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01 May 2006

Is there more to Jesus’ life than the Gospels tell us?

by Rev Dr David Hilborn

It’s hard to avoid The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown’s novel has sold 40 million copies worldwide, and now here comes the Hollywood film, which looks set to pack out cinemas this summer.

Even though it’s essentially a potboiler thriller, The Da Vinci Code challenges ‘official’ Christianity. In Brown’s story, the historical Jesus was not divine, but a merely mortal prophet whose original teaching resides in documents which the Church suppressed. The novel also suggests that the forces of orthodoxy retrospectively embellished what would become the four Gospels. In particular, it claims that Jesus was artificially deified in the fourth century by the Council of Nicea, under instruction from the Roman emperor Constantine.

So what exactly are the alternative sources to which Brown refers? Is there really evidence about Jesus beyond the New Testament? And if so, what significance does it have?

Ancient texts

In his novel, Brown makes much of the Apocryphal Gospels, a series of writings about Jesus discovered at the Egyptian sites of Oxyrhynchus and Nag Hammadi in 1896 and 1945. Indeed, Brown states that the Nag Hammadi texts are the earliest records about Jesus, and were excluded from the canon because their portrait of him undermined Constantine’s effort to make Christianity uniquely powerful. Yet while these sources contain certain sayings that derive from the first century and which parallel the canonical Gospels, their own likely dating is mid-second century and later. By contrast, even quite sceptical scholars accept that the four New Testament Gospels were in circulation around AD 100.

Specifically, The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of Truth contain some early sayings of Jesus, but are infused with a Gnostic philosophy that sharply diverges from the canonical worldview, and which was rejected by mainline theologians like Irenaeus and Tertullian in the second century – well before Constantine came onto the scene.

The Da Vinci Code claims that Jesus was artificially deified in the fourth century by the Council of Nicea

In essence, Gnosticism was dualistic, teaching that matter is evil and spirit good, and that God is therefore divorced from the world. As such, it often preferred a Jesus who pointed to God but was not Himself divine. Brown’s controversial suggestion that Jesus fathered a child by Mary Magdalene may bear out this idea, but it is not in fact confirmed by any of the Apocryphal Gospels. In some cases, as with The Apocalypse of Peter, Gnosticism separated the divine and the human through the flip-side heresy of Docetism, in which Jesus only seemed to be human and did not truly die on the cross.

The most prominent of all the Gnostic Gospels is The Gospel of Thomas, and The Da Vinci Code makes great play of it. Thomas comprises 114 sayings, many of which parallel those found in New Testament.

The idea that the earliest written records of Jesus’ ministry comprised sayings rather than connected narratives goes back to the mid-19th century, when German scholars hypothesised a source of quotations (called Q) on which Matthew and Luke were thought to have drawn. However, Brown misrepresents the highly theoretical nature of Q when he suggests that it might have been written in Jesus’ "own hand".

A similar distortion attends his account of The Gospel of Thomas. Brown implies that this may be as early as Q, but it in fact excludes the more distinctively Jewish elements of Jesus’ ministry reported by Matthew, and misses the future aspects of His teaching about the Kingdom of God common to the first three canonical Gospels.

Indeed, the Jesus of Thomas comes over as an enigmatic Greek sage, rather than as a Hebrew Rabbi, which again suggests a later Gnostic reconstruction. Indeed, the majority of scholars hold it to have been compiled in Syria around AD 140.

The Da Vinci Code misleads readers still further by linking the Nag Hammadi documents with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in 1947 and date from the second century BC. They contain a mixture of Old Testament texts and apocrypha, plus rules relating to a monastic Jewish community at Qumran. The scrolls shed important light on the religious context of the time, but they never once mention Jesus. And where the scrolls are exclusive, sectarian, legalistic and puritanical, Jesus embraces Gentiles and ‘sinners’, challenges ritual purity codes and presents Himself as the fulfilment of the Law.

Historical record

If the scrolls tell us nothing directly about Jesus, the same is true of most other contemporary Jewish sources. Some researchers claim to see coded attacks against Him in various historical accounts, but He does not appear explicitly in any of them. The Babylonian Talmud mentions a ‘Yeshua’ who was ‘hanged [crucified] on the eve of Passover’, but the names and number of his disciples vary from the New Testament.

Against this background, the work of the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus is exceptional. Josephus was born in AD 37 and in his Antiquities records the execution of James, "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ". Elsewhere he offers a brief account of Jesus that identifies him as "a wise man", a "doer of startling deeds" and "a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure". Josephus goes on to describe Jesus’ ministry to both Jews and Gentiles, His confrontation with Pilate and His death on the cross. Other Roman historians only acknowledge Jesus through the activities of His followers.

During this same period various ‘sub-apostolic’ texts emerged, written in Greek by the early fathers of the Church. Among the most important of these are the community manual the Didache and the epistles of Barnabas, Ignatius and Polycarp, two epistles attributed to Clement, and the document known as The Shepherd of Hermas.

The earliest of these texts quote widely from what would become the canonical Gospels, which further supports the idea that those Gospels were regarded as authoritative by the second century. In the Didache and Ignatius, for example, virtually every allusion to Jesus’ teaching is paralleled in Matthew.

The most reliable accounts

The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from all this is that the fullest and most reliable accounts of Jesus life, words and ministry are those contained in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If they drew on earlier collections of sayings like Q, they represented them authentically, and crucially set them in narrative and historical context.

Josephus, Roman historians and the Dead Sea Scrolls may supplement our understanding of the wider world of the New Testament, but they tell us little or nothing about Jesus that is not contained in these four Gospels. The sub-apostolic fathers post-date the same Gospels and rely on them heavily, often quoting them with remarkable accuracy.

By contrast, the bulk of the Apocryphal Gospels on which The Da Vinci Code depends so much are often even later, and betray an inauthentic Gnosticism that was already regarded as heretical in the early Church.

David Hilborn

  • Rev Dr David Hilborn is the Alliance's former Head of theology

Part of the Big Question series first published in idea magazine between May 2004 & July 2007