The AI chatbot that I use most commonly takes a PDF and invites you to have a conversation with it. It begins each chat session with a brief introduction to the document and 3 suggested questions. The research that I'm conducting is along two lines: "How reliable is the AI at this stage of development?" and "To the extent that it's reliable, can the AI give us useful insights into these documents?"*
Here are the introductions on the four canonical gospels and nine non-canonical documents sometimes referred to as gospels. (As I've described before, I would find it more accurate to classify some of these documents as sermons, non-mainstream patristics, or religious/historical fan fiction.) The bot's opening moves in the conversation provide some general insights into the documents.
As a point of interest, I made sure none of these documents identified itself. There were no document titles, chapters, verses, or section headers in the PDFs presented to the bot. Also the PDF documents themselves had been renamed so that the file name did not disclose the identity of the document, in hopes of eliminating as much training bias as possible from the bot's responses. (In most cases that was a lost cause as the continuing chat showed that the bot clearly recognized many of the documents and relied on its training materials for information about them. But in some case I don't think the bot recognized the document; since I didn't name the document, in those cases the bot had to focus more on the PDF itself and more generalized information as its main resources for answers.)
The introductions seem to draw heavily on the first page or so of material at the start of each PDF. It highlights what each author chose as their starting point for their main topic.
Gospel of Matthew
PDF: Greetings and welcome to this helpful PDF file! This document contains the genealogy of Jesus Christ, tracing his lineage all the way back to Abraham and King David. It is a fascinating read that sheds light on the rich history of Jesus' family tree.
Here are three example questions you may have about this file:
1. Why is it important to know Jesus' genealogy?
2. Who were some of the notable figures in Jesus' family tree?
3. How does this genealogy connect to other stories in the Bible?
Gospel of Mark
PDF: Welcome to this PDF file about the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God! In this file, you will learn about John the Baptist and his message of repentance, as well as Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.
1. Who was John the Baptist and what was his role in preparing the way for Jesus?
2. What is the significance of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River?
3. How does John's message of repentance relate to the overall message of the gospel?
Gospel of Luke
PDF: Welcome to this helpful PDF file! This document contains an orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, as handed down by eyewitnesses and servants of the word. It is written so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Here are three example questions you may have about this file:
1. Who was Theophilus, and why was this account written specifically for him?
2. What was the significance of Zechariah being chosen by lot to go into the temple?
3. How does this account fit into the larger narrative of the Bible?
Gospel of John
PDF: Greetings and welcome to this PDF file! This document contains a powerful message about the Word of God and the light that shines in the darkness. Through this message, we learn about the true light that gives light to every person and the opportunity to become children of God. May this message bring you joy and hope as you read it.
1. What is the significance of the Word in this message?
2. How does the light of God shine in the darkness?
3. What does it mean to become a child of God?Non-canonical documents that have been described as gospels
Gospel of Mary
PDF: Welcome to this enlightening PDF file! In it, you will discover the profound teachings of the Savior and Peter about the nature of matter, sin, and healing. You will learn that all things are interconnected and that the key to restoring harmony is to return to the root of our essence. May this knowledge bring you joy and peace!
1. What is the significance of matter in the Savior's teachings?
2. How does the concept of sin differ from traditional religious beliefs?
3. What is the role of the Good in restoring our essence and healing us?
Gospel of Philip
PDF: Welcome to this enlightening PDF file! In it, you will discover the beauty of being a Hebrew and the importance of inheriting what is living. You will also learn about the significance of believing in the truth and the impact of Christ's coming on the world. Enjoy reading and may it bring you joy and inspiration!
1. What is the difference between a Hebrew and a proselyte?
2. How does one become an heir to what is living?
3. What is the significance of Christ's coming on the world according to the PDF file?
Gospel of the Savior
PDF: Welcome to this uplifting PDF file! In it, you will find inspiring words from the Lord and his disciples, reminding us of our purpose and the power of our faith.
1. What is the significance of the garment of the kingdom mentioned in the first paragraph?
2. How does the idea of free will relate to the message of the PDF file?
3. Can you explain the meaning behind the phrase "I and my Father are one and the same"?
Gospel of Thomas (Coptic)
PDF: Welcome to the enlightening PDF file on the secret sayings of Jesus! Discover the hidden meanings behind his teachings and unlock the key to eternal life.
1. What is the significance of finding the interpretation of Jesus' sayings?
2. How does knowing oneself lead to realizing one's connection to the living father?
3. Why does Jesus use the analogy of a small child to emphasize the importance of seeking knowledge?
Gospel of Truth
PDF: Welcome to the Gospel of Truth! This PDF file is a source of joy for those who have received the grace of knowing the Father of truth through the power of the Word. It is a proclamation of hope for those who search for Him. The file explains how ignorance of the Father brought about anguish and terror, but the gospel brings discovery and redemption.
1. What is the pleroma and how does it relate to the Word?
2. How does the gospel bring hope to those who search for the Father?
3. Can you explain how error became powerful and worked on its own matter foolishly?
Infancy Gospel of Thomas
PDF: Welcome to this exciting PDF file about the childhood and greatness of our Lord Jesus Christ! In this file, you will discover amazing stories about Jesus' miracles and his early years. Learn about how he cleansed a stream and molded twelve sparrows from clay at just five years old. Read on to uncover more fascinating tales about the Son of God!
1. What other miracles did Jesus perform during his childhood?
2. How did people react to Jesus' miracles during his early years?
3. What can we learn from Jesus' actions as a child?
Proto Gospel of James
PDF: Welcome to this PDF file about the inspiring story of Joachim and his unwavering faith in the Lord. Discover how he overcame obstacles and found hope in the histories of the twelve tribes of Israel.
1. What was the significance of Joachim's double offering to the Lord?
2. How did Joachim react when Reubel stood in his way of offering his gifts?
3. What did Joachim learn from the history of the twelve tribes of Israel about raising children in Israel?
Gospel of Peter
PDF: Greetings! This PDF file recounts the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, including the interactions between Pilate, Herod, and Joseph. It also describes the mistreatment and mockery that Jesus endured at the hands of the people.
1. What was the significance of washing hands in Jewish culture during this time period?
2. How did Joseph become involved in the events surrounding Jesus' crucifixion?
3. What was the purpose of the purple robe that was placed on Jesus?
Gospel of Judas
PDF: Greetings! This helpful PDF file contains a secret word of declaration spoken by Jesus to Judas Iscariot, along with insights into his teachings and miracles. Discover the mysteries beyond the world and what will take place at the end through this enlightening read.
1. What is the significance of the secret word of declaration spoken by Jesus to Judas Iscariot?
2. How does this PDF file shed light on the teachings and miracles of Jesus?
3. What insights can be gained about the mysteries beyond the world and the end times from this PDF file?
- What is the significance of the secret word of declaration spoken by Jesus to Judas Iscariot?
- How did Jesus teach his disciples about the mysteries beyond the world?
- What insights can be gained from Jesus' laughter during his disciples' prayer of thanksgiving?
We may all have different questions about the documents being studied. Do they provide any insight into the life and teachings of Jesus? Do they provide any useful historical information on Jesus? What are they actually about?
From the introductions, we can see differences among the documents. The bot correctly shows the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) choosing their starting point as the genealogy of Jesus, the ministry of John the Baptist, and the determination to write an orderly account. It identifies the Gospel of John's start as the prologue on the Word of God.
It also alerts the reader to times when the non-canonical documents are focusing on areas outside the familiar interests known from the canonical ones. For example, "What is the role of the Good in restoring our
essence and healing us?" (Gospel of Mary), "What was the significance of Joachim's double
offering to the Lord?" (Proto Gospel of James), and "What is the pleroma and how does it relate to
the Word?" (Gospel of Truth)
I have several lines of interest myself. I'm interested in canonical studies -- the extent to which we can see the criteria by which various documents were or weren't included in the canon of Scripture. I'm interested in the historical bona fides of the documents, and in the theological / spiritual insights. For the non-canonical documents, a few of them seem to have insights about how the non-Jewish Christians understood Jesus without reference to the Old Testament, using their backgrounds of Greek popular (or esoteric) religion instead of the Second Temple Judaism. I intend to post some additional studies here on the blog, and I hope to publish a full-length treatment (possibly as a PDF) for those who want to join me on a deep dive into these topics.
* As James McGrath has pointed out, chatbots are not well equipped to provide insights except the ones they were trained on. And yet when I consider the people who read theology books and the people who play with AI chatbots as the latest tech toy, I expect that so long as the chatbots are trained in a way that deals fairly with their material, working with the chatbots can still engage more people in productive thought.