Question: What is the gospel of Bartholomew? Can it be trusted?
Answer: Greetings friend. I shall be happy to respond to your question about the Gospel of Bartholomew since such a query cannot help but touch upon the veracity of the NT (New Testament), a foundational concept in the Christian faith. The Bible is clear about Scripture—that it is a unique out-breathing of God. Therefore, every Christian must train in discernment. We can all become better at hearing God’s voice in the din.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16, ESV)
The Gospel of Bartholomew is both a lost and an apocryphal gospel. We refer to it as lost because the early church father Jerome (347-420 AD) referenced it. Yet, and even among the large number of less-than-biblical documents that are available from that time, scholars have never found that particular title. What we do have are two documents that are ascribed to Bartholomew: The Questions of Bartholomew and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Many scholars believe that Jerome might have been referencing one or a combination of these, but we cannot be sure. Some believe that Questions is the actual text that Jerome referred to, and that Resurrection may be the broader work, like an actual gospel, which may or may not include Questions. The outfall is that you will find several published works that are promoted as the Gospel of Bartholomew as if that work did indeed exist as advertised. This is unfortunate. We cannot link any of those works to that title with requisite certainty. So, even though this work is technically “lost,” it is broadly available in varying forms. This here-and-not-here aspect of this work is in itself a warning.
The Gospel of Bartholomew belongs to a category of literature known as the apocryphal gospels. They take the title gospel because they are collections of stories about Jesus Christ, either his activities or his sayings, and they are apocryphal because they are not found in the NT. These works are (roughly) from the biblical period, and they purport to teach about biblical people, places and things—but from outside of canon. The word apocrypha means "things put away" or "things hidden." Today we understand apocrypha to be a collection of works that were considered by the church as useful, but which were not divinely inspired. So, can these types of gospels be trusted? Maybe and never. Maybe for cultural context, but never as equal with or contributory to Scripture.
Most importantly, you should not consider the Gospel of Bartholomew to be inspired from God. This means that you should give it no credence as it relates to the Christian faith and its doctrines. The work might have some value as representing the culture of the biblical period, but we cannot trust that what it teaches about God, Jesus, Mary, or any other biblical character is true—and especially if it contradicts with the Bible. Does this mean that every statement in this work is necessarily false? No. An apocryphal passage may occasionally align with Scripture, but if it does, then that portion of the apocrypha is coincidently true and not essentially true as with the Bible. God protects his written word, the sixty-six books of the Bible. No other words, even if they are true, have his personal sanction.
“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21, ESV)
One question remains. How do we know that the Bible Book Selection Committee (a made-up name to save us from a lengthy and complex history on the collection of canonical documents) did not include a wrong book in the canon, or more to our point, did not exclude a “worthy” work like the Gospel of Bartholomew? After all, people were involved—and we know about people. Isn’t it possible that some of them will have advanced their particular view of Jesus Christ by manipulating the canon?
People certainly were involved…but God always trumps people. God’s scholars were “choosing” from among two types of books: Inspired writings (those directed and protected by God), and common writings (those not inspired by God, but written with a holy sounding vocabulary). In this scenario, the scholars did not choose the books. The books revealed themselves. In fact, we refer to God’s written word as his special revelation (which differs from his general revelation, which is what we can know of him by his created universe.) Humans have nothing to do with God’s revelation except to behold, appreciate and respond. From the perspective of those godly scholars, God’s books simply leapt out of the pile. The rest...well...they didn’t. Sorry, Bart.
Let me close by sharing the challenge that I offer to people who dismiss the Bible because it included or excluded certain materials. I challenge them to assemble their own bible out of all the reasonable manuscripts, but they must do so under the same constraints as did the original assemblers. Since the object of this test is to find and assemble all of God’s word and only God’s word, the assemblers must first learn to hear God’s voice.
Every author has a recognizable voice, and mature readers learn to hear it. Once a reader has become accustomed to an author’s voice, he can “hear” it in a piece, even when he does not know its authorship. God is the author of the Bible, and he too has a recognizable voice. Since he used common language tools to write his Bible, anyone can learn to hear it. The earnest seeker must read the Bible…and read it again…and read it again…until he can differentiate God’s voice from a godly sounding voice, as can be found in those non-canonical works. I’m not saying that this is easy. It’s not! But such is the price of legitimate biblical scholarship. I can only ascribe arrogance to a person who advances the aforementioned argument without putting in this effort.
After (and only after) a reader has learned to hear God’s voice, then he may read all the other documents that might have been included in the Bible. When he does, he will not hear God in any one of them, and that was the position of the scholars who assembled the Scripture. They had another advantage, of course. They were believers, born-again children of God. So, in addition to being academically prepared, they also enjoyed the indwelling Holy Spirit—no small help in these matters! And because they were members of God’s family, they understood the family idiom. However, the challenge remains for the skeptic. I challenge them to do their due diligence before accusing great men of grievous error. But what of the highly credentialed skeptics? Aren’t they legitimate critics?
In a way, they are, but not every credentialed scholar is in tune to God’s voice, and many of them do not even enter their studies with an open mind. (See the movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, by Ben Stein) They begin their queries with a prejudice that God cannot exist, and that really dampens their ability to hear his voice! What is the result of all this? Ready or not—publish! Scholars must publish to advance in their field, and the media loves to spotlight their many “experts” who promote the most spurious documents while dismissing the Bible out of hand.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” (John 3:19, ESV)
The best way to handle any extra-biblical documents is to trust God’s word and let the other documents fall where they may. The Bible is an anvil. It has worn out countless critical hammers. Interestingly, the word Bible merely means book. But even the godless know it to be The Book—and we Christians should understand it to be the only book in authority over our faith and practice. No additions need apply.