Thursday, 18 September 2008

WRONG: There are four gospels

The Bible isn’t carved in stone, so to speak – the books that make it up were decided at a series of synods and councils between the 4th and 15th centuries. The four you’ve probably heard of, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are the accepted “canon”, but there are many more that didn’t make the cut. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, is believed to date from the first century CE, and is a collection of Jesus’ sayings written by his (spiritual) “twin”, Thomas.

The Gospel Of Peter, also from the first century, is notable for presenting the cross that Jesus was crucified on as being able to speak. (It says “Yea”, which may not be the sermon on the mount, but is pretty good for a lump of wood.)

Other books of dubious origin from the second century or thereabouts include:

• The Gospel Of James, who claims to be Jesus’ step-brother.
• The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (nothing to do with the other Gospel of Thomas), one version of which records that a boy punched the infant Jesus, who responded by cursing him to death. When the neighbours complained, Jesus blinded them with his powers. Meek and mild, my arse.
• The Gospel of Judas, which doesn’t claim to be by Judas, but asserts that he betrayed Jesus under direct orders from him.
• The Gospel of Nicodemus, which includes a passage that purports to be Pontius Pilate’s report to the Emperor Claudius.
• The Gospel of Mary, which may refer to Mary Magdelene or the Virgin Mary.
• The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, an account of the Virgin Mary’s childhood.
• The Gospel of Philip, which suggests that Jesus married Mary Magdalene.

Most interesting of all is the Gospel of Eve, which is almost entirely lost. The only reason we know of it at all is thanks to the early church father Epiphanius, who quoted it and dismissed it as – get this – a heretical justification of oral sex. A tragedy for us all that it was lost.

The fact that there are only four canon gospels is itself largely the result of a second-century theologian’s insistence. Irenaieus of Lyons decreed that, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds… it is fitting that she [the church] should have four pillars.” The four we have are merely the ones judged by the early church as most likely to be accurate accounts of Jesus’ life. See also WRONG: Jesus definitely existed

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