The Many Faces of Christ

My new book is just published!

This is The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels (New York: Basic Books, 2015). I have talked about this topic quite a bit on this blog, but this book addresses the subject in much greater detail.

We often hear about newly discovered ancient gospels that are claimed to throw light on Jesus’s life and times. When the media report these stories, they usually suggest that such alternative gospels were once very common, but that the institutional church stamped them out, probably around 400AD, so that ever since, the world has had to rely on the standard “Big Four,” of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Many Faces of Christ shows that that history is simply wrong. Not only did many of the so-called lost gospels actually survive for many centuries after the date, but new “alternative gospels” – and even Gnostic gospels – carried on being written all the way through the Middle Ages and beyond. All manner of gospels carried on being used around the Christian world. Some survive in Ethiopia, others remained in use for long centuries in Central Asia and China, and so on.

I stress that these gospels were not just preserved by fringe or heretical groups. Rather, we are dealing here with absolutely mainstream Catholic and Orthodox churches. For over a thousand years, regular mainstream churches made full use of alternative scriptures like the Gospel of Nicodemus, which describes Christ’s invasion of Hell to rescue the souls of the righteous dead. Such texts were also vastly popular in the work of some of the greatest Christian artists.

The Christian world, in fact, was awash in gospels.

Jenkins-The Many

That is an important fact in its own right, but the underlying myth says a lot about what people want to believe – how they create a myth about ancient suppressed truths uncovered in their own time.

That perspective rewrites our whole story of Christianity, and especially the contrast we normally draw between the early church – supposedly so diverse and creative – and the Middle Ages. In reality, that medieval Christianity was no less complex and polychromatic, generating many different forms of faith.

I am left with a basic question. If they were so very widely used, and so many still survive, how can we possibly speak of “lost” gospels or “lost” Christianities?

This chapter list gives the structure of the book:

  1. Gospel Truths: The Myth of the Lost Gospels
  2. Christ’s Many Faces: 
The Survival of the Old Gospels in a Wider Christian World
  3. The Isles of the West: How Irish and British Churches Kept Ancient Christian Cultures Alive
  4. Old Gospels Never Die: 
Ancient Gospels That Gave the Medieval Church Its Best-Known Images of Christ
  5. Two Marys: 
How Alternative Gospels Continued to Present the Feminine Face of God
  6. The New Old Testament: 
Tales of Patriarchs and Prophets That Became Christian Gospels
  7. Out of the Past: 
The Heretical Sects That Preserved Ancient Alternative Scriptures for a Thousand Years 
  8. Beyond the Horizon: 
Muslim and Jewish Versions of the Earliest Christian Traditions
  9. After Darkness, Light: 
How the Reformation Era Drove the Ancient Gospels from the Churches
  10. Scriptures Unlimited? 
The Place of Alternative Scriptures in Christianity


"Who says we are a secular nation? You and atheists? Where did you get that? ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."
"Personal attack. Once you run out of reason fuel and facts, you engage in personal ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."
">>>"Read your responses to my comment and see whom is truly the one making 'personal ..."

Evangelical Silence and Trump: A Reformation ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • David Garrison

    Congratulations on this new book! I rushed to to put in my order. WorldChristian is now looking to stock your book as well.

    I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve found this topic to be interesting since reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries many years ago. I continue to read your posts with great relish, Philip, and often forward them on to my friends and colleagues. Thank you for keeping our faith global and ‘polychromatic.’ Keep up the great work!

  • It does seem that many of these lost gospels were put forward as an explanation for some gap or unexplained issue in the lives of Jesus or the apostles. The Gospel of Nicodemus famously addresses the issue of what Jesus was doing between the time of his execution and resurrection. And it certainly gives an interesting explanation of the harrowing of Hell, complete with eyewitnesses and speeches by patriarchs, and even Adam (as in, the First Adam) makes an appearance. But I wonder, should the fact that many of these gospels (including Nicodemus) were pseudopigrapha detract from their theological relevance to modern Christians? I’m not sure the answer myself.

    In any case I’ll certainly be checking this book out as I enjoyed reading Dr. Jenkins’ previous works Jesus Wars and Laying Down the Sword.

  • philipjenkins

    You’re exactly right that a lot of these texts were written to fill in what people saw as gaps and unexplained theological conundrums. Nicodemus is a great example of that, in its attempt to show what happened to the righteous souls who died before the coming of Christ.