Evidence for Jesus from Noncanonical Gospels
By J. Warner Wallace
Years after the completion of the four canonical gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John), dozens of noncanonical gospels and writings emerged across the empire. The authors of these texts hoped they would be taken seriously. In fact, religious groups of one kind or another used most of these noncanonical writings alongside the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The authors liked Jesus and recognized his influence and power. But their desire to co-opt the power and authority of Jesus led them to contradict, falsely supplement, or alter the canonical narrative. Groups that embraced the teachings of these texts (many of whom were Gnostic) strayed so far from orthodoxy that they were not recognized or identified as Christians by the earliest church leaders. While the noncanonical authors certainly liked Jesus, these non-Christians sought to co-opt his story for their own purposes. . .
Despite the legendary distortions, these noncanonical documents presupposed and acknowledged the claims of the canonical gospels, just as the legendary distortions of Elvis assumed and affirmed the core truths related to Elvis’s life, accomplishments, and death.
Elvis’s life created a tidal wave of fiction, but Jesus’s life created much more. Just as the underlying truths related to Elvis can be reconstructed from later, legendary accounts, so too can the foundational truths related to Jesus be reconstructed from late noncanonical fictions. . .
The Gospel of Peter, for example (often described as a Gnostic or “Docetic” narrative), was written after the eyewitnesses of Jesus were dead (likely between 150 and 200 CE). Gnostics generally held a low view of the material universe and the human body, and this late gospel was written to reflect that view. Jesus is therefore described as a spirit whose body was only an illusion. But despite many distortions, the Gospel of Peter affirms many details of the Passion Week as described in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. It also lists the names of the disciples and affirms critical features of the canonical gospels, such as the resurrection of Jesus.
Another late narrative, the Gospel of Philip (written between 180 and 250 CE), is similarly Gnostic in its representation of Jesus. The author of this text describes Jesus as the source of secret wisdom (a common feature of salvation in Gnostic groups). Despite this variation from the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Philip acknowledges Jesus as the Savior, Messiah, and “Son of Man” and repeats many verses from the New Testament and the gospels of Matthew and John.
The distorted narratives written by these non-Christians who liked Jesus repeat many common truths from the Gospels, even as they insert unique falsehoods. There are many other late, noncanonical narratives and legendary accounts, and from the common assumptions described in these accounts (the areas where the authors agree on the foundational claims of the canonical gospels), we can retrieve a detailed description of Jesus and his followers.
— J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline-featured homicide detective, popular national speaker, and best-selling author. He is a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and Adjunct Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology (Biola University). Relying on over two decades of investigative experience, Wallace provides the tools needed to investigate the claims of Christianity and make a convincing case for the truth of the Christian worldview.
Excerpted from J. Warner Wallace, Person of Interest: Why Jesus Still Matters in a World that Rejects the Bible (Zondervan, 2021).
Image: Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (attr) Jesus predigt am See Genezareth
Can the truth about Jesus be uncovered—even without a body or a crime scene? Join cold-case detective and bestselling author J. Warner Wallace as he investigates Jesus using an innovative and unique approach he employs to solve real missing person murder cases.
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