Darrell Bock is one of our finest contemporary New Testament scholars. As a conservative evangelical, he is well placed to take on the latest trends and fads of liberal and radical theology. He did this quite well recently in his critique, Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nelson, 2004)
Here he takes on the hype and hoopla associated with the discovery of various gospels and religious writings, especially those found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. These discoveries have led to claims that many gospels and religious texts have been suppressed or discounted by the church.
In addition, there are now many who have been convinced that there has been some massive cover-up job by the church to suppress these so-called hidden gospels. Both the New Age movement, and Dan Brown, among others, have been making these sorts of claims.
Thus it is often claimed that the Christianity that exists today is not the real thing, and that we need to give credence to these various gospels, and the alternative understandings of Christianity. What are we to make of these claims? Is the traditional understanding of Christianity now obsolete? Does the Bible we now possess need radical altering to take into account, or include, these new discoveries?
In a nutshell, Bock says no. The four canonical gospels, part of the 27 books in the New Testament, are there, and these new gospels are not, for good reason. The early church was aware of these alternative books, and gave them short shrift. And so should we. While they may provide some helpful background understanding to Christianity, and demonstrate the richness and diversity of religious life in the early centuries, these new gospels and alternative Christianities are not to be equated with their orthodox counterparts.
Bock examines in detail the findings of Nag Hammadi. The 52 ancient texts found there date primarily from the second and third centuries, well after the period in which the New Testament was penned. These writings are mainly characterised as Gnostic in nature.
While Gnosticism is a much-debated topic, we know that it entailed beliefs quite at variance with New Testament thought. Its emphasis on hidden or secret knowledge, and its esoteric understandings of salvation are quite at odds with the very public knowledge of man’s dilemma and God’s solution as offered in the biblical texts.
These various writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas, are carefully contrasted to the canonical gospels by Bock. They are found to differ markedly in genre, in content, and theology. They were rightly rejected by the early Christian church as incompatible with genuine Christian orthodoxy.
And the claim that there were various versions of Christianity circulating in the first few centuries, rivalling the traditional understanding, is also challenged by Bock. Thus he critically examines the thesis of Walter Bauer and its later proponents, such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. While there certainly was diversity amongst the early Christians, these alternative positions were never majority views.
Bock demonstrates how the traditional understanding was the predominant view by looking at key biblical doctrines: God, creation, the nature and work of Christ, sin and salvation. In all of these he demonstrates that not only were the alternative religious teachings and writings widely at variance with these key doctrines, but they were always considered to be heterodox and fringe in nature.
He contrasts the biblical writings and church fathers with the alternative teachings and teachers. While there are some similarities, they are also major differences, and the traditional and alternative views were set apart from each other very early on.
Thus Bock rejects the claims made by the new school that we need to redefine and remake Christianity, in light of these Gnostic texts and teachings.
Given how much hype is being made in various quarters about these so-called missing gospels, a book-length rebuttal has been needed for some time now. This volume fits the bill nicely: it is scholarly enough, yet written for the non-specialist. As such it is a timely and welcome antidote to the new school musings.