False Gospels On TV -- We Deserve Better
Over the past couple of months, major British TV companies have produced a series of documentaries on the apocryphal gospels of the early Christian period.
While some of these programmes are to be applauded for at least putting the Christian scriptures back into TV schedules, some have offered us little more than lightweight opinion which does more to titillate than illuminate, leaving behind more questions than answers.
There can be no doubt that apocryphal gospels exist, and that most were written very early on in the history of the church. There is nothing wrong with looking at them as historical artifacts. Sadly, though, the programmes often leave the road of objective story-telling and vere toward subjective editorial, shading the facts to suit postmodern de-constructionist thinking.
The apocryphal gospels are early documents from the first centuries after Christ, which purport to be true accounts of his life and sayings, but which were not included in the New Testament of the Bible on the grounds of either their unreliability, or the doctrines they espoused, which were at variance with those which were widely taught and practiced in the early church.
More than one of the recent programmes has featured the Gospel of Judas. It purports to give us the sayings of Jesus via the disciple known as Judas Iscariot.
The traditional gospels all describe this character as the one who betrayed Jesus into the hands of his enemies, which led to his crucifixion. Prior to that, Judas had been known to steal from the disciples’ central funds, which Jesus partly used for the support of the poor.
According to the gospel that bears his name, Jesus actually offered Judas a special place among the disciples, telling him that he alone would be allowed to learn the true secrets that lead to spiritual salvation.
So, rather than being the black sheep of the group, Judas is described as a true hero whose name has been unfairly blackened by history.
Like most of the other apocryphal gospels, the Gospel of Judas is the product or an early sect, a split from the church, known as the Gnostics. This religious and philosophical movement flourished in the first two centuries after Christ.
Gnostics believed that human beings possess a good spirit which is held inside our basically evil physical bodies. As the body and spirit are totally separate entities, we can do whatever we like with our bodies and it will not affect our spiritual lives, which are essentially good anyway.
Gnostics also held that only those in possession of certain secret information could ever really be saved. Predictably, Gnostics believed that they were the possessors of this hidden information.
The Gnostic sect was more like an exclusive, ancient lodge than a true reflection of the wider Christian church. The latter preached that salvation is available to all who accept Christ.
This much is openly acknowledged in some of the TV documentaries on offer. But producers and presenters are sometimes, in the interests of making 'good TV', inclined to leave historical fact to delve into a series of tantalising ‘what if?’ scenarios which are designed to play on the modern thirst for conspiracy theories.
Among other things, these programmes suggest that Jesus may not have died on the cross and that he may have had a physical relationship with a woman.
So, what does it matter if we’re told that there are serious questions about the traditional accounts of the four gospels? It matters a great deal, especially at a time when so many people in the West are trying to rediscover their unique religious heritage.
The New Testament gospels – the word ‘gospel’ literally means ‘good news’ – are our primary source of factual information about the life of the most remarkable and influential human being in history.
This man who, in his entire adult life, travelled no more than 80 miles from his home town of just a few hundred people, had little or no formal education and no formally recognized religious position.
Yet his public work and teaching, spread over just three years, changed the world more than that of any individual in history. Now, 2000 years after his birth and ignominious death, even people who say they have no time for him will often quote him or refer to the principles he espoused -- often without admitting it and sometimes without realising it.
His name, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth. He founded what has become the largest faith community in the world, with one third of the human race claiming to subscribe to it.
The gospels claim to give us eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Many historians agree that the last of them was completed by the late 60s or early 70s AD – certainly no later than 100 AD. Relative to other ancient works of historical literature, the gospels were written remarkably soon after the events they describe -- and, in some cases, within the lifetimes of people who would either have seen Jesus or heard of his ministry. The gospels were produced at a time when their veracity could easily have been challenged and even totally discredited.
The earliest extant copies or fragments date from as early as the middle of the first century – for example, the small fragment of St. Mark found in the caves at Qumran. Larger numbers of copies are available from the second and third centuries. In historical terms, our earliest copies are unusually close to the time of the originals. In content, these early copies are remarkably close to later versions which were used over the centuries by European translators.
Some authorities have noted that there is more textual and historical evidence to support the accuracy of the four gospels than there is for any other works of antiquity: including Caesar’s Commentaries and the works of Homer, Aristotle and Plato (which, by the way, hardly anybody bothers to question, including TV producers).
By the end of the fourth century, the rapidly growing Christian church had agreed on a list of New Testament books which it considered to be divinely inspired.
The four gospels seem to have been widely accepted even before then. They were first refered to in other literature by people like Papias, a church bishop, who died in 130 AD and Justin Martyr in his 1 Apology, written around 155 AD.
Left out of the approved New Testament were a group of other writings which were considered spurious for various reasons. They were not written by eyewitnesses, or contained teachings which were at variance with the principles on which the church had been founded and by which it had grown to fill the known world.
Watching some of the recent documentaries, you’re left with the impression that choosing the right books for the New Testament had been a hit and miss affair. The gospels, they suggest, were selected on the whim of an elitist group of bishops, for self-serving political reasons.
Actually, the gospels we have in our Bibles were the ones widely accepted by the general Christian population; the everyday people who made up the fast-growing early church.
They had had proven their worth in changing lives for the better and helping Christians survive and thrive under the fiercest persecution. The message they contained had been carried far and wide by the first missionaries, whose preaching often transformed whole cities.
The gospels were valued not only because they contained genuine eye-witness material, but because the claims they made about Christ and the power of his message had been proven repeatedly in the experiences of real people.
Of course, in our world of mass-produced media the record of history is all too often made to bow before the great god of ‘good television’. TV is better, the theory goes, when there’s conflict; when accepted, even proven wisdom is pitted against more politically correct tastes; when worthy beliefs are brought into disrepute.
One recent programme was presented by an Anglican priest. Along the way, he offered the viewer some good historical background, but could not resist throwing in a few loaded comments which revealed more about his personal prejudices – or those of his producer – thant they did about the facts.
In an almost throw-away line, he said, 'It wouldn't surprise me at all if Jesus had a physical relationship with a woman.' This is so far removed from the strong narrative evidence of the New Testament -- and of Christian tradition handed down through the generations -- that is laughable.
He offered nothing more by way of ‘proof’ than that one of this apocryphal book – already rejected by early Christians for its inaccuracy – had suggested it might be so (and even that suggestion was a muted one).
Dan Brown, your legacy of using bad history to sell a story is in good hands.
Almost invariably, these types of programme end on a non-committal note. Having raised all manner of inconclusive theories, they meander around the desert of ‘what ifs’ before riding off into the sunset, leaving us eating the dust of their confusion.
What makes these programmes bothersome and tiresome is the fact that they’re presented by people we are led to believe are ‘experts’ of some kind.
This is suggested either by virtue of their academic background, or simply by virtue of the fact that they look and sound good on the telly (and anyone who’s made it onto the box must know a thing or too).
TV is incredibly influential today. There are many TV producers and writers who are committed Christians; they’re working in a difficult but fascinating industry.
Jesus remarked that though heaven and earth will pass away, the truth of his words will stand forever. At the end of history, even TV producers will bow the knee before the Lord of love and the Prince of peace and declare him Lord of all, worthy of our highest acclaim.
I for one am praying hard that many more will discover it before then.
Keywords: Jesus Christ | TV | Dan Brown | apocrypha | TV producer | gospel | gospels | Gospel of Judas | Mal Fletcher | social comment | comment
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Mal, great article on the leader of Britain's army. I was having the same discussion earlier today, came to my PC and found you backed up everything I had said! Keep up the incredible work!
Joel Robinson, United Kingdom
Thanks for keeping us on our toes, Mal! As Christians living in today's ultra-pragmatic culture, our choices need to recognize the present reality while seeing it through the perspective of our God-revealed future.
I was close to tears when I read the excerpt from Mal's new book "The Future is X". He reminded me of things from my past which were so dramatically true.
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