Biblical Authenticity: The Gnostic Gospels

GnosticGospel     You heard it from Leigh Teabing himself on the last blog, “Now, listen to this.  It is from the Gospel of Philip…it was rejected at the Council of Nicaea, along with any other Gospel that made Jesus appear human, not divine.”  For years now — fueled partially by The Da Vinci Code, but predating it as well — Christians and critics alike have been touting the “Gnostic Gospels.”  Many of these documents are mistakenly categorized as such, since many who haven’t studied the topic call any gospel not included in the Bible a “Gnostic” Gospel.  In reality, there are Gnostic Gospels (those circulated by the Gnostics), Coptic Gospels (those from Egypt), as well as a number of other categorizations.  However, they all have this in common — they tell stories about Jesus, and they are not included in our Bible.  This has led many to question whether they should be, and to suggest that perhaps our Bible is “incomplete” or there are books that should be included, but aren’t…some even suggesting that there are books that are included, but shouldn’t be.  Who were the Gnostics, what are these “Gnostic Gospels,” and what impact (if any) should they have on the canon of Scripture we use as Christians?

1.  Who were the Gnostics?

In and around Jerusalem, both before and after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, various Jewish sects and “offshoots” took root in the surrounding hill country, often extending into the Sinai, Egypt, and farther. Most of these groups differed to some degree (usually a significant degree) with orthodox Jewish teaching, and for that reason were not always permitted to practice their religion inside the temple or even inside the city. One of these groups, originally, was Christianity — another was the Essenes, and another was the Gnostics. Perhaps more accurately an offshoot of Christianity than Judaism, the Gnostics accepted many of the New Testament scriptures, many accepting even the Christian gospel message of salvation brought by Christ, the Messiah. The Gnostics believed that the body itself was corrupt or even evil, such that the needs and sensations of the body — pleasure, leisure, food, sex, etc — interrupted the essential communion with God for which that body was created (Churton 3). They also believed in a secret knowledge (“gnosis” means “knowledge” in Greek), which only they knew about or possessed, and this gave them a special spiritual connection to the divine (Churton 33). Most of what we know about the Gnostics comes from Eusebius and Athanasius, writing about them in the middle of the fourth century (356 – 367 AD), though archaeological evidence has been found documenting their presence in Rome in the third century (Churton 57).

2. What did the Gnostics write?

In 1945, a young farmer boy and his brother were digging in the hills surrounding the town of Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt, trying to find sabakh, a soft topsoil used to fertilize their crops.  Instead, Muhammad Ali’s (no relation) spade hit a clay jar, which after further examination proved to be more than three feet tall.  Inside were 13 manuscripts in codex form (book-like, as opposed to scroll-like), written in Coptic script (basically the Egyptian language, but written with both Greek and Egyptian letters).  Eventually expanding to a total of 52 individual works, some were written by the Gnostics, others were written by the Copts (essentially early Egyptian Christians), and some were early Christian texts.  They included the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Apocryphon (“secret book”) of John, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Apocryphon of James, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Apocalypse of Peter, and at least 40 others (a complete list, along with the actual text of the documents, can be found at The Nag Hammadi Library website).

Some of these additional “gospels” and other documents repeat stories told in the Bible, and some repeat sayings of Jesus found in the Bible.  However, many (most) also include stories not found in the Bible, or attribute sayings to Jesus that we find nowhere else.  The dating of these documents — based on the papyrus, the leather covers, and the type of script used — is widely believed to be between 350 – 400 AD, though that lends little insight into when the originals were written.  Like our Biblical gospels, it is comparatively easy to establish an approximate date for the copies we have, it is significantly more difficult to discern the date of the original that was copied.  Most scholars today place them in the middle second century, probably between 120 – 180 AD (Pagels xviii – xix).

3. Were these gospels accidentally forgotten or “left out” of the Bible?

While these gospels were “lost” for a thousand years or more, they were well known by the second-century (and later) church fathers.  Some of these patriarchs quoted from both the Apocrypha (see my prior blog on this topic) and from some of the books discovered at Nag Hammadi.  Some patriarchs also thought some of these books (most notably The Shepherd of Hermas) should be included — Origen, Eusebius, Athanasius, and some later church fathers vigorously debated the Apocrypha and some of the other gospels circulating at the time (Ehrman 331 – 340).  I’ll deal with canonization next, but we can rest assured that these “lost” gospels were not forgotten, nor were they inadvertently “left out” of the Bible.  They were well-known throughout the Christian community, and though they are not included in our Bible, it is for good reason.

4. Should these gospels be included in the Bible?

The topic of canonization — how Christianity decided (theologians will say “discovered”) which books were divinely inspired — is one of the most challenging and interesting questions in the entire field of bibliology.  Entire books, many volumes, have been written on this topic alone, so I will save it for the next blog.  For now, it is sufficient to know that the Gnostics were likely contemporaries of Christ, and some of the Gnostics (and some Christians, and some Copts) write “gospels” that told stories of Jesus of Nazareth.  These gospels are mostly preserved, have not been lost or forgotten, but were intentionally excluded from our Bible for reasons we will explore in the next blog.

REFERENCES

Bruce, Frederick, The Canon of Scripture, InterVarsity Press Academic, Downers Grove, IL,  1988.

Churton, Tobias, The Gnostics, Barnes and Noble Books, New York, NY, 1987.

Ehrman, Bart, Lost Scriptures:  Books that Did Not Make it into the New Testament, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 2003.

Geisler, Norman and Nix, William, A General Introduction to the Bible, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1986.

Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1989.

3 thoughts on “Biblical Authenticity: The Gnostic Gospels

  1. One issue I wondered about was as follows. Paul, writing in the 50’s, is writing letters to deal with Church problems. He mentions the Gnostics as if they are well established. Gnostics were in Egypt, Israel, Syria and Rome. How was this an offshoot of Christianity? It must have started shortly after the crucifiction.

    • Thanks for the comment, bdrex. First, I agree that Paul was writing in the 50s, but I don’t know of anywhere in Paul’s writings where he specifically mentions the Gnostics. There are several places where Paul may be talking about those sects, and the one that comes to mind is in his first letter to Timothy where he cautions Timothy to “…avoid the profane chatter and absurdities (contradictions) of so-called ‘knowledge’” (1 Tim 6:20 – 21). This “knowledge” (gnosis) Paul is talking about may be referring to the “special” or “secret” knowledge that the Gnostics sects claimed to have, but we can’t be sure. I do not think that the Gnostics were “well established” by the time Paul was writing, but they were certainly in existence and likely known to Paul and the other disciples. The Gnostics were in Egypt, Israel, Syria, and Rome — I agree — but almost all of our Gnostic records from these regions are from the middle of the second century through the fourth century (There is good detail on these settlements and civilizations in Tobias Churton’s book “The Gnostics”). The gospels that we call “Gnostic Gospels” (refer to the book of the same title by Elaine Pagels) also date from about 140AD (Gospel of Thomas) and later. Much of our historical information about the Gnostics comes from Irenaeus (“The Destruction and Overthrow of The Falsely So-Called Knowledge,” c.180) and Athanasius, writing in the middle of the fourth century.

      How was this an offshoot of Christianity? Well, the Gnostics based their “Secret Knowledge” on the teachings of Jesus, teachings which (obviously) didn’t exist before Jesus. Their “gospels” (Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary Magdalene, others) are also all based on Jesus’ life and the life/writings of the other disciples. They essentially took the basics of Christian doctrine as taught by Christ and the disciples in the middle of the first century, and amended/edited/perverted those teachings to make themselves an exclusive cult that claimed to have the only TRUE teachings of Jesus. For that reason, I call them an “offshoot” of Christianity.

      In short, Paul doesn’t explicitly mention the Gnostics, they likely existed during his time, but they were probably not “well established” or present in Egypt or Syria until a hundred years later, maybe more. Their teachings and writings are clearly founded in Christianity, though they stray significantly from it. Hope this helps answer the question, thanks again!

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