Over the past couple of months, major British TV companies have produced a series of documentaries on the apocryphal gospels of the early Christian period.

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

I use the word 'documentary' lightly, because all they've offered is 'pulp history': lightweight opinion which does more to titillate than illuminate, leaving behind more questions than answers.

They constantly leave the road of objective story-telling and vere toward subjective editorial, shading the facts to suit postmodern de-constructionist thinking.

The apocryphal gospels are early documents from the first centuries after Christ, which purport to be true accounts of his life and sayings, but which were not included in the New Testament of the Bible on the grounds of their unreliability.

More than one of the recent programmes has featured the Gospel of Judas. It purports to give us the sayings of Jesus via the disciple known as Judas Iscariot.

The traditional gospels all describe this character as the one who betrayed Jesus into the hands of his enemies, which led to his crucifixion. Prior to that, Judas had been known to steal from the disciples' central funds, which Jesus partly used for the support of the poor.

According to the gospel that bears his name, Jesus actually offered Judas a special place among the disciples, telling him that he alone would be allowed to learn the true secrets that lead to spiritual salvation.

So, rather than being the black sheep of the group, Judas is described as a true hero whose name has been unfairly blackened by history.

Like most of the other apocryphal gospels, the Gospel of Judas is the product of an early sect, a split from the church, known as the Gnostics. This religious and philosophical movement flourished in the first two centuries after Christ.

Gnostics believed that human beings possess a good spirit which is held inside our basically evil physical bodies. As the body and spirit are totally separate entities, we can do whatever we like with our bodies and it will not affect our spiritual lives, which are essentially good anyway.

Gnostics also held that only those in possession of certain secret information could ever really be saved. Predictably, Gnostics believed that they were the possessors of this hidden information.

The Gnostic sect was like an exclusive, ancient lodge rather than a true reflection of the Christian church which preached that salvation is available to all who accept Christ.

This much is acknowledged in some of the TV documentaries on offer. But producers and presenters quickly leave historical fact to delve into a series of tantalising 'what if?' scenarios which are designed to play on the modern thirst for conspiracy theories.

Among other things, these programmes suggest that Jesus may not have died on the cross and that he may have had a physical relationship with a woman.

So, what does it matter if we're told that there are serious questions about the traditional accounts of the four gospels? It matters a great deal, especially at a time when so many people in the West are trying to rediscover their unique religious heritage.