblical texts, the orthodox and hybrid documents have a somewhat lower view of women, sex, the physical world, and the human body. The tendency of the heterodox (fully Gnostic) documents, however, far outstrips the biblical gospels and the orthodox and hybrid extra-biblical materials. Therefore, the textual evidence does not support popular claims that the New Testament gospels are a part of a movement to marginalize the role of women and that the extra-biblical texts elevate the role of women.
In fact, the opposite is again the case. The gospels consistently demonstrate Jesus’ willingness to approach and mainstream marginalized women (Mt. 9:20–22; 26:7–13; Mk. 5:25–34; 14:3–9; Lk. 7:37–50; 8:43–48; Jn. 4:7–27; 12:3–8, etc.). They are set up as role-models of sacrifice and persistence (Mt. 12:41–44; Lk. 7:37–50; 15:8–10, etc.). Their faithfulness is juxtaposed to the fearfulness of Jesus’ male followers (Mt. 27:55–56; Mk. 15:40–41; cf. Mt. 26:56, etc.). They receive revelation and function prophetically (Lk. 1:26–38, 46–55; 2:36–38; 21:9; cf. Acts 21:9), and are equally engaged in prayer (Acts 1:14), witness and public ministry (Acts 1:15; 2:4, 17–18). They are not only the first to give testimony to the resurrection and bring the good news to the men (Mt. 28:1–10; Mk. 16:1–11; Lk. 24:1–11; Jn. 20:1–18), but they are also later seen giving instruction to men (Acts 18:26; for a more complete treatment of the issue of women in ministry, cf. W.E. Nunnally, “Women in Ministry” and Craig Keener, Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1992, esp. pp.101–121).
This article has attempted to address the four most prominent assertions of the Jesus Seminar/Da Vinci Code claims about the New Testament gospels and their non-canonical counterparts. After having categorized, surveyed, and analyzed the relevant extra-biblical texts, it can be convincingly said that they do not support the arguments that the biblical gospels obscure the humanity of Jesus but the extra-biblical texts clearly reveal it. Nor can it be said that the biblical gospels provide exaggerated claims of deity while the non-canonical documents deny the deity of Jesus. Further, it cannot be claimed on the basis of textual evidence that the gospels of the New Testament inject exaggerated claims of Jesus’ miracles whereas the extra-biblical texts reveal a Jesus who is merely a teacher of wisdom. Finally, their assertion that the biblical gospels marginalize women whereas the non-canonical texts elevate the status of women also evaporates in the presence of the very evidence they claim supports it. In fact, not only does the ancient evidence fail to support these four arguments—it has actually been shown to be diametrically opposed to them!
A practical conclusion we can take away from this study is that those who are really seeking the truth have nothing to fear from the evidence. Another thing we can take away from this study is that it is not only important to engage current issues at the evidential level, it is also possible. Also, one does not have to be an “expert” in the field to be able to read the relevant texts and be able to provide evidentially based responses to detractors and to the faithful who have legitimate questions.
One final practical consideration: many works that focus on exaggerated reports of the miraculous, apocalyptic visions, and revelations do not focus on the person and work of Jesus (e.g., the Apocalypse of Paul). In this respect, much of modern “Christian” writing, preaching, and teaching exhibit greater similarity to extra-biblical documents than to the biblical documents they are supposed to emulate. Similarly, many of the reports of the miraculous heard in Christian circles today more closely resemble the exaggerated reports of the miraculous that appear in extra-biblical (including heretical) documents rather than their less spectacular biblical counterparts. Consequently, these extra-biblical materials provide a helpful point of comparison, valuable not only for comparison to our ancient biblical documents, but for the evaluation of the content of modern messages as well!
Dr. Wave Nunnally
Professor Emeritus of Early Judaism and Christian Origins Evangel University, Springfield, MO
Jewish backgrounds, New Testament, Hebrew language and the land of Israel are areas of expertise for Dr Wave Nunnally. He has studied, taught and written in these areas for over… More
Holy Land Trip
May 22 - June 1, 2023
Details: Join Wave & Lacey Nunnally on a special study trip to Israel during the Feast of Pentecost. This trip is designed for anyone who attended Central Bible College or… More