Didn't Jesus teach some secret knowledge to his closest followers that the church has tried to suppress?

Problem

In more recent years a number of writings have been discovered that are claimed to be contemporary with the Christian gospels. These writings paint a very different picture of who Jesus. In some of the writings it seems clear that there was some secret knowledge that he passed on to his disciples. It appears that the church has actively sought to suppress these ideas and writings to ensure that it retains its position of authority and control. Has the church misguided us about Jesus?

Summary answer

There are some fragments of writings that paint a very different picture of Jesus. However it seems clear that the church has not tried to cover these writings up - indeed, when they have been available to the church, it is the church that has had them published for scholars to study.

Also a fair historical study of these writings soon shows that they are not contemporary with the gospels but were in fact written much later. Many of the ideas from these writings are borrowed from the gospels rather than the other way around. Surely the earlier gospels are going to portray a more accurate account of who Jesus was.

Anyone who takes the time to read through the gospels and compares them to these later writings will soon see that the gospels have a much greater claim to credibility.

Fuller answer

An exploration of the claim that Jesus passed on a secret knowledge to a few that the church has long tried to cover up.

Is there a conspiracy?

If you enjoy a good novel, or have happened to take notice of some newspaper headlines over the last few years, you might be starting to believe that the church is in trouble. Novels like the Da Vinci code and the publishing of a document known as the Gospel of Judas have led many conspiracy theorists to believe that the leaders of the church have been hiding the truth from us about Jesus and who he really is. However this claim is simply unfounded when you consider the evidence.

The church has known about the discovery of the Gospel of Judas but couldn't get to see it

It is true that the early church knew about the Gospel of Judas because some of the early Christians quoted from it when they were pointing out why they believed it was wrong. However no manuscripts of the gospel itself were known about until fairly recently.

It was not the church that discovered the manuscript but an archeologist. The manuscript was then kept under lock and key while others tried hard to make profit from it. All through this time Christian scholars have been trying to get access to it so they could study it. Now it is at last in the public domain it is possible to talk about it. The only conspiracy over the Gospel of Judas has revolved around those who wished to make money from its discovery.

Of course the Gospel of Judas is not the only document from the past that has a different view of Christ than the Christian gospels, and where the church has had control of these documents it has made them widely available.

However contrary to popular belief (and some very badly made TV programs) none of these documents has yet shown anything that we did not already know about the world at the time of the early church. The churches reaction to these documents has been well documented but until it got interesting - e.g. a popular novel - nobody ever bothered to look. The church has always published anything that it finds.

As a faith based on an historical event Christians want to find out as much about history as possible

The truth is that Christians are as much concerned with history as anyone. The church that has spent a great deal of time and resources researching and questioning its own documents of faith. All of this material has been freely available for anyone to read but because it tends to be in academic reports (that few would want to wade through) no one ever bothers with it.

The church itself has been through some pretty tough times when it has questioned everything about itself but emerges with a clear idea of who Jesus actually was.

Christians believe that Jesus is a real life historical figure and so the church has wanted to find out all it can about the history of Jesus and the Bible. Every scrap of archeological evidence is looked at and where they raise questions the church has done its best to face those questions honestly and in the open.

I want you to understand that the church is not trying to hide anything. I know it is more exciting to believe that it is but sometimes the truth is the more boring conclusion.

Let's take a very quick look at what these extra gospels are all about.

Gnostiscm

The Gospel of Judas, and many other of these writings, emerge from an early sect that developed in Palestine at around the time the church was just forming. It seems that this sect grew up within Judaism (just like Christianity) and then later latched on to the figure of Jesus. It then produced writings that were purported to be alternative gospels to the Christian gospels. This sect was for a while a great challenge to the early church. In fact we know a fair bit about the sect because of the writings of early Christians who were trying to dispute what the sect was saying.

Essentially the sect preached that the world was evil. It believed that the world had been created by an evil god. This evil god was at best disinterested in the world and at worst antagonistic towards it. They believed that the world, therefore, is evil and our aim should be to escape from the world.

Rather conveniently the way to escape was a secret (hence gnostism from the Greek work for knowledge). This secret was known only to a few privileged people. The Gospel of Judas says that this secret knowledge was passed on by Jesus to Judas. Also that Jesus then asked Judas to help him escape from this world, which is why Judas gave Jesus to the authorities who had him killed.

How do we know that the Christians had the right idea about Jesus and the Gnostics didn't?

We can be confident that the Christian view of Jesus is more accurate than the gnostic view for several reasons. Perhaps the most important of these is that the evidence strongly suggests that the Christian writings predate the Gnostic.

This is something that the supporters of the gnostic view get all uppity about. They argue that the church does not have any copies of the gospels that predate the gnostic writings - which is in part true. Although the church does not have any copies of the gospels that can be carbon dated any earlier than the second century A.D. (a fragment of John is dated at 125AD) there is plenty of evidence to suggest that they were written much earlier than this and within the lifetime of eyewitnesses. Also we have quotes from the gospels as early as the beginning of the second century - which suggests that by then the New Testament gospels were considered to be authoritative and so must have been widely available (and hence written much earlier).

Historical research must take into account ALL the evidence and not just a narrow selection. If you take a narrow view of anything then your ideas are likely to be skewed.

It is not good to rely on the original date for a document as being the date of the first copy that we can find. This is a very amateur approach to history. Documents get used, damaged, and thrown away. It would be incredible to find documents that date back to the early church let alone to find any original documents. So we can explore other evidence to establish dates for when documents were written.

It is possible to date documents by the things that are written in them. Luke for instance makes no mention of the fall of Jerusalem in his book of the Acts of the Apostles. This was a very significant event in the life of the early church, as well as first century Judaism. If Luke knew about it he would have mentioned it. This would mean that the book of Acts probably pre-dates A.D. 70 and the book of Luke must predate this. We have evidence that means Matthew and Mark were both written before Luke. This means that the gospels may well have been in existence just a few decades after Jesus' resurrection.

However the best, realistic, date we can make (using the same principals we use for dating the Christian gospels) for the Gnostic writings are the middle to late second century. This makes them as much as 100 years later than the gospels. This would suggest (very strongly) that the gnostics are more likely to have taken the Christian gospel and twisted it than the other way around.

Let me quote Dr Craig A. Evans (a very eminent scholar) from the book "The case for the real Jesus" by Lee Strobel. He is answering the claim that the early church picked on the gospels to support their viewpoint and not because they were accurate:

"If you picture fifteen or twenty gospels as all being part of one soupy gray porridge, then picking out four of them and saying these four are privileged - well, yeah, that does sound rather dogmatic. But that grossly misrepresents the evidence. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were earlier than all these other gospels, and they have credible connections with the first generation, apostolic, eyewitness sources. The only way to deny this is to say, well, I don't care what the evidence says, I will instead rely on my own intuition and guesswork and preferences. Now I call that dogmatic and prejudiced!"

It is also quite possible to see how the gnostic ideas derived from other philosophical ideas around at the time.

Also the teachings of Gnostiscm are often misrepresented by those who wish to promote it. By leaving out some important elements they are even misrepresenting the extra books themselves. For instance at the end of the so called Gospel of Thomas it says that Simon Peter said 'Miryam (Mary) should leave us. Females are not worthy of life', and Jesus answers, 'Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so she too may become a living spirit resembling you males...' Gnostiscm is very anti-women.

Also the claim is made that there were lots of different versions of Christianity floating around after Jesus and that some people bullied others into accepting the Christianity we know today. That the other versions of the faith - versions closer to Jesus' original teaching - had been suppressed and covered up. But this claim is pure speculation and NO evidence exists to support this view.

The only documents that contain any references to what was happening in the early church is found in the New Testament in the book of Acts. Here we see that there is only one Christian view and everyone accepts it.

The early church has some big problems to work out (like should non-Jewish Christians be circumcised) and the book of Acts talks about the all. But there are no reference to any controversies concerning the nature of Jesus and whether there was some secret knowledge to pass on. There is not even any mention of a different view of Christianity. If these differing views of Christianity existed and were challenging standard Christianity then it would most likely have been mentioned in the book of Acts (if for no other reason but to show that what the book of Acts supported was the correct view).

It is not until the second century that we find Christians talking about the strange ideas that are being put about by some alternative 'Christian' groups. This is also when these extra books can be most accurately dated to.

This is just the kind of problem that Christianity suffers from today with cults that grow up claiming to be Christian. It is true that there is a form of Gnostiscm in the first century but in the first century it is based on Jewish ideas not Christian - we don't see any Christian Gnostism until the second century by which time the church has been around for nearly 200 years.

There is no possible way to reconcile the gnostic writings with the Christian ones - they are diametrically opposed to each other. Christianity sees Jesus as teaching that God the creator is good, kind and forgiving whereas Gnostiscm teaches the opposite. Christians say Jesus wanted to build a kingdom on earth - Gnostics says Jesus wanted to escape the earth. etc.

Then there is the history to consider. Gnostism was much more acceptable to the Roman way of thinking than Christianity and for a time drew a very large following. During this time the church was in no position to suppress anyone and was instead fighting for its own survival. Yet Christianity survives and Gnostism dies out save for a few writings that get buried in the sand. That Christianity has gone on to become the worlds largest religion is a testament to the truth that it teaches about Jesus.