Scholars and writers who believe Christianity has its present shape because of suppression of “lost gospels” by church leaders in the early centuries of the faith, which is a premise of Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code,” simply haven’t looked hard for those gospels, according to a Baylor University historian.
If they had, they would have realized that alternative or extra-canonical accounts of the life of Jesus Christ lived on in many Christian churches for more than a thousand years, Baylor distinguished professor of history Philip Jenkins said.
In his new book “The Many Faces of Christ,” Jenkins finds that writings such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, the Gospel of James, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary survived for centuries in churches in Ethiopia, Central Asia, the British Isles and the Middle East.
Though falling outside what was considered canonical, those lost scriptures still influenced Christian tradition by filling in stories where Old and New Testament accounts were thin or absent: the Harrowing of Hell, Christ’s visit to Hell after his death; the conception, childhood and death of the Virgin Mary; Satan, not the serpent, in the garden of Eden; the life of Adam and Eve; and accounts of angels and saints.
“Every couple of years, you hear about a new lost gospel that’s been discovered, such as the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, but (their advocates are) building into a myth system,” Jenkins said in a recent interview. “Many of the gospels never went away.”
For instance, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, whose roots go back to the fourth century, has 81 books in its Bible, considerably more than the 66 in the standard Protestant Bible. Medieval monasteries in Ireland and Britain had libraries with such texts as the Protevangelium, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Book of Enoch and dozens more whose roots were in the Mediterranean world in the first centuries.
Some of the oldest Old and New Testament apocryphal books have been found in Slovakian churches in Eastern Europe, some thought preserved since the Byzantine Empire.
The Koran, particularly in its accounts of Jesus, contains echoes of lost scriptures that circulated in the Middle East in the first five centuries A.D. Early Buddhist writings also have traces of the Harrowing of Hell story.
Many stories from Lost Gospels found their way into medieval churches’ stained glass windows and traveling mystery plays that dramatized biblical tales to village audiences — plays that William Shakespeare might have seen as a boy, Jenkins said.
Christmas carols that mention the ox and ass as present at Jesus’ birth or identify the Magi as three kings are using details not from biblical accounts, but extra-canonical stories.
This wealth of scriptures outside the canonical Bible points to a historical diversity within Christianity that people looking back in history through the filter of Western Christianity may miss, Jenkins said.
That broader view of Christianity has long been an interest for the prolific historian, a graduate of Clare College, Cambridge, and co-director for Baylor’s Program on Historical Studies of Religion in its Institute for Studies of Religion. He has written more than two dozen books, including “The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity,” “God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis” and “The Lost History of Christianity.”
While he disputes the view popularized by Brown and others than the Church actively suppressed alternative scriptures in the third and fourth century, Jenkins points to the 16th century’s Reformation and Counter-Reformation movements as the time when those texts were banned from both Protestant and Catholic churches and effectively sidelined.
A new emphasis on the role of the Bible in determining faith drew attention to which books were deemed authoritative or not, and improved communications plus stronger church authority turned many non-canonical scriptures into what became lost scriptures.
The Baylor historian was quick to say that the canonical books of the Bible stand apart in historicity, wide use and general acceptance of their authority.
“I’m certainly not suggesting expand the canon or add these other texts, but don’t be afraid of them.” Jenkins said. “Read them and understand them, but don’t take them as authoritative.”
Jenkins said that just as contemporary Christians find inspirational value in fictional works such as C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” which imagines a dialogue between Satan and a lesser devil, or John Bunyan’s allegorical “Pilgrim’s Progress,” lost scriptures may prod thinking in issues of faith.
A modern counterpart might be fan fiction, where fans of a particular television series, movie or novel expand those stories through creations of their own, Jenkins said.
He points to a powerful image in the apocryphal New Testament book “The Cave of Treasures,” which holds that Adam was buried on the site where, ages later, Jesus was crucified. At the crucifixion, Jesus’ blood dripped to the ground and into the skull of Adam, thus redeeming the whole of God’s creation.
“People express things in different ways,” Jenkins said. “Many times we explore things through stories.”