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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Coronavirus – and panic in history

There have been moments in history when the whole of society seemed to be seized by a communal panic. Since mid-March 2020 this year, almost our entire news output from TV, newspapers and online has been Coronavirus related. We have been in a communal panic of epic proportions.

That’s not to say Coronavirus is fake as some have claimed. But the virus has shaken us all severely. It’s altered every aspect of our daily lives. As widespread panic goes – this is probably the most fundamental episode of collective anxiety I’ve ever seen.

In my lifetime – and I was born in 1963 – there have been what I can only describe as unsettling moments – where life couldn’t carry on as normal. The current Coronavirus pandemic is certainly one of those moments.

The streets of my home city, London, are noticeably emptier than usual. The tube train and buses have empty seats. In fact yesterday I found myself in an empty train carriage that would normally be full on a Saturday.

Which made me think about when had I experienced similar episodes of panic in my lifetime where the world seemed a more dangerous place?

PANIC IN HISTORY: The aftermath of 9/11

Well, for a panic on the scale of the Coronavirus, I’d have to go back to the aftermath of 9/11 back in 2001. In the days that followed the Al Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York, people in London were worried that similar terrorist outrages could happen on our streets.

There were fears of so-called “dirty bombs” – a radiological dispersal device (even held in a suitcase) – being released in public places. On TV, we had dramatised scenarios where a terrorist would knowingly infect people with a deadly virus by brushing again them in a lift.

Reports circulated of nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union being robbed of lethal chemicals and we wondered if London could be made uninhabitable for a century or more.

PANIC IN HISTORY: Chernobyl

Back in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear reactor went into meltdown. Radioactive material was scattered all over the Ukraine and eastern Europe. I was living in Liverpool at the time and recall being locked out of my flat and caught in a downpour.

A friend “joked” that as sheep in nearby north Wales had been shown to have higher than usual levels of radiation, I had probably absorbed some radiation too!

I must admit that for us in Britain, the health panic around Chernobyl was nothing compared to the fear in places closer to the nuclear site like Ukraine and the Balkans. And it certainly didn’t match the huge impact of the Coronavirus in 2020.

Chernobyl unsettled all of us back in 1986

If I look back on the unsettling moments that affected society around me in my life – two big themes are disease and terrorism. These moments have sometimes created a sense of panic similar to what we’re feeling today about the Coronavirus.

On the disease side of things, there was the outbreak of “mad cow” disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or BSE for short) – which led us to shun British beef in favour of Argentinian or not eat beef at all.

PANIC IN HISTORY: HIV/AIDS

There was the horror and anguish of the HIV/AIDS virus and the loss of people to that terrible disease, which first emerged very publicly in the early 1980s.

It struck terror into the gay community but affected other groups as well. What shocks us now is the lack of sympathy in the tabloid press back then that dubbed the virus – the “gay plague”.

I guess one difference between the panic around Coronavirus today and the fear of AIDS back then is that most people in the 1980s thought they were completely immune to AIDS. They assumed it was a virus only affected LGBT people and certain parts of the world.

FIND OUT MORE: A warning to anti-vaxxers from history

PANIC IN HISTORY: Terrorism

On the terrorism side, there have been the ISIS bombings in recent years in London, Paris and Brussels. I was in Paris shortly after the 2015 atrocities and saw heavily armed troops patrolling outside Notre Dame.

While outside the Bataclan concert hall where terrorist shot up the audience at a rock gig, thousands of young people lit candles and wept.

Back in my childhood – in the 1970s – the terrorist threat came from the Irish Republican Army who in the middle of that decade carried out two notorious and bloody bombings in Guildford and Birmingham.

That was a spill over of the conflict raging in Northern Ireland between Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries. There were periods when more vigilance was required and the public was noticeably more tense and anxious.

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PANIC IN HISTORY: Threat of nuclear war

Outside of terrorism and disease – the only other thing that comes to mind is the threat of superpower conflict. Forty years ago, we worried about the Soviet Union and the United States blowing each other up.

Now – in a more multi-polar world – that’s not such a looming threat. The political danger instead comes from multiple sources and is far less predictable.

In short – these periods of heightened risk happen every so often in human history. Plague, war, famine….we’ve been here before. It’s when we realise that despite our modernity and technology – we are still very vulnerable to things beyond our control.

Ancient bog body murder mystery

Viewer discretion: The following blog post does include images of two thousand year old bog bodies – those of a delicate disposition may wish to skip this post – as we look at an ancient bog body murder.

All over northern Europe, mysterious two thousand year old bodies have been dug up from peat bogs. These so-called bog bodies are remarkably well preserved in many cases.

Disturbingly, they seem to have been victims of human sacrifice. Evidence of being hit and strangled can be detected.

Ancient bog body – victim of murder or ritual sacrifice?

I was in the National Museum of Ireland last month and saw several examples of these bog bodies. The damp conditions of peat bogs means that their skin and internal organs are in remarkably good condition.

And most of these bog bodies date from what we call the Iron Age and are found in those countries to the north of the emerging Roman Empire – such as Britain, Ireland and Denmark.

Clonycavan Man – Iron bog body in savage murder

Let’s start with one bog body called Clonycavan Man found in February 2003 at a peat extraction works in County Meath, Ireland. He was damaged from the waist down because of the action of a peat harvesting machine but his upper body and head were in a good state.

So much so that archaeologists were able to reconstruct what he looked like when he was killed between 392 and 201 BC. Note the moustache, beard and the “man bun” hairstyle, made popular again by hipsters in our time.

Clonycavan Man

He was killed by a series of blows to the head and may also have been disembowelled. Here is what this bog body looks like today in a glass case at the Museum of Ireland.

Clonycavan Man – note his man bun hairstyle – image by Tony McMahon

Baronstown West Man was found during peat cutting in 1953. He was at a depth of around 1.9 metres. A layer of interwoven birch or hazel sticks had been placed on top of him and there was something resembling a woollen shroud fixed to his body. It’s believed that at the time of death he was between 25 and 30 years of age.

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He’s not one of the better preserved specimens and dates from around 200 to 400 AD.

The skull of Baronstown West Man detached from the body but with hair well preserved – National Museum of Ireland – image by Tony McMahon

In the British Museum today you can see the remains of Lindow Man who was discovered in Cheshire in 1984 with very clear evidence of having been strangled and struck in a sacrificial rite.

Bog body confused for modern murder

A year before, a female bog body was unearthed that at first was believed by police to be the corpse of a woman murdered in the 1960s.

For two decades the police had been trying to find the remains of a woman called Malika de Fernandez. Her estranged husband had long been suspected of having done her in. When the body of Lindow Woman emerged, police thought they had solved the crime and they confronted her husband who immediately confessed to the murder.

Unfortunately for him, it was then revealed in subsequent forensic tests that the body was not twenty years old – but two thousand years old! He tried to retract his confession but was found guilty of murder and received a life sentence in prison. You could say that this bog body had the last laugh!

Did aliens from outer space civilise us?

Is this seventy century CE Mayan warlord piloting a spacecraft?

When I was a kid back in the 1970s, I devoured a hugely popular book by the Swiss author Erich von Däniken called Chariots of the Gods. You may have read it too. His contention was that ancient monuments, carvings and stories clearly evidenced the presence of alien beings amongst us in ancient history.

One famous example in his book is a carving on the sarcophagus lid of the Mayan king Pakal Votan (603-683 CE). He was a long lived ruler in central America and Von Däniken speculated that the Mayan had experienced contact with superior alien technology (as the image above shows):

In the centre of that frame is a man sitting, bending forward. He has a mask on his nose, he uses his two hands to manipulate some controls, and the heel of his left foot is on a kind of pedal with different adjustments. The rear portion is separated from him; he is sitting on a complicated chair, and outside of this whole frame, you see a little flame like an exhaust.

Chariot of the Gods – Erich Von Däniken

Von Däniken wasn’t the first person to speculate along these lines. Imagining contact between humans and creatures from outer space began to emerge in 19th century as the shackles of religion were thrown off and science increased our knowledge of the cosmos.

In 1897, the British author HG Wells wrote The War of the Worlds where resource hungry Martians invade southern England. A later movie version with Tom Cruise moved the action to the United States. But Wells imagined aliens as hostile and warlike with no interest in helping humanity. That jaundiced view of extraterrestrials has been hugely influential in science fiction ever since.

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But others conjectured a more benevolent relationship. Aliens as our friends and mentors. The most notable proponent of this view was a woman normally referred to as Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891 CE). She was convinced that humans in ancient history had made contact with highly advanced alien life forms on the planet Venus. Christianity, obsessed with putting humanity at the centre of the universe, had hushed this up.

It’s been hypothesised that there are stories in the bible that point to first contact with aliens and the inability of humans two thousand years ago to understand what they were seeing. So many of the visions of people ascending into the sky and fiery lights all relate to aliens and UFOs.

Alien friend popping in for a visit?

In popular culture the idea of more primitive species being influenced in weird ways by more advanced beings has even been dramatised in sci-fi classics such as Star Trek and Doctor Who. The Ridley Scott movie Prometheus also dabbles in the notion of an advanced species calling humanity into existence for its own dark purposes.

The belief in aliens creating humanity or turbo-charging our civilisation has been derided by a number of scientists including the late Carl Sagan. In a nutshell, they argue that the alien-human contact theorists are relying on a kind of “god of the gaps” intellectual approach. Where religious fundamentalists insert God into gaps in scientific knowledge, the first contact brigade place aliens.

Needless to say – opinions on this subject are sharply divided!