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.


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.

Textual Criticism and Inerrancy

P52-2-450hGreetings once again, and welcome to a fun and controversial topic!  Rest assured, as usual we will ensure we think clearly about it.  Over the past few months, I’ve been taking a New Testament Textual Criticism course from Dr. Dan Wallace, who is likely one of the greatest New Testament scholars and textual critics alive today.  Textual criticism is not simply criticizing the New Testament text, it refers to the science and the discipline of trying to recover the original text of the ancient autographs (original writings themselves).  I thought I’d share a few lessons learned and observations from this fascinating course (link above if any would like to take it).

  1.  I suspect most Christians think we are more sure than we actually are about what the originals said.  Now, I am a Biblical inerrantist, but I may have to adjust my view to encompass the autographs only.  That is, do our current translations accurately reflect what was originally written?  The fact is, we just don’t know.  We do not have any of the originals, and within the first few decades after the originals were written, we see differences in the texts.  Which (if any) accurately reflects the original?  We can’t be sure.
  2. The Bible we have today is sound in its history and its doctrine, but likely contains text that was not in the original.  Let me tell you what I mean by this.  We know, with a high degree of certainty, that there are passages in our Bibles today that were almost certainly not in the originals.  Some of the passages may have been in the originals, but have been edited or altered.  However, all of these variations make absolutely no difference whatsoever in the core doctrines and history of Christianity.  Textual critics today have categorized all variants (there are literally hundreds of thousands of them) into viable and not viable, and into meaningful and not meaningful.  Many of the variants are viable (they are actual variants, real no-kidding differences in the texts), but are meaningless.  An example here might be the spelling of the name “John,” which in some manuscripts has one “n” (Ioanes) and in other manuscripts has two (Ioannes).  This is a viable variant, but it is meaningless.  Those that concern us today are those variants that are both viable and meaningful, which Dr. Wallace says encompass less than one half of one percent of all known variants.  Of all these meaningful and viable variants, only two are longer than a word or a phrase — the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) and John 7:53 – 8:11.  Let’s look briefly at these two.
    1. Mark 16:9-20.  If you have a Bible handy, turn to this passage and it is almost sure to have a caveat — after verse 8, mine (NET) says, “The Gospel of Mark ends at this point in some witnesses [manuscripts], including two of the most respected manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus)…”  It goes on for several paragraphs, in quite some detail.  My NIV also says, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9 – 20.”  According to Dr. Wallace, there is not a textual critic alive today who thinks that these verses were in the original.  However, there are many scholars who think the case against these verses is weak, and many believe firmly that they belong in the Bible.  Without the original, there is no way to be sure — but this is a prime example of a meaningful and viable variant.
    2. John 7:53 – 8:11.  This portion of the Bible, called the pericope adulterae (story of the adulteress) is well known to most Christians.  “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”  We’ve all heard the story.  But, like the long ending of Mark, this is not in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts we have, and most textual critics today do not think it was part of the original text of John.  It is another meaningful and viable variant, but again without the original we cannot be certain, and it makes no difference in the core doctrines of the Christian faith.

These are the two most famous textual variants, but there are many more.  Others are shorter — only a word or two in many cases — but they cast additional shadows on how sure we can be that we have an accurate representation of the original texts.

The last verse of Luke is likely a conflation (combination) of two different texts (text types) — my NIV and NASB say the disciples went about “praising God,” but others say “blessing God.” What did the original text of Luke say?  Again, we don’t know — and many modern translations today simply say, “…praising and blessing God.”  They combine the two.

We also see differences in the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7.  The oldest and most reliable manuscripts are missing the Trinitarian formula, called the Comma Johanneum, they say simply, “For there are three that testify, the Spirit and the water and the blood” (NET).  Some translations (KJV) have added a second trinity to read, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost:  and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in Earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood:  and these three agree in one.”  However, this longer trinitarian formula was likely added by the church at a later date, to solidify the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture.  It is almost certainly not in the original.  The longer reading is absent from nearly all manuscripts, only present in a few very late ones.

The list is actually quite long — in Phil 1:14, 1 Thess 2:7, Mark 14:65, Luke 5:30, Mark 1:1 and Mark 1:2, John 14:17, Rev 1:4, and numerous other places in Scripture.  However, we’ll stop here, as I think the point stands.  So, where does that leave us?

3.  We can have confidence that our text reflects the original in well over 99% of cases, but there are some that remain in question.  So, what’s the bottom line for the Christian? We can have confidence in Scripture, and in our history and our core doctrines, but we need to be careful in our definition of inerrancy.  Our Bible today, no matter which translation you use (NIV and NET are my favorites), contains text that likely wasn’t in the original, contains additions and deletions and adjustments by scribes, and includes mistakes (scribal errors).  Does this mean Jesus didn’t exist?  No.  Does this mean the Bible is unreliable?  No.  Does this mean Christ wasn’t raised from the dead?  No.  Does it mean Christianity is false?  No.  But I think it’s important for Christians to realize that our beloved Bible is subject to the same “messy” process of transmission and translation as any other ancient work.

For further study, look at the course referenced above, or the book “The Text of the New Testament” by Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, check out the website for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts or the Evangelical Textual Criticism website.

The Doctrine of God: Tawhid versus Trinity

Allah    This topic has absolutely ignited the media in recent months. For whatever reason, this question – whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God – has been all over my Facebook feed, and just in the past few weeks has been posted by Ravi Zecharias, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, and Answering Islam, among others…and not always with the same answer.

Without question, there are many similarities. Both Muslims and Christians (and Jews) trace their lineage back through Abraham (Muslims through Ishmael, Christians and Jews through Isaac), and all three maintain a largely Old Testament-based view of monotheism. If a Muslim and a Christian were to list the attributes of God, the lists would look remarkably similar – a “spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful, personal creator God” would accurately describe both. However, similar descriptions cannot mask clear and critical differences. While my perspective may not agree with all these other bloggers, at the very least I hope to clarify the Christian concept (the Godhead or Trinity) as well as the Muslim concept (called tawhid), both of which are frequently misunderstood by Christians.

  1. The Christian Concept: The Godhead.

Most Christians likely (hopefully) have a basic understanding of the Biblical concept of God. He is manifest in three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – each a separate person, but all sharing one essence (Godhood). The three are equal in status and power, but distinct in personhood. This has frequently been mischaracterized as polytheism or as an outright contradiction, though this usually does little more than expose a misunderstanding of the theology behind the belief. Some have tried to construct analogies to understand the Trinity (an egg, water, even my role as a father/husband/son/brother/etc), but all of these analogies fall short or commit a logical or theological fallacy. When it comes to really trying to understand the idea of “three in one,” I side with Martin Luther, who said, “Show me a worm that can comprehend a man, and I’ll show you a man who can comprehend the triune God.”  Though this may border on the incomprehensible, it is without a doubt Biblical. The word “trinity” doesn’t appear in Christian doctrine until the middle of the third century,[1] it is clearly taught through five basic points in the Bible:

  1. There is one God (Isaiah 43:10, 44:6, 8, 45:5, 14, 18, 21, 22, 46:9, 47:8, John 17:3, 1 Cor. 8:5-6, Gal. 4:8-9).
  2. God the Father is God (Deut 6:4 and throughout the Old Testament, as well as John 6:27; 20:17; 1 Cor 8:6; Gal 1:1; Eph 4:6; Phil 2:11; 1 Pet 1:2).
  3. Jesus Christ is God (John 8:12-59; Mark 2:3-7, Col 2:9; John 1:1-4; Acts 5:31; Col 3:13; Ps 130:4; Jer 31:34).
  4. The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4, 9; 1 Cor 2:10-11; Romans 8:9-11).
  5. These three are equal, co-eternal, and distinct (Eph 3:15; John 5:18; 1 Cor 2:10).

Understood this way, it is clear that the actual word “trinity” doesn’t have to appear in Scripture, the concept is clearly taught. There are book-length treatments of this topic (especially good is James R. White’s The Forgotten Trinity), but this will have to suffice for now, and it is sufficient to point out the differences.

  1. The Muslim Concept: Tawhid.

In Islam, the doctrine of Allah is called tawhid. It is the central and defining doctrine of all Islam, and declares absolute monotheism, the unity and uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe.[2] More than just a religious belief, this doctrine has been central to Islamic reformers and activists as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic, and world order. Muslims are fiercely monotheistic, insofar as anything that even approaches equating something to Allah is one of the most severe sins in Islam (known as shirk). This strict monotheism is the root of all other beliefs, and the root of all values in the Muslim worldview. All values in Muslim religion derive from devoting one’s heart to Allah, and it is through this singly and wholeheartedly devoted love that a Muslim comes to divorce him/herself from the ways and things of this world.  This level of devotion is actually something that many Christians could learn from, and all Christians should respect.

Despite the differences within Islam and the sectarianism discussed in the prior blog, on this topic Muslims are almost completely united. Tawhid has been a rallying cry of Islam for centuries, uniting the Muslims throughout their history under the banner of various leaders from Ibn Taymiyya (14th Century) to Abd Al-Wahhab (18th Century) to the present day. No matter how diverse Muslims history has been, they have always re-united around the central doctrine of the oneness of Allah, the tawhid.

  1. Key Differences

On the surface, this sounds remarkably similar to the Christian theology of God, but when we turn to the center of Christian faith – Christ Himself – the differences emerge irreconcilable. Muslims deny that God had a son, and deny that Christ is divine, and would never consider Allah a “father” in the sense that Christians speak of their God. They deny both the deity of Christ and His resurrection, going so far as to consider these beliefs blasphemy (Qur’an 5:17, 5:73, 5:75). If Christians were to speak only of God the Father, the divine Yahweh of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and describe His actions and His attributes, Muslims would likely agree with nearly every word. When we advance to the New Testament and the deity of Christ and the resurrection, arguably the two most central doctrines of the Christian faith, we must part ways with the tawhid of Islam and embrace the Trinity of the Bible. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? If we are willing to deny the deity of Christ and the resurrection, then yes — but we cannot. To claim Christianity is to affirm doctrines expressly denied by Islam, and therefore we cannot worship the same God. So how do we engage Muslims in conversation, and what common ground can we find for friendship and evangelism? That’s what we’ll discuss in the next blog.

[1] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 122.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England 2003.