Are the Gospels Reliable Sources? Part Six: “They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths…” – The ‘extracanonical Gospels’    

This is part six of an article series asking Are the Gospels Reliable Sources. The whole series can be read here. The bibliography for these articles can be seen here.

These Gospels – which are also referred to as ‘extracanonical Gospels’ – are purported to make important contributions to our knowledge of the historical Jesus. Sometimes it is even claimed that these texts give us more reliable information about Jesus then the New Testament Gospels themselves. Is this claim valid? Do the extracanonical Gospels provide us with reliable, historical information about Jesus? Should our understanding of Jesus be shaped by what these nonbiblical Gospels have to offer? 

Dr Craig Evans: Professor of Christian Origins at Houston Baptist University   

The articles up to this point worked on the assumption that the four Gospels found in the New Testament are the only Gospels and our only accurate accounts of Jesus’ life. However, there are later Gospels which also claim to be based on eyewitness testimony and reveal information about Jesus. This article will examine the reliability of the extracanonical, or apocryphal, Gospels and ask why there are only four Gospels in the New Testament. 

The Gospel of Mark was probably written around 60-70 C.E., Matthew and Luke around 75-80 C.E., and John is from roughly 85-95 C.E. In contrast, the earliest of the apocryphal Gospels were written around 120 C.E., and the latest, the Gospel of Judas, dates from around 280 C.E. Some of the most well-known and influential of the apocryphal Gospels are the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and the Gospel of Judas.  John P. Meier wrote that: 

‘Contrary to some scholars, I do not think that the…agrapha, the apocryphal Gospels…(in particular the Gospel of Thomas) offer us reliable new information or authentic sayings that are independent of the NT. What we see in these later documents is rather…imaginative Christians reflecting popular piety and legend, and gnostic Christians developing a mystic speculative system…It is only natural for scholars – to say nothing of popularisers – to want more, to want other access roads to the historical Jesus. This understandable but not always critical desire is, I think, what has recently led to the high evaluation, in some quarters, of the apocryphal Gospels … as sources for the quest. It is a case of the wish being father to the thought, but the wish is a pipe dream. For better or for worse, in our quest for the historical Jesus we are largely confined to the canonical Gospels.’ 

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a collection of stories about Jesus’ childhood, supposedly written by the apostle Thomas, dated to the mid to late second century. The title and the opening line say: 

‘The account of Thomas the Israelite philosopher concerning the childhood of the Lord: I Thomas the Israelite, tell and make known to you all, brethren from among the Gentiles, all the works of the childhood of our Lord Jesus Christ and his mighty deeds, which he did when he was born in our land.’ 

One of the Greek manuscripts specifies that ‘Thomas the Israelite’ is ‘the holy apostle Thomas’. The portrayal of Jesus in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas does not match that of Jesus in the canonical Gospels. There is a story where Jesus is annoyed by another child. Jesus calls him an ‘insolent, godless dunderhead’ and says, ‘you also shall wither like a tree and shall bear neither leaves nor root not fruit’. The child then dies. Later, another boy accidentally bumps Jesus’ shoulder and Jesus kills him as well. 

The Gospel of Thomas dates to around the year 180 C.E. It is an esoteric text and claims to have secret teachings of Jesus that were given to the apostle Thomas and the other disciples. It is meant to supplement the canonical Gospels. The Jesus of Thomas is different to the Jesus of the canonical Gospels. Whilst the canonical Jesus tells his disciples to have faith, Thomas’ Jesus tells them to find ‘the interpretation of these words’. He says that he will make Mary Magdalene into a man so she can enter the kingdom of heaven. There is also a focus on knowledge and learning, rather than faith, meaning that it contains elements of Gnosticism, an alternative movement to the Christians that borrowed and adapted from the New Testament Gospels. Both the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Thomas are dated far too late for Thomas to be the author; the only possible way it could be the case is if they are based upon a tradition that goes back to him but, unlike the canonical Gospels, there is no evidence for an accurate transmission of these traditions. 

The Gospel of Peter is an account of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, supposedly written in the first person by the apostle Peter. It is very different in its details to the canonical Gospels. Instead of saying ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34), Jesus says, ‘My power, O power, thou hast forsaken me!’ He also ascends to heaven just before he dies, rather than after his resurrection. 

The Gospel of Judas was the most recent apocryphal Gospel to be discovered, in 2006. Like the Gospel of Thomas, it contains purportedly secret conversations between Jesus and his apostles, in particular Judas. Jesus says (to Judas), ‘Separate from them, and I will tell you the mysteries of the kingdom’ in response to Judas’ remark: ‘I know who you are and from where you have come. You are from the immortal realm of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you’. Judas is also claimed to be the author of this Gospel. The dramatic differences between the Jesus of the canonical Gospels and the extracanonical ones suggests that the apocryphal Gospels contain later, fictional traditions. 

These apocryphal Gospels were rejected by the early Church Fathers. Irenaeus denounced both the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas. He described the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as ‘forged’ and the Gospel of Judas as a ‘fictitious history’. The second-century Syrian bishop Serapion described the Gospel of Peter as ‘falsely ascribed’. Eusabius and Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem, described the Gospel of Thomas as ‘the forgeries of heretics’ and as having ‘false titles’. 

Whilst the knowledge of geography and names is a reason to trust the canonical Gospels, the lack of accurate geographical information and names in the apocryphal Gospels is another reason to doubt their reliability. The Gospel of Thomas only has one location, Judaea which is only mentioned once, and the Gospel of Judas has no geographical locations. The Gospel of Thomas has some information, and includes James the Just, Jesus, Mary, Matthew, Salome, Simon Peter, and Thomas. In contrast, the Gospel of Judas only has two Palestinian Jewish men’s names, Jesus and Judas. Instead, it introduces a group of hybrid names, based on the Greek Bible and mysticism. These include Adonaios, Galila, Harmathoth, and Sophia. 

In contemporary culture, it is often claimed that it was Church councils and the emperor Constantine, who were responsible for choosing which Gospels, would make it into the New Testament. This however is an incorrect assumption. Charles E. Hill has demonstrated that the Gospels were not chosen by fourth-century councils or emperors, or by individual second or third century Church leaders. Instead, they were chosen by ‘some sort of “natural selection”’. He echoes the prolific twentieth-century biblical scholar Bruce Metzger. Metzger wrote, ‘neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to recognize and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church’. A misunderstanding of Jerome’s preface in his Latin translation of the book of Judith may be one of the reasons for the myth that the Council of Nicaea chose books of the bible. He wrote: 

‘But since the Nicene Council is considered (legitur lit. ‘is read’) to have counted this book among the number of sacred Scriptures, I have acquiesced to your request (or should I say demand!).’ 

It is unlikely that this means that a formal decision was made to include the book of Judith in canon lists, as many of the earliest adopters of ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’, such as Jerome himself, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nazianzus, would have included it in their own canon lists. As they do not, it is more likely that he is referring to certain individuals describing Judith as scripture. The canon lists of the Nicene Fathers are also not completely identical.  

Some scholars, such as Francis Watson, have argued that the ‘differentiation between identifiable canonical and noncanonical gospels is not based on identifiable criteria inherent to the texts’ and that there were not significant differences in content between the canonical and extracanonical Gospels. Instead, it was down to their circulation throughout the ‘early Christian world’. Some Gospels were accepted throughout, whilst others were only accepted in certain areas. There were, in particular, differences between East and West, and in order to be accepted a Gospel had to be acknowledged in both. The Gospel of John was eventually fully accepted, in part due to the aid of Irenaeus and Hippolytus, whilst the Gospel of Peter was not, even though it was known by ‘Justin in Rome as well as to Melito in Sardis, Serapion in Antioch, and Origen in Caesarea’. It was only known in the East as Irenaeus does not know about it. However, he knows about the Gospel of Judas whilst we have no other early writer mentioning it. I would agree largely with the second part of Watson’s argument, but I think he unnecessarily sees varying Gospel content, and Gospel circulation, as mutually exclusive explanations, whilst they were both relevant to the formation of the canon. A response to Watson came in the form of Simon Gathercole’s paper, ‘Jesus, the Apostolic Gospel and the Gospels’, at the British New Testament Conference 2014. Gathercole had also worked in the field of extracanonical Gospels, with two significant volumes on the Gospel of Thomas. He argued that there were parts of the canonical Gospels that separate them from the majority of extra canonical Gospels because they were connected to an apostolic creed, linked to the Gospel message preached by the apostles. Gathercole compared Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, with ‘the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary, the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of Judas’. He noted four key elements: 

  • the identity of Jesus as ‘the Christ’ 
  • Christ’s saving actions fulfil Scripture 
  • the atoning death of Jesus 
  • the resurrection of Jesus 

Whilst the extracanonical Gospels contain some of these elements, only the canonical Gospels contain all four. Watson responded, pointing out that the extracanonical Gospels should be compared individually, and that the Gospel of Peter is a lot closer to the canonical Gospels than the others. Richard Burridge and Eddie Adams also felt that Gathercole needed to include Jesus’ life and ministry in his elements. However, despite these, I think Gathercole succeeded in showing a difference in content between the canonical and extracanonical Gospels.  

Hill has also highlighted how there is a mid-second-century concept of a ‘fourfold gospel’. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were seen as a group. This led to ‘materials innovations’. In the late second century Tatian created what we believe to be the first, ‘Gospel Harmony’, or Diatessaron, where he tried to merge the content of the four Gospels into one account. In the third century Ammonius of Alexandria made a Gospel synopsis where he had four columns, one with the Gospel of Matthew and the others containing the parallel accounts from the other Gospels. At the same time, the Christians started binding their Gospels together as the codex was developed. We have no examples of any of the canonical Gospels being bound with any extracanonical Gospel.  

The result of all of this is that the extracanonical Gospels, whilst claiming to have secret knowledge about Jesus, and sayings left out of the canonical Gospels are actually later, unsubstantiated fictional traditions. The dramatic difference in how they portray Jesus suggests a Jesus created for theological reasons by groups like the Gnostics, which has no links to historical reality. 

Written by Alex Smith


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