OR, WHY JUST FOUR GOSPELS?
“Why do you guys have four gospels?” my Muslim friends ask, on the understanding that three of them would be superfluous and unnecessary were the Quran to include a gospel, or, in Arabic, “Injil.”
By contrast, many of my more secular friends wonder why we only have four gospels, when, according to Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, there were at least eighty gospels written by the time of the Emperor Constantine. Don’t ask me where and how Brown came up with this figure. But he and many others believe or imply that all eighty were and remain of equal value, maybe of even greater value if its true, as Dan Brown says, that the Roman emperors and the Vatican were trying to hide something from us by choosing our four gospels. And if the Vatican even existed back then.
The fact that there are four canonical gospels is increasingly explained as a power play on the part of early church leaders to solidify their own authority. This is also the impression I certainly got from a Town Forum speech recently delivered by the scholar, Elaine Pagels, in Minneapolis. The only justification she gave for the four canonical gospels is something Bishop Athanasius once said, in the Fourth Century AD, that since there were four winds and four directions, there should therefore be four gospels. The audience laughed heartily along with her at his reasoning. I would have joined in, too, if that had been his sole justification for the four gospels. But it wasn’t.
With all the gospels being generated in the second through fifth centuries, there certainly were issues and questions of authority. But if the likes of Athanasius and Ambrose wanted to choose gospels that would have solidified their own ecclesiastical power, they could have chosen better gospels than the ones that were recommended to us in Bishop Athanasius’ festal letter of 367 AD, which contains the first list of the twenty-seven documents we now call the New Testament canon. And we can get into long arguments over the degree to which Athanasius was prescribing or describing what the church recognized as apostolic and, therefore, canonical, documents.
What most of the gospels that didn’t make the cut have in common are two things (at least): relative youth and gnosticism. As for the first criterion, age or youth, most of the gospels that Dan Brown and some of my friends wish to include in a newly configured canon are demonstrably not of the same age as the canonical gospels. More than a few of them bear evidence of having been written much later, even in reaction to the apostolic gospels, as increasingly appears to be the case with the Third Century Gospel of Judas.
As for gnosticism, that’s what disqualified many, if not most, of the other gospels. Gnosticism is a hard thing to describe. I think of it as a tendency to divorce the spiritual from the material, to elevate the spiritual over the material, and to seek and offer pathways of escape and salvation from the evil material world through secret rituals and knowledge (or gnosis, in Greek), bordering on, or including, magic. This kind of religion would have lent itself very well to the creation of a very authoritarian church hierarchy that would logically be indispensable because of its unique access to secret knowledge that one could get nowhere else. That we did get very authoritarian church hierarchies that made themselves nearly indispensable has less to do with the canonical Bible and more to do with the nature of humans and institutions.
A cursory examination of both Testaments would show that the gnostic worldview of Dan Brown’s symbolology in The Da Vinci Code, and in many of the noncanonical gospels is entirely alien to the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and that much of the New Testament is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with gnosticism. The gnostic gospels present Jesus as a teacher of deep and mystical secrets, which is their perfect right by modern standards of free speech. But such a Jesus is hard to square with his Judaism and his Hebrew Bible, unless one wishes to reinvent him in the manner of a radically Hellenized (Greek-ified) Jew, more amenable to pagan society of the time than to his Palestinian Judaism.
Don’t think that hasn’t been tried. The attempt has been going on for 19 centuries, at least. But to include such gospels into the canon, as many would recommend, is to end up with a Bible with two heads sprouting off one body, the Old Testament. Were, say, The Gospel of Judas added right after Malachi (the last book of the Old Testament), before The Gospel of Thomas or Barnabas or the canonical Matthew, then we would have one Testament beginning with a ringing affirmation that the material creation is good, as is our place in it, and another testament beginning with an affirmation that it is bad, and it is our job to escape from it.
The canonical New Testament is sometimes accused of being anti-semitic. It does reflect struggles of membership and meaning with mainstream Judaism of the time and with its leadership. But opening the canon to the gnostic gospels that were eventually rejected by the church would also open up the floodgates to virulent and unmistakable anti-semitism of the sort that has lately been noted in, for example, other translations of The Gospel of Judas than what National Geographic provided last year.
So, apart from any appeal to divine inspiration, we can affirm the value of the historic Christian canon on the basis of consistency, at the very least. If we wish to canonize all the gnostic and demonstrably non-apostolic gospels, as is anyone’s (personal) right, then, to be fair, please canonize them in a different Bible than the one we use at Emmanuel Mennonite Church. Don’t try to add them to either the Protestant or the Catholic/Orthodox Bible unless you wish to induce a massive case of multiple spiritual personality disorder, a schizoid spirituality and mission that would be both Hebraic and gnostic. I must confess, we Western Christians have had a hard enough time through the millenia with our incipient gnostic tendencies and our multiple spiritual contradictions as it is. I for one would not wish to canonize that lamentable condition by re-opening the canon to everything we’ve already had to sift through beginning some nearly twenty centuries ago.
Mathew Swora, pastor
Emmanuel Mennonite Church