The Lost Gospels

I wonder how many of you reading this watched the BBC4 programme, The Lost Gospels on Monday 4th December at 9:00 pm?  The programme is scheduled to be repeated soon and will no doubt appear also on BBC2.

The documentary, presented by a ‘priest’ of the Anglican Church, Pete Owen Jones (who dresses and looks like Tom Baker as Doctor Who in the 70s), is so misdirected and confused that it’s hard to know where to start criticising it.  For example, the presenter suggested that the Christian Church didn’t decide that Christ had a human and divine nature until the fourth century (I think he was referring to the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD) (1).  Several other similar points were made, also with reference to the fourth century. We were treated to odd readings from other gospels, written quite late, which suggested that Jesus believed women were markedly inferior to men. We were told how Jesus kissed Mary Magdalene repeatedly on the mouth and probably had a sexual relationship with her. Our jolly vicar said he was quite happy with this.

Later, our priest waxed lyrical about the apocryphal gospel of Peter, telling us how wonderful this was; that we had this document by such an important person who actually knew Jesus.  Ten minutes later, he mentioned in passing that no-one knew who the author of this gospel was, but that it was written in the 3rd century AD.  Do I need to go on? Well, I’m going to anyway!

The reverend fellow then discovered that women had a role in the early church and we were given the idea that men had done some kind of a cover-up.  We were shown paintings on the walls of the catacombs beneath the Vatican which actually showed women! I think we were meant to gasp with shock horror. I wonder if this erudite vicar has read the New Testament?

If he has, he will have come across a chap named St. Paul. The earliest of Paul’s writing is dated around 49 AD, only sixteen years after the crucifixion, yet the programme made no mention of this fact. Rather, the aim seemed to be to undermine the Christian faith and jump on the Da Vinci Code bandwagon.  What we were not told was that all the major doctrines of the Christian Church are worked out by Paul or are contained in embryo in his letters and the four canonical gospels, and all were in place before the turn of the first century. The Church did not simply make decisions about Christ’s nature etc, three hundred years later!  Nor did it arbitrarily decide which gospels should be included in the NT.  Of course, if the presenter had been honest and told us some of these facts at the outset, it would have been a very short programme with a very different message.  As it stands, the programme is so full of misconceptions and errors that I won’t bore you by listing any more. 

The point of this little rant is my concern about the damage such a programme can do. Christians who are not well-read and maybe have only a little theological knowledge could find their faith undermined by such a programme. Moreover, people of other religions and none may have their own prejudices reinforced as they scoff at Christians for believing all this stuff, when even a priest of that very faith is doing his best to rubbish it!  And here’s the crux of the matter. 

I suppose that it’s understandable that there will be people out there who wish to ridicule or ‘do down’ the Christian faith. This has been going on for two thousand years, so it’s nothing new. Over the last couple of years, we’ve had several TV programmes carrying on this tradition, including those of Jonathan Miller and his straightforward atheism, and Richard Dawkins with his ‘science’ and plain hatred of the Bible. 

But what on earth are we to make of a man who seeks to undermine the faith whilst at the same time claiming to be a minister of God’s Church?  It’s my belief that one such person speaking from within the Church can do more damage than a hundred atheists on the outside.  For the life of me, I cannot understand what this man’s agenda might be; other than that, perhaps his own doubt is so severe that he doesn’t want to live with it alone and would feel happier if thousands of others doubted with him.

I know from experience that the Anglican Church has many sincere and evangelical ministers within its ranks.  But this particular programme brought to my mind one of Kierkegaard’s famous lines when he turned his vitriolic tongue on the state church of Denmark in his own time. He said: ‘There is nothing, nothing, nothing, not the most despairing liberal, not a mighty persecutor of religion, nothing so dangerous in Christianity as an official priest or professor.’

1. Though the actual Nicene Creed wasn’t fully ratified until 381 AD.

Chris Lazenby is Tutor in Theology at the Midlands Bible College, United Kingdom.

  1. People are their own worst enemies: they choose to accept the things that “sound” correct, but reject the things that don’t fit into their preconceieved ideas. Perhaps they should learn to challenge, or accept, the beliefs of others based upon personal well rounded reading to formulate their own opinions based upon available research? With regards to Kierkegaard’s words, I couldn’t agree more. I have recently nursed a vicar (and Army Padre) who refused to go to Iraq (I am not intending to stimulate a debate about the good/ills of going to war, but to illustrate that soldiers – I used to be one – don’t have a choice, but instead a job!), who lived openly as a homosexual with his boyfriend, but who also used to inject heroin. Needless to say, his employers knew nothing about his lifestyle, and perhaps they didn’t ask, but (call me old fashioned) this was probably not the best advertisement for what Christ did for us on the cross, or what the Holy Spirit should be allowed to do within our hearts.

  2. I saw the second half of the Lost Gospels programme.

    Not in a strong position to comment but I did find it interesting. Didn’t like his conclusion though.

    Can you recommend any good books so that I could read up on the issues discussed?

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