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BOOK REVIEW

'Gospels' considers diverse early Christianity

The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities, By Darell L. Bock, Nelson, 256 pp., $21.99

A New Testament specialist and professor at the Dallas Theological Seminary, Darrell Bock offers a crash course in early Christianity with his new book, "The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities." In it, he examines the recent claims that the ``new" or ``lost" gospels -- also known as the ``Gnostic Gospels" discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, may prove that Christianity as we know it today has changed significantly from its early form s .

The urge to reconsider orthodox Christianity is not new but has become newly popular with Dan Brown's mystery-novel-turned-movie ``The Da Vinci Code." Bock, who also wrote the best-selling rebuttal ``Breaking the Da Vinci Code," points out that from Christianity's earliest days, a diversity of belief existed. The real question, as far as Bock is concerned, has to do with the origin of what is today considered to be a traditional or orthodox view. Was orthodoxy something that emerged out of the earliest period of the religion? Did it survive because it best reflected the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, or did it prevail because it was promoted by the people who were in power?

The beginning of the book is a primer on alternate Christianities, especially the ideas taught in gnosticism, a complex movement thought to have thrived in the second century.

Much of the book is taken up with explanations of how Bock plans to explain the information contained in the gospels found at Nag Hammadi, which can make for a tedious set up. Once you get to the meat of the book -- the ``new" gospels themselves -- the presentation is very accessible, with a concise paragraph detailing the background and literary characteristics of each text and a comprehensive summary at the end of each chapter.

Using many well-known religious scholars and their exhaustive research as sources, Bock examines the alternative texts, paying close attention to key works: the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Apocryphon of John. He carefully compares and contrasts these writings with the canonical New Testament -- especially the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John, and the letters of Paul -- illustrating the main differences between the gnostic and orthodox points of view.

Bock questions how the so-called missing gospels talk about the nature of God, Jesus' divinity, the nature of humanity's redemption, and the idea of Jesus' work providing a way to salvation. Each of these chapters is followed by one in which he subjects the Gospels of the New Testament to the same approach. For example, while many gnostic gospels proclaim a dualistic Jesus -- an earthly man and a separate, heavenly Christ -- the New Testament teaches that Jesus was both human and divine. ``To the author of Hebrews, a full connection to humanity was necessary," Bock writes. ``This view is in contrast to that of many alternative texts where it was impossible for Jesus to be human because His humanity would compromise His heavenly incorruptibility."

Bock argues, though not conclusively, that what is now considered traditional Christianity was fairly widespread in the first and second centuries and it survived because it best reflected the teachings of Jesus. But the light he shines on the alternative gospels and the views they represent may spur people to reexamine what they believe.

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