Da Vinci Code Truth Home Articles Canonical Gospels or Other Gospels: What’s the Difference?

Canonical Gospels or Other Gospels: What’s the Difference?


by Stephen S. Taylor , Associate Professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary

One of the biggest misconceptions in all the discussion and hype about The Da Vinci Code is that a large number of “gospels” were written by the immediate followers of Jesus with a view towards inclusion in a Christian scriptures. Dan Brown’s evangelist, Sir Leigh Teabing, informs the wide-eyed Sophie:

“As a descendent of the lines [sic] of King Solomon and King David, Jesus possessed a rightful claim to the throne of the King [sic] of the Jews. Understandably, his life was recorded by thousands of followers across the land. ... More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion -- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them (The Da Vinci Code, 231).”

Several pages later, the sermon continues:

"Fortunately for historians," Teabing said, “some of the gospels that Constantine attempted to eradicate managed to survive. The Dead Sea scrolls were found in the 1950s hidden in a cave near Qumran in the Judean desert. And, of course, the Coptic Scrolls in 1945 at Nag Hammadi. In addition to telling the true Grail story, these documents speak of Christ's ministry in very human terms....”

These wildly unrealistic claims were edited out of the movie—apparently, director Ron Howard had a bigger research budget than author Dan Brown—, but the historical and conceptual assumptions underlying them still frame the movie version.

Virtually every assertion in the quotations above is problematic in some way:

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain "gospel" material, though there was some speculation about this in the early years after their publication.
  • The Nag Hammadi "gospels" (if they can indeed be called that, see below) do not speak of Christ's ministry "in very human terms." For them, Jesus was a Revealer from the heavenly realm who was never human but only appeared so.
  •  “More than eighty” appears to be an number drawn out of a hat—it bears no discernible relationship to the standard scholarly lists of early gospels.
  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not "among" the gospels "chosen for inclusion," they were the gospels chosen for inclusion.
  • And the choice concerning the gospels was not a decision made by politically powerful men on one occasion in the fourth century, but the result of countless decisions made by many Christian communities both inside and outside the Roman Empire—decisions which collectively spelled the canonical uniqueness of the of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by the first decade of the third century, when Christians were still a powerless, persecuted minority in the Mediterranean basin.
  • Finally, if Teabing’s characterization of Jesus were at all accurate—a mere mortal married to Mary Magdalene prior to his crucifixion—it is not at all “understandable” why “thousands across the land” would have cared to record his life. Historical sources from the period are clear: a crucified man, not matter how vocal his claims and well know his Davidic pedigree, could only be considered a false Messiah. This comment shows that while Dan Brown may have mastered the modern-day thriller, he lacks the historical and religious sensibilities to understand the social-cultural context of first-century Palestine.

Perhaps one of the fundamental misunderstandings undergirding Dan Brown’s thesis is the notion that any book which purports to relate something about Jesus deserves to be called the a “gospel.” Advocates of this notion fail to read ancient documents as literary wholes and thereby, in the very act of quoting them, flatten out what is noteworthy and distinctive of each. In point of fact, there is a wide variety in the known “gospel” material.

The canonical gospels, on the one hand, share some distinctive traits:

  1. They show very little interest in the biographical details of Jesus' life. Apart from dissimilar accounts of his birth and a brief story, related by Luke, concerning Jesus' coming-of-age, the canonical gospels focus on Jesus' public career, which could not have comprised much more than the last three years of his life.
  2. Remarkably, within that focus, the canonical gospels give inordinate attention to the last week of Jesus' life, especially his crucifixion, burial and bodily resurrection. The Gospel of Mark, for example, devotes 40% of its presentation to this kind of material, what scholars called the "Passion Narrative." This fact is all the more striking given that Mark contains only a brief account of the resurrection. Similarly, the Gospel of John reserves nine of its 21 chapters for his version of the passion narrative. Matthew and Luke are similarly weighted toward the death and resurrection of Jesus, though they devote a significant percentage of their space to Jesus' teaching.
  3. The canonical gospels agree that Jesus really was a man who experienced hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and disappointment as he walked the roads of Palestine with his disciples (which did include a number of women). They also acknowledge that he was crucified and buried.
  4. But each canonical gospel in its own way insists that Jesus was, mysteriously, more than a man: he did startling miracles, possessed uncanny insight, and claimed and evinced a unique relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Moreover, they all insist he was raised bodily from the grave to a new kind of life.
  5. Finally, the canonical gospels describe Jesus as a real historical figure within a specific historical context. According to their testimony, Jesus was a Jew who lived his entire life in Palestine, whose final and public years were characterized by an intensifying disagreement with Jewish leaders over the meaning of the Jewish scriptures, the best way to understand and do God's will, and the proper definition of the people of God. This disagreement, they agree, finally led to the execution of Jesus at the hands of Roman authorities.


Taking all this together and keeping in mind their evident differences, the canonical gospels are appropriately defined as early Christian works that seek to present the significance and meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus by placing them in their proper religious-historical context, which includes, of course, the events of Jesus’ public career. The canonical gospels presuppose a situation in which public facts about Jesus pose a problem or impediment to faith. For these gospels, the crucified and resurrected Jesus was certainly the culmination of the Jewish story and the key to all history; but just as certainly for them, the truth and precise significance of this claim were still live issues within the communities for whom they were written.

By this set of shared traits, very few of the other "gospels" even qualify as gospels. This is particularly true of the so-called "Gnostic Gospels" which comprise the only ancient sources Teabing bothers to cite in support of his conspiracy theory. In comparison to the canonical gospels, these gospels have a timeless, ahistorical, and almost disembodied character to them. Their Jesus has no racial identity, engages in no public debates, and indeed occupies no historical space at all. This Jesus not only did not die on a Roman cross and subsequently rise again, but could not have done so, since his very mission was to propound secretly to a small circle of disciples the unreality of what we take to be human life and death. Far from embracing a role in the Jewish story about God, creation, and Abraham and Sarah’s children, the gnostic Jesus purports to expose all these as illusions conjured by a creator-god—a god intent on keeping a select few from transcending the material world of variation and change, of sex and procreation. These gospels, then, are far removed from the issues and controversies that would have arisen from a Jesus Christ situated in the story of Israel and the Jews.

It is one of the great ironies of Dan Brown’s account is that he profoundly misreads the very sources he cites to anchor his case concerning Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The Gospel of Mary does indeed speak of Jesus’ relationship with Mary—she is made the sole vehicle of secret revelations—, but this implies no affirmation of her femininity, much less of physical sex and procreation. Rather Mary is made to say, “Let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us into men.” Mary is made an apostle of androgyny, not a lover and mother. The Gospel of Philip, sharing the same gnostic framework, gives advice that Brown fails to heed: “The truth did not come naked into the world, but came in types and images.” The special affection between Jesus and Mary, sealed indeed with kisses, is hardly to be taken literally, the gospel writer would insist; it is rather to be taken symbolically of the spirit’s embrace of incorporeal transcendence. If Brown ignores and denigrates the canonical gospels, he completely fails to understand the gnostic ones.

Of course, neither Brown’s faulty reading nor the striking differences between the canonical gospels and other gospels settles the issue of truth. But it does help us make an informed judgment as to which is more likely to be the original or primary and which the derivative or secondary. For when we go back to the earliest uncontested documents of the Christian movement, the letters written by Paul of Tarsus no more than thirty years after Jesus’ death, we find a conception of Jesus that fits with that of the canonical gospels, though not in a slavish or contrived way. Paul’s Jesus was also born of a Jewish woman, a descendant of Abraham and of David, and an authoritative teacher in tension with more mainstream Jewish authorities.

But supremely, for Paul, Jesus was one who had been crucified and raised from the dead. The first biographical item Paul acknowledged to be a scandal to Jews and foolishness to everyone else, but he did not soft-pedal it and move it to the background; he insisted that it displayed the very power and wisdom of Abraham’s God in dealing once-for-all with the brokenness of human existence. The second item, for Paul, revealed the man Jesus to be the eternal son of God, destined to confirm all the promises made to Abraham and to redeem all of creation.

The canonical gospels, then, belong to Paul’s world, they easily reflect the concerns, perceptions, and controversies of the first generation of Christians as they grappled with the figure of Jesus. Dan Brown’s gospels tell us little about how Jesus was remembered by the earliest circle of followers but they do give us a valuable window into a later and very different set of concerns. But here is the rub, neither set of gospels agrees with Brown hypothesis about the Holy Grail. In spite of their vast differences, on that issue all ancient “gospels” agree.



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