Hidden Gospels; How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way. By Philip Jenkins. New York : Oxford, 2001, 260 pp. $ 14.95
Reviewed by Dennis Ingolfsland in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (September, 2003) 550-552.
Recently some critics have expended a great deal of effort re-writing the story of Jesus and Christian origins based on the Nag Hammadi texts, New Testament Apocrypha, and other documents. According to their new version of church history, Jesus inspired not one but many Christianities, each with its own doctrines and practices. According to the revision, powerful bishops in the second and third centuries AD began attacking their theological enemies, discrediting their opponents’ gospels as heretical, and declaring their own texts to be canonical.
In Hidden Gospels Philip Jenkins provides a brilliant critique of this revisionism from an historical perspective.
Much of the revisionist reconstruction depends heavily on Q and the Gospel of Thomas. As the argument goes, Matthew and Luke were using Q in the 80’s so the final edition of Q must have been written no later than the 70’s. Assuming that the original Q underwent two subsequent revisions, the first edition or “layer” of Q (Q1) is then dated as early as the fifties.
Since both Q1 and Thomas are sayings gospels, the sayings format of Thomas is seen by the critics as an indication of its early age. Passages in Thomas that are similar to passages in Q are then assumed to be independent, providing multiple attestation for a core of what can be known about the historical Jesus. This core is then used authenticate all other sayings. So, for example, apocalyptic sayings are judged inauthentic since they do not appear in Thomas or Q1. Since Q1 and Thomas omit all mention of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, revisionists often assume that these doctrines were either unknown or not important to the earliest Christians.
Jenkins finds numerous faults with this whole line of reasoning. First, he demonstrates that the early dating of Thomas does not hold up to scrutiny. Not only does the Gospel of Thomas contain numerous unmistakable Gnostic allusions characteristic of the second century AD, but the sayings format is not necessarily an indication of early age either, since the third century AD Gospel of Philip also has a sayings format.
Second, Jenkins points out that if the original text of Thomas was revised as the critics claim, it would be impossible to know whether the editor(s) removed any Jewish or other un-Gnostic elements like apocalyptic, the crucifixion or resurrection.
Third, while modern scholars find it difficult to believe that any group would omit teachings as important as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, Jenkins explains that many religions in the ancient world only gradually revealed their doctrines to those who had undergone a lengthy process of initiation.
Finally, the revisionists’ reconstruction of history fails to take seriously early evidence from Paul in First Corinthians, from earlier hymns quoted in Philippians and Colossians, and from the earliest gospel, Mark.
The revisionists’ theories are also based in no small part on arguments which attempt to place various noncanonical gospels on the same level as canonical gospels. Jenkins believes these arguments are deeply flawed.
First, although the canon was not finally fixed until the fourth century, the degree of disagreement about what constituted the canon was not very wide even as early as the second century.
Second, contrary to impressions left by the critics, writings from Nag Hammadi never even rose to the level of disputed texts in early church discussions.
Third, since the golden age of Gnosticism began about AD 135, it is unlikely that any of the Nag Hammadi documents originated much before the mid-second century.
Finally, Jenkins points out that the Gnostic gospels were more concerned with Jesus as a subjective internal reality than they were with the Jesus of history. Jenkins notes that both Irenaeus and Athanasius complained that Gnostics made up or modified Gospel tradition to suit their purposes (104).
Among the most prominent advocates of certain Gnostic gospels have been radical feminist scholars. Yet, according to Jenkins, these scholars seem to ignore the fact that although Gnostic texts had much to say about women, the Gnostic religious system regarded women as being used by evil beings to keep humanity enslaved through their childbearing. For example, Gnostic texts repeatedly express the idea that the Savior came to “destroy the works of the female.” Jenkins concludes “The willingness to claim such texts as part of a lost women’s canon is troubling testimony to the ideological character of some modern interpretations of the hidden gospels” (147).
Jenkins covers an amazing amount of territory in only 260 pages, including 1) extant sources like the Nag Hammadi documents and New Testament Apocrypha; 2) hypothetical sources like the “sayings gospel” Q and Crossan’s “Cross Gospel”; and 3) pseudo-sources like the Archo Volume and The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, from Buddhistic Records. In addition, Jenkins also discusses the dating of these sources and the making of the New Testament canon, as well as the treatment of Jesus in the modern media.
As excellent as Jenkins’ work is, there are a few short passages that will be of concern to many Evangelicals. For example, Jenkins’ characterizes Deuteronomy as a “successful forgery” (23) and asserts that the evangelists may have “invented stories” to be more relevant. He also says--with apparent reference to the birth stories in Matthew and Luke--that as time went on “mythological and supernatural elements” about Jesus accumulated (79)
As serious as these statements may be, they are mentioned only in passing and are not at all characteristic of the work as a whole. Jenkins’ historical understanding of early Gnosticism and early Church history, as well his knowledge of 19th and 20th century religion in American life, provide a powerful basis from which he effectively refutes modern revisionists. The book is fascinating, easy to read, well documented and well indexed. Hidden Gospels deserves the widest possible reading not only by scholars and students, but by the general public as well.