The Many Faces of Christ, by Philip Jenkins

Jenkins contends that the so-called lost gospels were in use continuously in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, despite church authorities’ efforts to exclude extracanonical treatises. His abundant proofs of continuity give lie to the traditional assumption that all but the four canonical Gospels were effectively squelched in the fourth century. According to Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, it was not until the Lutheran Reformation of the 16th century that their use dramatically declined.

Many factors must have contributed to the attraction of the extracanonical gospels—and “must have” is a favorite phrase of historians who have plenty of evidence but little explanation. The long endurance of the lost gospels was apparently due to a desire for a fuller picture of figures and events reported by the canonical gospels, such as the childhood of Jesus; the conception, childhood, and death or assumption of the Virgin Mary; and the harrowing of hell.

Jenkins argues that a dualism of matter and spirit informs extracanonical literature from antiquity through the medieval centuries. But dualistic ideas may also have been supported by an experiential intuition that matter and spirit, light and darkness, body and mind are not only separate, the result of different creations, but engaged in ongoing conflict. It is perennially impossible to ascertain whether experience tends to reflect the ideas to which one is committed or whether experience precedes and forms the ideas. Deeply antagonistic to the doctrines of creation, the incarnation, and the resurrection of the flesh, the lost gospels reveal the huge diversity of the Christian world.