The fourth installment of the History Channel’s recent series Bible Secrets Revealed entitled “The Real Jesus” raises more questions than it answers. In this episode, commentators express their doubts regarding the accuracy of information about Jesus in the four New Testament Gospels. The commentators also make certain claims about Jesus that depend upon the Gnostic gospels as a reliable source. These claims need to be addressed.
The Gnostic gospels are part of a collection of texts discovered in Egypt near the town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. Extracanonical texts such as these were formerly considered to be heavily altered adaptations even by liberal scholars. In “The Real Jesus” episode, the Gnostic gospels are presented as ancient texts that reveal surprising details about the life of Christ, details allegedly omitted from the New Testament Gospels. One text called The Infancy Gospel of Thomas describes alleged events from Jesus’ childhood. In fact, Jesus is depicted as “a spoiled child, an uncontrollable, monstrous prodigy.”
If this text was rejected from the canon because of its “scandalous” accounts, that would imply the church handpicked as canonical texts those deemed most beneficial to Jesus’ reputation. This crass portrayal of the process of canonization overlooks an important though subtle distinction: “The canon was a list of authoritative books rather than an authoritative list of books.” The church recognized the authority of the texts rather than assigning authority to the texts.
By the end of the second century, the church had acknowledged without dispute the canonicity of at least 21 books because of their apostolic authorship, widespread acceptance, and orthodox teachings. Gnostic gospels such as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is dated in the second century, were written too late to be recognized as part of Scripture. In comparison, the Gospel of Mark was written around A.D. 65, Matthew and Luke shortly thereafter, and John around A.D. 90. If they were false, these Gospels could have been easily discredited because witnesses of Christ would still have been living at the time of their composition and distribution.
In addition, if the writers of the Gnostic gospels were seeking to fill gaps in Christ’s life, they were choosing what gaps to fill based on their knowledge of the four New Testament Gospels. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas ends with “the story of Jesus going to the Temple at age twelve,” the same story told in the Gospel of Luke; another account depicts the young Jesus raising a boy from the dead, probably drawn from the story of Paul and Eutychus in Acts 20. Based on the date and content of these Gnostic gospels, they are unlikely to provide us with data more trustworthy than the four biblical Gospels.Then, taking soft clay from the mud, he formed twelve sparrows. It was the Sabbath when he did these things, and many children were with him.” —Infancy Gospel of Thomas
The second claim relates to a woman whom Jesus knew. Over the centuries, the person of Mary Magdalene has endured many misconceptions. She has been conflated with the woman who anointed Christ’s feet in Luke 7:44; she was misrepresented as a prostitute by Pope Gregory the Great. Commentators in the episode contend that Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship with Jesus. Using the Gnostic gospels for support, they interpret her description as the one whom “the savior loved … more than any other woman” to mean that Mary was Jesus’ lover or wife, though the Gnostic gospels never say anything explicitly of the sort.
While admitting that a sexual relationship cannot be proven, Chilton asserts, “If Jesus were to have had a sexual partner, Mary remains the best candidate,” and the commentators from “The Real Jesus” tend to agree. In the same paragraph, however, Chilton admits that Jesus’ “constant travel, irregular birth, and unstable economic status made him nobody’s ideal husband or son-in-law.” Thus, by taking into account the Jewish culture, Chilton explains the most probable reality. To further weaken the case, there are mere fragments of textual evidence for many of these extracanonical texts.
Looking at Scripture, Mary Magdalene is mentioned in a few significant places. In Luke, the passage reveals two things: she was freed from demonic possession, and she provided financially for Christ’s ministry. Mary Magdalene was also present at the cross and the tomb, coming to anoint Christ’s body after His death. Her presence here conveys her closeness to Jesus, but she was not the sole woman in attendance. In regards to textual evidence supporting the authenticity of these New Testament passages, scholars “suffer from an embarrassment of riches.” The New Testament could almost be completely reconstructed from quotations by the church fathers alone. Despite the recently shifting opinions of some current scholars, the evidence in favor of the New Testament Gospels over the Gnostic gospels is overwhelming.
 Elaine H. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), xiii.  Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 62.  J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 155.  Bible Secrets Revealed, “The Real Jesus,” episode 4, December 4, 2013.  Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, 132.  Ibid., 127.  Darrell L. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 30–43.  Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 55.  L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 388.  White, Scripting Jesus, 388.  Bible Secrets Revealed, “The Real Jesus,” episode 4, December 4, 2013.  Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament: A New Translation with Commentary, Including the Gnostic Gospels Thomas, Mary, and Judas (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009), 583.  Bruce Chilton, Mary Magdalene: A Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 68.  Ibid.  For The Gospel of Mary, “At most, we have half of the original text” (Evans, Fabricating Jesus, 92).  Luke 8.2–3 (English Standard Version [ESV]).  Mark 15:40–16:1, ESV.  Komoszewski, Sawyer, and Wallace, Reinventing Jesus, 76.