In 1945 an Arab peasant discovered a collection of papyrus books in a jar buried near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. They included the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and other “Gospels” which are not found in the New Testament. These manuscripts had been written in Coptic (Egyptian) during the fourth century AD, and were translations of earlier Greek texts. Their authors were part of a religious movement known as Gnosticism.
Historians cannot agree on the origins of Gnosticism. It was a combination of Christian, Jewish and pagan beliefs. Gnostics did not believe Jesus was the Son of Jehovah, the Creator God of the Old Testament. They believed the true God was hidden and unknowable, while Jehovah was an evil false god who created the world by accident, trapping human souls in it. They did not believe Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament who died to save us from our sins and rose physically from the dead. Gnostics did not believe our problem was sin, but ignorance, and Jesus was a spiritual being (some Gnostics did not even believe Jesus had a physical body), who came to reveal the insight or knowledge (gnosis in Greek) about how souls were trapped and needed to escape from this mistake of a world.
The complete Nag Hammadi writings were first published in English by Professor James M. Robinson in 1977. Elaine Pagels, who is now a Professor at Princeton University, introduced them to the general public when her book The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979. In 2003 The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown claimed the Gnostic Gospels, rather than the New Testament, contained the truth about Jesus. Then, in 2006, National Geographic published another Gnostic work, the Gospel of Judas, which had been found at Amber in Egypt around 1978.
When lay people hear that there are Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Judas and others, they may get the impression that they were written by Thomas, Judas and Paul, in the same way that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are believed to have been the authors of their Gospels. They may assume that the Gnostic Gospels contain historically reliable information about Jesus and the New Testament does not give the complete picture of Jesus.
This impression is encouraged by some of Gnosticism’s modern supporters. For example, the back cover of the DVD of the National Geographic documentary The Gospel of Judas reads,
“Hidden for nearly two thousand years, an ancient Gospel emerges from the sands of Egypt that tells a very different version of the last days of Jesus and questions the portrait of Judas Iscariot as the evil apostle.”
In his book, The Lost Gospel, Herbert Krosney refers to the Gospel of Judas as the “words of Judas” (Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel, National Geographic, Washington DC, 2006, p 165). He also writes,
“The Gospel of Judas provided a fresh witness to one of history’s defining events, leading up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was as close to a contemporary account of what had happened as many other accounts of Jesus. It was supposedly the gospel, or good news, of one of the chief actors in the epic account of the last days of Jesus.” (The Lost Gospel, p 48)
They make it sound like the Gospel of Judas is on a par with the New Testament Gospels. In other words, between betraying Jesus and hanging himself, Judas found the time to write a Gospel full of Gnostic ideas which probably did not exist at the time.
Students of Christian history used to believe that the orthodox Christians were the original Christians and the Gnostics were heretics who later deviated from the truth. However, the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels supposedly shows that early Christianity was more diverse. In The Gnostic Gospels Elaine Pagels writes,
“According to Christian legend, the early church was different. Christians of every persuasion look back to the primitive church to find a simpler, purer form of Christian faith. In the apostles’ time all members of the Christian community shared their money and property, all believed the same teaching, all revered the authority of the apostles. It was only after that golden age that conflict, then heresy emerged: so says the author of the Acts of the Apostles, who identifies himself as the first historian of Christianity.
But the discoveries at Nag Hammadi have upset this picture. If we admit that some of these fifty-two texts represent early forms of Christian teaching, we may have to recognize that early Christianity is far more diverse than anyone expected before the Nag Hammadi discoveries.” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Books, London, 1990, p 20-21)
In his book Lost Christianities Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, writes,
“In the second and third centuries, there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others who insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365.”
“In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that Jesus’ death brought about the salvation of the world. There were other Christians who thought that Jesus’ death had nothing to do with the salvation of the world. There were yet other Christians who said that Jesus never died.” (Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities ,Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, p 2)
This may sound confusing to Christian readers until one realises that Ehrman is grouping Gnostics together with orthodox Christians and referring to them all as Christians.
Christians do not have to agree on everything. Modern Christianity is diverse with thousands of denominations. Baptists and Presbyterians have some different beliefs, but they still regard each other as Christians and agree on the essential core doctrines. On the other hand, there are groups, like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which go too far and deny the essential doctrines about the nature of Jesus and should be considered as heretics.
The early church was not as unified as Pagels suggests. In Galatians and Acts 15, we can see that the early Christians also did not agree on everything. Paul and some Jerusalem Christians did not agree on whether or not Gentile Christians had to obey the Law of Moses, yet they both agreed that Jesus died for their sins and rose from the dead.
Adherents of a religion can be identified by their beliefs. The Gnostics had very different beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus and salvation. The difference between orthodox Christians and Gnostics cannot be compared to the differences between Christian denominations. Orthodox Christianity has more in common with Islam than with Gnosticism. Those academics, who regard Gnostics as Christians, rarely define what they mean by Christian. It looks like anybody, who believes anything about Jesus or claims Jesus for their agenda, is a Christian. Jesus would not have agreed with such a definition (Matthew 7: 21-23). If I say I am a Muslim, but I do not believe in Allah, the Koran or that Muhammad was a prophet, I am not a Muslim. Likewise, someone, who does not believe in the core Christian ideas about God, Jesus and the New Testament, is not a Christian.
The word “Christian” comes from “Christ” which is Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah”. The Jews believed the Messiah would defeat evil and usher in the kingdom of God. Christians believe Jesus had done this through his death and resurrection and the founding of the Church. Gnostics believed that Jesus had come from the true hidden God to reveal knowledge of the truth. They did not believe he was the promised Messiah or Christ of the Old Testament. They cannot be Christians.
The Nag Hammadi discovery did not prove the Gnostics really were Christians. Historians have always known about the Gnostics and their different beliefs. Around 180 AD, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, wrote a five volume work, Against Heresies, in which he described and rebutted Gnosticism and other heresies. The pro-Gnostic Elaine Pagels admits that Irenaeus “however hostile, nevertheless is accurate.” (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, Pan Books, London, 2005, p 138) The Nag Hammadi manuscripts only confirm what was already known about their non-Christian beliefs. They do not somehow prove that the Gnostics really were Christians.
If the Gnostic Gospels were historical accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus written by his contemporaries, but they had not made it into the New Testament, then there would be some basis to the modern argument that early Christianity was more diverse and the Gnostics were actually Christians. This is not the case.
The New Testament Gospels were written by contemporaries of Jesus. Matthew and John were written by two of his disciples. Most theologians believe Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke relied on Mark. According to Papias, Bishop of Hieropolis, writing around 130 AD, Mark received his information from the apostle Peter (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:39:15). Peter is believed to have been killed in Rome during the persecution by Nero in 64 AD, meaning Mark’s Gospel must have been written before then.
Luke and its sequel Acts were written by the same person. Luke does not claim to have been an eyewitness, but relied on the accounts of others (Luke 1:1-3). Liberal theologians claim Luke was written around 80-90 AD. However, internal evidence suggests it must have been written before 64 AD. The last half of Acts is an account of the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul. Acts 21-28 describes Paul’s arrest, imprisonment and journey to Rome to face trial. Paul was also killed in Rome by Nero in 64. However, Acts ends with Paul still alive in Rome. If a biography of someone does not mention their death, it was obviously written while they were still alive. I have never heard of a biography written nearly 30 years after the person died but does not mention their death. The logical conclusion is that Acts and its predecessor Luke were written while Paul was still alive, that is before 64, meaning Luke would have been able to rely on contemporaries and eyewitnesses for his information about Jesus. Many theologians believe that one of Luke’s sources for his Gospel was Mark. This again means that Mark must have been written before 64, perhaps in the 50s.
There is no mention of any Gnostic Gospels until the second half of the second century. While Bart Ehrman regards both orthodox Christians and Gnostics as Christians, he has still written that the New Testament Gospels “are our earliest and best accounts of Jesus’ life.” (Bart Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, Oxford University Press, Oxford ,2004, p 110) He says Jesus could not have said the Gnostic teachings attributed to him in Thomas and the other Gnostic Gospels because “we have no evidence to suggest that Gnosticism could be found already in the first two decades of the first century – especially in rural Galilee. These Gnostic sayings must be later traditions, then, placed on Jesus’ lips in some other context (e.g., in the second century, in a place such as Egypt or Syria).” (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, p 125)
When Ehrman examined the historical evidence for Jesus in his book Did Jesus Exist?, the only Gnostic Gospel, which he refers to, is Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, which he suggests was written around 110-120 AD (Bart Ehrman ,Did Jesus Exist?, Harper One, New York, 2012, p 76) and only when it agrees with the New Testament Gospels (Did Jesus Exist?, p 307, 321, 322). He apparently believes the other Gnostic Gospels tell us nothing about the historical Jesus.
Furthermore, Thomas was probably written later than Ehrman suggests. Around 173 AD, Tatian, a Syrian Christian, complied a harmony of the four Gospels called the Diatessaron. In his book Thomas and Tatian and Thomas, The Other Gospel Nicholas Perrin shows that Thomas is based on the Diatessaron. When Thomas is translated into Syriac, over 500 catchwords can be identified (Nicholas Perrin, Thomas and Tatian, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2002, p 169). These are words in a saying which can be associated with a word in a nearby saying, i.e., the same word or a similar sounding word, making to easier to memorize. This suggests that Thomas must have originally been written in Syriac.
Moreover, 51 of the 114 sayings in Thomas contain a textual variant which agrees with the Diatessaron. This means that Thomas and the Diatessaron agree with each other, but not with the Greek New Testament. For example, Matthew and Luke say, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay the head,” (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:50), but both Thomas and the Diatessaron say, “Foxes have their holes and birds have their nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head and rest.” (Nicholas Perrin, Thomas, The Other Gospel, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2007, p 83) This suggests that Thomas is based on the Syriac text of the Diatessaron, so Thomas must have been written after 173 AD.
In contrast, if the Greek words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are translated back into Jesus’ language, Aramaic, as much as 80% is rhythmic or poetic, which would have made it easier to memorize (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2009, p 158). This means that the words attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels were originally spoken by an Aramaic speaker and were not the creation of the Greek-speaking authors of the New Testament and they have been recorded accurately.
The Gnostics claimed they had preserved the inner teachings of Jesus which had been secretly passed down to them. Their actions suggest otherwise. They wrote these supposedly secret teachings down and circulated them so they could be read by their orthodox Christian critics. Furthermore, Jesus told his disciples to teach everything, which he had taught them, to their disciples, the Church (Matthew 28:19-20). The early Church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Peter based his knowledge and authority on being an eyewitness to Jesus (2 Peter 1:16-18). John also said he was an eyewitness and was passing on what had been revealed to him (1 John 1:1-3). Paul instructed Timothy to pass on to “faithful people” what he had taught him (2 Timothy 2:2). Clement, Bishop of Rome, around 96 AD, wrote that Jesus had given the Gospel to the Apostles who had passed it on to the bishops and deacons (1 Clement 42). In Against Heresies Irenaeus (d. 202) said that the Church’s beliefs had been passed down to them from the Apostles and their successor (3:2:1-2) and these were preserved in the four Gospels (3:11:8). They were the inheritors of Jesus’ teaching, not the Gnostics.
In The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown claims, “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relatively few were chosen for inclusion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them” and “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.” (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Corgi Books, , London, 2004, p 313)
In fact, there are only 24 known so-called Gnostic Gospels, Apocryphon of James Apocryphon of John, Apocryphon of Peter, Book of Thomas the Contender, The Birth of Mary, Book of John the Evangelist, Dialogue of the Saviour, Gospel of Bartholomew, Gospel of Basildes, Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Eve, Gospel according to the Hebrews, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, , Letter of Peter to Philip, Pistis Sophia and Secret Treatise of the Great Seth.
The exact number of “Gnostic Gospels” is debatable because none of these are Gospels in the same sense as the New Testament ones. In his 1992 book What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography Richard Burridge compared the structure of the Gospels to biographies from the ancient world. Ancient biographies contained little or nothing about the subject’s childhood. They tended to focus on their careers which were usually made up of anecdotes or accounts of events and speeches. There is a lot of attention given to how the person died. Burridge concluded that the Gospels were ancient biographies. Since then most historians have accepted this and they regard the Gospels as biographies of Jesus. (Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2014, p 239-240)
None of the Gnostic Gospels are biographies of Jesus. They are not accounts of his ministry, death and resurrection, comparable to the New Testament ones. The Gnostic Gospels consists of Jesus’ supposed sayings with no narrative or context. One would be hard-pressed to tell from the Gnostic Gospels that Jesus even lived in first century Palestine. The only exception is the Gospel of Judas which has a plot about why Judas betraying Jesus was a good thing, but there is still no narrative of his ministry.
“Gospel” means “good news” (euaggelion in Greek). When we read or watch the news, we expect to learn about what has happened. In the ancient world it was announcing that something good had happened, such as the emperor had won a victory over sin and death. The New Testament Gospels are “good news” because they tell what has happened, what Jesus has done and won a different kind of victory. The Gnostic Gospels are not Gospels, that is, they are not “good news” because their Jesus does not do anything good or great. He purportedly just gives some Gnostic teaching.
The fact that the Gospels were written as biographies shows they were intended to be taken literally and describe what actually happened. The Gnostics do not appear to have had the same concern for historical truth. The Nag Hammadi collection includes Eugnostos the Blessed and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. Eugnostos the Blessed is a letter written by a pagan philosopher to his disciples. It was rewritten as The Sophia of Jesus Christ in which Eugnostos’ words were put into Jesus’ mouth. The Gospel of the Egyptians and the Apocryphon of John are also believed to be Gnostic reworkings of pagan texts (James Robinson (editor), The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Harper, San Francisco, 1990, p 220). Putting a supposed Christian veneer on a pagan text does not make the Gnostics Christian. Rather, it shows their beliefs were pagan in origin. The Gnostics were not interested in preserving the actual words of Jesus. They were looking for figures through which to express their Gnostic ideas.
Elaine Pagels acknowledges their Gospels are not historical,
“Gnostic authors, in the same way, attributed their secret teachings to various disciples. Like those who wrote the New Testament gospels, they may have received some of their material from early traditions. But in other cases, the accusation that the gnostics invented what they wrote contains some truth: certain gnostics openly acknowledged that they derived their gnosis from their own experience.
How, for example, could a Christian living in the second century write the Secret Book of John? We could imagine the author in the situation he attributes to John at the opening of the book: troubled by doubts, he begins to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ mission and destiny. In the process of such internal questioning, answers may occur spontaneously to the mind; changing patterns of images may appear. The person who understands this process not in terms of modern psychology, as the activity of the imagination or unconscious, but in religious terms, could experience these as forms of spiritual communication with Christ. Seeing his own communion with Christ as a continuation of what the disciples enjoyed, the author, when he casts the ‘dialogue’ into literary form, could well give to them the role of the questioners. Few among his contemporaries – except the orthodox, whom he considers ‘literal-minded’ – would accuse him of forgery; rather, the titles of these works indicate that they were written ‘in the spirit’ of John, Mary Magdalene, Philip or Peter.” (Beyond Belief, p 47)
This may leave readers wondering how some academics can believe the Gnostic Gospels represent a valid alternative form of Christianity when they know they are not historically reliable. This is because their opinions are not so much a result of historical research, but of their worldview. They appear to subscribe to a philosophy of postmodernism which says there is no absolute truth and all beliefs are equally true. Texts, such as the Gospels, do not have one true meaning. All interpretations by the reader are equally valid. What the author actually meant is irrelevant. Thus, what Jesus meant, his identity and purpose, are irrelevant to the postmodernist. All ideas about Jesus, orthodox Christian or Gnostic, are equally valid, not whether or not one group has accurately recorded Jesus’ life, teachings and purpose. There is no true Christianity and heresies which have got it wrong. There are many “Christianities”.
Another postmodernist assumption is that “History is written by the winners.” This means the orthodox Christians won, their Gospels were accepted and the Gnostics lost. If the Gnostics had come out on top, they would have become the true Christians and the orthodox Christians would be the heretics. Again, the issue of which side better represents the real historical Jesus is irrelevant.
It may be true that the winners often write history. If Hitler had won World War II and we were all Nazis, our history books would not portray Hitler as an evil dictator. However, it is not always the case. The American lost the Vietnam War, yet they have written numerous books about the conflict. Likewise, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War with Sparta in the fifth century BC, but our knowledge of the war comes from the Athenian historian Thucydides (c. 460-c.395 BC).
The New Testament Gospels were not written by winners, but by a despised and illegal religious minority who were disempowered and persecuted for what they had written and believed. There were a few exceptions but in general, the Roman authorities did not persecute the Gnostics, which suggests the Romans understood what some postmodernist academics do not, that the Christians and Gnostics were two different groups.
The early Christians were persecuted because they refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. They believed to do so would deny the uniqueness of Jesus. The fact, that the Gnostics were not usually persecuted, suggests they must have compromised, denied Jesus’ uniqueness and sacrificed to the pagan gods.
Postmodernists tend to side with the underdog, those oppressed by the powerful. Thus, they favour the Gnostics whom they see as oppressed by the orthodox Christians. On the other hand, if the Gnostics had “won” and Constantine became a Gnostic, these postmodernist academics would presumably be supporters of orthodox Christianity.
Dan Brown says that Constantine decided which Gospels would be included in the New Testament at the Council of Nicea in 325 (p 313-314, 317). This is not true. In Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code Bart Ehrman writes,
“The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings). The formation of the New Testament canon was instead a long and drawn-out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead. So far as we know, based on the historical record, the emperor was not involved in the process.” (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, p 74)
The early Church had already decided by the end of the second century. When it was still powerless and persecuted, that there were only four genuine Gospels. As already mentioned, around 173 AD, Tatian compiled a harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John called the Diatessaron. He did not use any other “Gospels”. In Against Heresies, written around 180 AD, Irenaeus argued that there could only ever be four Gospels because there were four zones of the world, four principal winds, four covenants between God and Man and the cherubim had four faces (AH 3:11:7) . Irenaeus’ reasoning is admittedly dubious but it does show he believed there were only four Gospels. Around 200 AD a list of the Christian canon was drawn up, known as the Muratorian Canon which included the four Gospels. Origen (184-254) wrote, “The Church has four Gospels. Heretics have many.” (Homily on Luke 1:1)
Orthodox Christians did not agree on all of the New Testament books by the end of the second century. The New Testament canon was not finalised until 367. However, the four Gospels had already been accepted for about 200 years. There had only been doubts about whether the General Epistles, Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation, should be included.
Eusebius records how around 200 AD Serapion, Bishop of Antioch, leaned some Christians in Rhossus had been using the Gospel of Peter. At first Serapion accepted it However, when the realised it was not orthodox and could not have been written by Peter, he rejected it and warned others about it (Ecclesiastical History,6:12:2-6). The fact, that Serapion had been previously unaware of the Gospel of Peter, suggests that it was not well-known nor widely distributed, and it was not on a par with the New Testament Gospels. Eusebius does not mention other incidents of Christians being deceived by false Gospels so it sounds like an isolated case. The Gospel of Peter is not even Gnostic in its theology. No Gnostic Gospel was ever considered as canonical and authentic by orthodox Christians.
The Gnostic manuscripts from Nag Hammadi are a significant archaeological discovery in that they show what the Gnostics of the second century, and later, believed. However, they do not challenge or undermine the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament Gospels were written first and were intended to be biographies of Jesus and record his teachings and achievements. They are Gospels. “good news”, because they tell what Jesus has done for us.
The Gnostic Gospels were written later. Even Gnosticism’s modern academic supporters agree the historical Jesus was not a Gnostic and he did not say the things attributed to him in the Gnostic Gospels. They may be alternative versions of Jesus, but so is Jesus Christ Superstar. They are not reliable historical sources for Jesus of Nazareth. The Gnostics were simply using Jesus as a mouthpiece for their Gnostic beliefs which there is no evidence existed during Jesus’ lifetime.
The Gnostics may have called some of their writings “gospels”, but unlike the New Testament Gospels, they are not biographies of Jesus, concerned with the “good news” of what Jesus has done. The truth is there is no such thing as a “Gnostic Gospel”.