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The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities
by Darrell L. Bock
(230 pages, $21.99, hardcover)
reviewed by Mike Aquilina
Evangelical scholar Darrell Bock has produced a much-needed orthodox introduction to the major texts produced by the ancient heretics usually described as “Gnostic.” Until now, the most accessible introductions to Gnosticism and its “gospels”—the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, and so on—have been written by scholars who are sanguine toward the heresies and critical or dismissive of orthodox Christianity.
Bock, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, begins by giving non-academics a fascinating tour of the last century’s scholarship related to “early Christianities.” The Missing Gospels is an excellent complement to N. T. Wright’s recent study, Judas and the Gospel of Jesus (reviewed in last month’s Touchstone).
The two books overlap somewhat as general introductions to Gnosticism and to the “new school” of Christian origins. Bock’s longer book, however, covers a wide range of texts, while Wright focuses almost exclusively on the Gospel of Judas (which was still unpublished and unavailable for study when Bock was writing).
Bock begins by outlining the particular problems related to the study of the ancient world in general and “Gnosticism” in particular.
The term is indeed difficult to apply with consistency, since the polymorphous groups we usually call “Gnostic” recognized no earthly authority and produced no visible hierarchy. Still, like many scholars, Bock is able to settle on a minimal list of attributes common to all Gnostic texts.
First, they are characterized by a dualism in the supernatural order: The true god, the god of light, is opposed to the inferior god who created the universe. Thus, second, these writings depict a dualism in the world, where spirit (which belongs to the god of light) is imprisoned in matter and flesh (the province of the creator).
Third, the Gnostic gospels teach a salvation by means of esoteric knowledge, not faith, and they understand salvation as having one’s soul released from its fleshly prison. The body is neither saved nor savable. Bock notes other distinctive Gnostic traits as well, including their peculiar rituals.
Similarly, he distills a minimal list of attributes common to all texts associated with proto-orthodox Christianity (the canonical New Testament and the apostolic fathers). In all orthodox Christian texts, there is, for example, a concern for tradition, which bound far-flung communities in common belief, and for mission, which propelled the mainstream Church outward, while the Gnostics turned ever more inward upon themselves.
Giving examples from both orthodox and Gnostic texts, Bock goes on to compare and contrast both groups’ doctrines of God, Christ, salvation, and sin. Though the book’s exposition is measured and non-polemical, his conclusion frankly confronts the limitations of the scholars who are re-imagining and promoting ancient heresies.
These scholars are dealing with comparatively late texts (second and third centuries) from a fringe movement that never quite gained momentum, which fizzled out not because it was crushed by orthodoxy, but because it was singularly unappealing.
A helpful feature of Bock’s study is his breakdown of the earliest Christian history into three periods: the “Apostolic Period” (A.D. 30–100), the “Period of the Apostolic Fathers and the Rise of Alternative Works” (100–150), and the “Period of the Apologists and More Alternatives” (150–400). In a helpful “scorecard,” he places the orthodox authors side by side with Gnostic teachers for easy comparison.
All of this makes it easier for us, even at so great a cultural distance, to see the Gnostic books as they are and as they were. And when we do, we know why they went out of print after only one edition. Few people today would want to be Gnostics if they knew what Gnosticism really was. What they want is another stick with which to beat orthodox Christianity.
“A comprehensive look at the missing gospels and Gnostic teaching does not make them a light for the twenty-first century, despite the new school’s recent claims,” writes Bock. “To regard them as such is an anachronism of the worst kind . . . a distortion of Gnosticism, the Christian faith, and early Christian history.”
Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (www.salvationhistory.com) and a general editor of The Catholic Vision of Love catechetical series.