Some early Christians believed that certain gospels contained secret knowledge. Copies of these gospels were usually passed around privately, so that only certain people would have a chance to read them. For these reasons, biblical scholars call them “secret gospels”.
In some cases a secret gospel was only used by a particular group or sect of Christians. When that group or sect disappeared, or was absorbed into the general Christian movement, its secret gospel could be lost, especially if only a few copies had existed. Some of these gospels may have also been intentionally destroyed because they expressed unorthodox views.
But several secret gospels have survived. One of them, the Gospel of Thomas, could be one of the earliest known Christian writings. Another one, the Secret Gospel of Mark, may contain some missing sections of the New Testament Gospel of Mark. Others may provide information about the gnostics and other groups that existed outside the main Christian movement.
Judging by their content, secret gospels could contain two kinds of special knowledge:
1. A private revelation received directly from God or Jesus. Such a revelation could be received through a vision or dream, or through a mystical communication.
2. Secret teachings of Jesus or his disciples which were passed down privately. In most cases these teachings would initially be transmitted through private conversations, but eventually someone would write them down, often in the form of secret sayings.
The special knowledge found in secret gospels was thought to be a pathway to true wisdom and final salvation. But anyone lucky enough to get a copy of one of them could have encountered an unexpected problem. This is because the writing in these gospels was often hard to interpret, and the reader might be expected to find a “hidden meaning”. Thus, only the select group of people who could interpret the gospel correctly would gain any benefit from it.
Evidence for the existence of secret knowledge can be found within the New Testament itself. For example, in Mark 4:11-12, Jesus tells his disciples:
“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding.”
This suggests that Jesus revealed a special “secret of the kingdom of God” to his disciples, but not to “those on the outside”.
The letters of Paul indicate that he also passed along secret knowledge to certain favored individuals. For instance, in 1Corinthians 2:6-8 he mentions “God’s secret wisdom”, and says that he has given it to “the mature”, by which he apparently meant his most advanced converts.
The gnostic sects of Christians were especially interested in secret knowledge. In fact, the word “gnostic” is derived from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge”. In gnostic writings this word often had the special meaning of “hidden” or “secret” knowledge.
Some secret gospels have probably been lost forever. Others survive only as fragments or secondary translations. The best known survivors are the Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the Apocryphon of James, the Secret Book of John, the Gospel of Judas, the Dialogue of the Savior, and the Gospel of Truth. Here are brief descriptions of some of them:
The Gospel of Thomas
The opening lines of this gospel say that it contains “secret sayings” of Jesus, and that anyone who discovers their true meaning “will not taste death”. The gospel then gives 114 of these sayings, most of them introduced by the words “Jesus said”.
Because some of these sayings, or variations of them, also appear in the New Testament, a modern reader might conclude that they weren’t really secret. But the Gospel of Thomas may have been written before the New Testament gospels, so its claims about secret information could have originally been valid. It may be an example of a gospel that started out as a secret book but later became well-known.
Although Jesus spoke Aramaic, this gospel was probably first written in Greek, with his sayings translated into that language. But the only surviving complete copy is a Coptic translation. Thus, the English versions of most of the sayings are the result of three translations. Partly for this reason, modern English readers may find some of the sayings hard to understand.
The Gospel of Thomas could be one of the earliest known Christian writings, and it may contain some authentic sayings of Jesus that aren’t found anywhere else. For these reasons, many scholars consider it to be the most important surviving non-biblical gospel.
The Secret Gospel of Mark
As its name indicates, this gospel was a special version of the New Testament Gospel of Mark. The exact differences between the two versions are uncertain. But the secret form of the gospel was probably longer, because it contained at least two passages that aren’t in the New Testament version.
These extra passages are preserved in a letter attributed to the second century writer Clement of Alexandria. A copy of this letter was discovered by Morton Smith in 1958 at the Mar Saba Monastery in Israel. Although some people have expressed doubts about the genuineness of this letter, most scholars have concluded that it is authentic.
The longest extra passage in the secret gospel is a variation of the story of the raising of Lazarus as described in the Gospel of John. But the secret gospel contains a more primitive version of the story, and it also includes an account of an “initiation”, in which Jesus and Lazarus spend the night together. The other extra passage is a short description of an encounter between Jesus and the family of Lazarus in Jericho.
Some scholars think that the Secret Gospel of Mark was the original version of the gospel, and that the New Testament version is a later edition in which certain passages were removed. If so, one of the removed passages could be the original ending of the gospel, which appears to be missing from the New Testament version. Thus, if a complete copy of the secret version could be found, the true original ending might be revealed.
The Apocryphon of James
For many centuries this was a lost gospel. Then in 1945 a complete manuscript was discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. One of its passages suggests that it was originally written in Hebrew, but internal evidence indicates that the surviving copy is a Coptic translation of a Greek text.
The book is named after James the Just, the oldest brother of Jesus. The opening lines say that it contains a secret revelation which Jesus gave to James and Peter before he ascended to Heaven. This revelation is then presented as a dialogue in which Jesus gives a number of sayings, parables, prophesies, and rules of conduct. There is a possibility that some of these sayings really do go back to Jesus. But scholars don’t know who actually wrote this book, or what sources were used in composing it.
Near its beginning the Apocryphon of James mentions another “secret book”, which may have described a different revelation from Jesus to James. But if this other book actually existed, it has apparently been lost.
The Gospel of Judas
This gospel was probably originally written in Greek, but the only known copy is a Coptic version that was found in Egypt. There is some mystery surrounding the discovery of this copy. At one point it was apparently in the possession of a dealer on the black market, who may have sold some of the individual pages in separate transactions. In any case, the existing copy is badly damaged, and some pages are missing.
Internal evidence indicates that this gospel was written during the second century, which means that Judas Iscariot couldn’t have been the real author. Since it expresses some gnostic views, it may have originated among that group of Christians.
The Gospel of Judas has attracted attention because it may depict Judas as a favored disciple of Jesus rather than a betrayer. Even before it was discovered, some people had argued that Judas was only a pawn in a divine plan and therefore shouldn’t be blamed for what he did. The Gospel of Judas may express a similar view.
However, because the only copy is badly damaged, controversies have erupted over the correct translations of some critical sections. Thus there is some uncertainty about how this gospel really depicts Judas.
The Secret Book of John
This book, which is also called the Apocryphon of John, was probably written in the second century. Its unknown author claimed to be John the son of Zebedee, one of the original twelve disciples. The opening lines say that Jesus gave some secret teachings to John after his resurrection. These teachings are then described in detail.
Actually, two different versions of this gospel have been discovered. Most scholars think that the shorter version is the original, and that the longer version is a later expansion. In any case, both versions are essentially gnostic works. As such, they are important sources for the study of early gnosticism. But they probably contain little, if any, valid historical information about the real teachings of Jesus.