Let’s Talk about Lost Gospels: A Reflection on the Priorities of a Scholarly Discourse

By James Constantine Hanges
Miami University, Oxford Ohio
Department of Comparative Religion
March 2015

Recent publications of obscure but provocative non-canonical “gospels,” for example, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Karen King (2003) or The Gospel of Judas, Rodolphe Kasser and Marvin Meyer (2008), have generated an extremely polarized spectrum of responses from outright derision and dismissal to the perverse, perhaps giddy excitement of opening a gift-wrapped theological incendiary device.

It should go without saying that it is extremely unlikely that any of these newly published-with-commentary texts will connect us to the historical Jesus; every serious scholar in the game knows this. Yet, to look at the banter about them, it would appear that many Bible scholars—usually conservative defenders of the faith—find the very existence of these documents and the discourse surrounding them terrifying. At least one could be excused for reading their responses in that way. To take one recent example, notice the incredible amount of energy and time invested by scholars of this perspective trying to debunk the authenticity of the so-called gospel of Jesus’ wife, its dating, its translation, and any other characteristic that might in any way be used to lend it any credence (with the result, by the way, that most of us now recognize it as a forgery). All this effort, of course, may well be justified when we consider the other end of the spectrum where some scholars but perhaps many more sensationalistic journalists have milked these “gospels” for every ounce of “Dan-Brownian” speculation they can squeeze out.

Even so, could it be that something theoretically and methodologically important has been missed in all this desperation? In my view, there is indeed something deeper and more substantial to be found beneath the current discourse about lost gospels—something potentially more historically important.

I think that we can all accept the fact that these texts were written by individuals with implied audiences interested in knowing about Jesus—in historical terms, groups that might be suspected of being, if not assumed to be, devotees. In other words, these texts likely give us access, albeit extremely limited, to species of followers of Jesus of Nazareth who understood him in very different ways, and certainly differently from those whose understandings eventually become “creedally codified.” These texts are important historical evidence for the variety of ways devotees could imagine and portray Jesus and his relationships to his followers. Going beyond that, it is most likely the case that those documents the antiquity of which is beyond doubt open a window for us on the kinds of power contestations that occurred in the earliest centuries of Christian history. Such diverse contestations in the developing Church should not surprise us because we have so much evidence for it from the very earliest documents of the New Testament itself. The apostle Paul’s own letters clearly reveal that his conflict with others in the broader Jesus-movement was a running battle throughout his career. It is just as clear that the writer of the Acts of the Apostles cannot avoid or “sugar coat” the same controversy over how Gentiles were to be included in the community of salvation. And regardless of the degree to which one is compelled by presuppositions to reconcile Paul’s description of the matter in Galatians 2 with Acts, the fundamental fact remains; the two sources agree that the resolution to the controversy was not at the outset obvious to any of the movement’s various leaders, nor was whatever resolution achieved comprehensive or prophylactic.

Beyond the obvious problems in the understanding of Jesus represented by such examples, we could easily point to the distinctive characterizations of Jesus presented in the canonical gospels themselves; Mark with his mysterious and obscurantist Jesus; Matthew’s Jesus, who’s only apparent use for Gentiles is to use them as foils to shame unbelieving Jews (at least until the author presents the risen Christ); Luke’s teaching prophet; John’s cosmic Christ and the writer’s peculiar and subtle depreciation of Peter over against the “disciple that Jesus loved.” So, from Paul’s own letters and the earliest gospels, we are not dealing with only a whispy hint of power struggles, but the strong odor of multifaceted conflicts. We must, therefore, examine these variations from the perspective of the exercise of power, training our focus on the competitive struggle of disparate groups of Jesus followers, if we are to construct our best picture of him.

More than this, perhaps we should investigate whether or not, or to what degree, all these “spinnings” of Jesus’ image are symptoms of group identity struggles, and that the various identity-combatants are really in the business of constructing their own self-images by assimilating their images of Christ to each group’s ever-changing construction of its own image. In point of fact, we should expect to see such a process in the study of Christian origins because we see it all around us; every Christian group’s or denomination’s image of Jesus is nothing less than a reflection of the group itself and its cultural values. This was no less true in Antiquity than it is in our own world. In my view, this “Feuerbach-Durkheimian” tendency is likely the genius behind the flourish of early imaginings of Jesus. In other words, Jesus, as with all objects of religious devotion, is altogether malleable by the wishes, desires, and priorities of any group that claims him, especially when each group is competing with other groups with similar claims.

My point in all this is to suggest that while these obscure and largely fragmentary “new” gospels might make great press, and while, despite clever and provocative media speculations, they fail to connect with the historical Jesus, they can bring us closer to the complexities of the struggle for identity among those coalescing groups in the early centuries of the Church. I once heard a world renowned New Testament scholar express a desideratum implying similar assumptions. He said that the documents of early Christianity, with all their varieties of “Jesuses,” raise a profound question; what kind of individual must the historical Jesus have been to have provoked during his lifetime and after his death such a variety of understandings of his person, mission, and continuing relevance? At the time, I agreed that this was, indeed, a profound question. After reflection, however, I see a problem with the assumptions that underlie it. The problem is that it assumes that Jesus, his person, and his mission must be the stimulus for, or the object of reflection to which all the various images of him are responses, each image then to one degree or another a miscomprehension or incomplete rendering.

Rather than take the Nietzchean path, namely, that “without the blind disciples the influence of a man and his work has never become great,” I would suggest that we explore the possibility that the varieties of Jesus-images, or christologies, we see in the early history of the Jesus movement owe their origins not to a flurry of reactions to Jesus’ positive though ambiguous influence on his followers, but to Jesus as a problem his followers must solve.1

Disconfirmation theory in the study of new religious movements suggests that religious innovation commonly results from the failure of expectations. Where disconfirmation of expectations occurs, members of the group in question produce florilegia of rationalizations of the disconfirmation. This theoretical assumption implies that our primary focus may need to be on the creative process of rationalization and not on the assumption that christological variations result from misapprehensions of Jesus. From this point of view, the varieties of christologies need not reflect the multifaceted character of Jesus, but rather the crisis that arose among his devotees with his arrest and execution—the disconfirmation of their expectations. Different communities of followers would then have constructed their group boundaries, their identities, in the process of testing their rationalizations of Jesus death. Some of those rationalizations formed the foundation for future orthodoxy, while others, perhaps the rationalizations that lie behind our so-called “lost gospels,” did not.


1 My translation of Nietzche’s sentence, “Ohne die blinden Schüler ist noch nie der Einfluß eines Mannes und seines Werkes groß geworden,” Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches: Ein Buch Für Freie Geister, §122, vol. 4.2 of Nietzche Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1967), 120-22.

Comments (1)

If I understand you, you are saying that the contents of the NT accounts of Jesus (or 'the Jesuses') could be determined either a) by records or memories of what an actual person regarded by some as Son of God (or perhaps one or two persons, conflated in the account, actually did or else b) by theological considerations, including those arising because some earlier expectations had been disconfirmed, of what anyone who was the Son of God should have done. You add that a predominant, or even a significant, for a) is merely assumed, but not justified in most modern analyses.
One thing prety clear about the Lost Gospels is that their content is predominantly determined by b): so many among us are terrified by them because they make us think that maybe the same is true of the NT.
The idea of 'b)-determination', theological convictions overshadowing historical information, concedes a lot (to my mind) to the theories of those now called Mythicists.
Have I got that wrong?

#1 - Martin Hughes - 03/21/2015 - 19:17

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