The so-called Gnostic gospels seem to be gaining a new lease of life via the best-seller, The Da Vinci Code. It is worth recalling their origins.
The Gnostics were a group of heretics that flourished in the second century. They claimed to be in possession of a secret Gospel, quite different from the canonical four, and superior to them. It was a secret revelation made to the Apostles and was to be communicated only to a small group of initiates whom they had chosen - namely the Gnostics.
They appear only in the second century and published books with such titles as the Gospel of Thomas.
As a rule, these "gospels" are short on narrative and concentrate on what they present as the teaching of Christ, with a sometimes garbled version of His words. Experts agree that the Gnostic "gospels" were written between the years 140 and 200.
The canonical Gospels, on the other hand, were written much earlier, during the first century: Matthew before 40, Mark about 46, Luke in 53 and John in 65.
Some may find these dates early, but a strong case can be made for them. Take Luke, for example. In 56, as all scholars agree, St Paul wrote 2 Corinthians. In chapter eight, verse 18, he wrote: "I am sending you Titus and the brother who is famous in all the churches for his gospel."
"That brother," the great Origen wrote, "is Luke."
To allow time for Luke to gain this fame, we shall have to put his Gospel at about 63. (That, I think, was the first edition, which began at what is now chapter three: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar ...", which, as many scholars have remarked, reads like the beginning of a Gospel.
The second and final edition contains the first two chapters, the witness of Our Lady, added in 58, when Luke was in Judea and could easily have visited Galilee.
FR G.H. DUGGAN SM
Silverstream, New Zealand