By James Bishop| The Gnostic Gospels/texts, also known as the New Testament Apocrypha, consist of fifty-two texts discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, by an Arab, Muhammad ‘Alí al-Sammán, who came across jars while looking for a soft soil to fertilize his crops (1). These texts have excited many readers, including scholars and laypersons alike, for their depictions of Jesus Christ and his early disciples and followers.
This entry will briefly look at these texts and outline some of the reasons why most scholars have been hesitant to use the Gnostic sources as independent material for the life and ministry of the historical Jesus.
Smashing the jar, Muhammad discovered the contents of thirteen papyrus books bound in leather. Evidently, not all of these papyri survived as Muhammad’s mother, ‘Umm-Ahmad, said that she burned some of them along with straw to kindle a fire. Later the extant papyri were sold on the black market through antiquities dealers in Cairo but soon attracted the attention of Egyptian officials. The officials purchased one papyri book (codex), confiscated the other ten and a half of the thirteen, and placed what they had in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
However, part of the thirteenth codex was smuggled out of Egypt and put on sale in the United States, which cultivated a strong interest in the Dutch scholar and historian of religion Gilles Quispel. Quispel later flew to Egypt in an attempt to find the other codices. Visiting the Coptic Museum he photographed some of the texts and deciphered them only to discover many startling words and deeds of Jesus Christ and his disciples.
Although these texts contained many sayings paralleled in the New Testament gospels they were placed in unfamiliar contexts. Some of them even criticized Christian beliefs in the virgin birth of Christ and the central tenet of Christ’s bodily resurrection. These texts also purported to contain secret teachings from Christ given to his close disciples. The Apocryphon of John claims to reveal “the mysteries [and the] things hidden in silence” which Christ taught to his disciple John.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is constituted of the “stories of Thomas the Israelite” given to him by Christ. Many of these books are attributed to one of Christ’s followers, such as the Apocalypse of Paul, the Secret Book of James, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter.
Philosophical and Theological Convictions
The Nag Hammadi texts, which we will henceforth simply call the Gnostic texts/writings (from the Greek word ‘gnosis’, meaning knowledge), attempted to combine Greek Neoplatonism, which emphasized the value of ideas and the devaluing of matter, with Christian symbolism, to produce an expression of Christianity more compatible with Greco-Roman thought and culture (2).
The Gnostics were a religious sect within the Christian-Jewish milieu that probably emerged at the beginning of the second century CE and who later died out in 381 CE when it was outlawed under Theodosius I who declared the Catholic Church the state religion of the Roman Empire.
The devaluing of matter and the view that matter is evil is a common theme within the Gnostic texts. Contemporary philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig explains that “Gnosticism was an ancient near eastern philosophy which held that the physical world is evil and the spiritual realm is good” (3).
As such, this worldview is best viewed as dualistic as it presents two opposing forces: the material and the spiritual, with the former being evil and the latter good. The Gnostics also placed emphasis on secret knowledge and teachings as the path to salvation. This is a perspective we find strongly presented in the Gospel of Judas, for example. In Judas (this text, despite its title, was certainly not authored by the original disciple and famed betrayer, Judas), there is the promise of secret teachings, the denigration of the physical body, and the elevation of a single disciple or apostle.
Salvation comes only through secret knowledge of the spiritual realm, as this was believed to liberate the soul from imprisonment within the physical, material world. As such, salvation comes not from Christ’s atonement and resurrection but from the secret knowledge that Christ imparted to a select group of his followers. This is why in Judas it purports to be “The secret account of the revelation that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot.”
The Gnostics were also called docetists (docetism from the Greek dokein, meaning “to seem”) as since they believed Christ to be a fully divine being he could not have been a flesh and blood human being. Essentially Christ is a deity who had come to the Earth but only in the appearance of human flesh. He did not have a physical body but one that only appeared so, hence the term docetism (4).
The early Christians were critical of such views as it became clear what their implications were. It taught that Christ was never actually crucified for human sin as how could this be possible if he did not have a physical body? Similarly, Christ’s resurrection, a fundamental doctrine in Christianity from the religion’s earliest moments, was believed to be a physical event (the resurrection of Christ’s physical body from the dead), hence why the Gnostics rejected this.
The bishop Ignatius of Antioch, famous for his desire to suffer and die for Christ (for which he did), condemned the Gnostics for their denial of “the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” Scholar of church history Ryan Reeves observes how many modern people essentially hold to the opposite view of the Gnostic docetists,
“But what forever reason a certain number of people within the early church struggled with reckoning with Christ as fully man. Now that strikes us as a bit odd today in the modern twenty-first century because in many ways we have, at least in popular culture, something of the opposite effect: Christ is just a man, he was a great teacher, he was a great leader some might say, but there is no way he was God” (5).
The Historical Jesus and the Gnostic Texts
Theology and philosophy aside, what should one make of the presentation of the historical Jesus in these Gnostic texts? Can one ascribe a reasonable historical accuracy to them? Are they purely legendary? What should we make of this? The most appropriate and reasonable position to adopt would be one of caution. There are a few compelling reasons suggesting this.
Late Date and Legendary Embellishment
Perhaps the strongest reason to adopt a perspective of caution is that we are unfortunately not dealing with early sources when it comes to the Gnostic texts. Most of these texts were composed between the second and fourth centuries CE, roughly one to two hundred years and more post the death of Christ. A gap this length is not uncommon for historical figures, especially ancient founders of religions, and it allows much time for legend to develop and for embellishment to rework the original narratives.
As some theologians have observed, clear signs of embellishment can be seen in the exaggerated events narrated by the Gnostic texts, which is an exaggeration largely absent from the original canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. The argument is that the canonical gospels on the surface read much more like one would expect of accounts retelling actual history whereas the Gnostic texts do not.
For example, one might compare the Gnostic Gospel of Peter’s narration of Christ’s so-called triumphal exit from the burial tomb when God raised him from the dead to the version in the New Testament Gospel of John. In Peter, Christ exits the tomb accompanied by angels, followed by a talking cross, heralded by a voice from heaven, and this is all witnessed by a Roman guard, the Jewish leaders, and a multitude of spectators (6).
There is exaggeration here used to suit whatever purposes Peter’s author had. This is the sort of narrative data we find in the Gnostic texts, namely embellished, legendary, and suspiciously fictional recollections of historical events narrated in the canonical gospels. Compare Peter’s account of the exit from the tomb to the rather simplistic account in the canonical Gospel of John, which simply has Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb where she comes across two angelic figures in white sitting where the body of Christ had been lain. This encounter is followed by the risen Christ appearing to her.
Some readers with certain philosophical convictions will want to throw John’s narrative out because it mentions angels and a resurrected Christ. But be that as it may, no-one can doubt that John is much simpler and more probably presenting historical events than is Peter: there is no talking cross, no multitudes of crowds witnessing the exit from the tomb, no majestic voice from heaven, no Jewish leaders and opponents being conclusively shown their error in rejecting Christ, and so on.
One more details needs to be observed regarding early sources and this is that a very small number of scholars have claimed an early date for the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. Scholar Elaine Pagels is one individual wishing to date Thomas, or at least certain sayings within Thomas, to between fifty and one-hundred CE, thus on par, if not even earlier, than Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
If a strong case can be made for such a date then we should have Thomas printed in our modern versions of the New Testament alongside the canonicals. But most scholars will claim that this is overstating the case, largely because as a sayings gospel (Thomas consists simply of sayings of Christ, 114 of them in total) there is at best flimsy evidence supporting any date given to this text; New Testament scholar Dale Martin explains,
“Most scholars would say it is written before the year 200 [C.E.]. Some scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas goes all the way back to the first century and may even be as early as Mark, Q, or even earlier. The majority of scholars don’t believe that, the majority of us believe that the Gospel of Thomas was first written in Greek in the first half of the second century, so between 100 and 150. But we don’t really know, it’s just a complete guess” (7).
Dating of this text remains a complete guess as unlike the canonical gospels Thomas lacks historical narrative given it is a sayings text. But if pushed, most scholars who have looked at Thomas would date it somewhere between 130 and 200 CE (roughly a century to one-hundred and seventy years post the life of Christ) and admit the possibility that some of its sayings could date back to the historical Jesus.
However, this is difficult to determine as although certain sayings and parables of Christ in Thomas do find a parallel in the canonical gospels (i.e. in Thomas we find the parable of the Sower (saying 9), the Wedding Banquet (saying 64), the Tenants (saying 65), and of the Lost Sheep (saying 107)) most of the sayings do not agree completely with the wording in the canonical gospels. Thomas’s author probably had knowledge of the canonical gospels and so included some of their sayings in his own account. Other sayings might have been invented or modified.
An Uncharacteristic Christ
Christ’s character in the Gnostic accounts tends to strike one as suspicious when compared to the canonical texts. Case in point is Christ’s portrayal in the Gospel of Judas, famous for its depiction of him as laughing. In Judas, Christ laughs at his disciples when they gather for the Last Supper because they are partaking in the ritual without actually knowing him (Codex Tchacos 34). This response is uncharacteristic of the more solemn and serious Christ of the canonicals.
Another suspicious representation of Christ is found in the Gospel of Thomas. Whereas in the canonical gospels Christ’s miracles serve a spiritual and transcendent purpose as in, for example, pointing to God’s kingdom, the restoration of creation, and to the authenticity of his mission of bringing salvation, in Thomas many of Christ’s miracles are arbitrary and lack transcendent meaning. One might point to the episode of Christ, at the age of just five, fashioning birds from soft clay which then fly away (1:2).
This is a fascinating story, but it is pointless. Further, many of Christ’s miracles in Thomas are harmful to others and thus strongly deviate from the precedent set by the canonicals. In Thomas, Christ withers a fellow child to death (2:2), kills a child who bumps into him while running (4:1), and curses and kills a teacher (13:2). So unruly is the child Christ that the parents of the other children not only criticize Joseph for being unable to control his son but also, along with the wider community, want them to move out of the village so as to restore the peace (3:3, 4:2).
Although Christ later reverses all of his curses (8:1-2 and 14:2-4), such a representation of his miracles is unlike that of the canonical gospels which have a transcendent purpose and meaning. The miracles of the canonical are about healing, not pain and affliction. They were about restoration, not torment. Ultimately they were to affirm the authenticity of Christ’s revelation to humanity. Reasons such as these and others are why N. T. Wright, a scholar of Christianity and Biblical Studies, is skeptical of the Gnostic texts saying that what one finds in them “is a fictional character called ‘Jesus’ talking to fictional character[s]” (8).
The Gnostic gospels/texts are later apocryphal texts in that they are ascribed the names of some of Christ’s original disciples and early followers with the purpose of elevating the texts’ credibility and their theological convictions. We noted already the gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Judas, all names of original disciples of the historical Jesus.
There are many others, such as the Gospel of Barnabas, Gospel of Bartholomew, Apocryphon of James, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Philip, Book of Thomas the Contender, and more. The purpose of attributing reputable names to these texts is to increase their credibility in the eyes of readers; after all, one would certainly expect Peter, one of Christ’s closest disciples, to have had invaluable firsthand experience with Christ and thus a superior knowledge of Christ’s teachings and views than most other people.
The same logic applies to Mary, Christ’s mother, and the rest. However, as scholars have realized, the original disciples and early followers of Christ could not have authored these texts. They are much too late. Even taking the supposedly earliest of these Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Thomas, we are dealing with at least one-hundred years (on the assumption Thomas dates to 130 CE), meaning that the original disciple Thomas had to have been well over one-hundred years old when he authored his account. The same must be said for the Gospel of Judas, which dates to around the mid-to-late second century CE, and the rest of the Gnostic documents.
Because none of these texts can be given a date in the first century CE (or at least within a century of Christ’s death) we are not dealing with early materials, at least not on the same level of earliness as one finds with the New Testament canon. There is no reason therefore to regard any of the Gnostic texts as superior, in the objective historical sense of narrating real events and sayings from the ministry of Christ, than the traditional canonical gospels themselves. As the twentieth-century biblical scholar Raymond Brown observed back in 1980, “we learn not a single verifiable new fact about the historical Jesus’ ministry, and only a few new sayings that might possibly have been his” (9).
Lack of Detail Invites Suspicion
For the historian, a general rule of thumb when testing the reliability of a historical source is to determine whether or not it evidences a familiarity with the time and place/s it speaks about. If the source lacks familiarity with these then it suggests a few possibilities: the author was not an eyewitness, and/or did not consult eyewitness when obtaining his information, and/or was writing from a place and time far removed from the location of the narrated events, and/or is fabricating narratives.
The impression one receives from some Gnostic texts is one of unfamiliarity. Consider several topographical and geographical details. The Gospel of Thomas mentions the province of Judaea just once and names no other location. The Gospel of Judas references no locations, whereas the Gospel of Philip mentions Jerusalem four times, Nazara once (this being an alternative spelling for Nazareth), and the Jordan once.
In these cases, these are indeed historical locations but none of them would have required a special knowledge from the author: Judaea was a province, Jerusalem a large and religiously important city, and Nazareth was famous because of was Christ’s home village. Consider this in comparison with the canonical gospels which mention a total of twenty-six towns: thirteen each in Mark and John, and sixteen each in Matthew and Luke. These include large cities such as Jerusalem and small villages such as Bethphage (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and Bethany (all four gospels). In John’s gospel, there are several small villages named: Aenon, Cana, Ephraim, Salim, and Sychar.
They are also specific topographically. For example,Matthew and Mark state that Bethsaida and Capernaum are towns located by the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:13; Mark 6:45), and John’s author mentions a seasonal stream, the Kidron, near the city of Jerusalem and correctly refers to a pool in the city having five colonnades. Details of flora are specific. Although some of these, such as references to figs, vines, and wheat, are not particularly impressive or necessarily suggestive of an intimate knowledge as these grow in many countries, there are several specific details.
Consider Christ, for instance, talking about how the Pharisees were careful to tithe their dill, mint, and cumin (Matthew 23:23), which evidences a specific knowledge of rabbinic debates about tithing of dill and cumin. According to the Gospel of Luke, Zacchaeus, a tax collector, is said to have climbed a sycamore tree in the town of Jericho (19:4). This was a tree characteristic of Jericho, as we learn from to the second-century rabbi Abba Shaul. Luke’s author would have only known these details had he either visited this location at some point or if he had spoken to someone who had.
The value of the Gnostic texts lies not in their providing independent source material for the ministry of the historical Jesus but instead for how second, third, and fourth century CE religious groups and sects viewed Christ. As scholar of religion Annette Yoshiko Reed writes,
“[T]hey [the Gnostic texts/New Testament apocrypha] are prized for their preservation of a rich literary deposit of continued reflection about Jesus, his family, and his first followers, attesting the diversity of early Christianity as well as the continued dynamism surrounding the apostolic past in late antique and medieval cultural memory” (10).
The Gnostic texts do not, however, rise to the same level of value as the documents comprising the New Testament for the aforementioned reasons. These texts are chronologically late in proximity to Christ’s death, overtly legendary, present a Christ vastly different to what we find in the earlier New Testament materials, the anonymous authors present their writings as if they were composed by an original disciple or follower of Christ’s to bolster their claims although we know this could not have been the case, and an absence of geographical and topographical details suggest a lack of familiarity with the time and place in which the historical Jesus carried out his ministry.
However, as the plethora of Gnostic texts evidence, including many of the other historical documents referring to Christ (the New Testament texts, Jewish and Roman historians, early church fathers, critics, and more), Christ was a figure who despite his unassuming background as a rural Jew left an imprint on numerous groups of people within a short span of time that is quite unparalleled in ancient history.
1. Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage
2. Wallace, Daniel., and Bock, Darrell. 2010. Dethroning Jesus: Exposing Popular Culture’s Quest to Unseat the Biblical Christ. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. p. 87.
3. Craig, William. 1998. “Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: The Presuppositions and Presumptions of the Jesus Seminar.” Faith and Mission 15(2):3-15.
4. Ryan Reeves. 2015. Gnosticism and the Early Church [YouTube]. Available.
5. Ryan Reeves. 2015. Ibid.
6. Craig, William. Visions of Jesus. Available.
7. Yale Courses. 2009. The Gospel of Thomas. Available. [08:50]
8. Wright, Nicholas Thomas. 2006. Judas and the Gospel of Jesus. Ada: Baker Books. p. 64.
9. Brown, Raymond. 1980. “The Christians Who Lost Out.” The New York Times.
10. Yoshiko Reed, Annette. 2015. “The Afterlives of New Testament Apocrypha.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134(2):401-425
This articles was originally featured on the website of James Bishop and was republished with permission from the author.