Is the New Testament Complete?

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Is the New Testament complete? Are there missing passages or books? This post will focus on a few issues in the New Testament that have created questions among scholars over the centuries.

Since the Gospels come first in the New Testament, it might be good to ask whether or not there were other credible gospel accounts that should be included. The first one that comes to most people’s minds is The Gospel According to Thomas. This manuscript first came to light in the late 1800’s and is dated around 200 AD.

The Gospel of Thomas became well known in the last thirty five years due to the efforts of Princeton scholar, Elaine Pagels. Her books, The Gnostic Gospels (Modern Library 100 Best Nonfiction Books) and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, brought this manuscript to the public’s attention. Pagels argues that the Gospel of Thomas should be taken seriously, even discussing some of the reasons that it was not included in the New Testament canon.

Is the Gospel of Thomas a “missing Scripture?” Should it be included in the New Testament? While there will always will be a few scholars like Elaine Pagels who argue that Thomas should be included as Scripture, there are several reasons that the church did not accept this manuscript as Scripture. First of all, Thomas is not a gospel at all. The four cannonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John provide examples of what gospels are. They are narrative accounts of the life of Jesus. They provide (albeit incomplete) a historical framework of His life, some of Jesus’ teaching, some of His miracles, and a detailed account of His crucifixion and resurrection.

The Gospel of Thomas, on the other hand, does not follow this pattern at all. It does not tell a story or provide any type of narrative. Thomas is merely a collection of sayings and teachings that are attributed to Jesus. Some of these are in the form of conversations with His disciples.

Another reason that Thomas was not included in the New Testament canon is that the authorship is unknown. This fact alone would not exclude it from the New Testament but its late date clearly precludes the fact that Thomas the apostle was the author. Even though the authorship of some New Testament writings is debated, there are clear historical pathes leading back to an apostolic source or someone (Luke, for example) who was closely linked with an apostle.

A third reason that Thomas was not included in the New Testament is its teaching. To be fair, much of Thomas seems to be a quoting of some of Jesus’ more popular sayings. Even Pagels, however, acknowledges that much of Thomas is gnostic in its teaching and outlook. A couple of examples from the Gospel of Thomas might shed some light on what gnosticism taught. In verse seven it says, “Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

This verse seems to indicate that people have the ability to save themselves. In other words, the truth is within everyone and all they have to do is let it out so that they can find salvation. This thought is at odds with traditional Christian doctrine which teaches that salvation comes from God, through Christ’s sacrificial death, and not from within ourselves.

One of the most controversial passages from Thomas is the very last one, “Simon Peter said to Him, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

This verse is disturbing on two levels. First of all, Simon Peter, the most emminent of the apostles and one of the leaders of the early church, states that women are not worthy of life. It is likely that here he is referring to eternal life, but whether Peter is talking about natural life or eternal life, he is not portrayed in a very positive light.

The other disturbing element in this verse is Jesus’ answer. He seems to be saying that the only way that women can enter the Kingdom of Heaven is by becoming male. What does this mean? Do women have to become male in their outlook? In their appearance? In the text, Jesus refers to women making themselves male. How do they do that? In some sects of gnosticism, men took vows of celibacy in an attempt to keep their spirits pure and undefiled.

Women were not always welcome in every gnostic church or group. They were considered distracting to the men who were trying to purify their spirits. Scripture, however, demonstrates a high regard for women. The four canonical Gospels show women among Jesus’ disciples and closest followers.

There are other early writings that have been referred to as “gospels.” An excellent resource is Bart Ehrman’s book, Lost Scriptures : Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. This book is a collection of early Christian and gnostic writings. The book contains Ehrman’s own, very readable, translation of these works. In most cases, a casual reading of these works makes it pretty clear why they are not in the New Testament.

In The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (no relation to the Gospel of Thomas), the writer undertakes to give an account of Jesus’ missing childhood years. Jesus is portrayed more like a character from a Harry Potter novel than as a normal child. He uses His power to kill another child who accidentally bumps into Him (He raises him from the dead when the boy’s parents complain), He fashions some birds out of clay and then brings them to life, and He lengthens a board when His father cuts it too short in his carpenter shop.

But what about the texts that did make it into the New Testament? Are they complete? The earliest Gospel is commonly accepted to be the Gospel of Mark. Of the four, it has generated the most controversy in regards to its ending. The earliest manuscripts end at chapter sixteen, verse eight, “The women fled from the tomb, trembling and bewildered, saying nothing to anyone because they were too frightened to talk.” Was this the original ending of Mark’s story? Scholars have debated this for years. Helpful scribes added two endings to Mark, one of which adds another twelve verses.

I make the case in my book, Miracles in Mark, that Mark actually did intend to finish his gospel at verse eight. His entire story has been one of the disciples and others struggling to understand Who Jesus actually was. Even here at Jesus’ resurrection, the women were scared and did not fully understand what was happening. Mark seems to end his story like he does to allow the reader to decide what to do with with what they have just read.

The letters that the Apostle Paul wrote bring up the question of gaps in the Scriptures. The Corinthian correspondence, for example, refers to other letters that were not preserved. In First Corinthians seven, verse one, Paul refers to a letter that the Christians in Corinth wrote him, “Now regarding the questions you asked in your letter.” It would be interesting to read a letter written to the Apostle Paul from one of his churches.

In Second Corinthians, chapter two, Paul refers to another letter that he wrote to the church in Corinth to bring some correction. He is saying, in essence, that he is sorry that he had to be so heavy-handed in the letter and is sorry to have caused them such sorrow. This is obviously a letter that was not preserved because First Corinthians is not heavy-handed and would not have caused sorrow. It is a letter of teaching and answering questions from the letter that they sent Paul.

Another letter of Paul’s that does not seem to have been preserved was his letter to the Laodiceans, mentioned in Colossians four, verse sixteen. Some scholars have thought this might possibly be referring to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Ephesians is one of Paul’s least personal letters and appears to be written as a circular letter to be shared among different churches. It is possible that this was the Laodicean letter that Paul mentioned.

While there have always been areas of controversy within the field of New Testament studies, this should never muddy the water for the importance of studying the Scriptures. The New Testament canon was formally acknowledged in the mid 300’s AD. For over one hundred years before that, however, almost all of the books that would later make up our New Testament were already accepted as Scripture. The early Christians felt that the New Testament was complete. There is no good reasom for us to feel otherwise.

What other questions do you have about the reliability of the New Testament?

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