Sundoulos - Fall 2006

Dean's Column

Gnosticism, the Canonical Gospels, and New Testament Studies

by Dr. Dennis Dirks

Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Thomas, Da Vinci Code. Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene, described by Newsweek as “An Inconvenient Woman”?1 Did Jesus ask Judas to betray Him?

What do we make of the recent crescendo of claims against the canon and the veracity of Scripture itself? What in the world is going on? Has the church somehow overlooked important historical documents, specifically the Gnostic “gospels”? Did early church councils suppress or forcibly push aside inconvenient “truth” to preserve the power and positions of authority of majority leaders in the early church? Was a sizable minority in the early church squelched in their support for texts not included among canonical Gospels? Were decisions arbitrary and manipulative as many would have us believe?2

Claims such as these are not novel, nor are they new in the history of the church. The idea that our Bibles should be composed of a different set of documents than the 66 canonical books, or that certain books were lost or even suppressed, has long frequented the edges of “biblical” scholarship. Discoveries of Gnostic texts in the late 1940s have caused some to claim the entire New Testament canon to be discredited. Recently, such notions have captured the fascination of the person on the street, popularized by books such as The Da Vinci Code (more than 40 million copies sold), lately released in film. Clearly, the intent is to raise questions that ultimately sow confusion and diminish the authority of Scripture and its orthodox interpretation. Seeds of doubt are sown by intermixing fact with fiction, “pure” concoctions, and claims that fiction is instead fact. Whose truth is true?

Canon means “rule” or “standard.” It was not created by the church; rather it is what God created for the church. It is inspired (God-breathed), inerrant, and sufficient. The early church acknowledged this God-given set of canonical books on the basis that its human authors were apostles or connected with an apostle, that it found widespread acceptance by the church, that its content was consistent with accepted orthodox teaching, and that it was marked by high moral and spiritual values.

A number of very good books were published this past year dealing specifically with some of the more sensational issues raised by the book and film The Da Vinci Code. In this issue of Sundoulos, Talbot New Testament scholars Mike Wilkins and Clint Arnold push deeper, surveying the Gnostic “gospels” and questioning the relevance of Gnosticism for NT studies. We trust their work will bolster confidence in the sufficiency of the canonical Scripture, the Word of God.


1 Newsweek, May 20, 2006.

2 For example, Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, claims that “since the beginning of recorded time, history has been written by the ‘winners’ (those societies and belief systems that conquered and survived).”

Dr. Dennis Dirks is Dean of Talbot School of Theology and Professor Christian Education. He has been with Talbot for more than 27 years as a faculty member and administrator after serving on the staff of two churches.

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