Question Corner
With Father Kenneth Doyle

Q: As you are aware, the four Gospels in the Catholic Bible are based on the writings of saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But recently, as I was channel surfing, I came across a television program that spoke of the Gospels of Judas Iscariot, Peter the Apostle and Mary Magdalene. When I mentioned this to a couple of Catholic friends, they told me that there are in fact many different Gospels, in addition to the four we all know and the three referenced on television. If that is so, then why doesn’t our Bible include all of the Gospels? (Camp Hill, Pa.)

A: From the earliest days of the church, and certainly from the midpoint of the second century, four and only four Gospels have generally been regarded by Christian authors as the official (or “canonical”) Gospels and have thus found their way into the Bible, namely, the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

It is true that there are several dozen other documents (or fragments of documents) which are sometimes referred to as “Gospels,” including the ones your question mentions.

Those, however, have never been widely regarded as authentic and contemporaneous accounts of the words and actions of Christ, and are commonly called “apocryphal” Gospels. The differences between canonical and apocryphal Gospels are notable.

The canonical Gospels were written, broadly speaking, during the apostolic period, while the Apostles of Jesus or their immediate disciples were still alive. Those narratives were given nearly immediate acceptance by the Christian churches of the East and the West and universally recognized as authentic.
In fact, around 140 A.D., the author Tatian produced a harmonization of excerpts from the four canonically recognized Gospels. Accounts from the apocryphal Gospels, on the other hand, were used only sporadically by scattered groups and never gained wide acceptance. References to the apocryphal Gospels are found later on, around the end of the second century.

In addition, the canonical Gospels are fairly straightforward and largely consistent accounts of the life and sayings of Jesus, while the apocryphal ones are rife with stories of a legendary and unique nature. In trying to meet the demands of popular piety, they often conceive of events (e.g., “miracles” performed by Jesus while he was still a child) which the canonical Gospels mention not at all.

Some of the apocryphal Gospels are also clearly heretical and gnostic (purporting to relate some “secret teachings” of Jesus).