It was the first time most Christians had heard of the Gnostics— communities of Christians who lived between the 2nd and 4th centuries and whose scriptures and spiritual beliefs bore little resemblance to what is now considered traditional Christianity.
Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, has said that the discovery of the Gospel of Judas and the Gnostic texts was “exploding the myth of a monolithic Christianity.” The Nag Hammadi discoveries shocked many Christians.
The Nag Hammadi documents
These are a collection of Christian Gnostic texts discovered in 1945 near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. While searching for fertiliser for their crops, a local man named Mohammed Ali Samman and his brother discovered a clay pot filled with leather-bound manuscripts. When the manuscripts came to the attention of researchers, their significance was immediately recognised: they contained 52 books, mainly “heretical” writings by Gnostic Christians. Most of the texts make up the so-called “Gnostic Gospels.” In the introduction to his book, The Nag Hammadi Library, James Robinson suggests that these manuscripts may have belonged to a monastery and were buried after Bishop Athanasius condemned the indiscriminate use of non-canonical books in a letter written in 367 AD.
The contents of the books were in Coptic, although they were probably a translation from Greek. The best known of these works is probably the Gospel of Thomas, the only complete text among the Nag Hammadi codices. Subsequently, 80 AD has been proposed as the date of the original Greek Gospel of Thomas, but most biblical scholars reject this. The manuscripts discovered date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.
In 1946, the two brothers were involved in a blood feud and entrusted the manuscripts to a Coptic priest, whose brother-in-law had sold a codex to the Coptic Museum in Cairo that same year (Codex III of the collection). Jean Dorese, a specialist in the history of religions and a Coptic scholar, realised the importance of the artefact and published the first reference to it in 1948. Over the next few years, most of the codices were given by the priest to an antiquities dealer in Cairo. They were then withheld by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities for fear of being removed from the country. After the 1956 revolution, the texts were given to the Coptic Museum in Cairo and declared national property. The return of the Jung Codex (the only one to be removed from Egypt) to the Coptic Museum in 1975 completed the Nag Hammadi collection: 11 complete codexes and fragments of the other two, totalling over 1,000 pages.
Gnosticism, the philosophy of the Late Gospels
Gnosticism has been a problem since the first century of the Christian Church. The definition given by the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia is as follows: “Gnosticism may be described generally as the fantastic product of the blending of certain Christian ideas—particularly that of redemption through Christ—with speculation and imaginings derived from a medley of sources (Greek, Jewish, Parsic; philosophies; religions, theosophies, mysteries). It involves, as the name denotes, a claim to ‘knowledge,’ knowledge of a kind of which the ordinary believer was incapable, and in the possession of which ‘salvation’ in the full sense consisted.”
The Gnostic current was characterised by:
- The claim of the initiated to possess a superior knowledge of the faith and a secret and deeper doctrine.
- The essential separation of matter from spirit, the former being considered evil in itself and the source of all evil.
- The attempt to solve the problem of creation and the origin of evil by introducing the concept of a creative Demiurge, distinct from the Supreme God.
- The denial of the real humanity of Christ, whose earthly life, suffering, and death were regarded as unreal.
- Denial of the personality of the Supreme God and of free will.
- Advocacy of asceticism as a means of attaining spiritual communion with God.
- A syncretistic tendency to combine misinterpreted Christian doctrines with various Eastern and Jewish elements.
- The Old Testament scriptures were seen as the work of the Demiurge, or lesser creator, who was the God of the Jews but not the true God.
The claim that these are secret gospels is false. They have been known for centuries. Early Church Fathers wrote about their texts and rejected them as uninspired and unapostolic. Irenaeus (130-200 AD) and Tertullian (160-255 AD) mentioned the texts in their letters and rejected them.
Warnings against specifically Gnostic teachings are found in the Bible in 1 Corinthians, Colossians (1:16-23—rejection of the mediating role of angels), 1 Timothy (4:1-16—rejection of ascetic overtones: prohibition of marriage, animal foods) and 1 John (4:1-3—rejection of docetism). While there is no evidence of a deliberate attempt by the Church Fathers to hide or destroy these documents, there is evidence that they were aware of them and rejected them as not being reliable sources of information about Jesus or the Christian faith.
These texts have never been considered part of the inspired writings of the apostles for several reasons:
(1) Most of these texts are dated long after the death of the apostles;
(2) The teachings are inconsistent with the earlier revelation and apostolic teaching of Jesus;
(3) The teaching of Gnostic dualism is strongly rejected by John in his Gospel and letters;
(4) The Fathers of the Church knew of these texts, but never considered them to be on a par with the canonical Gospels.
For the sake of objectivity, the best way to assess the credibility of these late Gospels is to compare them with the New Testament Gospels:
1. Late date of writing: The attested date for the Gospels in the Bible is no later than 60-100 AD. The Gnostic Gospels were produced almost a century later. From the point of view of historical reconstruction, they cannot have the same authority. The New Testament canon, which includes the Gospels and most of the Pauline epistles, was already established by the end of the first century. The remaining books are irrelevant to establishing the divinity of Christ. Peter confesses to possessing Paul’s letters (2 Peter 3:15-16), placing them on the same level as the Old Testament Scriptures. Paul has access to Luke’s Gospel and quotes it (Luke 10:7) in 1 Timothy 5:18. The canonical lists prove the existence of the New Testament canon. All four Gospels and most of the Pauline epistles are included in these lists.
The Muratorian Canon, dated around 170 AD, attests to the New Testament, and the four Gospels are present in its list. Even the heretical canon of Marcion (circa 140 AD) included the Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline epistles. If an opponent of the official church, such as Marcion, accepted the Gospel of Luke, it is difficult to dispute its authority and canonicity. There is no Gnostic gospel even on the list of the heretic Marcion, who lived between 85 and 160 AD. Why could this be? Because the Gnostic Gospels did not exist.
2. Historical value: The early Christians meticulously preserved the words and deeds of Jesus. The Gospel writers were eyewitnesses or those close to them and were familiar with the events (Luke 1:1-4). This is perhaps the strongest argument for the historical superiority of the canonical Gospels over the non-canonical ones. There is evidence that the Evangelists were honest in their reporting. They presented the same profile of Jesus.
3. Support from the Church Fathers: The 2nd-century Church Fathers cited a common body of books. These included six books crucial to the historicity and resurrection of Christ: the Gospels, Acts and 1 Corinthians. Clement of Rome quotes the Gospels in 95 (Corinthians 13, 42, 46); Ignatius (c. 110-115) quotes Luke 24:39 (Smyrnaean 3); Polycarp (c. 115) quotes from the Synoptic Gospels (Philippians 2, 7); Didache (early 2nd century) quotes from the Synoptic Gospels (1, 3, 8, 9, 15-16); the Epistle of Barnabas (c. 135) quotes from Matthew 22:14; Papias (Oracles, c. 125-140) speaks of Matthew, Mark (recalling Peter) and John, who wrote the Gospels. Papias mentions three times that Mark made no mistakes. The Fathers considered the Gospels and the Pauline epistles as inspired as the Old Testament (cf. Clement’s Corinthians; Ignatius’ Ephesians; Polycarp’s Philippians). The confirmation of the accuracy of the canonical Gospels by the early 2nd-century Fathers occurred long before the appearance of the Gnostic Gospels at the end of the same century.
Gnosticism undermined Christian monotheism by distinguishing between the Creator and the Supreme God; it undermined Christian morality by contrasting the initiated and the unlearned; it undermined Christian practice by separating knowledge from action; and it undermined the basis of the Gospel by removing its historical character. This is why there can be no reconciliation between the Gnostic enlightened and the Christian churches. The words of the Apostle Paul are as relevant today as when he addressed them to the believers in Galatia: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:8).
With the extinction of Gnosticism (although some ideas remain to this day: questions about the Trinity, the person of Christ, the Fall, etc.), the Gnostic gospels were no longer used because the orthodox Christian churches (not in the confessional sense, but the non-gnostic churches) rejected these works. They were not unknown, but they were rejected. Their “discovery” should not surprise anyone. There was no conspiracy on the part of the Church to keep these works hidden, but rather their lack of dogmatic importance led to their “oblivion.”
The Coptic Gospel of Thomas
The discovery of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas was one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. Before 1945, this gospel was only known by name from other documents. It is a collection of supposed sayings of Jesus, apparently written by Didymus Judas Thomas, who, according to early Christian legend, was Jesus’ twin brother.
The book presents 114 “secret teachings” of Jesus, and that’s it. It presents no miracles, nor the Passion episode, nor any other known story from the canonical Gospels. The author of this gospel was concerned solely with the secret teachings of Jesus. The Gospel begins with the claim that whoever learns to interpret the words written in it will have eternal life.
Many of the claims will be familiar to readers of Matthew, Mark or Luke—for example, the warning against “the blind leading the blind” and the parables of the sower and the mustard seed. However, many of the statements in the Gospel of Thomas differ from those of the canonical evangelists and betray a Gnostic point of view. Humans are said to be spirits who have fallen from the divine realm and have been imprisoned in matter, and the human body is seen as a prison. Salvation is granted to those who find the truth and receive the power to escape the burden of material existence by acquiring the knowledge necessary for salvation. It is Jesus who provides this knowledge.
The implicit theology of the Gospel of Thomas is Gnostic in origin and cannot be dated earlier than the beginning of the second century. So while some of the statements may be of an earlier date, perhaps even from the time of Jesus, the document as a whole was written after the canonical Gospels and probably independently of them.
The Gospel of Mary
The Gospel of Mary was written in the second half of the second century. Although we do not have the full text, it is a fascinating gospel because it mentions that Mary Magdalene was given a high status among the apostles of Jesus. In fact, at the end of the text, the apostle Levi admits to his companions that Jesus “loved her more than us.” Mary’s special relationship with Jesus is seen through the lens of the revelation she received in a vision, in which the nature of things kept secret from the apostles was explained to her.
The second part of this Gospel describes an alleged vision of Mary Magdalene to whom Jesus described how the human soul must overcome the four ruling powers of the world in order to find eternal rest. This description of the soul’s destiny is obviously similar to the stories in the Gnostic texts. Towards the end, two of the apostles—Andrew and Peter—question Mary’s vision. Still, the text ends with Levi’s statement that she was Jesus’ favourite.
The Gospel of the Saviour
The most recently discovered Gospel is called the Gospel of the Saviour. It poses serious difficulties for translators and readers because the text has been largely destroyed and the manuscript has many gaps. Nevertheless, the original text can be said to have been a fascinating account of the life and last hours of Jesus. The text that has survived is said to contain Jesus’ final instructions to His disciples, His prayer to God to have the “cup” taken from Him, and a final address from the cross.
There are many differences between the passages of this Gospel and the parallel New Testament accounts. One of the most striking differences is that the moment of Jesus’ prayer for the Father to “take the cup” is not set in the Garden of Gethsemane. In fact, according to this Gospel, the prayer was uttered in a vision, when Jesus was taken to the throne of God. Furthermore, the text includes the Father’s response to Jesus’ request. But perhaps the most intriguing detail of this gospel is the ending, where Jesus, who is called “Saviour” throughout the narrative, addresses the cross directly: “O cross, do not be afraid! I am rich. I will fill you with my riches. I will climb on you, O cross, I will cling to you.”
It seems that the unknown author of this Gospel used earlier Christian texts as sources, including the Gospels of Matthew and especially John, but also the Book of Revelation. It is clear that the text was written in the 2nd century, although the Coptic manuscript containing it dates from the 6th or 7th century. The surviving manuscript was discovered in Egypt and acquired for the Berlin Museum’s papyrus collection in 1967. However, it remained unnoticed until the American scholar Paul Mirecki noticed it in 1991.