Secrets of the Lost Gospels of Jesus

There were more than just Four Gospels of Jesus but many other stories of his life rejected by the early church as heretical as Tony McMahon discovers

Imagine a completely different story about Jesus Christ – one that diverges from what we get in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It does exist. In all those lost gospels rejected by the early Christian church. The texts thrown out because they didn’t conform to orthodoxy.

Secret gospels that minority Christian sects held on to and copied assiduously. With very different views of Jesus – some that he was simply a man while others that he was a supernatural being with no human substance. These gospels were burned, suppressed and banned. And only thanks to chance discoveries and archaeology have we any idea that they ever existed.

Those who oppose any study of the Lost Gospels today will claim – breathlessly – that the reason our gospels were chosen was because authorship could be verified. But no serious bible historian (as opposed to literal evangelical) really thinks the gospels were written by the apostles. “Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke” and “John” were names added later – and bear no relation to the illiterate followers of Jesus. In fact, the authors of the four gospels were Greek speakers – not Aramaic peasants.

Not just four gospels – but all the lost gospels too

For fifteen hundred years, Christians have grown used to the idea of just Four Gospels.  But these are the magic four that the early Church decided, for a variety of reasons, were acceptable to the faithful. The current compilation took a while to take root and to be universally accepted – and there are still differences between, say, Catholicism’s bible, Protestantism’s bible and that of the Eastern Orthodox church.

So what happened to the missing Gospels?   They were suppressed, burnt, condemned and so on.  But over the years, they have stubbornly turned up in other writings or simply been dug out of the ground.  A list of those Gospels and their translations can be found here.

Lost Gospels of James and St Peter

These include the Secret Book of James, the Gospel of St Peter and the Gospel of the Egyptians.  The latter was condemned for its insistence on sexual abstinence as a way of breaking the endless cycle of life and death and taking all our souls skywards to heaven.  This would not do as the church insisted we had to go through an earthly cycle to, as it were, prove our worthiness to go to heaven.  The earthy teacher and invigilator for this admittance exam for entrance to heaven would, of course, be the church.

In fact, any gospel that threatened the power and very raison d’etre for an earthly church was roundly condemned.  As were gospels – like that of the Ebionites – which presented Jesus as too mortal (and Jewish) or those that failed to present him as mortal enough (the Marcionites and Gnostics who saw him as a purely divine force to be understood through a kind of transcendental meditation).

Gaps in the life story of Jesus filled by the Lost Gospels

Interestingly, these gospels offer more information on key parts of the bible story.   The Infancy Gospel of James gives a whole heap of detail on Mary’s birth to an elderly couple who had given up hope of having children.  It explains why the Temple insisted on her marriage to the carpenter Joseph and then tells how Jesus was born in a cave with Salome acting as midwife.  As Herod’s troops approach, Jesus is hidden in an animal trough to avoid detection.

The Gospel of St Peter is at the more anti-Jewish end of the Gospel spectrum.  As the noted scholar Bart Ehrman has noted in his excellent books on biblical texts, you can crudely divide up gospels in to those that lean more towards a mortal and very Jewish Jesus and those that lean towards a more divine figure and tend to blame the Jews for his crucifixion.

In the Gospel of St Peter, Pontius Pilate is completely exonerated for the death of Jesus.  By washing his hands, he really has refused to have anything to do with the trial and it’s Herod Antipas who passes the death sentence.  The Coptic church took this interpretation a step further by looking at Pilate as a virtual saint.

Jesus the Vegetarian in the Lost Gospels

The Gospel of the Ebionites portrays Jesus and John the Baptist as vegetarians and Jesus takes a decidedly dim view of animal sacrifice in the Jewish Temple.   This makes Jesus a Jewish reformer – probably in the aftermath of the Roman destruction of the Temple and the soul searching that took place among Jews.

This event took place decades after the crucifixion but it shows how what was happening as these Gospels were written insinuated in to the stories.  Basically, the Gospels (including the four we know) were often part of a polemic between different Christian/Jewish groups.  They simply put words in to the mouth of Jesus and his apostles to support their view.

Mary Magdalene way more important in the Lost Gospels

The Gospel of Mary controversially places Mary Magdalene above the disciples – not just in the affections of Jesus but as a follower.  As with many of these Gospels and the four we know (mainly written in the very late first century and most in the second century AD), what we can actually discern here are some early disputes between Christians.

In this case – are women allowed to preach and hold high position in the church?   The argument is portrayed in a dispute within the Gospel between St Peter and Mary Magdalene.   Peter is obviously telling Mary Magdalene to get back in the kitchen and make some tea for the lads (I’m joking) while Mary has different ideas.  This same story of a bust up between the two appears in at least three other suppressed Gospels – the Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of St Thomas.

The latter gospel is very interesting.  St Thomas is said to be the apostle who takes Christianity to India.  While in India, he encounters a huge snake that reveals itself to be the devil.  I love this encounter where Lucifer explains the difficult relationship with a father who he feels has been rather unfair to him – here is a quote:

And he said unto him (devil to Thomas): I am a reptile of the reptile nature and noxious son of the noxious father, of him that hurt and smote the four brethren which stood upright.  I am also son to him that sitteth on a throne over all the earth, that receiveth back his own from them that borrow.  I am son to him that girdeth about the sphere and I am kin to him that is outside the ocean whose tail is set in his own mouth.  I am he that entered through the barrier in to paradise and spake with Eve the things which my father bade me speak unto her.  I am he that kindled and inflamed Cain to kill his own brother and on mine account did thorns and thistles grow up in the earth.

One thing to note about the Thomas gospel is that Jesus is rarely challenged as he sets down the law of his father.  But in Gospels that are regarded as earlier than Thomas – the so-called Oxryhynchus 1224 Gospel written very close to Jesus’ death – Jesus has to argue hard with his opponents in the market place.

Well, there’s plenty more than can be said about the Apocrypha – the term used for the Lost Gospels.  If you thought there were contradictions in the accounts of the four Gospels authorised by the Church (compare their accounts of the empty tomb discovery for example), then you’ll find plenty more confusion when you add these in to the mix.

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The Spanish Inquisition – what was it really like?

What was it like to be a prisoner of the notorious Spanish Inquisition? Well, I got a unique insight in 2019 when I visited what had been a Spanish Inquisition prison in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.

You might ask – what was the Spanish Inquisition doing in the Sicilian capital, Palermo? Isn’t that part of Italy?

And the answer is that Sicily was ruled by Spain from the 15th to the 18th century. With Spanish rule came the Spanish Inquisition and that meant imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake for those who didn’t accept the authority of the Roman Catholic church.

Spanish Inquisition gets to work in Sicily

In Palermo, people suspected of being ‘heretics’ – in opposition to Catholic teaching – were arrested and taken to a very severe looking building. They were crammed into dark cells from which they only emerged to be beaten and cruelly tortured.

But what is astonishing is that during their dreadful captivity, the prisoners used a mixture of dirt from the floor and their urine to paint religious art on the walls.

DISCOVER: Spying and torture inside the Stasi

This art was lost for centuries and only fully rediscovered in the last twenty years. Some of it seems to be a plea for mercy while other drawings are clearly intended to tell the Inquisition to sling its hook. There’s even one depiction of an inquisitor riding a donkey which is defecating.

I was genuinely affected by my visit to this Spanish Inquisition prison. It still holds the ability to terrify, though you have to use a bit of imagination to visualise it at the height of its operation. But frankly, anybody with a modicum of historical knowledge should be able to do that.

A visit is definitely recommended and – yes – you could take youngsters too. I suspect they’ll love it!

Jesus the Palestinian or not?

Palestinian, Judaean, Galilean or never existed?

An article in the New York Times in April 2019 made the entirely valid point that Jesus was unlikely to have been blonde and blue-eyed. It’s not impossible, but the balance of probability suggests not.

The author was stating something I’ve heard many times from black friends who grew up in Christian households that while their families were deeply religious, there was always a picture of the son of God on the hallway wall looking way too Aryan!

The article suggested that as a “Palestinian” he was unlikely to resemble a German or Swede – as he often does in popular depictions. Jesus would have been darker skinned, brown eyed with brown or black hair. In other words, he would have looked Middle Eastern.

But this passing reference to the Messiah being Palestinian caused a furore on Twitter with demands for the New York Times to remove that word – which I believe they subsequently did for the digital article.

The argument ran that Jesus was from Judaea, not Palestine – and that he was Jewish and not an Arab. I should say that the person who led the Twitter storm agreed with the point about Jesus being way too blonde and blue eyed but just found the reference to Palestinian inappropriate.

This was Jeremy Burton of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston who remarked that the term “Palestine” was something the Romans imposed on Judaea and that Jesus would have resented this reference being a Jewish man suffering under the yoke of Caesar.

I wouldn’t dispute that Jesus was Jewish and that Christians in the centuries after his death tried to remove his Jewish identity as his worship spread among gentiles. We can see how Jesus transforms from the earliest gospel of Mark – where he is more human and respectful of the law of Moses – to John, where he becomes a more other-worldly and non-Jewish entity.

It’s also fascinating to see how a character like the Roman governor Pontius Pilate develops from a disinterested bureaucrat who executes Jesus without a second thought in Mark – to a merciful figure in later gospels who tries to get Jesus freed. Pilate’s rehabilitation was very much linked to Christianity’s outreach to upper crust pagan Romans!

FIND OUT MORE: The alleged bloodline of Jesus!

The Judaism of Jesus is of course complicated by his claim to be the son of God. This was unacceptable to most of his community. And the man who shaped his legacy the most after his crucifixion – Saint Paul – was a Romanised Jew who poured scorn on the idea of observing the Jewish laws (like circumcision and dietary requirements).

This argument risks projecting current political battles and identities back on to ancient history. We have no idea what Jesus – assuming he ever existed – called himself. One anti-Christian treatise from the Emperor Julian in the 4th century CE refers to him as a “Galilean”. That’s a very localised identity and in a hyper-local world, I think that’s how Jesus would have seen himself – the boy from Galilee who didn’t much like the Romans or those snooty priests in Jerusalem.

In the Middle East today, on all sides, inventing history seems to be a compulsive pastime. Figures like Jesus have become pawns in modern geopolitical rows and as a result the real history is twisted into something completely anachronistic.