Lost Books of the Bible
According to some estimates, early Christians wrote at least twenty
gospels that weren't included in the bible. Many of these non-biblical
gospels apparently disappeared later, although it's possible that copies of
some of them still survive at unknown locations. Luckily, several that
appeared to be missing have been found again in modern times. But some
are still missing, and could be permanently lost.
Gospels that were left out of the Bible are called noncanonical gospels.
Many scholars also call them apocryphal books, because most of them
have unknown origins. This uncertainty about their origins was one reason
many of them were excluded from the Bible. But some were also excluded
because they expressed unorthodox or heretical views.
Scholars know about the past existence of some missing gospels
because they are mentioned in other ancient writings that have survived.
Parts of some lost books were even copied into surviving writings, so that a
portion of their original content is still preserved.
In fact, people are often surprised to learn that parts of several lost
gospels may have been preserved in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This
preserved material has been identified by certain characteristics which
indicate that it was copied from other writings. Thus the authors of the New
Testament gospels apparently got some of their information from earlier
writings. Modern scholars call these earlier writings "sources", and have
determined that there were probably three of them. But apparently all of
them have disappeared.
These three lost sources may have been the first gospels. Their ancient
names are unknown, so they are usually identified by modern names,
specifically the Lost Q Source, the Pre- Markan Passion Narrative, and the
Signs Gospel. Because no copies of any of them have survived, they are
sometimes called hypothetical gospels. But most scholars believe that they
really did exist at one time.
Actually, these three missing gospels aren't completely lost, since
material from them is preserved in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In fact,
considerable knowledge about their original content has been obtained by
studying this preserved material.
Some other non-biblical gospels have been discovered more directly,
because actual physical remains have been found. Examples include the
Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Judas. All of these
were discovered in modern times. But only fragments or secondary
translations have been found, so the complete original forms of all of them
are still unavailable.
These three rediscovered gospels are named after Simon Peter, Mary
Magdalene, and Judas Iscariot, but those weren't their real authors. Their
real authors are unknown, and will probably never be identified. In ancient
times unknown authors would sometimes ascribe their books to famous
people in an effort to get more publicity and authority for them.
Ancient writers mentioned a number of other gospels which they knew
about, but which apparently no longer survive. These include the Gospel of
Matthias, the Gospel of Perfection, the Gospel of the Seventy, the Dialogue
of the Savior, the Gospel of the Twelve, the Book of the Hebrews, the
Gospel of the Nazarenes, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Secret Gospel of
Mark, and the Gospel of Eve. Other gospels may have also existed, but
even their names have been lost.
Some early gospels may have vanished because they were secret
gospels and very few copies were made. Others could have been lost due
to wars, conquests, upheavals, and persecutions. In addition, there have
been accusations that early church leaders intentionally destroyed some
books in order to cover up embarrassing facts about the origins of
Christianity. Some intentional destruction did take place, but exactly what
was lost can't be determined.
But the modern discoveries prove that a missing gospel can sometimes
be found again. And there is a chance that more will be found in the future,
especially since small fragments of several possible unknown gospels have
been uncovered in various excavations.
Here are brief descriptions of some of the best-known lost (or
The Gospel of Peter
A fragment of this gospel was discovered in Egypt in the late nineteenth
century, and two more possible fragments have been found since then. But
a large portion may still be missing. Hopefully the remainder will eventually
be found, because the available text contains some interesting material,
including the only known description of Jesus leaving the tomb after his
Ever since the first fragment was discovered, this gospel has been
controversial. A few scholars think that it preserves some of the beliefs and
views of the earliest Christians. But most regard it as a secondary work
containing a mixture of fanciful elements and material copied from the New
One very intriguing part of this gospel is its account of the exit of Jesus
from the tomb. This exit takes place during the night as some Roman
soldiers stand guard nearby. Suddenly the soldiers see two men (or angels)
descend from heaven and enter the tomb. A short time later the men come
back out with Jesus between them. At this point the men look so tall that
their heads reach to the sky, and Jesus looks even taller. They are followed
out of the tomb by a cross. Suddenly the soldiers hear a voice from heaven,
and the cross answers it.
The description of this scene puzzles many people, since it appears to
depict a wooden cross that can walk and talk. But some scholars think that
the passage is actually describing a cross-like formation of resurrected
saints who have returned to life along with Jesus and follow him out of the
tomb. A few scholars also see connections between this account and a
passage at Matthew 27:52-53, which describes a similar resurrection of
The Gospel of Mary
The existence of this gospel was unknown until several fragments were
discovered in modern times. Since the only long fragment is a Coptic
translation, most of the original Greek text is still lost. And even the long
fragment may only include about half of the gospel.
Because the "Mary" in this gospel is depicted as a very prominent
disciple, most scholars assume that she is Mary Magdalene, although in the
extant text she is always just called Mary. The gospel emphasizes her
prominence by presenting her as a strong leader, and by suggesting that
she was the most favored disciple of Jesus and received a special
revelation from him. It also suggests that this led to a conflict with Peter,
who may have seen her as a threat to his position as overall leader of the
disciples in the period after Jesus departed.
Indications of a rivalry with Peter are especially evident in the last section
of the extant text, in which Mary gets into an argument with Peter and his
brother Andrew over some private revelations that Jesus had given to her.
This section may derive from memories of a historical conflict between her
and Peter which eventually caused her to leave the group. Thus, although
this gospel probably wasn't written until the second century, it may preserve
some traditions passed down from an earlier period.
The Gospel of Mary contains some gnostic ideas, particularly in the
section which describes the revelations she received from Jesus. This
connection with gnosticism, together with the prominent role that the book
gives to a female, may have led to its suppression by orthodox Christians.
The Gospel of Thomas
This gospel was probably first written in Greek, but the only surviving
complete text is a Coptic translation discovered in Egypt in 1945. Its initial
section indicates that it contains the "secret sayings" of Jesus, and the main
text then gives 114 of these sayings. In most of the passages Jesus speaks
as a teacher and his disciples make comments and ask questions.
Because the initial section of this gospel refers to "secret sayings", many
scholars believe that it was a secret gospel, at least originally. This means
that it was thought to contain secret knowledge, and that only certain
individuals were allowed to read it. Several other secret gospels, or
fragments of them, have also been discovered.
The Gospel of Thomas may preserve some authentic teachings of Jesus
that aren't found in the bible. For this reason, many scholars regard it as the
most important surviving non-canonical gospel.
The Gospel of Judas
The only extant copy of this gospel was found in Egypt, but the time and
place of its discovery are uncertain, and there are indications that it passed
through the Egyptian black market at one stage.
The existing copy is a Coptic text, probably a translation of a still-lost
Greek original. Unfortunately the manuscript is damaged in many places,
and some pages are missing, so that translation and interpretation are
difficult. However, many scholars believe that it was a secret book used
mostly by certain gnostic sects of Christians.
This gospel is notable in that it may depict Judas Iscariot as the most
loyal disciple of Jesus, and an innocent martyr instead of an evil betrayer.
But because of the damage to the manuscript, and the difficulties of
interpretation, there is some uncertainty about this matter. In any case, this
is one of the later gospels, probably not written until the second century, and
most scholars doubt that it contains any authentic information about the real
The Lost Q Source
This early gospel is also called the Lost Sayings Gospel and the Q
Document. Like other hypothetical lost gospels, its probable existence has
been inferred from studies of the New Testament gospels. In fact, it is
thought to be the original source of many of the teachings of Jesus that are
preserved in Matthew and Luke. The name "Q" comes from the German
word "quelle", which means "source".
Most scholars believe that this gospel was primarily a collection of the
sayings of Jesus, with little narrative material or biographical information. In
the earliest period these sayings must have been preserved orally, but later
someone apparently collected them and wrote them down. They may have
been collected for the use of early Christian missionaries as an aid in
spreading the new faith.
Scholars have put together possible reconstructions of this gospel by
extracting material from Matthew and Luke, but some uncertainties are
involved in exactly what should be included. There is a chance that some of
the original parts of this gospel have been completely lost.
The Pre-Markan Passion Narrative
Scholars have deduced the probable existence of this gospel from careful
studies of the Gospel of Mark. These studies indicate that the author of
Mark obtained some material from an earlier source. This source has been
lost, but the evidence indicates that it was a short narrative of the arrest,
interrogation, and crucifixion of Jesus. For this reason, it is called the Pre-
Markan Passion Narrative.
The unknown author of this lost narrative had a good knowledge of what
happened to Jesus during and after his arrest. The narrative might have
even been written by a member of the first community of believers, known
as the Nazarenes, who lived in Jerusalem in the years after Jesus departed.
Reconstructions of the original form of this book indicate that it gave a
simple straight-forward account of what happened before and during the
crucifixion. Because this account may be the basis for all the later accounts,
whoever wrote it performed an extremely important service.
The Signs Gospel
The likely existence of this hypothetical gospel has been deduced from
studies of the Gospel of John. It is called the Signs Gospel because it
apparently described some miracles of Jesus which it called "signs". Its
unknown author may have regarded the ability of Jesus to perform these
miracles as one of the "signs" that he was the Messiah.
These miracles include the changing of water into wine (John 2:1-11), the
giving of sight to the man born blind (John 9:1-8), the healing at the Pool of
Bethesda (John 5:2-9) and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). The fact
that these particular miracles aren't mentioned in the other gospels indicates
that their authors probably hadn't read the Signs Gospel.
In addition to the miracle stories, this gospel may have also contained
some information about John the Baptist, and about the crucifixion and
resurrection. But it probably didn't have much information about the
teachings of Jesus.
This article was originally published on the Gospel Mysteries website. To
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