Christians face an unusual Catch 22 over the Bible in today’s Discovery Channel type world. It revolves around these hidden gospels coming to light after 1700 years in a cave. Predictably some come out in sensationalist form, like the Gospel of Judas. Bookseller headlines like ‘Jesus grave found!’ or ‘the secret they couldn’t hide,’ ensure no churched soul will look any further. I mean, imagine the book ‘Jesus and I started an aromatherapy business in France’, by Mary Magdalene. Will I be ordering a copy? No, but millions sell to an unchurched audience.
Thing is, there are dozens of these ancient works. Like every publishers slush pile, most didn’t make it into the Bible. Only 66 did. Unless you’re Catholic, then its 75. Sorry, unless you’re Orthodox, then it’s up to 80. Even today, among the three major strands of Christendom, there is division on which books should be included. Shucks, it was only in 1880 that the Protestants finally expelled the Apocrypha, the Catholic and Orthodox extras. Most Evangelicals don’t know that. I reckon they think Jesus left a list behind.
Scholars believe the prophet Ezra organized the Old Testament. Fearing the Jews might get dispersed again after their Babylonian exile, and lose their oral tradition, his ‘Great Assembly’ of learned men put together the Jewish Bible circa BCE 350. In fact it was the only Bible the early Christian movement had. It wasn’t until Christianity was legitimized in the AD 300s that various Councils decided on what letters and gospels should be included in the New Testament.
During this formative and argumentative period, lots of older, and newer, books and letters, didn’t make the cut. Many were burnt. But since the AD 1800s, lots have been rediscovered. And now Christians have a problem. Not all the books are duds.
Take the Gospel of Thomas. It is meant to be a Gnostic gospel. Gnostics got labeled as heretics at some early councils. However if you read why Gnosticism is wrong, then peruse the Gospel of Thomas, you will think you are reading two different stories. You will wonder how they got the heresy of Gnosticism from the reflective, Buddhist like, Gospel of Thomas.
Occasionally I ask a Christian whether they think the current Biblical canon was well chosen. How do they know the best books got in there? Invariably they say they trust those historical decision makers were guided by God. I know what they are really saying. They are telling me they have never researched this question, and have no idea how the Bible got put together. They don’t want to go there. They don’t want to know how those church synods really worked.
I think they should. For a start, I mostly ask this of Protestants. But the deciding councils were all Catholic. All councils have only been Catholic. Neither Protestants nor Orthodox run councils. They started them in the AD 300s, and the last one, Vatican II, was in the 1960s. Most Protestants today still believe Catholics are way off beam, as most Catholics believe the same of the divisive Protestant movement.
However, just maybe back then, prior to Martin Luther, some councils were more spiritual. So I looked up details of the Council of Laodicea, a council that did actually recommend books for both the Old and New Testament (most didn’t have a list) along with a bevy of banned books. Laodicea also commanded the following; banned mathematicians from church, banned women from office in church, banned singing in church unless you were in the choir (actually there might be sense in this one), banned any holder of church office from going to the pub, banned any Christian from bathing with a woman, banned Christians from dancing at weddings, etc, etc. And if anyone broke one of these rules, then ‘let him be anathema.’ (Good name for a law firm).
Houston, we have a problem.
Discovery Channel world will continue to investigate books on a regular basis. Not all at once, because they maximize their revenue stream by stringing them out. Meanwhile the Bible Society of New Zealand informs us church interest in the Bible is dwindling, being replaced by musical entertainment. Protestant churches will deny this of course, but nobody argues congregational Bible knowledge has declined over the past thirty years. Meanwhile the Jesus seminar, and other wicked liberal organizations will merrily look through Thomas, or Enoch, or Jasher, or The books of Adam and Eve.
Here is the final irony, the Catch 22. Some of these books are real stunners. Take Enoch for example. I can understand why the Jews didn’t want Enoch’s writings in the Old Testament. After all he wasn’t Jewish, he predated Abraham, and he talked about someone closely resembling Jesus. But the Christians? Enoch was one of only two Old Testament characters to be taken straight to Heaven, yet the Council of Laodicea banned his book.
Sadly, my prediction is the mainstream church doesn’t want this debate, as it touches something too deep. Which is a pity. It is a potential conversation with the world at large, and better to be integrated into, than letting the sensationalists misuse the opportunity.