“There were many early gospels and epistles which never made it into the New Testament because they gave a different story of Jesus—Gospels like Gospel of Thomas, the Ebionite Gospel, the Gospel of the Hebrews, and the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians”
There are a few “gospels” which were composed much later than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and rejected by the early Christian community. The early church rejected these spurious ‘gospels’ for the very same reasons that any Muslim would today:
These books were almost all written by a religious movement called Gnosticism, which was opposed by the early apostles. Gnosticism had existed before Christianity and was in fact a separate movement, though they tried to reinvent Jesus as a teacher of Gnosticism. Basically Gnosticism teaches that God did not create the world, but an imperfect, evil demiurge created the world. They were dualists, meaning that they believed that the physical world was all evil. They taught that Jesus didn’t have a physical body, which is why some of them decided that he couldn’t have died a physical death. They were ascetic, often vegetarian and some had sexual worship practices. Books like Acts of Paul, Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of the Egyptians taught that sexual relations were wrong even within marriage. They believed that salvation was not obtained through faith and righteousness but through mystical secret knowledge, similar to certain Hindu groups today. To support their ideas against the apostles, they would often invent different accounts of Jesus. For example, the Gospel of Judas teaches that Jesus asked Judas to betray him to the cross so that his spirit could be liberated from the prison of his human body. These ideas permeate the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Judas and the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians.
The Gospel of the Hebrews is one exception, for it was not Gnostic. Scholars believe it is a later embellishment of the Gospel of Matthew which makes careful clarifications such as replacing “daily bread” with “bread for tomorrow” in the Lord’s Prayer. Embellishments are usually taken as indications that the text is not original, as it is less likely that a later version would choose to make texts more obscure. The fourth century Bible scholar Jerome took a lively interest in this text, which he considered simply a Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew. He writes:
“the Gospel which the Nazarenes and the Ebionites use which we have recently translated from Hebrew to Greek, and which most people call the Authentic Gospel of Matthew…”
According to Jerome, it had only minor textual differences from Matthew. One of the few differences in this text is heretical, for it views the Holy Spirit as the mother of Jesus (God forbid!) According to ancient authorities like Jerome and Epiphanius, the Ebionite Gospel is another name for this gospel.
Books like the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Judas and The Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians were written not in the first century (like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), but were composed in later centuries. The Gnostic teachings which permeate their gospels do not represent a Jewish worldview that Jesus would have had, but a Greek worldview which flourished in the second century.
The early Christian community was obviously far more aware than we are which books were authentic and which were not. These books were all rejected from the “canon” not because of theological reasons but because they were not written by the apostolic community. The church did not “choose” what was to be in the canon; rather they saw themselves as empowered only to receive and recognize what God had provided in books handed down from the apostles and their immediate companions.1 The Apocalypse of Peter is not part of the canon since it was clearly not written by Peter nor even in the lifetime of the apostles. This is revealed by its use of 4 Esdras in Chapter 3, which was written around 100 AD. This is why the early church leader Origen of Palestine in 240 rejected it as spurious. The only dispute regarding the canon involved marginal books like Revelation, 2 Peter, Clement, The Shepherd of Hermas, the inclusion or exclusion of which would not affect the basic teachings and gospel message of the Church.
In light of these two facts, it is deceptive for critics like Zakir Naik to present the existence of these ‘gospels’ as evidence for some imaginary gospel which fits his Wahabi ideas.
- See Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.preface; 3.1.1-2; as quoted in “The Canon of Scripture” ESV Study Bible, (Crossway, Wheaton, 2008) p.2580.