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‘Apocryphal’ gospels examined by Gathercole at MBTS

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — British scholar Simon Gathercole led a two-lecture series at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary entitled, “What the 10 Gospels say about Jesus’ Death and Resurrection,” and “What the 10 Gospels say about Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.”

The series was part of the seminary’s annual Sizemore Lectures on April 18-19. The event featured Gathercole as keynote speaker.

The lectures compared and contrasted how the four New Testament, canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, would be distinguished from non-canonical gospels such as Peter, Thomas, Truth, Philip, Judas, and Egyptians in the areas of Jesus’ atoning death, Jesus’ resurrection on the third day, Jesus’ identity as the Christ, and the work of Christ as fulfilling Scripture.

The source for these points was Paul’s understanding of his gospel as stated in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 11.

Gathercole, who serves as reader in New Testament studies and director of studies at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University, in England, focuses his teaching, studies and authorship in areas such as New Testament interpretation, Christology, and doctrine of the atonement.

“It has been an incredible privilege to host such a noted scholar as Dr. Simon Gathercole and to have him serve our seminary community in this tremendous way,” said Jason Allen, Midwestern Seminary president.

“Rarely do you find an academician with such a heart for ministry, but Dr. Gathercole is one such man,” Allen noted. “His insight into how the New Testament gospels differ from the apocryphal, non-canonical gospels has deepened our confidence in the scriptural canon as God’s inerrant Word.”

Of the impetus for his presentations, Gathercole said, “Some of the most widely published challenges to the Christian faith today have come in the publicity surrounding the ‘apocryphal’ gospels, which are not included in the Christian Bible.

“The idea that there is nothing particularly special about the four New Testament gospels has appeared in both the popular media and in biblical scholarship, from references to the ‘Gospel of Philip’ in the Da Vinci Code, to the publication by the Harvard Theological Review of the so-called ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ fragment. These lectures discuss the relevance of the apocryphal gospels outside of the Bible, comparing them with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”

In both lectures, Gathercole — who has penned books such as “Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul,” “The Gospel of Judas; Rewriting Early Christianity,” and “The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke” — contended that the four New Testament gospels possess very specific aspects that unite them and mark them as particularly separate from the non-canonical gospels.

“The reason for this is that the content of the four [New Testament] gospels — unlike that of most others — conformed to a pre-existing apostolic creed, rule of faith, or preached gospel,” Gathercole said.

One example, concerning the atoning death of Christ, displayed how the non-canonical gospels widely vary from their New Testament counterparts.

While believers commonly understand the New Testament gospels as presenting Christ’s death as “a ransom for many,” His blood “poured out for many/you,” and Jesus’ body given “for the life of the world,” the gospels of the Egyptians and Judas actually reject Jesus’ death altogether.

“The Gospel of the Egyptians” IV 74.22-75.24 states, “… Jesus who was begotten by a living Logos, he whom the great Seth has put on. And through him (Jesus) he (Seth) nailed down the powers of the thirteen aeons, and made them motionless.” This actually expresses that evil beings were nailed down as opposed to Jesus.

The gospels of Thomas, Philip, and Peter similarly express a limited or unclear significance of Jesus’ atoning death.

In one similarity to the New Testament gospels, the “Gospel of Truth” expresses an effective atoning death of Christ. “Jesus Christ enlightened those who were in darkness through oblivion. He enlightened them; he showed a way; and the way is the truth which he taught them…. He was nailed to a tree, and he became fruit of the knowledge of the Father” (Gos. Truth, 18).

In summary, Gathercole said the majority of the non-canonical gospels lacked a redemptive death of Jesus, while the New Testament gospels offered Jesus’ death as truly atoning for the sins of the world.

In a second example, Gathercole referenced the identity of Christ as Messiah. He described how the New Testament gospels all detailed clearly who Christ was and provided numerous titles for Him, predominantly in their introductory passages and genealogies. He further noted that the theme of Jesus as Messiah runs throughout John’s gospel in particular. Titles given Jesus included: “Christ,” “Promised Redeemer,” “son of David,” and “King of Israel.”

On the other hand, the lecturer noted that the non-canonical gospels’ references to Christ’s identity ranged from rejecting his title as “Christ” and reinterpreting His title to simply making no reference to His title at all.

One such reference was found in the Gospel of the Egyptians, where there was a strong distancing of Jesus from the Creator. Gathercole said it was believed in this gospel that the Creator was evil. Jesus was not seen as the Christ figure; He was actually seen as lower than the “Christ.”

In summarizing his lectures, Gathercole reemphasized the diversity in opinions among scholars in the field of comparing the New Testament gospels with other non-canonical gospels. In his opinion, however, the New Testament gospels — because of their strong ties to pre-existing apostolic creeds, rules of faith, and previously preached gospels — are “worlds apart from the non-canonical gospels” in their truth and accuracy.

The Sizemore Lecture series was established in 1978 in memory of Dr. Burlan A. Sizemore, Jr., professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Midwestern Seminary from 1968-1976. This annual lecture series brings noted biblical scholars to Midwestern Seminary’s campus as a way of continuing Sizemore’s legacy of theological and biblical commitment.

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  • T. Patrick Hudson