John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v. 1, ch. 5: Sources: The Agrapha and the Apocryphal Gospels,
pp 112-166

(Detailed summary)

Do the apocryphal Gospels really give us information about Jesus?

  • These texts are called "apocryphal" because Christians have excluded them from the list of canonical or normative books for the faith. They come above all from the pious and unbridled imagination of certain Christians of the 2nd century.

  • The ProtoGospel of James merges the childhood stories of Luke and Matthew and integrates into them the Romanesque folklore of the time, while showing a great ignorance of Jewish institutions. This book is the source of other apocryphal accounts of Jesus' childhood as well as legends about Mary (for example, the presentation of Mary in the temple at the age of three, accompanied by the procession of virgins). It tells us more about the 2nd century than about Jesus.

  • The same can be said of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where Jesus appears as a super kid capable of casting a spell to kill another child who wants to harm him. Not only is there no historical value, but also no theological value: it is an echo of the fascination of some Christians for the bizarre and magical world, as well as a taste for spectacle.

  • Many other apocryphal writings have come down to us only in fragments or through allusions in the Fathers of the Church. The Gospel of the Nazarenes copies Matthew, leaving room for imagination and moralization. The Gospel of the Ebionites is based on the synoptic Gospels to develop views proper to this Judeo-Christian sect. The Gospel of the Hebrews features James, the brother of Jesus, to the point of contradicting the New Testament. The Gospel of Peter, in which Peter speaks of himself in the first person, the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, is a pastiche of Gospel traditions, especially Matthew. Papyrus Egerton 2 (4 small fragments of papyrus found in Egypt first published in 1935) telling of Jesus healing a leper, talking about the tribute to Caesar or walking on the bank of the Jordan River seems only a rewriting of the synoptic accounts. The Secret Gospel of Mark, discovered in 1958 near Jerusalem and published in 1973, is said to be contained in a letter of about twenty lines by Clement of Alexander (150-215) and addressed to a certain Theodore: it recounts the resurrection of Lazarus and states that Mark went to Alexandria after the death of Peter; it should be noted that Clement of Alexandria is not always very critical of his sources and that we find here what we already have in the Gospels.

  • The discovery in 1945 in the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt of a bookstore in Coptic language of twelve books and eight leaves of a thirteenth book dating from the 4th century deserves special treatment. It is a real library since everything can be found there: fragments of Plato's Republic, the Sentences of Sextus, a pagan moralist, but also many Christian Gnostic documents (according to Gnosis, or "Knowledge", originally we were a spirit with God and, by an accident of history, We have found ourselves in matter, a real prison, and salvation consists in waking up and becoming aware of our spiritual origins, and in becoming as independent as possible from matter and body), like the Gospel of Truth, or the Gospel of Philip. But these Gospels are to be placed in the file of apocryphal writings resulting from the imagination of pious Christians: the carpenter Joseph is said to have made the tree grow which would have served as a cross for Jesus. However, special treatment must be given to the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus dating back to the second century, because bits of the Greek version have been found on papyri found in the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhincus. Even though the entire Gospel is marked by Gnostic theology, many biblical scholars would see it as an independent source of our four Gospels. This should be rejected for five reasons:

    • All the other 2nd century writings analyzed so far were all dependent on the Gospels, whose narratives they extended with an overflowing imagination.

    • The Gospels come from an oral tradition and this oral tradition did not stop with them, and so the Gospel of Thomas could in its own way echo this same tradition.

    • The fact that the Gospel of Thomas is short is not at all a proof of antiquity: a) Matthew abbreviated and simplified many of Mark's passages, yet Mark is older; b) it is part of the author's intention in the Gospel of Thomas to be laconic and to emphasize the hermetic character, since his work is addressed to "initiates"; c) his Gnostic view of things leads him to eliminate many elements that do not fit in with his theology, such as the historical character of salvation.

    • The study of the Gospel of Thomas shows that the author knows an amalgamated version of the Gospels as known in the 2nd century, with priority given to Matthew, then to Luke, with little room for Mark and almost nothing for John.

    • Even the order of the texts of the Gospel of Thomas bears the mark of the order of the narratives of the synoptic Gospels.

  • In conclusion, it must be recognized that all these texts do not provide any particular information about Jesus and are even dependent on the Gospel stories.

Next chapter: If the Gospels are catechetical narratives, how can historical information be extracted from them?

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