IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How the gospel story grew in the telling

A new documentary titled "The Secret Lives of Jesus" focuses on the lesser-known, often-heretical tales surrounding the Christian savior, including Jesus as a divine brat or a spiritual student in the Himalayas.

For Christians, 'tis the season for shepherds and kings, animals and angels to gather together around the manger — at least in countless Nativity scenes around the world. But it takes more than any one of the four Gospels to assemble that precise tableau: The three kings (actually, astrologers) come from Matthew, while the shepherds come from Luke.

Did we say four Gospels? Actually, in the early centuries of the Christian church, there were quite a few more than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. For example, references to the ox and the donkey surrounding the infant Jesus come not from the four accepted gospels, but from an also-ran scripture called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

Still other apocryphal texts portray the child Jesus as a divine "Dennis the Menace" — smarting off to his neighbors, giving his playmates a swift kick, even striking an offending youngster dead and then grudgingly bringing him back to life. A lot of these ancient stories have come to be considered heretical. Nevertheless, they get a fresh airing in "The Secret Lives of Jesus," a documentary premiering Sunday on the National Geographic Channel.

The show, part of a TV triple-header timed to coincide with the buildup to Christmas, illustrates that the gospel story has been added to, fine-tuned and pruned through the centuries.

For some scriptural scholars, even the texts that have been excluded from the Christian canon have lessons to teach: "It's important for us to read all these texts, not just the texts that have been deemed orthodox," said Marvin Meyer, a religious-studies professor at Chapman University who has written extensively about the lesser-known texts.

For others, however, the apocryphal scriptures reveal more about the state of the Christian church in the centuries after its founding than about its true origins. "I would not say that we learn anything new about the historical Jesus or the birth of Jesus," said Ben Witherington, a professor of New Testament interpretation at the Asbury Theological Seminary.

Both Meyer and Witherington get their say in "The Secret Lives of Jesus" — and since this is "the season," after all, Witherington also appears in yet another holiday history lesson this weekend, "The Mystery of Christmas" on CBS' "48 Hours." In fact, this is prime time for reviewing the Nativity and the historical Jesus, on TV as well as in film ("The Nativity Story") and in the newsmagazines (Newsweek as well as U.S. News & World Report).

This season, there's an extra seasoning of controversy, sparked by the Hollywood-inspired fuss over "The Da Vinci Code" as well as this year's unveiling of the Gospel of Judas, a second-century retelling of Christ's Passion from a traditional villain's point of view. The National Geographic Channel will rebroadcast its "Gospel of Judas" documentary on Monday, and on Tuesday it will air "Secrets of Jerusalem's Holiest Sites," a new look at the Holy City's role in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The controversial theme of the Gospel of Judas — that Jesus actually asked Judas Iscariot to betray him as part of the grand plan for salvation — almost pales in comparison with some of the other stories brought to life in the "Secret Lives":

  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas tells of a Jesus who turns clay sparrows into real birds ... who argues with his parents ... who works magic on a miscut length of wood to get his father out of a jam ... who causes one playmate to wither up and die, but raises another from the dead.
  • Mary Magdalene is identified as Jesus' closest disciple in the Gnostic gospels of Philip and Mary, sparking speculation over the centuries (including in "The Da Vinci Code") that they were husband and wife.
  • The Apocalypse of Peter quotes the divine Jesus as saying that he didn't really die on the cross, but that only his "fleshly part" experienced the Passion. Other Gnostic texts claim that Jesus actually traded places with Simon the Cyrene — an innocent bystander who is depicted in the canonical gospels as helping Jesus carry the cross.
  • Much more recently, a book published by Russian doctor-explorer Nikolas Notovitch in 1894 purports to be the account of Jesus' youthful years in the Himalayas, learning at the feet of Buddhist and Hindu holy men. Notovitch said the tale came from an ancient Tibetan document titled "The Life of Issa."

Most of these apocryphal stories aren't taken seriously by the scholars. "None of them come from before the latter part of the second century," Witherington said. "They're the ancient equivalent of Harlequin romance novels."

But they make for a good story in "Secret Lives of Jesus."

"It's like one-stop shopping for the apocryphal Jesus," Witherington joked. "But it really doesn't tell us about history."

The apocryphal texts reveal far more about the politics of the early church than about the historical Jesus, Witherington said. "If you're after some 'insider trading' information about Jesus, you are not going to get it from this. ... If your interest is church history in the second, third and fourth century, these are very interesting documents," he said.

Even though they're not part of the orthodox New Testament, some bits of the rejected tales do turn up in Christian lore. For example, the back story about Mary — including the saga of her own birth without sin, or "immaculate conception" — is found most clearly in the Protoevangelium of James. And although the elements of the Hail Mary prayer can be found in different passages from Luke, the best formulation comes from the aforementioned Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

Other texts that have turned up just in the past few decades — such as the Nag Hammadi library, found in Egypt in 1945 — could shed new light on issues such as the role of women in the early church, and Jesus' role as teacher as well as savior, according to some scholars.

"There are texts like the Gospel of Thomas, for instance," Meyer said. "Here is a collection of sayings of Jesus, some of which may go back very close to the historical Jesus. This may be a text of great significance that may revolutionize the way that we look at Jesus as a Jewish teacher."

More to come
There could be more to come: Just last year, Polish archaeologists found a 1,300-year-old set of Coptic texts in Egypt that is still being deciphered. "My best guess is that there are more texts in the sands of Egypt and the Middle East and elsewhere that will be discovered," Meyer said.

So should any of this affect how Christians view the gospel story? For Witherington, the four evangelists provide all that believers need to know. "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — stick with those and you can't go wrong," he said.

Meyer, however, says that seeing the wider spectrum of scriptures enhances an appreciation of Christian faith.

"Different Christians — sincere, thoughtful, believing Christians — had very different ideas in the early church about who Jesus was and what it means to follow him," he said. "Even as to the present day, there is the same kind of diversity in the church and beyond the church."

More than history
And sometimes the gospel story isn't just about the historical details. Meyer said he keeps that in mind as he makes his annual rounds of Christmas activities.

"I think that the stories that that we have of the Nativity in Matthew and Luke are beautiful stories," he said. "Much more important than whatever history there might be to those stories — and frankly, I think there's very little that is actually historical about the birth of Jesus — the story that is told in each of those two accounts is profoundly and deeply moving. It's better than just history.

"It has to do with hope for the future. It has to do with peace on Earth. It has to do with seeing that from the humblest of beginnings, at the time of Jesus and in our own day, great things can emerge. For Jesus and for all of us, it provides a sense of hope. And I find that to be something that is always thrilling."