Sundoulos - Fall 2006

Gnostic Gospels

by Michael J. Wilkins

I. Unusual “Gospels”

In the last few years, and increasingly in the last several months, the media have highlighted sensationalistic claims about “gospels” that few people within the church even knew existed.

Many of these stem from the discovery in 1945 of a library of writings at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. This library included many “gospels” that reflect the teachings and beliefs of a syncretistic philosophical and religious movement called Gnosticism, which was prominent in the Greco-Roman world in the second century A.D. and beyond. The writings demonstrate the syncretistic nature of Gnosticism, in that they demonstrate acquaintance with literature from Neo-Platonism,1 Judaism,2 and Christianity.3

With the translation and publication of these “gospels,” some scholars have made sensationalistic claims.

For nearly twenty years the Gospel of Thomas has received extensive media attention. In 1993, the problematic Jesus Seminar placed it as the fifth gospel on an authoritative par with the four Gospels of the New Testament. From Thomas they derive the assumption that Jesus never understood himself to be the supernatural, divine Son of God who was crucified and raised from the dead. Instead, they claim that Jesus knew himself to be only a wise man who tried to cast a new vision of spirituality by speaking in parables and sayings that riled the social and religious establishment.4

Over ten years ago my colleague J.P. Moreland and I assembled a team of New Testament and philosophical scholars to address this phenomenon in a book entitled Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Zondervan, 1996). Although we believe that we countered the claims of the Jesus Seminar surrounding the Gospel of Thomas, the biblical portrait of Jesus continues to come under fire from other sources.

The meteoric rise of the popularity of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has produced an accompanying rise in the visibility of the Gospel of Mary of Magdala. This source, along with a passage in the Gospel of Philip where Jesus is said to “kiss” Mary,5 is used to spin a novel conjecture that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, they had children together, and the resultant bloodline was the chalice of the Holy Grail.6

Most recently the National Geographic Society announced in April 2006 the discovery of a lost gospel, the Gospel of Judas, which they claimed was one of the most significant discoveries of the twentieth century.7 This writing reassesses the traitorous relationship between Jesus and Judas as we find it in the four New Testament Gospels and portrays Judas acting at Jesus’ request when he hands Jesus over to the authorities. 8

II. What Should We Think?

What are we to make of these so-called “gospels”? The media attention given to these and other gospels has generated a number of questions in the minds of people, even among evangelicals. Do these writings contain any truth? Because they are getting so much attention, even from some highly visible New Testament scholars, should we fear that our Bibles are incomplete and that these other gospels contain truth not found in ours? Is the real story of Christianity after our New Testament Gospels recorded in these gospels? Are all of these “gospels” heretical? What was the process in the church that concluded some gospels were to be included in the canon, and others excluded?

These are important questions to address, but we must recognize that challenges will come in different ways and in different contexts. The last question is an important starting point.

III. How Were Gospels Included or Excluded from the Canon?

From the earliest days of the church the four Gospels that we have in our New Testament were recognized to have come either from an apostle (Matthew, John) or from an immediate associate of an apostle (Mark with Peter; Luke with Paul, who had special authority as the apostle to the Gentiles). This apostolic association was the basis of the authority found in the Gospels. The earliest church was gathered together as one community in Jerusalem for upwards of nearly twenty years. The eyewitness accounts by the apostles of Jesus Messiah’s life and ministry (cf. Acts 1:21-26) were supplemented by Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Jesus’ brothers, who were vital participants in the early Christian community (Acts 1:14).

The result is what may be called the standardized, fixed, oral tradition of the early church about Jesus. It is standardized because it was told over and over again by the passionate new church. And it became fixed because any errant variation would quickly be corrected by the eyewitness apostles. Their time in Jerusalem enabled them in that oral culture to memorize massive amounts of Jesus’ passion, teaching, and narrative life story.

The conservative evaluation of the evidence suggests that the three synoptic Gospels were composed within about thirty years of Christ’s death, well within the period of time when people could check up on the accuracy of the facts they contain. This is supported by the testimony of Christians as early as Irenaeus near the end of the second century, who attributes the writing of Matthew and Mark to the first generation of church history, i.e., before the fall of Jerusalem to Rome in A.D. 70.9 And the most reliable early tradition suggests a date for John around the 90s.10

Church fathers Clement (writing in the mid-90s) and Ignatius of Antioch (around 110) both quote or allude to words of Jesus from the four Gospels, indicating that they were recognized and accepted as authoritative. The earliest formal list of accepted writings was in the Muratorian Canon, dating around 180, which recognizes Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the orthodox records of Jesus life and ministry. All the later lists of authoritative writings included these four as “canonical” or authoritative Scripture.

These four Gospels set an apostolic basis that became the standard early in the second century for evaluating any other accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, and no other gospels were ever seriously considered within the church as authoritative equals to them.

IV. The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic gospels have been given the most attention by far by recent scholars and the media. Although from the church fathers’ quotations and citations these writings had been known throughout church history, it was only since their discovery in 1945 at Nag Hammadi that more complete manuscripts have been available. Gnosticism was a religious movement that valued secret knowledge (gnõsis) of God and salvation, and disdained the physical world as inferior to the spiritual realm. This latter characteristic caused them to deny the incarnation of Jesus. As noted by Clint Arnold in the related article in this issue of Sundoulos, there is no evidence of Gnosticism as a movement prior to the mid-second century, and a paucity of evidence for the existence of a uniform Gnostic movement in the Greco-Roman world. This undercuts the claim of scholars who contend that Gnosticism was a competing strain within Christianity. Rather, from its rise in the second century it was recognized as a heretical movement that had departed orthodoxy.

The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of thirteen papyrus codices of Gnostic scriptures and commentaries. The original versions were written in Greek in the second or third century, but the codices themselves are fourth century translations into Coptic (the ancient Egyptian language written using Greek letters).

Of the basic 52-53 texts found at Nag Hammadi, eight are either called gospels or have gospel material. Two other documents, the Gospel of the Savior and the Gospel of Judas, were discovered in Egypt but not at Nag Hammadi. They bear similar strains of Gnostic teaching. The Gnostic gospels attempt to revision the canonical understanding of Jesus Christ under the influence of heretical Gnostic beliefs.

V. Evaluating the Gnostic and Other Apocryphal Gospels

Mainstream media, whether in reporting or in special presentations, often present the Gnostic and other apocryphal gospels as authentic material from the earliest days of the church, even going back to the times of Jesus and the apostles. But as we evaluate these gospels, several points should be kept in mind.

  1. These “gospels” are not true records of Jesus’ historical activities.
    Despite their titles, works like the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Thomas are not gospels of the sort found in the New Testament, since they do not offer a continuous narration of the deeds, teachings, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. The closest to a narrative is The Gospel of the Egyptians, a Gnostic salvation-history.11 By and large these “gospels” do not attempt to anchor the writings in history, but instead offer dialogues that develop Gnostic teachings. Incidents from the life of Jesus are often clearly Gnostic propagandistic expansions and fictitious revisionings of the canonical Gospels, as in the cases sensationalized in the media of the accounts of Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene. In that sense, there is nothing new in the Gnostic gospels of any historical value for understanding Jesus’ life and ministry.

  2. The titles and implied date of writing of these “gospels”
    are false.
    The apocryphal writings are almost exclusively pseudepigraphical—i.e., written in the name of the apostles or disciples, or having content concerning them, such as Mary, Thomas, and Judas. However, the ascription is completely false, as even critical or liberal scholars acknowledge. Bart Ehrman notes that the gospel allegedly written by Judas derives from at least a hundred years after the death of Jesus,12 and so could not have any direct relationship to Judas. The same could be said for gospels that bear the name Philip or Peter or Thomas or Mary Magdalene. Although a very few scholars claim that the Gospel of Thomas is from the first century, the majority contend that Thomas and all of the other Gnostic gospels had no relationship to the apostles or other disciples and were not written until at least a hundred years later.

  3. The theological agenda of these gospels conflicts with the revelation of the New Testament.
    To compare the Gnostic gospels to the canonical Gospels is like entering into an altogether different world. They not only lack apostolic identification, but their theological content is completely unlike the New Testament. They reinterpret Jesus’ ministry and teachings in the light of heretical Gnostic philosophy and beliefs. This explains why orthodox church fathers excluded them from the canon.

    Darrell Bock, professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, and visiting professor at Talbot each summer, provides one of the most recent evangelical treatments of the Gnostic and other apocryphal gospels in his book The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nelson, 2006). He evaluates four central theological categories in which he demonstrates the vast difference of these “gospels” from New Testament and early church teaching.13


    1. The Nature of God and Creation.
      Gnostic belief contends that creation and the material world are subject to imperfection and evil, which creates a barrier between God, who is perfect, and the world, which is evil.
    2. Jesus: Divine and/or Human.
      This dualistic tension between Creator and creation in Gnostic thought inevitably led them to deny Jesus’ incarnation. Gnostics contended that Jesus had to be divine without true humanity, or else he was a created being.
    3. The Nature of Humanity’s Redemption.
      This dualism that is inherent to Gnostic thought not only posits a dilemma for Christology, but also creates a dilemma for human nature and for the redemption and salvation of humanity. With a disdain for material creation, these gospels contend for the spiritual salvation of the soul, not the ultimate redemption of all creation.
    4. Jesus’ Death: Knowledge, Sin, and Salvation.
      Gnostic belief also contends that salvation comes through knowledge or enlightenment, not through the act of atonement on the cross. So in Gnostic thought, Jesus shows the way to enlightenment, but does not provide a substitutionary atonement on the cross for our salvation.

Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School, comments on this analysis and says, “These four theological distortions departed from the teachings of the New Testament and are clearly foreign to it. No wonder orthodox teachers said that Gnostics had utterly compromised the faith to fit the cultural tendencies of the day.”14 He concurs with Bock that the hypothesis about rival “orthodoxies” within Christianity is exaggerated to the extreme, is implausible historically, and as we discussed above, neglects how the New Testament Gospels preserve a reliable apostolic witness back to Jesus himself.

VI. The Real Issue

Overall then, the Gnostic gospels have only minimal value for Christians today. They are primarily a reinterpretation of the canonical sayings and work of Jesus within the horizon of Gnostic thought. These writings are good mainly for showing how the canonical Gospels can became fodder for philosophical speculation in support of a deviant religious strain when they are not taken as God’s final Word to humans regarding salvation and life in him. We must learn from this, because recent deviant movements in contemporary cults have similar tendencies to distort God’s Word.

Much of the recent media fascination and scholarly buzz over the Gnostic writings is an attempt to reimage those ancient texts as a way of making them palatable to modern persons. But as Bock has said, “Such reimaging is a distortion of Gnosticism, the Christian faith, and early Christian history. It deflects attention from our real need to accept responsibility for our actions before a Creator God.”15

The Christian faith is not based on myth, pious legend, or philosophical-religious speculation. It is based on the historical person and work of Jesus Christ, the record of which is transmitted to the present through the canonical Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—anchoring our faith in the bedrock of established historical truth.

May our responsibility before God cause us to confess continually Jesus as our Savior and God and to live daily in the transformational reality of life in him.

Notes

1 E.g., Zostrianos, Allogenes, Trimorphic Protennoia, Marsanes, and The Three Steles of Seth.

2 E.g., The Paraphrase of Shem, The Apocalypse of Adam, Trimorphic Protennoia.

3 E.g., The Apocalypse of Peter, The Gospel of Philip, etc.

4 Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Macmillan, 1993), 15-19, 30-34.

5 Gospel of Philip 63:32-64:10.

6 Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code: A Novel (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 249-50.

7 http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/.

8 The National Geographic Society made an English translation and the Coptic text available on their website at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/lostgospel/document.html .

9 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1.

10 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.22.5; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.23.1-4.

11 Alexander Böhlig and Frederik Wisse, “The Gospel of the Egyptians,” in The Nag Hammadi Library, 3rd rev. ed., gen. ed. James M. Robinson (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990), 208.

12 Bart D. Ehrman, “Christianity Turned on Its Head: The Alternative Vision of the Gospel of Jesus,” in The Gospel of Judas: From Codex Tchacos, ed. Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst (Washington D.C.: National Geographic, 2006), 77-82.

13 Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Nelson, 2006).

14 Gary Burge, “Jesus Out of Focus,” Christianity Today 50.6 (June 2006): 29.

15 Bock, The Missing Gospels, 213-214.

“Apocryphal” Gospels

From the Latin word apocryphus, “secret,” and/or from the Greek words apokryphos, “obscure,” or apokryptein, “to hide away,” apocryphal indicates works not considered by the Church to be Scripture. Some of the apocryphal gospels developed within the church were acknowledged to have helpful, even edifying content, but the subject matter of all was mixed with material that ranged from speculation to heresy. Among the most important categories are the following:

Fragments of gospels. Papyrus fragments of unknown gospels, which are probably all dependent on the canonical Gospels.

  • P. Egerton 2 (c. 150)
  • P. Oxyrhynchus 840 (c. 300-400)
  • P. Oxyrhynchus 1224 (c. 300)
  • Strasbourg Coptic Papyrus (c. 400-500)
  • Secret Gospel of Mark (referenced in an 18th century letter). Doubtful genuineness.

Infancy and childhood gospels. Speculation on Jesus’ childhood and family background.

  • Protoevangelium of James (c. 150-170). Contributed to later doctrinal elevation of Mary the mother of Jesus.
  • Infancy Gospel of Thomas (c. 150-170). Speculations about Jesus’ childhood miracles that exalt his deity but minimize his humanity.

Gospels of pious reflection. Pious reflections on Jesus’ life and ministry, but not based on historical data.

  • Gospel of Peter (c. 150). Mixed Christological views beginning to deviate from correct doctrine.
  • Gospel of Nicodemus (components from c. 150). Combines two prior works, Acts of Pilate (recounting Jesus’ passion) and Descent to Hades (reflections on Jesus’ activities between death and resurrection)
  • Epistle to the Apostles (c. 150). Anti-Gnostic denunciation of heretical teachers.

Jewish-Christian gospels. Church fathers cite three gospels which Jewish-Christian churches used, but are otherwise unknown.

  • Gospel of the Nazareans (c. 125). Marks of being a free translation of the Gospel of Matthew.
  • Gospel of the Ebionites (c. 150). An attempt at a harmony of the synoptic gospels.
  • Gospel to the Hebrews (c. 150). Contains syncretistic, Gnostic elements.

Gnostic gospels. Writings that attempt to revision the canonical understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ under the influence of heretical Gnostic beliefs.

Discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt

  • Dialogue of the Savior (c. 150-180). Dialogue of the risen Jesus with three disciples—Judas, Mary, Matthew—on creation, wisdom, and apocalyptic themes.
  • Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) (c. 150-180). Cosmological speculations between the resurrected Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
  • Gospel of Philip (c. 180-220). Combination of short theological treatises and sayings of Jesus in Gnostic form.
  • Gospel of Thomas (c. 150). 114 wisdom sayings of Jesus dependent on the canonical gospels but altered in accordance with Gnostic philosophy.
  • Gospel of Thomas the Contender (c. 200-250). Prior to his ascension Jesus interacts with his brother Judas Thomas, calling him to an ascetic life.
  • Gospel of Truth (c. 150-180). Experiencing the enlightenment of saving knowledge, gnosis, through the revelation of Jesus Christ, ranging from creation to the origin of error to the coming Redeemer.
  • The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter (c. 150-250). Visions of Peter with interpretations from the Savior about his death.
  • The Second Treatise of the Great Seth (c. 180). First-hand description of Christ descending into the man Jesus’ body, living in it, then dying only in appearance.

Discovered elsewhere in Egypt

  • Gospel of Judas (c. 150-180). Judas acts at Jesus’ request to betray him to fulfill God’s plan to free Jesus’ spirit from his body.
  • Gospel of the Savior (c. 150-180). Visions of the Savior on earth and heaven, who twice addresses the cross as the place where he completes what is lacking.

Resources for Studying the Gnostic Gospels

Evangelical Resources

  • Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nelson, 2006).
    Especially valuable for evaluating the theological nature of the Gnostic and other apocryphal materials.

  • Gary Burge, “Jesus Out of Focus,” Christianity Today 50.6 (June 2006): 24-29, with a sidebar, “The Lapsed Evangelical Critic (Bart Ehrman),” p. 26.
    An insightful overview recent Gnostic phenomena in the light of broader issues related to modern scholarship.

  • J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: What the Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don’t Tell You (Kregel, 2006).
    A wide-ranging discussion for informed laypersons of modern Jesus scholarship, canonicity of the gospels, the deity of Christ, and history of religions in the light of the Gnostic writings.

  • Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, eds., Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Zondervan, 1995).
    Particularly focuses on critiquing the Jesus Seminar and its use of the Gospel of Thomas to deny the historicity of Jesus’ sayings and activities.

  • Edwin M. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of the Proposed Evidences (Eerdmans, 1973).
    A scholarly, evangelical treatment of the history of Gnosticism.

Primary Sources

  • Hans-Josef Klauck, The Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction (T&T Clark, 2004).
    One of the most recent introductions to the apocryphal gospels, including the Gnostic gospels.

  • James M. Robinson, gen. ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3rd rev. ed. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).
    The standard, scholarly presentation of the Gnostic writings from a mostly critical perspective.

  • Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, Volume One: Gospels and Related Writings, rev. ed., trans. R. McL. Wilson (Westminster/ John Knox, 1991).
    An older, standard scholarly discussion of the apocryphal gospels, from a broadly critical perspective.

  • Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, eds., The Gospel of Judas: From Codex Tchacos (National Geographic, 2006).
    The first publication of the Gospel of Judas, with an overly appreciative acceptance of the writing from a critical perspective.

Michael J. Wilkins (MDiv, Talbot; PhD, Fuller Seminary) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Dean of the Faculty at Talbot. Mike is the author of a number of scholarly and popular books and articles, including an award-winning commentary on Matthew in the NIV Application Commentary series (Zondervan, 2004). Mike and his wife Lynne live in San Clemente, where Mike tries to surf responsibly.

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