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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Was Moses the Pharaoh Akhenaten?

Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and into the Holy Land. The bible acknowledges that Moses was born and raised an Egyptian in elite circles. But some have wondered whether he rose to the very top and was indeed the Pharaoh Akhenaten.

Indulge me for a moment!

This is an intriguing theory about an enigmatic pharaoh who rejected the Gods of ancient Egypt and established a monotheist (one-God) cult around the Sun. Or the Aten to be more precise.

Some, even in academia, have argued that this one-God worshipping king of Egypt may have either been Moses or inspired him in some way. The father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, even believed that Moses had been a priest in the cult of the Aten who had to flee with his other believers when the old religion was restored and Akhenaten overthrown.

Akhenaten (or Moses if you prefer!) was famously married to the incredible Nefertiti whose beautiful bust is displayed at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Their depictions are almost touchingly domestic with the queen tending the children while Akhenaten sits nearby.

I was at the Neues Museum just a fortnight before it closed because of the Coronavirus. And I filmed some of the very distinctive artwork that was created under Akhenaten. It’s almost like the artist’s rule book was thrown out under his reign and new styles developed – reflecting his revolution in religion.

You’re not allowed to take photos or film the Nefertiti bust but I found an unfinished bust dating back over three thousand years. In some ways, this object was more alluring because you could see the artist’s smudges and tracing. Enjoy the little film I made below because it may be a long time before any of us get to see these treasures again.

One key difference between Akhenaten and Moses is, of course, that we know for 100% certainty that Akhenaten existed. We have his statues, his mummy (vandalised after death) and cartouches. Of Moses, we have the story but no confirmed grave or contemporary images.

Murder of Jewish exiles in London – 700 years ago

This is a curious and terrible story I heard about years ago and found again in an old book on London history dating from the 1870s in my library. The story goes that when King Edward I of England expelled all the Jewish people from his kingdom, one ship captain deliberately murdered a group of Jews on the river Thames in London.

Under King Edward I in medieval London a terrible murder of a group of Jewish people took place on the river Thames as retold by historian Tony McMahon
Jewish people faced discrimination in medieval London

The book is called Old and New London and dates from about 1875. It details how Jewish people at that time still spoke in hushed terms about a terrible event that occurred near London Bridge in the 13th century.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Jewish families were protected by the Norman kings and prospered. But things started to turn two hundred years later and then Edward I – famous as the king who executed Braveheart – decided to expel every Jew from England.

A group of Jewish Londoners hired a “mighty tall ship”, loaded all their possessions and sailed off down the Thames to an uncertain exile abroad. Accounts vary as to what happened next. One report claimed that at a place called Queenborough – near the mouth of the river Thames as it meets the sea – the captain set down the anchor.

FIND OUT MORE: Two men executed in London for being LGBT

They were on dry sands and the captain popped over the side to take a walk. Then he suggested that the Jewish exiles might want to join him and stretch their legs. And so they did. But without noticing that as the tide rose, the captain shot off back to the ship and was hauled up quickly by a rope.

This took the Jewish group by surprise. As the water rose rapidly, they cried out to him for help. And he gave them a sarcastic response. He told them that they ought to “cry rather unto Moses by whose conduct their fathers passed through the Red Sea”.

“Raging floods” then gradually engulfed them and the captain with his crew made off with their goods. In some accounts, the captain and his fellow mariners went to see King Edward I and were rewarded for their murderous cruelty. But another account claims they were hanged for their “fraudulent and mischievous dealing”.

In the 1875 book I have, it claims that “the spot in the river Thames where many of the poor exiles were drowned by the perfidy of a master-mariner is under the influence of a ceaseless rage”. That no matter how calm the Thames was elsewhere, this stretch of water was always “furiously boisterous”.

And some tellings of the tale had this unusual river current occurring under London Bridge, for some reason. Apparently it became a point of pilgrimage with young and old Jews rowing out to the supposed location to see if the river really did rage non-stop as a constant reminder of the killing.

Victorian slang for beginners!

Have you ever wanted to talk like a Victorian Londoner – not a posh one, but a street kid with plenty of 19th century attitude? Maybe a character in a Charles Dickens novel like the Artful Dodger? Here is the guide to Victorian slang?

Now let’s talk Victorian slang!

Well, I’m now going to teach you how to talk like a London urchin circa 1851. I’m using various sources but Mayhew’s London published that year is where I’ve picked up most of the terrible language that follows!

If I said you were flatch kanurd – I’d have meant you were half-drunk. I might also add that you’re kennetseeno – which means stinking, but it was a word normally applied to rotten fish. There could be a police officer passing by and I’d tell you to cool the esclop (look at the policeman).

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“Cool the” or “Cool ta” seems to have been a way of saying “look at that” – so if I was getting you to stare at an old woman, I’d say: “Cool ta the dillo nemo”. Or just to say “look at him” would be “cool him”.

The word for NO was “On” and the word for YES was “Say” – that’s just reversing those words. Often saying words backwards or messing with the letter order was a way of talking to avoid being understood by the police or people outside your group.

If you were warning your mates that somebody was a bad sort, you’d call them a “regular trosseno”. They might then respond that they understood you – “tumble to your barrikin”.

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Victorian slang terms for money

Expressions for money were:

Flatch = halfpenny (remember, flatch kanurd is half drunk)

Yenep = Penny (messing round with letter order there)

Exis Yenep = Sixpence

Couter – Sovereign (big gold coin)

Flatch ynork = Half-Crown

Then to conclude, I might say I’m on to the deb (I’m off to bed) or I was going to do the tightner (go to dinner).

During the Victorian period, Londoners soaked up Jewish expressions from new immigrants, foreign words they came across on the docks and made up stuff. London slang is still evolving today incorporating Jamaican, Bengali and words from other languages. I was told this week by a Londoner that I was “on fleek” – turns out I’m dressed well. Good to know.

Here is a young Londoner today teaching an American girl slang!

Muslim Spain – heaven or hell for Jews and Christians?

For seven hundred years, all or part of modern day Spain and Portugal was under Muslim rule. In the year 711 CE, an Arab and Muslim led army crossed the Mediterranean from Morocco to Spain and conquered a Christian kingdom advancing across Spain and up into central France before being stopped.

This was in the decades immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed when the new Muslim religion had conquered north Africa, Arabia, the Levant, Persia and reached China and India.

The kind of caliphate that emerged in Spain has traditionally been seen as remarkably tolerant and reaching a very high level of cultural and philosophical sophistication.

It was a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians rubbed along together in what has been termed the ‘convivencia’. Churches, synagogues and mosques existed side by side in contrast to Christian run medieval Europe where Jews in particular were brutally oppressed.

READ MORE: LGBT Muslims in history

But this view has been trashed in a new book called The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise by Dario Fernandez-Morera. He argues the following points:

  • It’s not true that Spain before the year 711 was a barbaric, underdeveloped post-Roman kingdom run by uncouth Visigoths but an emerging civilisation synthesising Roman and Goth culture with a high level of learning and architecture
  • The Arab/Muslim caliphate absorbed the civilisation of the Roman and Persian empires it conquered but independent of those influences, it was an arid desert faith with little culture
  • The conquest of Spain was a militaristic ‘jihad’ and modern scholars, embarrassed to say so, have downplayed the religious element of the invasion
  • Under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians in Spain were reduced to ‘dhimmi’ status forced to pay a special tax and often subject to pogroms and persecution – the much vaunted tolerance is mythical
  • Just because there was liberal thinking among the Muslim elite that ruled Spain doesn’t mean that applied to the general population who were subject to rigid control by Muslim clerics

I have been reading the book as a much needed corrective to some of the muddle-headed thinking about ‘convivencia’ in medieval Spain and Portugal. But I do wonder if the author has pushed his point too hard. I tend to agree with this blogger that at times, Fernandez-Morera is being as dogmatic as those he is criticising.

His targets are orientalist scholars over the last century in particular who have wanted to prove that under Muslim rule, tolerance and free thinking was not only possible – but happened in contrast to savage crusader and church run medieval Europe. Those crude stereotypes should be demolished but I was left wanting to know:

  • Where is the evidence for a great Visigothic civilisation?
  • Why did Jewish populations co-operate so readily with the Muslim invaders if Visigoth rule was so enlightened?
  • Weren’t there way more scholars coming out of Muslim ruled Spain than the Christian kingdoms in the north – Leon, Castile and Aragon?

It’s a fascinating and very topical discussion and despite my reservations, I recommend you read this book.

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.

Forbidden History: Insights on Jesus and James Bond!

Theakston

This month, I appear in the new season of Forbidden History presented by Jamie Theakston. You can view it online or download from Sky. So, what can you expect to see me talking about?

  • The historical Jesus. Who was the real Jesus Christ? Forbidden History journeys through the Holy Land to find whether the Messiah really existed and the exact spot where he was crucified
  • The East German Stasi. How did communist East Germany create a ruthless secret police that got one in six of the population spying on everybody else? A fascinating trip back to the Cold War
  • Nazi Art Theft. The astonishing robbery of billions of dollars worth of art by Hitler stashed away in salt mines and other hiding places. And the brave efforts of the Monuments Men to trace priceless paintings and sculptures
  • The real James Bond. Forbidden History asks which actor in the Bond movies comes closest to the real thing? An investigation into what inspired the creation of this compelling character
  • Dead Sea Scrolls. The most incredible biblical discovery in centuries. Parchments written by a fanatical Jewish sect, the Essenes, that could have proven or disproven the existence of Christ. Yet these massively important documents were hidden from public view for decades.
  • Secret societies. All your favourite clandestine organisations under the microscope from Opus Dei to the Illuminati. Who and what are these organisations and do they really control the world?

Make sure not to miss Forbidden History broadcasting on the Yesterday channel, part of UKTV.

The Knights Templar, the Dead Sea Scrolls and hidden treasure

bedouin

Two Bedouins discovered the Dead Sea scrolls

In 1947, two Bedouin shepherds were herding their flock on the rocky and steep slopes near Qumran by the shores of the Dead Sea in modern Israel. The area is pockmarked by caves and a goat disappeared inside one of these black holes. One of the shepherds threw a stone after it to tease the animal out but instead heard a sound like breaking pottery.

The shepherd had made one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. In several large stone jars, hidden away two thousand years ago, were sacred scrolls that included a version of the Old Testament written down a thousand years before the oldest version in existence in 1947.

Qumran

Qumran today

A mysterious community had taken root at Qumran building a town on the mountain face with purification baths, a library, aqueduct and houses. It had fled what it saw as the decadence and evil of Jerusalem around 150 BC.

Initially, its hatred was directed at the High Priests of the Temple in Jerusalem and their Greek overlords – the Seleucid Empire. These people, the community believed, were already damned. God had decided who to save and who to throw into hell fire. The community at Qumran didn’t need salvation through church sacraments or goodly deeds in life – they already knew they were part of God’s elect.

priests

Jerusalem priests – doing well under Roman rule

The Seleucids gave way to the Roman Empire and the priests of the Temple shamefully collaborated with the Romans for their own personal gain, power and prestige. The High Priest and Roman governor worked in hand in glove. Puppet Jewish kings like Herod Antipas were more than happy to be cyphers for Roman imperial rule in return for a glittering lifestyle.

Many Jews yearned for the return to the self-government they briefly enjoyed between the collapse of Seleucid rule and the arrival of the Romans – the period of the Maccabean revolt and the Hasmonean dynasty. And in 66 CE, the Jews rebelled against imperial control in a bloody insurgency that took over five years for the Romans to crush.

Roman vengeance was cruel and without mercy. The Temple in Jerusalem, the very place that Jesus was said to have expelled the money lenders, was ransacked for all its treasures. And then the building was torched and demolished. It would never rise again. The glory of the Jews – the most holy place to them – was reduced to rubble and ashes.

The Romans even celebrated their theft of the Temple treasury on an arch in Rome – the Arch of Titus. You can still see soldiers proudly carting off their booty that some conjecture included the Ark of the Covenant.

Back in Qumran, the community of ascetic Jews that had lived there for over two hundred years would have been very aware of events in the big city. They had been looking forward to an apocalyptic end of days that would end the rule of darkness and bring forth the rule of light. Those who were evil – Romans and Temple priests – would be damned. But the community of Qumran would be saved and resurrected.

copper-scrollFast forward to 1952 and archaeologists were finding more and more scrolls in the caves. They came to believe that the community, realising the Romans and fleeing Jewish refugees were coming in their direction, began to secrete their sacred knowledge into dark and unseen places.

Hastily, they hid their precious scrolls. Possibly, they were also helping to spirit away treasure from the temple in Jerusalem as Roman forces swarmed over it. Could it be that the ascetic community of Qumran helped the priests they hated in Jerusalem to hide the sacred vessels?

In 1952, archaeologists discovered a copper scroll. All the other scrolls had been made of papyrus or animal skin but this scroll was etched into metal. It was clearly intended not to rot or be chewed away by insects. The information on it was vitally important.

The copper scroll detailed the hiding place of a vast treasure in gold and silver. Look under the third step at such-and-such building and you will find a strong box with this amount of talents in gold…the scroll read. One hiding place after another was listed.

Many scholars believed it was referring to treasures taken out of the Temple before the Romans arrived and placed in over sixty locations. This raised the tantalising prospect that all over modern Israel and Jordan are the most spectacular finds waiting to be discovered.

titus

The Romans celebrated looting the Temple on the Arch of Titus in Rome – you can still see it!

Others argued that the community was leading people of the future on a wild goose chase for objects that did not exist at all. And certainly, treasure hunters have been consistently disappointed ever since. But it’s hard to imagine a community facing the arrival of Roman legions set on decimating them in an act of bloody imperial vengeance would waste their last moments on earth etching a hoax into a copper scroll.

A Templar related theory posits that there was a second copper scroll. This one was hidden under the Temple in Jerusalem for future generations to discover. And, the theory goes, when the Knights Templar began digging under what they believed to be the Temple of Solomon, they discovered this scroll. The wealth they were then able to unearth at multiple locations formed the basis of their fabulous wealth.

For many Israelis today, the thrilling prospect of finding the sacred items of the destroyed Temple would herald the prospect of rebuilding it. However, one can imagine the political storm that would create.