The Gnostic Gospels

Soon after Christianity burst on the world scene a major division occurred. Orthodox Christianity presented the historical Jesus as “the Word became flesh.” It was based on First Century works penned only by person who had encountered the risen Christ and had first person insight. Authors were eye witnesses who were servants of the Lord.

The “Gnostic Gospels” found mostly at Nag Hammadi, Egypt consist of 52 texts, including the “secret” gospels. All were written after the generation associated with Jesus had died. The anonymous authors affixed names of persons noted in the New Testament in an effort to give them creditability. Long before they were rediscovered at Nag Hammadi they had been initially highly discredited by the Church Fathers.

Gnostic “Christianity” presented a Jesus who is totally different from the Jesus of the New Testament. In them Jesus appears to be more of a lecturer on metaphysics than a prophet. An example of this is in the “Letter of Peter to Philip,” when the apostles enquire of the resurrected Jesus, “Lord, we would like to know the deficiency of the aeons and of the pleroma.”

To the Gnostic Jesus was basically a mirage not a real person. Illustrative of this is the “First Apocalypse of James” in which James is consoled by the resurrected Jesus who says, “Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed.

And this people has done me no harm.” This is in conflict with Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane and His suffering on the cross.

In the “Second Treatise of the Great Seth,” Jesus says, “I did not die in reality, but in appearance.” This represents the Gnostic belief that Jesus was an apparition.

With little background to help interpret what is said Jesus’ alleged teachings are presented in an abstract disjointed staccato fashion.

Advocates of the Gnostic Gospels represent them as “the Lost Books of the Bible.”

The two views of Jesus are mutually excluding.

A great deal of scholarly work is available exposing in detail the fraudulent nature of the writings. This brief is an overview as to why they are described as fraudulent.

Following three of the Gospels are dealt with in more detail.

The novel The DaVinci Code and the film “The Last Temptation of Christ” which are based on extra biblical writing have enjoyed great popularity. Most of these modern works discredit the New Testament gospels and claim a love relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. They advocate a conspiracy theory regarding the early church hiding certain testaments and other documents to exclude teaching they didn’t want known.

In truth there is a conspiracy theory related to the Gnostic Gospels. It does not relate to early Christians trying to hide them, but to modern efforts to use them to discredit Jesus and the New Testament gospels. They are represented as creditable records disproving much of the New Testament. Virtually all media coverage of the thesis is anti-Christian. Little scholarly evaluation has been made public.

These writings come primarily from the Nag Hammadi Library discovered in 1945. The library is named for the town in upper Egypt in which they were found by a peasant searching for fertilizer. They are known as the Gnostic Gospels. Some titles are The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of the Egyptians and the darling of all The Gospel of Thomas. There are other sources of Gnostic writings but these have by in large captured the imagine of moderns.

Unlike the New Testament Gospels these contain little or no social context or narrative from Jesus. Without the historical circumstances in which an event occurs or a statement is made it often loses its original intent. If it is just an anthology the meaning is difficult to interpret. In the New Testament the teachings of Jesus emerge spontaneously. In the Gnostic Gospels Jesus seems to be more of a lecturer on metaphysics than a Hebrew prophet. In the Letter of Peter to Philip the disciples are represented as saying to Jesus: “Lord, we would like to know the difference of the aeons and of the pleroma.”

Jesus is represented as going into a discourse regarding the precosmic time when “the mother” opposed “the father” and so resulted alien aeons.

The name Gnostic comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis. The movement’s roots seem to be embedded in ancient speculations of Babylonian and Zoroastrian priests. Some of its postulates come from Egyptian syncretism and Indian magic.

Gnosticism was not one school, but many, and displayed a very wide variety of thought. Because of this when an error is exposed some defenders assert it wasn’t a teaching of Gnosticism because they have a different point of reference. All the schools had much in common, but the variations of Gnosticism were multitudinous.

Gnosticism is more of a religion than a philosophy. Knowledge is believed to be the factor affording redemption. It distinguishes between the historical Jesus and the supernatural Christ. Their thesis is that the Christ’s nature joined Jesus at His baptism but departed before His death. Throughout Gnostic thought dualism prevails and often conflicts with itself. Some proponents advocate asceticism and other libertinism. A reader of the Books of Jeu find the opening strains of beautiful praise of Jesus in conflict with the sterile formulas in magic which comprise most of the book.

Based on their current popularity the Gnostic Gospels deserve a critical historical and literary review. These heresies from which the early church had to defend itself have been resurrected currently to challenge orthodox Christianity in our time. In evaluating the validity of any ancient document three aspects need to be considered.

AUTHENTICITY is a primary concern in evaluating the accurate preservation of a writing through the ages. A primary concern is whether the existing copies are reliable representations of the original texts. There are enough copies of the New Testament gospels to compare earlier and later copies and ascertain they are compatible and reliable historically. For example the Essenes who lived along the Dead Sea in the time of Christ hid ancient manuscripts before being annihilated.

In 1948 these scrolls were found. Many of them predated existing copies of Bible texts. The manuscript of the Book of Isaiah was approximately 1000 years older than any existing text of Isaiah. A comparison of the earlier ones with the more modern ones showed the Scripture had remained the same.

Scholars have concluded the Gnostic Gospels originated between 350 and 400 AD. The documents were buried around 400 AD. They have deteriorated badly over the years. This has left large portions missing and significant words lost that make interpreting certain passages challenging. In many instances there is only one version of a text. This prevents comparison and verification. There is no way to verify authenticity using comparison as with New Testament text where there are numerous copies over a period of years which show no corruption.

Supporters of Gnostic thought say there are no first century Gnostic writings because the church confiscated and destroyed them. There is no evidence of this. It would have been like gathering feathers scattered by the wind to have collected all such writings had they existed. We do not have any first century Gnostic writings because there were none.

AUTHORSHIP is a factor to be considered in evaluating historical documents. There is much insight that confirms the New Testament gospels were written by their name sakes. The dates of the lives of characters whose names Gnostic Gospels bear do not coincide with the time of the writing.

Reputable scholars consider most of these writings pseudepigraphical. Such are writings given the name of a person it is believed will give the writing credibility. Thus, the names of Bible era characters were given various Gnostic Gospels. Reputable scholars do not consider these works to have been written by the persons whose names are falsely ascribed to them. Not even the popular Gospel of Thomas is considered to have been written by the apostle whose name it bears.

TRUSTWORTHINESS of an author is vital in evaluating a creditable historical document. Did the author live at such a time and have contacts that would have afforded personal insights regarding his subject?

A case of inaccuracy is observable in a review by Michael Grosso of “The Last Temptation of Christ.” He says there were reports of the sex life of Jesus right “from the start of the Christian tradition.” He bases this on The Gospel of Philip which was written during the last half of the third century. Not exactly “from the start of the Christian tradition.”

Author Craig Blomberg has noted that most of the Nag Hammadi documents make no pretense of overlapping with the New Testament ones. It isn’t known who wrote them and their historical reliability regarding the time of Christ is highly questionable.

In summary they are not reliable sources regarding the life and teachings of Jesus.

Did the early church suppress Gnostic teachings found in these and other spurious gospels? Yes. They were close enough to its emergence to know it was heretical and therefore rejected it.

THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS is the darling of New Age philosophers who refer to it at “The Fifth Gospel.” Mohammed referenced it in the Koran. Allegedly it was written by Didymos Judas Thomas which means, Judas “the twin.” The Gnostics called Thomas the twin brother of Jesus.

This work more nearly resembles an anthology than a New Testament gospel. Many New Testament texts are added to, taken away from, modified, or rephrased. This often changes the meaning from its New Testament use. Some of the writing is orthodox enough to be compatible with the New Testament while other parts are completely contradictory.

For example, in the New Testament Jesus speaks kindly of women and especially Mary. In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus is represented as saying, “Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.”

Most scholars agree it was written in the second century. There are indications it may have been written as late as the fourth century. The early church rejected the work as a perversion of New Testament era theology. Gnosticism was not an independent source on Christianity but a perversion of it. There was more than a century of Christianity before Gnostic doctrine emerged.

The Gnostic challenge to Christianity was having difficulty gaining devotees. To make it seem compatible writers began encouching Gnostic philosophy as though spoken by Christ. They ascribed their teachings to Christ in an effort to gain support. They put their words in His mouth.

Currently zealous efforts are being made to create a “poor little old Gnostics” atmosphere. They are cast as persons having the truth which the church discriminated against because it contradicted their contrived concepts. It is said the church suppressed their teachings and it did. Truth inevitably contradicts error. It was therefore natural for the church to treat it for what it was, a fallacious reaction to Christian truth.

In reality Gnostic thought was so foreign to the teachings of Christ and the consistency of Christian thought it was totally incompatible. The codified Christian concepts predated that of Gnosticism. Instead of Christianity discriminating against it, Gnosticism was a reaction to Christianity. Gnosticism was a heretical school of thought that sought to infuse itself into Christian thought.

Had the church not stood against the distortions of Gnosticism then Christianity would have failed to defend its truths. Instead of becoming global it would have perished like pagan religions of the day.

It must be remembered that the church in that era was not well established, communication was poor, and viable sources of authority were not numerous as today. To help insure uniformity of Bible truths the Christian community produces such documents as The Apostles’ Creed, the collection of Apostolic writings, and the offices of the church.

Irenaeus, Bishop of Lions, in the last half of the second century, in his five volume work entitled Against Heresies goes to great length to define various schools of Gnostic thought and expose their error. If the church were trying to suppress and keep hidden Gnostic thought he never would have been so public in defining it. His defenses of Christianity in opposition to Gnostic thought made it a popular work in that era. He was not hiding Gnostic thought but revealing it for what it was.

The Gnostics claimed to possess secret traditions passed down to them by the apostles. Irenaeus countered this with another type of apostolic succession. He asserted that the truths handed down by the apostles were publicly preserved by the teachers in the church of the time.

From the same school of thought that says Jesus married Mary Magdalene and by her had children also comes the concepts that promiscuity was God’s law, veneration of the serpent for bringing knowledge to Adam and Eve, humans were created as unisexual, and the creation of woman was the source of evil.

In the struggle for purity of consistent thought in the emerging church Gnostic thought lost out. One contemporary writer says that in such struggles “the winner writes history.” True, but that does not make them bad historians. One has countered, “If truth is not a matter of majority vote, neither is it a matter of minority dissent.”

Noted Bible scholar Raymond Brown concluded in his review of the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi that “we learn not a single verifiable fact about the historical Jesus’ ministry…”

Helmut Koester in the James Robinson edition of the Nag Hammadi Library states: “Neither the Coptic translation or the Greek fragments seem to have preserved this gospel in its earliest form. Even the comparison of the Coptic and Greek texts demonstrate that the text was subject to change during the translation.” Such a text was not considered worthy to have been included along with the New Testament gospels.

Gnostic thought went into eclipse because it was not historically true and lacked integrity. F.F. Bruce wrote of it, “Gnosticism was too much bound up with a popular but passing phase of thought to have the survival power of apostolic Christianity.”

Robert Speer wrote of why Christianity prevailed, “Christianity lived because it was true to the truth. Through all the centuries it has never been able to live otherwise. It cannot live otherwise today.”

In understanding the efforts to discredit Christ and Christianity the corruption of this school of thought should be kept in mind as the source being used as accurate history. The DaVinci Code, the “Last Temptation of Christ” and other works that try to discredit Christ and the church come from these unreliable heretical sources. Consider the source.

The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious
Knowledge, Volumes IV & VI
Our Oriental Heritage, Volume I, Will Durant
Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity
History of the Christian Church, Volume I, Philip Schaff
A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Volume I,
Kenneth Scott Latourette
The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels