With the publication of the so-called “Gospel of Judas,” discussion and debate about the many and various Gnostic gospels has once again been revived. Coming as it does on the heels of the “Di Vinci Code,” much of the press coverage has intimated that there’s some frightening new information here, or that the Church has conspired to suppress or cover-up these gospels.
Any thinking person engaged in this discussion eventually arrives at the question, “Who decides what’s a ‘real’ gospel, anyway?” The consistent answer to this question, for nearly 1900 years, has been that the Church decides. The church didn’t come from the Bible, the Bible came from the Church.
The process of evaluating various manuscripts and testaments, and deciding which ones are genuine and ought to be kept, is attested-to in the writings of many of the earliest bishops and theologians who led the church and shaped our theology. By the year 182, a mere 80 years after the last of the canonical four Gospels was written, St. Iraneus wrote of the universal acceptance of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the rejection of all others as heretical. These principles were applied to all the available texts when the canon was fixed: have the books been universally accepted by the church, are they in harmony with consistent teaching of the Church, and are they of apostolic origin?
Finally, in the year 365, the Synod of Rome under pope Damasus, concluded once and for all that there are four Gospels, and all others are excluded. The church hasn’t tried to hide or suppress other ancient texts, but has the authority to say that they aren’t divinely inspired, contain erroneous ideas, and– although they may be of some scholarly interest– they aren’t the Word of God.