The Gnostic Gospels

Discussion in 'Other Christian Denominations' started by Jacob Dahlen, Mar 14, 2006.

  1. Jacob Dahlen

    Jacob Dahlen
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    Gnostic Gospels - Introduction
    The Gnostic gospels are a product of Gnosticism. Gnosticism, broadly construed, recognizes two deities: the Demiurge-flawed and wicked creator of a flawed and wicked material world-who is often equated with the God of the Old Testament; and the "good God," the Father of Jesus, who sent his Son to show humans the way of salvation from the corrupt material world. Salvation, under Gnosticism, does not require forgiveness of sins or necessarily entail any type of physical sacrament; it instead consists primarily of acquiring secret knowledge, or gnosis.1 Until the middle of the twentieth century, the primary access scholars had to Gnostic writings came through polemics written against them by church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. Despite the fervor that characterizes these anti-gnostic polemics, it appears, based on recent discoveries, that these church fathers were charitable in their treatments. The most heralded of these recent discoveries contains the Nag Hammadi collection of Coptic documents, "discovered by a happy accident" in Upper Egypt toward the end of 1945.2 This collection of documents sparked anew much scholarly discussion as to the relationship between Gnosticism and early Christianity, especially in terms of what sort of dependence relationships can be ascertained among their respective textual traditions. Despite recent popular and scholarly infatuation with the "gospels" of the Nag Hammadi collection, their textual inferiority demonstrates that they are not to be accorded the status reserved for the canonical gospels of the Bible.

    Gnostic Gospels - What Are They?
    To date, the Gnostic gospels are comprised of the following:

    The Gospel of Philip
    The Gospel of Philip appears to be, despite its name, actually a "collection of excerpts mainly from a Christian Gnostic sacramental catechesis."3 This judgment is based on its composition, an eccentric arrangement of a wide variety of literary types. Philip closely resembles orthodox catechisms of the second through fourth centuries, and was most likely translated into Coptic from a Greek text dating to the second half of the third century A.D. In contrast to The Gospel of Thomas (see below), Philip has not yet gained widespread notoriety.

    The Gospel of Truth
    If Philip is not a gospel in the traditional canonical sense, then neither is The Gospel of Truth precisely a gospel. Instead, it is more akin to a sermon, perhaps along the lines of the canonical letter to the Hebrews. Although somewhat scattered in its subject matter, it primarily alternates between doctrinal exposition and paraenesis (exhortation or warning of impending evil). Irenaeus appears to speak directly against this gospel, and by extension against those who "boast that they possess more Gospels than there really are. Indeed, they have arrived at such a pitch of audacity, as to entitle their comparatively recent writing 'the Gospel of Truth,' though it agrees in nothing with the Gospels of the Apostles, so that they have really no Gospel which is not full of blasphemy."4 If the Gnostic Truth is indeed the work referred to in Irenaeus, which is likely, then authorship can be estimated during the middle of the second century. Although the author himself remains a mystery, some have suggested the eminent Gnostic teacher of the early second century, Valentinus, whose teachings seem to match up favorably with the content of The Gospel of Truth.5

    The Gospel of the Egyptians6
    The Gospel of the Egyptians, while perhaps not as interesting as the texts mentioned earlier, is actually the work that most closely resembles the canonical gospels. This gospel is notable for its esoteric and mythological nature as it describes a Gnostic salvation history. A heavenly Seth, the son of Adamas, is portrayed as the father and savior of the human race, putting on the garment of Jesus for a time in order to effect the salvation of his children.7 Despite these similarities with the canonical gospels, this text has not sparked as much scholarly interest as have some of the other manuscripts included in the Nag Hammadi library, and as such will not be addressed in detail.
     
  2. Jacob Dahlen

    Jacob Dahlen
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    Gnostic Gospels - The Gospel of Thomas
    Although the Gnostic gospels considered up to this point are important and available for much fruitful research, by far the majority of the scholarly (and popular) energies have been directed toward The Gospel of Thomas. In one sense, the term "gospel" is misapplied here as well, for there is no narrative element to the loose collection of 114 sayings that constitute The Gospel of Thomas.8 In fact, "no collection of sayings of Jesus can properly be called a Gospel because by its nature it has no passion narrative," which is the "core of the essential gospel." 9

    Although introduced as "the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Judas Thomas the Twin recorded," this attribution to Thomas is most likely false.10 Thomas's loose structure makes it difficult to pinpoint a unifying theological theme, but it can be described as a gospel of wisdom, in which "Thomas' Jesus dispenses insight from the bubbling spring of wisdom (saying 13), discounts the value of prophecy and its fulfillment (saying 52), critiques end-of-the-world, apocalyptic announcements (sayings 51, 113), and offers a way of salvation through an encounter with the sayings of 'the living Jesus'." 11 If the sayings in Thomas and the other Gnostic gospels truly are authentic (as supposed by many scholars), and if the authentic sayings of Jesus truly are authoritative (as supposed by evangelical Christians around the world), then a problem arises. For clearly even these briefest of treatments of the Gnostic gospels are enough to show the sharp disagreement, even contradiction, between the Jesus of the canon and the Jesus of Nag Hammadi. In light of this difficulty, it seems appropriate to examine briefly the reliability of the canonical gospels, and then compare their status with that of the Gnostic gospels.

    Are the Gnostic Gospels Reliable?

    The Reliability of the New Testament GospelsTwo standards are useful in any evaluation of the reliability of biblical texts, particularly in the areas of manuscript transmission and preservation. These standards are genuineness, in this case referring to truth in authorship of a particular biblical text; and authenticity, referring to truth in content.12 Given the standards up to which the Bible holds itself, e.g., "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16 ESV), it is clear that for a book to be considered canonical, it must be both genuine and authentic. Space does not permit a full exploration of the claims for the reliability of the canonical gospels, but the reader is encouraged to consult one of the many useful texts that have been written on this topic (one example is A General Introduction to the Bible, by Geisler and Nix).

    Are the Gnostic Gospels Canonical? If it can be assumed that the canonical gospels are both genuine and authentic (and therefore reliable), a logical question to ask is whether the Gnostic gospels are themselves canonical. For if they are canonical, and if canonical gospels are reliable, then the Gnostic gospels are clearly reliable as well (setting aside for the moment the negative implications, as regards the consistency of the biblical record as a whole, that such a conclusion entails). Unfortunately, however, whatever one can say about their reliability, the Gnostic gospels far fall short of the canonical standard.

    Take, for example, The Gospel of Thomas. Since it is the most interesting-and seems to have been afforded the most privileged status among the so-called Gnostic gospels-an examination of Thomas's reliability (or lack thereof) should shed much light on the Gnostic gospels, and perhaps even the entire Nag Hammadi corpus. For example, if it can be shown that Thomas's credibility suffers from serious challenges, then there is reason to consider discounting, at least in terms of what is useful for faith and practice, most if not all of the other Gnostic works as well.

    Does, then, The Gospel of Thomas exhibit the primary earmark of inspiration, apostolic authority? It would seem that the answer must be in the negative. Despite all of the attention given to Thomas, the scholarly consensus seems to be that the attribution to Judas Thomas the Twin is almost certainly false. The first strike against apostolic authorship for Thomas is the late date of likely authorship. Scholars disagreeing with this assessment, at least one of whom is a well-documented advocate of Thomas,13 seem to think that the independent portions of Thomas (those which do not correspond directly to canonical material) point to a source earlier than that of the New Testament gospels-a text parallel to or predating the Q source.14 However, "the more obvious interpretation of the Nag Hammadi documents is that they are all typically syncretistic," and as such they are "wholly explainable in terms of what we now know about second- and third-century Gnosticism."15 It is therefore plausible that Thomas predates and informs the canonical gospels; but it is more likely that it incorporated bits and pieces from a wide range of religious influences.

    Further evidence of false attribution shows up even in the most enthusiastic students of Thomas. One scholar, when discussing genuineness, does not attempt to make arguments for apostolic authorship of Thomas, but instead tries to equate it with the canonical gospels by discrediting their origin. For if in fact "few [scholars] today believe that contemporaries of Jesus actually wrote the New Testament gospels," and "we only know that these writings are attributed to apostles … or followers of the apostles," then to say that "Gnostic authors, in the same way, attributed their secret writings to various disciples" does no damage to the authority of the Gnostic gospels.16 However, as has been shown, there is little reason for such skepticism as to the origin of the canonical gospels. Therefore The Gospel of Thomas, despite scholars' best attempts to equate them with the canonical gospels, has nowhere near the claim to authority enjoyed by the latter.
     
  3. Jacob Dahlen

    Jacob Dahlen
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    Are the Gnostic Gospels useful?
    Since The Gospel of Thomas, and by extension the other Gnostic gospels, is clearly not canonical, the conscientious Christian might next wonder what sort of status the Gnostic gospels should be afforded by the church body. Are they, like apocryphal books such as the Shepherd of Hermas, useful for ethical and devotional purposes? In light of the obvious conflict seen in any substantive comparison between the scattered sayings found in the Gnostic gospels and the consistent themes of the Jesus' teaching in the New Testament gospels, it is doubtful that much use can be found in the former. Two examples should suffice to illustrate the nature of these conflicts. First, the final saying in The Gospel of Thomas is decidedly misogynistic:

    Simon Peter said to them, "Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life."

    Jesus said, "Look, I shall guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter heaven's kingdom."

    Compare this with Jesus' frequent and respectful interactions with women of his time, such as the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:6-26), and it is clear that this is an irreconcilable different in teaching. Similarly bizarre teachings are found in The Gospel of Philip, in which Jesus is said to have "[loved] her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]."17 This Gnostic gospel dates to a time much later than even the latest estimates for the canonical gospels, and simply does not match up with the picture of Jesus found in the latter-ample reason to reject Philip as spurious.18

    Gnostic Gospels - The Conclusion
    Even such a brief examination of popular scholarly opinion regarding both the Gnostic gospels and the New Testament gospels reveals somewhat of a double standard. It appears that in the case of canonical gospels, especially that of John, authorship and integrity are granted grudgingly if at all. Variation in literary style or selectivity in historical information is assumed to preclude any possibility of reliability. On the other hand, gospels such as those discovered at Nag Hammadi-more recent, less well-attested, less internally consistent Gnostic gospels-are treated with the utmost charity. Pseudepigraphal attributions do no damage to credibility, and any conflict with canonical literature is understood to reveal an earlier, more authentic source. A fair treatment of these issues has hopefully provided readers with every reason to believe that the Scriptures they hold in their hands completely constitute God's special revelation.
     
  4. Jacob Dahlen

    Jacob Dahlen
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    Gnostic Gospels - The Endnotes

    1. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (1998), s.v. "Gnostics, Gnosticism."
    2. F.F. Bruce, Jesus & Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1974), 111.
    3. Wesley W. Isenberg, "Introduction: The Gospel of Philip," in The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James M. Robinson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 141.
    4. Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.11.9.
    5. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (1998), s.v. "Valentinus, Valentinians."
    6. This text is not to be confused with the apocryphal Gospel of the Egyptians cited in Clement and other Patristic fathers.
    7. Alexander Böhlig and Frederik Wisse, "Introduction: The Gospel of the Egyptians," in The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James M. Robinson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 208.
    8. Helmut Koester, "Introduction: The Gospel of Thomas," in The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James M. Robinson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), 124.
    9. Bruce, 155.
    10. Meyer, Gospel of Thomas, 23.
    11. Ibid., 10.
    12. Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 343.
    13. Tom Thatcher, "Early Christianities and the Synoptic Eclipse: Problems in Situating the Gospel of Thomas," Biblical Interpretation 7 (July 1999): 326-327.
    14. Koester, 125.
    15. James D.G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1985), 98.
    16. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), 17.
    17. Ibid., xv, quoting Robinson, 148.
    18. Isenberg, 141.
     
  5. nate

    nate
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    Wow we agree on something. I was afraid that the Orthodox church accepted the Gnostic gospels when you first posted. Good points and I heartily concur.
     
  6. Matt Black

    Matt Black
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    Ditto. St Irenaeus is of course a fount of knowledge about gnosticism, but the 'Gospels' themselves also shed interesting light on this heresy.
     
  7. tragic_pizza

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    Of interest is the fact that, though the Gospel of Thomas is obviously Gnostic, not a few New Testament scholars opine that it, and the elusive "Q," were the bases for the Synoptics.

    Thus New Testament studies are a process of separating wheat from chaff...
     

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