Apostle Paul Founder of Christianity
Gnosticism and the Gnostic Jesus
by Douglas Groothuis
From the Christian
Fall 1990, page 8.
The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
often comes from obscure sources. Many conceptions about Jesus now
current and credible in New Age circles are rooted in a movement of
spiritual protest which, until recently, was the concern only of the
specialized scholar or the occultist.
This ancient movement -- Gnosticism -- provides much of the form and color for the New Age portrait of Jesus as the illumined Illuminator: one who serves as a cosmic catalyst for others' awakening.
Many essentially Gnostic notions received wide attention through the sagacious persona of the recently deceased Joseph Campbell in the television series and best-selling book, The Power of Myth.
For example, in discussing the idea that "God was in Christ," Campbell affirmed that "the basic Gnostic and Buddhist idea is that is true of you and me as well."
Jesus is an enlightened example who "realized in himself that he and what he called the Father were one, and he lived out of that knowledge of the Christhood of his nature." According to Campbell, anyone can likewise live out his or her Christ nature.
Gnosticism has come to mean just about anything. Calling someone a Gnostic can make the person either blush, beam, or fume. Whether used as an epithet for heresy or spiritual snobbery, or as a compliment for spiritual knowledge and esotericism, Gnosticism remains a cornucopia of controversy.
This is doubly so when Gnosticism is brought into a discussion of Jesus of Nazareth. Begin to speak of "Christian Gnostics" and some will exclaim, "No way! That is a contradiction in terms. Heresy is not orthodoxy." Others will affirm, "No contradiction. Orthodoxy is the heresy.
The Gnostics were edged out of mainstream Christianity for political purposes
by the end of the third century." Speak of the Gnostic Christ or the Gnostic gospels, and an ancient debate is moved to the theological front burner.
Gnosticism as a philosophy refers to a related body of teachings that stress the acquisition of "gnosis," or inner knowledge. The knowledge sought is not strictly intellectual, but mystical; not merely a detached knowledge of or about something, but a knowing by acquaintance or participation.
This gnosis is the inner and esoteric mystical knowledge of ultimate reality. It
discloses the spark of divinity within, thought to be obscured by ignorance, convention, and mere esoteric religiosity.
This knowledge is not considered to be the possession of the masses but of the Gnostics, the Knowers, who are privy to its benefits. While the orthodox "many" exult in the esoteric religious trappings which stress dogmatic belief and prescribed behavior, the Gnostic "few" pierce through the surface to the esoteric spiritual knowledge of God.
The Gnostics claim the Orthodox mistake the shell for the core; the Orthodox claim the Gnostics dive past the true core into a nonexistent one of their own esoteric invention.
To adjudicate this ancient acrimony requires that we examine Gnosticism's perennial allure, expose its philosophical foundations, size up its historical claims, and square off the Gnostic Jesus with the figure who sustains the New Testament.
aeons: Emanations of Being from the unknowable, ultimate metaphysical principle or pleroma (see pleroma).
Apostolic rule of faith: The essential teachings of the apostles that served as the authoritative standard for orthodox doctrine before the canonization of the New Testament.
Demiurge: According to the Gnostics (as opposed to Plato and others who had a more positive assessment), an inferior deity who ignorantly and incompetently fashioned the debased physical world.
esotericism: The teaching that spiritual liberation is found in a secret or hidden knowledge (sometimes called gnosis) not available in traditional orthodoxy or esotericism.
esotericism: A pejorative term used by esotericists to describe the mere outer or popular understanding of spiritual truth which is supposedly inferior to the esoteric essence.
gnosis: The Greek word for "knowledge" used by the Gnostics to mean knowledge gained not through intellectual discovery but through personal experience or acquaintance which initiates one into esoteric mysteries.
The experience of gnosis reveals to the initiated the divine spark within. "Gnosis" has a very different meaning in the New Testament which excludes esotericism and self-deification.
Pleroma: The Greek word for "fullness" used by the Gnostics to mean the highest principle of Being where dwells the unknown and unknowable God. Used in the New Testament to refer to "fullness in Christ" (Col. 2:10) who is the known revelation of God in the flesh.
Gnosticism is experiencing something of a revival, despite
its status within church history as a vanquished Christian
heresy. The magazine Gnosis, which bills itself as a "journal
of western inner traditions," began publication in 1985 with a
circulation of 2,500.
As of September 1990, it sported a circulation of 11,000. Gnosis regularly runs articles on Gnosticism and Gnostic themes such as "Valentinus: A Gnostic for All Seasons."
Some have created institutional forms of this ancient religion.
In Palo Alto, California, priestess Bishop Rosamonde Miller officiates the weekly gatherings of Ecclesia Gnostica Myteriorum (Church of Gnostic Mysteries), as she has done for the last eleven years.
The chapel holds forty to sixty participants each Sunday and includes Gnostic readings in its liturgy. Miller says she knows of twelve organizationally unrelated Gnostic churches throughout the world.
Stephan Hoeller, a frequent contributor to Gnosis, who since 1967 has been a bishop of Ecclesia Gnostica in Los Angeles, notes that "Gnostic churches...have sprung up in recent years in increasing numbers."
He refers to an established tradition of "wandering bishops" who retain allegiance to the symbolic and ritual form of orthodox Christianity while reinterpreting its essential content.
Of course, these exotic-sounding enclaves of the esoteric are minuscule when compared to historic Christian denominations. But the real challenge of Gnosticism is not so much organizational as intellectual. Gnosticism in its various forms has often appealed to the alienated intellectuals who yearn for spiritual experience outside the bounds of the ordinary.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, a constant source of inspiration for the New Age, did much to introduce Gnosticism to the modern world by viewing it as a kind of proto-depth psychology, a key to psychological interpretation. According to Stephan Hoeller, author of The Gnostic Jung,
"it was Jung's contention that Christianity and Western culture have
suffered grievously because of the repression of the Gnostic approach to religion, and it was his hope that in time this approach would be reincorporated in our culture, our Western spirituality."
In his Psychological Types, Jung praised "the intellectual content of Gnosis" as "vastly superior" to the orthodox church. He also affirmed that, "in light of our present mental development [Gnosticism] has not lost but considerably gained in value."
A variety of esoteric groups have roots in Gnostic soil. Madame Helena P. Blavatsky, who founded Theosophy in 1875, viewed the Gnostics as precursors of modern occult movements and hailed them for preserving an inner teaching lost to orthodoxy.
Theosophy and its various spin-offs -- such as Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy, Alice Bailey's Arcane School, Guy and Edna Ballard's I Am movement, and Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant -- all draw water from this same well; so do various other esoteric groups, such as the Rosicrucians.
These groups share an emphasis on esoteric teaching, the hidden divinity of humanity, and contact with nonmaterial higher beings called masters or adepts.
A four-part documentary called "The Gnostics" was released in mid-1989 and shown in one-day screenings across the country along with a lecture by the producer. This ambitious series charted the history of Gnosticism through dramatizations and interviews with world-renowned scholars on Gnosticism such as Gilles Quispel, Hans Jonas, and Elaine Pagels.
A review of the series in a New Age-oriented journal noted: "The series takes us to the Nag Hammadi find where we learn the beginnings of the discovery of texts called the Gnostic Gospels that were written around the same time as the gospels of the New Testament but which were purposely left out."
The review refers to one of the most sensational and significant archaeological finds of the twentieth century; a discovery seen by some as overthrowing the orthodox view of Jesus and Christianity forever.
GOLD IN THE JAR
In December 1945, while
digging for soil to fertilize crops, an Arab peasant named Muhammad
'Ali found a red earthenware jar near Nag Hammadi, a city in upper
Egypt. His fear of uncorking an evil spirit or jin was shortly
overcome by the hope of finding gold within.
What was found has been for hundreds of scholars far more precious than gold. Inside the jar were thirteen leather-bound papyrus books (codices), dating from approximately A.D. 350.
Although several of the texts were burned or thrown out, fifty-two texts were eventually recovered through many years of intrigue involving illegal sales, violence, smuggling, and academic rivalry.
Some of the texts were first published singly or in small collections, but the complete collection was not made available in a popular format in English until 1977. It was released as The Nag Hammadi Library and was reissued in revised form in 1988.
Although many of these documents had been referred to and denounced in the writings of early church theologians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, most of the texts themselves had been thought to be extinct. Now many of them have come to light.
As Elaine Pagels put it in her best-selling book, The Gnostic Gospels, "Now for the first time, we have the opportunity to find out about the earliest Christian heresy; for the first time, the heretics can speak for themselves."
Pagels' book, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, arguably did more than any other effort to ingratiate the Gnostics to modern Americans. She made them accessible and even likeable. Her scholarly expertise coupled with her ability to relate an ancient religion to contemporary concerns made for a compelling combination in the minds of many.
Her central thesis was simple: Gnosticism should be considered at least as legitimate as orthodox Christianity because the "heresy" was simply a competing strain of early Christianity.
Yet, we find that the Nag Hammadi texts present a Jesus at extreme odds with the one found in the Gospels. Before contrasting the Gnostic and biblical renditions of Jesus, however, we need a short briefing on gnosis.
THE GNOSTIC MESSAGE
Gnosticism in general and the Nag Hammadi texts in
particular present a spectrum of beliefs, although a central
philosophical core is roughly discernible, which Gnosticism scholar
Kurt Rudolph calls "the central myth." Gnosticism teaches that
something is desperately wrong with the universe and then delineates
the means to explain and rectify the situation.
The universe, as presently constituted, is not good, nor was it created by an all-good God. Rather, a lesser god, or Demiurge (as he is sometimes called), fashioned the world in ignorance. The Gospel of Philip says that "the world came about through a mistake.
For he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal. He fell short of attaining his desire." The origin of the Demiurge or offending creator is variously explained, but the upshot is that some pre-cosmic disruption in the chain of beings emanating from the unknowable Father-God resulted in the "fall out" of a substandard deity with less than impeccable credentials.
The result was a material cosmos soaked with ignorance, pain, decay, and death -- a botched job, to be sure. This deity, nevertheless, despotically demands worship and even pretentiously proclaims his supremacy as the one true God.
This creator-god is not the ultimate reality, but rather a degeneration of the unknown and unknowable fullness of Being (or pleroma).
Yet, human beings -- or at least some of them -- are in the position potentially to transcend their imposed limitations, even if the cosmic deck is stacked against them.
Locked within the material shell of the human race is the spark of this highest spiritual reality which (as one Gnostic theory held) the inept creator accidentally infused into humanity at the creation -- on the order of a drunken jeweler who accidentally mixes gold dust into junk metal. Simply put, spirit is good and desirable; matter is evil and detestable.
If this spark is fanned into a flame, it can liberate humans from the maddening matrix of matter and the demands of its obtuse originator. What has devolved from perfection can ultimately evolve back into perfection through a process of self-discovery.
Into this basic structure enters the idea of Jesus as a Redeemer of those ensconced in materiality. He comes as one descended from the spiritual realm with a message of self-redemption.
The body of Gnostic literature, which is wider than the Nag Hammadi texts, presents various views of this Redeemer figure.
There are, in fact, differing schools of Gnosticism with differing Christologies. Nevertheless, a basic image emerges.
The Christ comes from the higher levels of intermediary beings (called aeons) not as a sacrifice for sin but as a Revealer, an emissary from error-free environs.
He is not the personal agent of the creator-god revealed in the Old Testament. (That metaphysically disheveled deity is what got the universe into such a royal mess in the first place.)
Rather, Jesus has descended from a more exalted level to be a catalyst for igniting the gnosis latent within the ignorant. He gives a metaphysical assist to underachieving deities (i.e., humans) rather than granting ethical restoration to God's erring creatures through the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
NAG HAMMADI UNVEILED
By inspecting a
few of the Nag Hammadi texts, we encounter Gnosticism in Christian
guise: Jesus dispenses gnosis to awaken those trapped in ignorance;
the body is a prison, and the spirit alone is good; and salvation
comes by discovering the "kingdom of God" within the self.
One of the first Nag Hammadi texts to be extricated out of Egypt and translated into Western tongues was the Gospel of Thomas, comprised of one hundred and fourteen alleged sayings of Jesus.
Although scholars do not believe it was actually written by the apostle Thomas, it has received the lion's share of scholarly attention.
The sayings of Jesus are given minimal
narrative setting, are not thematically arranged, and have a cryptic, epigrammatic bite to them. Although Thomas does not articulate every aspect of a full-blown Gnostic system, some of the teachings attributed to Jesus fit the Gnostic pattern. (Other sayings closely parallel or duplicate material found in the synoptic Gospels.)
The text begins: "These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down. And he said, 'Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.'" Already we find the emphasis on secret knowledge (gnosis) as redemptive.
JESUS AND GNOSIS
Unlike the canonical gospels, Jesus' crucifixion
and resurrection are not narrated and neither do any of the hundred
and fourteen sayings in the Gospel of Thomas directly refer to these
events. Thomas's Jesus is a dispenser of wisdom, not the crucified
and resurrected Lord.
Jesus speaks of the kingdom: "The kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty."
Other Gnostic documents center on the same theme. In the Book of Thomas the Contender, Jesus speaks "secret words" concerning self-knowledge: "For he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge of the depth of the all."
Pagels observes that many of the Gnostics "shared certain affinities with contemporary methods of exploring the self through psychotherapeutic techniques." This includes the premises that, first, many people are unconscious of their true condition and, second, "that the psyche bears within itself the potential for liberation or destruction."
Gilles Quispel notes that for Valentinus, a Gnostic teacher of the second century, Christ is "the Paraclete from the Unknown who reveals...the discovery of the Self -- the divine spark within you."
The heart of the human problem for the Gnostic is ignorance, sometimes called "sleep," "intoxication," or "blindness." But Jesus redeems man from such ignorance.
Stephan Hoeller says that in the Valentinian system "there is no need whatsoever for guilt, for repentance from so-called sin, neither is there a need for a blind belief in vicarious salvation by way of the death of Jesus."
Rather, Jesus is savior in the sense of being a "spiritual maker of wholeness" who cures us of our sickness of ignorance.
Gnosticism on Crucifixion and Resurrection
Gnostic texts that discuss Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection
display a variety of views that, nevertheless, reveal some common
James is consoled by Jesus in the First Apocalypse of James: "Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And this people has done me no harm."
In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus says, "I did not die in reality, but in appearance."
Those "in error and blindness....saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was rejoicing in the height over all....And I was laughing at their ignorance."
John Dart has discerned that the Gnostic stories of Jesus mocking his executors reverse the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke where the soldiers and chief priests (Mark 15:20) mock Jesus.
In the biblical Gospels, Jesus does not deride or mock His tormentors; on the contrary, while suffering from the cross, He asks the Father to forgive those who nailed
In the teaching of Valentinus and followers, the death of Jesus is movingly recounted, yet without the New Testament significance. Although the Gospel of Truth says that "his death is life for many," it views this life-giving in terms of imparting the gnosis, not removing sin.
Pagels says that rather than viewing Christ's death as a sacrificial offering to atone for guilt and sin, the Gospel of Truth "sees the crucifixion as the occasion for discovering the divine self within."
A resurrection is enthusiastically affirmed in the Treatise on the Resurrection: "Do not think the resurrection is an illusion. It is no illusion, but it is truth! Indeed, it is more fitting to say that the world is an illusion rather than the resurrection."
Yet, the nature of the post-resurrection appearances differs from the biblical accounts. Jesus is disclosed through spiritual visions rather than physical circumstances.
The resurrected Jesus for the Gnostics is the spiritual Revealer who imparts secret wisdom to the selected few. The tone and content of Luke's account of Jesus' resurrection appearances is a great distance from Gnostic accounts: "After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.
He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3).
By now it should be apparent that the biblical Jesus has little in common with the Gnostic Jesus.
He is viewed as a Redeemer in both cases, yet his nature as a Redeemer and the way of redemption diverge at crucial points. We shall now examine some of these points.
DID CHRIST REALLY SUFFER AND DIE?
As in much modern
New Age teaching, the Gnostics tended to divide Jesus from the
Christ. For Valentinus, Christ descended on Jesus at his baptism and
left before his death on the cross.
Much of the burden of the treatise Against Heresies, written by the early Christian theologian Irenaeus, was to affirm that Jesus was, is, and always will be, the Christ.
He says: "The Gospel...knew no other son of man but Him who was of Mary, who also suffered; and no Christ who flew away from Jesus before the passion; but Him who was born it knew as Jesus Christ the Son of God, and that this same suffered and rose again."
Irenaeus goes on to quote John's affirmation that "Jesus is the Christ" (John 20:31) against the notion that Jesus and Christ were "formed of two different substances," as the Gnostics taught.
In dealing with the idea that Christ did not suffer on the cross for sin, Irenaeus argues that Christ never would have exhorted His disciples to take up the cross if He in fact was not to suffer on it Himself, but fly away from it.
For Irenaeus (a disciple of Polycarp, who himself was a disciple of the apostle John), the suffering of Jesus the Christ was paramount. It was indispensable to the apostolic "rule of faith" that Jesus Christ suffered on the cross to bring salvation to His people.
In Irenaeus's mind, there was no divine spark in the human heart to rekindle; self-knowledge was not equal to God-knowledge. Rather, humans were stuck in sin and required a radical rescue operation.
Because "it was not possible that the man...who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself," the Son brought salvation by "descending from the Father, becoming incarnate, stooping low, even to death, and consummating the arranged plan of our salvation."
This harmonizes with the words of Polycarp: "Let us then continually persevere in our hope and the earnest of our righteousness, which Jesus Christ, "who bore our sins in His own body on the tree" [1 Pet. 2:24], "who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth" [1 Pet. 2:22], but endured all things for us, that we might live in Him."
Polycarp's mentor, the apostle John, said: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us" (1 John 3:16); and "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (4:10).
The Gnostic Jesus is predominantly a dispenser of cosmic wisdom who discourses on abstruse themes like the spirit's fall into matter. Jesus Christ certainly taught theology, but he dealt with the problem of pain and suffering in a far different way. He suffered for us, rather than escaping the cross or lecturing on the vanity of the body.
THE MATTER OF THE RESURRECTION
For Gnosticism, the inherent problem of humanity derives
from the misuse of power by the ignorant creator and the resulting
entrapment of souls in matter.
The Gnostic Jesus alerts us to this and helps rekindle the divine spark within. In the biblical teaching, the problem is ethical; humans have sinned against a good Creator and are guilty before the throne of the
For Gnosticism, the world is bad, but the soul -- when freed from its entrapments -- is good. For Christianity, the world was created good (Gen. 1), but humans have fallen from innocence and purity through disobedience (Gen. 3; Rom. 3).
Yet, the message of the gospel is that the One who can rightly prosecute His creatures as guilty and worthy of punishment has
deigned to visit them in the person of His only Son -- not just to write up a firsthand damage report, but to rectify the situation through the Cross and the Resurrection.
In light of these differences, the significance of Jesus' literal and physical resurrection should be clear.
For the Gnostic who abhors matter and seeks release from its grim grip, the physical resurrection of Jesus would be anticlimactic, if not absurd. A material resurrection would be counterproductive and only recapitulate the original problem.
Jesus displays a positive attitude toward the Creation throughout the Gospels. In telling His followers not to worry He says, "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them" (Matt. 2:26).
And, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of
your Father" (Matt. 10:29). These and many other examples presuppose the goodness of the material world and declare care by a benevolent Creator. Gnostic dualism is precluded.
If Jesus recommends fasting and physical self-denial on occasion, it is not because matter is unworthy of attention or an incorrigible roadblock to spiritual growth, but because moral and spiritual resolve may be strengthened through periodic abstinence (Matt. 6:16-18; 9:14-15). Jesus fasts in the desert and feasts with His disciples.
The created world is good, but the human heart is corrupt and inclines to selfishly misuse a good creation. Therefore, it is sometimes wise to deny what is good without in order to inspect and mortify what is bad within.
If Jesus is the Christ who comes to restore God's creation, He must come as one of its own, a bona fide man. Although Gnostic teachings show some diversity on this subject, they tend toward Docetism -- the doctrine that the descent of the Christ was spiritual and not material, despite any appearance of materiality. It was even claimed that Jesus left no footprints behind him when he walked on the sand.
From a biblical view, materiality is not the problem, but disharmony with the Maker. Adam and Eve were both material and in harmony with their good Maker before they succumbed to the Serpent's temptation.
Yet, in biblical reasoning, if Jesus is to conquer sin and death for humanity, He must rise from the dead in a physical body, albeit a transformed one.
A mere spiritual apparition would mean an abdication of material responsibility. As Norman Geisler has noted, "Humans sin and die in material bodies and they must be redeemed in the same physical bodies.
Any other kind of deliverance would be an admission of defeat....If redemption does not restore God's physical creation, including our material bodies, then God's original purpose in creating a material world would be frustrated."
For this reason, at Pentecost the apostle Peter preached Jesus of Nazareth as "a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs" (Acts 2:22) who, though put to death by being nailed to the cross, "God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him" (v. 24).
Peter then quotes Psalm 16:10 which speaks of God not letting His "Holy One see decay" (v. 27). Peter says of David, the psalm's author, "Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave nor did his body see decay. God raised Jesus to life" (vv. 31, 32).
The apostle Paul confesses that if the resurrection of Jesus is not a historical fact, Christianity is a vanity of vanities (1 Cor. 15:14-19). And, while he speaks of Jesus' (and the believers') resurrected condition as a "spiritual body," this does not mean nonphysical or ethereal; rather, it refers to a body totally free from the results of sin and the Fall.
It is a spirit-driven body, untouched by any of the entropies of evil. Because Jesus was resurrected bodily, those who know Him as Lord can anticipate their own resurrected bodies.
JESUS, JUDAISM, AND GNOSIS
The Gnostic Jesus is also
divided from the Jesus of the Gospels over his relationship to
Judaism. For Gnostics, the God of the Old Testament is somewhat of a
cosmic clown, neither ultimate nor good.
In fact, many Gnostic documents invert the meaning of Old Testament stories in order to ridicule him.
For instance, the serpent and Eve are heroic figures who oppose the dull deity in the Hypostasis of the Archons (the Reality of the Rulers) and in On the Origin of the World.
In the Apocryphon of John, Jesus says he encouraged Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thus putting Jesus diametrically at odds with the meaning of the Genesis account where this action is seen as the essence of sin (Gen. 3).
The same anti-Jewish element is found in the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas where the disciples say to Jesus, "Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel, and all of them spoke in you." To which Jesus replies, "You have omitted the one living in your presence and have spoken (only) of the dead." Jesus thus dismisses all the prophets as merely "dead." For the Gnostics, the Creator must be separated from the Redeemer.
The Jesus found in the New Testament quotes the prophets, claims to fulfill their prophecies, and consistently argues according to the Old Testament revelation, despite the fact that He exudes an authority equal to it. Jesus says, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17).
He corrects the Sadducees' misunderstanding of the afterlife by saying, "Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures..." (Mark 12:24). To other critics He again appeals to the Old Testament: "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me" (John 5:39).
When Jesus appeared after His death and burial to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, He commented on their slowness of heart "to believe all that the prophets have spoken." He asked, "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter into glory?" Luke then records, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself" (Luke 24:25-27).
For both Jesus and the Old Testament, the supreme Creator is the Father of all living. They are one and the same.
GOD: UNKNOWABLE OR KNOWABLE?
Gnostic treatises speak of the ultimate reality or godhead as beyond
conceptual apprehension. Any hope of contacting this reality -- a
spark of which is lodged within the Gnostic -- must be filtered
through numerous intermediary beings of a lesser stature than the
In the Gospel of the Egyptians, the ultimate reality is said to be the "unrevealable, unmarked, ageless, unproclaimable Father." Three powers are said to emanate from Him: "They are the Father, the Mother, (and) the Son, from the living silence."
The text speaks of giving praise to "the great invisible Spirit" who is "the silence of silent silence." In the
Sophia of Jesus Christ, Jesus is asked by Matthew, "Lord...teach us the truth," to which Jesus says, "He Who Is is ineffable."
Although Jesus seems to indicate that he reveals the ineffable, he says concerning the ultimate, "He is unnameable....he is ever incomprehensible."
At this point the divide between the New Testament and the Gnostic documents couldn't be deeper or wider. Although the biblical Jesus had the pedagogical tact not to proclaim indiscriminately, "I am God! I am God!" the entire contour of His ministry points to Him as God in the flesh.
He says, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). The prologue to John's gospel says that "in the beginning was the Word (Logos)" and that "the Word was with God and was God" (John 1:1). John did not say, "In the beginning was the silence of the silent silence" or "the ineffable."
Incarnation means tangible and intelligible revelation from God to humanity. The Creator's truth and life are communicated spiritually through the medium of matter. "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling place among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
The Word that became flesh "has made Him [the Father] known" (v. 19). John's first epistle tells us: "The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard..." (1 John 1:2-3).
Irenaeus encountered these Gnostic invocations of the ineffable. He quotes a Valentinian Gnostic teacher who explained the "primary Tetrad" (fourfold emanation from ultimate reality): "There is a certain Proarch who existed before all things, surpassing all thought, speech, and nomenclature" whom he called "Monotes" (unity).
Along with this power there is another power called Hentotes (oneness) who, along with Monotes produced "an intelligent, unbegotten, and undivided being, which beginning language terms 'Monad.'"
Another entity called Hen (One) rounds out the primal union. Irenaeus satirically responds with his own suggested Tetrad which also proceeds from "a certain Proarch":
But along with it there exists a power which I term Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness.
This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced...a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon.
Irenaeus's point is well taken. If spiritual realities surpass our ability to name or even think about them, then any name under the sun (or within the Tetrad) is just as appropriate -- or inappropriate -- as any other, and we are free to affirm with Irenaeus that "these powers of the Gourd, Utter Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining
multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus."
Whenever a Gnostic writer -- ancient or modern -- simultaneously asserts that a spiritual entity or principle is utterly unknown and unnameable and begins to give it names and ascribe to it characteristics, we should hark back to Irenaeus. If something is ineffable, it is necessarily unthinkable, unreportable, and unapproachable.
ANCIENT GNOSTICISM AND MODERN THOUGHT
Modern day Gnostics, Neo-Gnostics, or Gnostic
sympathizers should be aware of some Gnostic elements which
decidedly clash with modern tastes.
First, although Pagels, like Jung, has shown the Gnostics in a positive psychological light, the Gnostic outlook is just as much theological and cosmological as it is psychological.
The Gnostic message is all of a
piece, and the psychology should not be artificially divorced from the overall world view. In other words, Gnosticism should not be reduced to psychology -- as if we know better what a Basilides or a Valentinus really meant than they did.
The Gnostic documents do not present their system as a crypto-psychology (with various cosmic forces representing psychic functions), but as a religious and theological explanation of the origin and operation of the universe.
Those who want to adopt consistently Gnostic attitudes and assumptions should keep in mind what the Gnostic texts -- to which they appeal for authority and credibility -- actually say.
Second, the Gnostic rejection of matter as illusory, evil, or, at most, second-best, is at odds with many New Age sentiments regarding the value of nature and the need for an ecological awareness and ethic.
Trying to find an ecological concern in the Gnostic corpus is on the order of harvesting wheat in Antarctica.
For the Gnostics, as Gnostic scholar Pheme Perkins puts it, "most of the cosmos that we know is a carefully constructed plot to keep humanity from returning to its true divine home."
Third, Pagels and others to the contrary, the Gnostic attitude toward women was not proto-feminist. Gnostic groups did sometimes allow for women's participation in religious activities and several of the emanational beings were seen as feminine.
Nevertheless, even though Ms. Magazine gave The Gnostic Gospels a glowing review, women fare far worse in Gnosticism than many think. The concluding saying from the Gospel of Thomas, for example, has less than a feminist ring:
Simon Peter said to them, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."
The issue of the role of women in Gnostic theology and community cannot be adequately addressed here, but it should be noted that the Jesus of the Gospels never spoke of making the female into the male -- no doubt because Jesus did not perceive the female to be inferior to the male.
Going against social customs, He gathered women followers, and revealed to an outcast Samaritan woman that He was the Messiah -- which scandalized His own disciples (John 4:1-39).
The Gospels also record women as the first witnesses to Jesus' resurrection (Matt. 28:1-10) -- and this in a society where women were not considered qualified to be legal witnesses.
Fourth, despite an emphasis on reincarnation, several Gnostic documents speak of the damnation of those who are incorrigibly non-Gnostic, particularly apostates from Gnostic groups.
If one chafes at the Jesus of the Gospels warning of "eternal destruction," chafings are likewise readily available from Gnostic doomsayers.
Concerning the Gnostic-Orthodox controversy, biblical scholar F. F. Bruce is so bold as to say that "there is no reason why the student of the conflict should shrink from making a value judgment: the Gnostic schools lost because they deserved to lose."
The Gnostics lost once, but do they deserve to lose again? We will seek to answer this in Part Two as we
consider the historic reliability of the Gnostic (Nag Hammadi) texts versus that of the New Testament.
1 Joseph Campbell, The
Power of Myth, ed. Betty Sue Flowers (New York: Doubleday, 1988),
2 Don Lattin, "Rediscovery of Gnostic Christianity," San Francisco Chronicle, 1 April 1989, A-4-5.
3 Stephan A. Hoeller, "Wandering Bishops," Gnosis, Summer 1989, 24.
5 "The Gnostic Jung: An Interview with Stephan Hoeller," The Quest, Summer 1989, 85.
6 C. G. Jung, Psychological Types (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 11.
7 "Gnosticism," Critique, June-Sept. 1989, 66.
8 Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), xxxv.
9 Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 57f.
10 James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 154.
11 Robinson, 126.
12 F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 112-13.
13 Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1987), 403.
14 Pagels, 124.
15 Ibid., 126.
16 Christopher Farmer, "An Interview with Gilles Quispel," Gnosis, Summer 1989, 28.
17 Stephan A. Hoeller, "Valentinus: A Gnostic for All Seasons," Gnosis, Fall/Winter 1985, 24.
18 Ibid., 25.
19 Robinson, 265.
20 Ibid., 365.
21 John Dart, The Jesus of History and Heresy (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 97.
22 Robinson, 41.
23 Pagels, 95.
24 Robinson, 56.
25 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.16.5.
27 Ibid., 3.18.5.
28 Ibid., 3.18.2.
29 "The Epistle of Polycarp," ch. 8, in The Apostolic Fathers, ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 35.
30 Norman L. Geisler, "I Believe...In the Resurrection of the Flesh," Christian Research Journal, Summer 1989,
31 See Dart, 60-74.
32 Robinson, 117.
33 Ibid., 132.
34 Ibid., 209.
35 Ibid., 210.
36 Ibid., 224-25.
37 Irenaeus, 1.11.3.
38 Ibid., 1.11.4.
40 Pheme Perkins, "Popularizing the Past," Commonweal, November 1979, 634.
41 Kenneth Pitchford, "The Good News About God," Ms. Magazine, April 1980, 32-35.
42 Robinson, 138.
43 See The Book of Thomas the Contender, in Robinson, 205.
44 See Layton, 17.
45 F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 277.
End of document, CRJ0040A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"Gnosticism And The Gnostic Jesus"
release A, March 21, 1994
R. Poll, CRI
A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.
Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute.
This data file is the sole property of the Christian Research Institute. It may not be altered or edited in any way. It may be reproduced only in its
entirety for circulation as "freeware," without charge. All reproductions of this data file must contain the copyright notice (i.e., "Copyright 1994
by the Christian Research Institute"). This data file may not be used without the permission of the Christian Research Institute for resale or the
enhancement of any other product sold. This includes all of its content with the exception of a few brief quotations not to exceed more than 500
If you desire to reproduce less than 500 words of this data file for resale or the enhancement of any other product for resale, please give the
following source credit: Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box 7000, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688-7000.
The Gnostic Gospels: Part Two
Are They Authentic?
by Douglas Groothuis
from the Christian Research Journal, Winter 1991, page 15. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
In the first installment of this two-part series, I outlined the stark contrasts between the gnostic Jesus and "the Word become flesh." These respective views of Jesus are lodged within mutually exclusive world views concerning claims about God, the universe, humanity, and salvation. But our next line of inquiry is to be historical. Do we have a clue as to what Jesus, the Man from Nazareth, actually did and said as a player in space-time history? Should such gnostic documents as the Gospel of Thomas capture our attention as a reliable report of the mind of Jesus, or does the Son of Man of the biblical Gospels speak with the authentic voice? Or must we remain in utter agnosticism about the historical Jesus?
aeons: Emanations of Being from the unknowable, ultimate metaphysical principle or pleroma (see pleroma).
Nag Hammadi collection: A group of ancient documents dating from approximately A.D. 350, predominantly Gnostic in character, which were discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945.
pleroma: The Greek word for "fullness" used by the Gnostics to mean the highest principle of Being where dwells the unknown and unknowable God. Used in the New Testament to refer to "fullness in Christ" (Col. 2:10) who is the known revelation of God in the flesh.
pseudepigrapha: Ancient documents which falsely claim authorship
by noteworthy individuals for the sake of credibility; for instance,
the Gospel of Thomas.
syncretism: The teaching that various religious truth-claims can be synthesized into one basic, underlying unity.
Valentinus: Influential early Gnostic of the Second Century A.D. who may have authorized the Nag Hammadi document, the Gospel of Truth.
Unless we are content to chronicle a cacophony of conflicting views of Jesus based on pure speculation or passionate whimsy, historical investigation is non-negotiable. Christianity has always been a historical religion and any serious challenge to its legitimacy must attend to that fact. Its central claims are rooted in events, not just ideas; in people, not just principles; in revelation, not speculation; in incarnation, not abstraction. Renowned historian Herbert Butterfield speaks of Christianity as a religion in which "certain historical events are held to be part of the religion itself" and are "considered to...represent the divine breaking into history."
Historical accuracy was certainly no incidental item to Luke in the writing of his Gospel: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (Luke 1:1-4, NIV). The text affirms that Luke was after nothing less than historical certainty, presented in orderly fashion and based on firsthand testimony.
If Christianity centers on Jesus, the Christ, the promised Messiah who inaugurates the kingdom of God with power, the objective facticity of this Jesus is preeminent. Likewise, if purportedly historical documents, like the gospels of Nag Hammadi, challenge the biblical understanding of Jesus, they too must be brought before historical scrutiny. Part Two of
this series will therefore inspect the historical standing of the Gnostic writings in terms of their historical integrity, authenticity, and veracity.
LOST BOOKS OF THE BIBLE?
Although much excitement has been generated by the Nag Hammadi discoveries, not a little misunderstanding has been mixed with the enthusiasm. The overriding assumption of many is that the treatises unearthed in upper Egypt contained "lost books of the Bible" -- of historical stature equal to or greater than the New Testament books. Much of this has been fueled by the titles of some of the documents themselves, particularly the so-called "Gnostic gospels": the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Truth. The connotation of a "gospel" is that it presents the life of Jesus as a teacher, preacher, and healer -- similar in style, if not content, to Matthew,
Mark, Luke, and John.
Yet, a reading of these "gospels" reveals an entirely different genre of material. For example, the introduction to the Gospel of Truth in The Nag Hammadi Library reads, "Despite its title, this work is not the sort found in the New Testament, since it does not offer a continuous narration of the deeds, teachings, passion, and resurrection of Jesus." The introduction to the Gospel of Philip in the same volume says that although it has some similarities to a New Testament Gospel, it "is not a gospel like one of the New Testament gospels. . . . [The] few sayings and stories about Jesus...are not set in any kind of narrative framework like one of the New Testament gospels." Biblical scholar Joseph A. Fitzmyer criticized the title of Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels because it insinuates that the heart of the book concerns lost gospels that have come to light when in fact the majority of Pagel's references are from early church fathers' sources or non gospel material.
In terms of scholarly and popular attention, the "superstar" of the Nag Hammadi collection is the Gospel of Thomas. Yet, Thomas also falls outside the genre of the New Testament Gospels despite the fact that many of its 114 sayings are directly or indirectly related to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Thomas has almost no narration and its structure consists of
discrete sayings. Unlike the canonical Gospels, which provide a social context and narrative for Jesus' words, Thomas is more like various beads almost haphazardly strung on a necklace. This in itself makes proper interpretation difficult. F. F. Bruce observes that "the sayings of Jesus are best to be understood in the light of the historical circumstances in which they were spoken. Only when we have understood them thus can we safely endeavor to recognize the permanent truth which they convey. When they are detached from their original historical setting and arranged in an anthology, their interpretation is more precarious."
Without undue appeal to the subjective, it can be safely said that the Gnostic material on Jesus has a decidedly different "feel" than the biblical Gospels. There, Jesus' teaching emerges naturally from the overall contour of His life. In the Gnostic materials Jesus seems, in many cases, more of a lecturer on metaphysics than a Jewish prophet. In the Letter of Peter to
Philip, the apostles ask the resurrected Jesus, "Lord, we would like to know the deficiency of the aeons and of their pleroma." Such philosophical abstractions were never on the lips of the disciples -- the fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots -- of the biblical accounts. Jesus then discourses on the precosmic fall of "the mother" who acted in opposition to "the Father" and so produced ailing aeons.
Whatever is made of the historical "feel" of these documents, their actual status as historical records should be brought into closer scrutiny to assess their factual reliability.
THE RELIABILITY OF THE GNOSTIC DOCUMENTS
Historicity is related to trustworthiness. If a document is historically reliable, it is trustworthy as objectively true; there is good reason to believe that what it affirms essentially fits what is the case. It is faithful to fact. Historical reliability can be divided into three basic categories: integrity, authenticity, and veracity.
Integrity concerns the preservation of the writing through history. Do we have reason to believe the text as it now reads is essentially the same as when it was first written? Or has substantial corruption taken place through distortion, additions, or subtractions? The New Testament has been preserved in thousands of diverse and ancient manuscripts which enable us to reconstruct the original documents with a high degree of certainty. But what of Nag Hammadi?
Before the discovery at Nag Hammadi, Gnostic documents not inferred from references in the church fathers were few and far between. Since 1945, however, there are many primary documents. Scholars date the extant manuscripts from A.D. 350-400. The original writing of the various documents, of course, took place sometime before A.D. 350-400, but not,
according to most scholars, before the second century.
The actual condition of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts varies considerably. James Robinson, editor of The Nag Hammadi Library, notes that "there is the physical deterioration of the books themselves, which began no doubt before they were buried around 400 C.E. [then] advanced steadily while they remained buried, and unfortunately was not completely halted in the period between their discovery in 1945 and their final conservation thirty years later."
Reading through The Nag Hammadi Library, one often finds notations such as ellipses, parentheses, and brackets, indicating spotty marks in the texts. Often the translator has to venture tentative reconstructions of the writings because of textual damage. The situation may be likened to putting together a jigsaw puzzle with numerous pieces missing; one is
forced to recreate the pieces by using whatever context is available. Robinson adds that "when only a few letters are missing, they can be often filled in adequately, but larger holes must simply remain a blank."
Concerning translation, Robinson relates that "the texts were translated one by one from Greek to Coptic, and not always by translators capable of grasping the profundity or sublimity of what they sought to translate." Robinson notes, however, that most of the texts are adequately translated, and that when there is more than one version of a particular text, the better translation is clearly discernible. Nevertheless, he is "led to wonder about the bulk of the texts that exist only in a single version," because these texts cannot be compared with other translations for accuracy.
Robinson comments further on the integrity of the texts: "There is the same kind of hazard in the transmission of the texts by a series of scribes who copied them, generation after generation, from increasingly corrupt copies, first in Greek and then in Coptic. The number of unintentional errors is hard to estimate, since such a thing as a clean control copy does not exist; nor does one have, as in the case of the Bible, a quantity of manuscripts of the same text that tend to correct each other when compared (emphasis added)."
Authenticity concerns the authorship of a given writing. Do we know who the author was? Or must we deal with an anonymous one? A writing is considered authentic if it can be shown to have been written by its stated or implied author. There is solid evidence that the New Testament Gospels were written by their namesakes: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
But what of Nag Hammadi?
The Letter of Peter to Philip is dated at the end of the second century or even into the third. This rules out a literal letter from the apostle to Philip. The genre of this text is known as pseudepigrapha -- writings falsely ascribed to noteworthy individuals to lend credibility to the material. Although interesting in explaining the development of Gnostic thought and its
relationship to biblical writings, this letter shouldn't be overtaxed as delivering reliable history of the events it purports to record.
There are few if any cases of known authorship with the Nag Hammadi and other Gnostic texts. Scholars speculate as to authorship, but do not take pseudepigraphic literature as authentically apostolic. Even the Gospel of Thomas, probably the document closest in time to the New Testament events, is virtually never considered to be written by the apostle Thomas
himself. The marks of authenticity in this material are, then, spotty at best.
Veracity concerns the truthfulness of the author of the text. Was the author adequately in a position to relate what is reported, in terms of both chronological closeness to the events and observational savvy? Did he or she have sufficient credentials to relay historical truth?
Some, in their enthusiasm over Nag Hammadi, have lassoed texts into the historical corral that date several hundred years after the life of Jesus. For instance, in a review of the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, Michael Grosso speaks of hints of Jesus' sexual life "right at the start of the Christian tradition." He then quotes from the Gospel of Philip to the
effect that Jesus often kissed Mary Magdalene on the mouth. The problem is that the text is quite far from "the start of the Christian tradition," being written, according to one scholar, "perhaps as late as the second half of the third century."
Craig Blomberg states that "most of the Nag Hammadi documents, predominantly Gnostic in nature, make no pretense of overlapping with the gospel traditions of Jesus' earthly life." He observes that "a number claim to record conversations of the resurrected Jesus with various disciples, but this setting is usually little more than an artificial framework for
imparting Gnostic doctrine."
What, then, of the veracity of the documents? We do not know who wrote most of them and their historical veracity concerning Jesus seems slim. Yet some scholars advance a few candidates as providing historically reliable facts concerning Jesus.
In the case of the Gospel of Truth, some scholars see Valentinus as the author, or at least as authoring an earlier version. Yet Valentinus dates into the second century (d. A.D. 175) and was thus not a contemporary of Jesus. Attridge and MacRae date the document between A.D. 140 and 180. Layton recognizes that "the work is a sermon and has nothing to do with the Christian genre properly called 'gospel.'"
The text differs from many in Nag Hammadi because of its recurring references to New Testament passages. Beatley Layton notes that "it paraphrases, and so interprets, some thirty to sixty scriptural passages almost all from the New Testament books." He goes on to note that Valentinus shaped these allusions to fit his own Gnostic theology. In discussing the use of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in the Gospel of Truth, C. M. Tuckett concludes that "there is no evidence for the use of sources other than the canonical gospels for synoptic material." This would mean that the Gospel of Truth gives no independent historical insight about Jesus, but rather reinterprets previous material.
The Gospel of Philip is thick with Gnostic theology and contains several references to Jesus. However, it does not claim to be a revelation from Jesus: it is more of a Gnostic manual of theology. According to Tuckett's analysis, all the references to Gospel material seem to stem from Matthew and not from any other canonical Gospel or other source independent of Matthew. Andrew Hembold has also pointed out that both the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip show signs of "mimicking" the New Testament; they both "know and recognize the greater part of the New Testament as authoritative." This would make them derivative, not original, documents.
Tuckett has also argued that the Gospel of Mary and the Book of Thomas the Contender are dependent on synoptic materials, and that "there is virtually no evidence for the use of pre-synoptic sources by these writers. These texts are all 'post-synoptic,' not only with regard to their dates, but also with regard to the form of the synoptic tradition they
presuppose." In other words, these writings are simply drawing on preexistent Gospel material and rearranging it to conform to their Gnostic world view. They do not contribute historically authentic, new material.
The Apocryphon of James claims to be a secret revelation of the risen Jesus to James His brother. It is less obviously Gnostic than some Nag Hammadi texts and contains some more orthodox-sounding phrases such as, "Verily I say unto you none will be saved unless they believe in my cross." It also affirms the unorthodox, such as when Jesus says, "Become
better than I; make yourselves like the son of the Holy Spirit." While one scholar dates this text sometime before A.D. 150, Blomberg believes it gives indications of being "at least in part later than and dependent upon the canonical gospels." Its esotericism certainly puts it at odds with the canonical Gospels, which are better attested historically.
THOMAS ON TRIAL
The Nag Hammadi text that has provoked the most historical scrutiny is the Gospel of Thomas. Because of its reputation as the lost "fifth Gospel" and its frequently esoteric and mystical cast, it is frequently quoted in New Age circles. A recent book by Robert Winterhalter is entitled, The Fifth Gospel: A Verse-by-Verse New Age Commentary on the
Gospel of Thomas. He claims Thomas knows "the Christ both as the Self, and the foundation of individual life." Some sayings in Thomas do seem to teach this. But is this what the historical Jesus taught?
The scholarly literature on Thomas is vast and controversial. Nevertheless, a few important considerations arise in assessing its veracity as history.
Because it is more of an anthology of mostly unrelated sayings than an ongoing story about Jesus' words and deeds, Thomas is outside the genre of "Gospel" in the New Testament. Yet, some of the 114 sayings closely parallel or roughly resemble statements in the Synoptics, either by adding to them, deleting from them, combining several references into one, or by changing the sense of a saying entirely.
This explanation uses the Synoptics as a reference point for comparison. But is it likely that Thomas is independent of these sources and gives authentic although "unorthodox" material about Jesus? To answer this, we must consider a diverse range of factors.
There certainly are sayings that harmonize with biblical material, and direct or indirect relationships can be found to all four canonical Gospels. In this sense, Thomas contains both orthodox and unorthodox material, if we use orthodox to mean the material in the extant New Testament. For instance, the Trinity and unforgivable sin are referred to in the context of
blasphemy: "Jesus said, 'Whoever blasphemes against the father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven.'"
In another saying Jesus speaks of the "evil man" who "brings forth evil things from his evil storehouse, which is in his heart, and says evil things" (see Luke 6:43-46). This can be read to harmonize with the New Testament Gospels' emphasis on human sin, not just ignorance of the divine spark within.
Although it is not directly related to a canonical Gospel text, the following statement seems to state the biblical theme of the urgency of finding Jesus while one can: "Jesus said, 'Take heed of the living one while you are alive, lest you die and seek to see him and be unable to do so'" (compare John 7:34; 13:33).
At the same time we find texts of a clearly Gnostic slant, as noted earlier. How can we account for this?
The original writing of Thomas has been dated variously between A.D. 50 and 150 or even later, with most scholars opting for a second century date. Of course, an earlier date would lend more credibility to it, although its lack of narrative framework still makes it more difficult to understand than the canonical Gospels. While some argue that Thomas uses
historical sources independent of those used by the New Testament, this is not a uniformly held view, and arguments are easily found which marshal evidence for Thomas's dependence (either partial or total) on the canonical Gospels.
Blomberg claims that "where Thomas parallels the four gospels it is unlikely that any of the distinctive elements in Thomas predate the canonical versions." When Thomas gives a parable found in the four Gospels and adds details not found there, "they can almost always be explained as conscious, Gnostic redaction [editorial adaptation]."
James Dunn elaborates on this theme by comparing Thomas with what is believed to be an earlier and partial version of the document found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, near the turn of the century. He notes that the Oxyrhynchus "papyri date from the end of the second or the first half of the third century, while the Gospel of Thomas...was probably written no earlier
than the fourth century."
Dunn then compares similar statements from Matthew, the Oxyrhynchus papyri, and the Nag Hammadi text version of Thomas:
Matthew 7:7-8 and 11:28 -- "...Seek and you will find;...he who seeks finds...Come to me...and I will give you rest." Pap. Ox. 654.5-9 -- (Jesus says:) 'Let him who see(ks) not cease (seeking until) he finds; and when he find (he will) be astonished, and having (astoun)ded, he will reign; an(d reigning), he will (re)st' (Clement of Alexandria also knows the saying in this form.) Gospel of Thomas 2 -- 'Jesus said: He who seeks should not stop seeking until he finds; and when he finds, he will be bewildered (beside himself); and when he is bewildered he will marvel, and will reign over the All.'
Dunn notes that the term "the All" (which the Gospel of Thomas adds to the earlier document) is "a regular Gnostic concept," and that "as the above comparisons suggest, the most obvious explanation is that it was one of the last elements to be added to the saying." Dunn further comments that the Nag Hammadi version of Thomas shows a definite "gnostic
coloring" and gives no evidence of "the thesis of a form of Gnostic Christianity already existing in the first century." He continues: "Rather it confirms the counter thesis that the Gnostic element in Gnostic Christianity is a second century syncretistic outgrowth on the stock of the earlier Christianity. What we can see clearly in the case of this one saying is
probably representative of the lengthy process of development and elaboration which resulted in the form of the Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi."
Other authorities substantiate the notion that whatever authentic material Thomas may convey concerning Jesus, the text shows signs of Gnostic tampering. Marvin W. Meyer judges that Thomas "shows the hand of a gnosticizing editor." Winterhalter, who reveres Thomas enough to write a devotional guide on it, nevertheless says of it that "some sayings are
spurious or greatly altered, but this is the work of a later Egyptian editor." He thinks, though, that the wheat can be successfully separated from the chaff.
Robert M. Grant has noted that "the religious realities which the Church proclaimed were ultimately perverted by the Gospel of Thomas. For this reason Thomas, along with other documents which purported to contain secret sayings of Jesus, was rejected by the Church."
Here we find ourselves agreeing with the early Christian defenders of the faith who maintained that Gnosticism in the church was a corruption of original truth and not an independently legitimate source of information on Jesus or the rest of reality.
Fitzmyer drives this home in criticizing Pagels's view that the Gnostics have an equal claim on Christian authenticity: "Throughout the book [Pagels] gives the unwary reader the impression that the difference between 'orthodox Christians' and 'gnostic Christians' was one related to the 'origins of Christianity'. Time and time again, she is blind to the fact that she is ignoring a good century of Christian existence in which those 'gnostic Christians' were simply not around."
In this connection it is also telling that outside of the Gospel of Thomas, which doesn't overtly mention the Resurrection, other Gnostic documents claiming to impart new information about Jesus do so through spiritual, post-resurrection dialogues -- often in the form of visions -- which are not subject to the same historical rigor as claims made about the earthly life of Jesus. This leads Dunn to comment that "Christian Gnosticism usually attributed its secret [and unorthodox] teaching of Jesus to discourses delivered by him, so they maintained, in a lengthy ministry after his resurrection (as in Thomas the Contender and Pistis Sophia). The Gospel of Thomas is unusual therefore in attempting to use the Jesus-tradition as the vehicle for its teaching. . . . Perhaps Gnosticism abandoned the Gospel of Thomas format because it was to some extent subject to check and rebuttal from Jesus-tradition preserved elsewhere."
Dunn thinks that the more thoroughly the Gnostics challenged the already established orthodox accounts of Jesus' earthly life, the less credible they became; but with post-resurrection accounts, no checks were forthcoming. They were claiming
additional information vouchsafed only to the elite. He concludes that Gnosticism "was able to present its message in a sustained way as the teaching of Jesus only by separating the risen Christ from the earthly Jesus and by abandoning the attempts to show a continuity between the Jesus of the Jesus-tradition and the heavenly Christ of their faith."
What is seen by some as a Gnostic challenge to historic, orthodox views of the life, teaching, and work of Jesus was actually in many cases a retreat from historical considerations entirely. Only so could the Gnostic documents attempt to establish their credibility.
Although Pagels and others have provoked sympathy, if not enthusiasm, for the Gnostics as the underdogs who just happened to lose out to orthodoxy, the Gnostics' historical credentials concerning Jesus are less than compelling. It may be romantic to "root for the underdog," but the Gnostic underdogs show every sign of being heretical hangers-on who tried to harness Christian language for conceptions antithetical to early Christian teaching.
Many sympathetic with Gnosticism make much of the notion that the Gnostic writings were suppressed by the early Christian church. But this assertion does not, in itself, provide support one way or the other for the truth or falsity of Gnostic doctrine. If truth is not a matter of majority vote, neither is it a matter of minority dissent. It may be true, as
Pagels says, that "the winners write history," but that doesn't necessarily make them bad or dishonest historians. If so, we should hunt down Nazi historians to give us the real picture of Hitler's Germany and relegate all opposing views to that of dogmatic apologists who just happened to be on the winning side.
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus went to great lengths to present the theologies of the various Gnostic schools in order to refute them biblically and logically. If suppression had been his concern, the book never would have been written as it was. Further, to argue cogently against the Gnostics, Irenaeus and the other anti-Gnostic apologists would presumably have had to be diligent to correctly represent their foes in order to avoid ridicule for misunderstanding them. Patrick Henry highlights this in reference to Nag Hammadi: "While the Nag Hammadi materials have made some corrections to the portrayal of Gnosticism in the anti-Gnostic writings of the church fathers, it is increasingly evident that the fathers did not fabricate their opponents' views; what distortion there is comes from selection, not from invention. It is still legitimate to use materials from the writings of the fathers to characterize Gnosticism."
It is highly improbable that all of the Gnostic materials could have been systematically confiscated or destroyed by the early church. Dunn finds it unlikely that the reason we have no unambiguously first century documents from Christian Gnostics is because the early church eradicated them. He believes it more likely that we have none because there were none. But by archaeological virtue of Nag Hammadi, we now do have many primary source Gnostic documents available for detailed inspection. Yet they do not receive superior marks as historical documents about Jesus. In a review of The Gnostic Gospels, noted biblical scholar Raymond Brown affirmed that from the Nag Hammadi "works 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."
Another factor foreign to the interests of Gnostic apologists is the proposition that Gnosticism expired largely because it lacked life from the beginning. F. F. Bruce notes that "Gnosticism was too much bound up with a popular but passing phase of thought to have the survival power of apostolic Christianity."
Exactly why did apostolic Christianity survive and thrive? Robert Speer pulls no theological punches when he proclaims that "Christianity lived because it was true to the truth. Through all the centuries it has never been able to live otherwise. It can not live otherwise today."
1 Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950), 119.
2 Harold W. Attridge and George W. MacRae, "Introduction: The Gospel of Truth," in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 38.
3 Wesley W. Isenberg, "Introduction: The Gospel of Philip," Ibid., 139.
4 Joseph Fitzmyer, "The Gnostic Gospels According to Pagels," America, 16 Feb. 1980, 123.
5 F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 154.
6 Robinson, 434.
7 Ibid., 435.
8 Robinson, "Introduction," 2.
9 Ibid., 3.
10 Ibid., 2.
13 See Ray Summers, The Secret Sayings of the Living Jesus (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1968), 14.
14 Michael Grosso, "Testing the Images of God," Gnosis, Winter 1989, 43.
15 Wesley W. Isenberg, "Introduction: The Gospel of Philip," in Robinson, 141.
16 Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 208.
18 See Stephan Hoeller, "Valentinus: A Gnostic for All Seasons," Gnosis, Fall/Winter 1985, 25.
19 Ibid., 38.
20 Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1987), 251.
23 C. M. Tuckett, "Synoptic Tradition in the Gospel of Truth and the Testimony of Truth," Journal of Theological
Studies 35 (1984):145.
24 Blomberg, 213-14.
25 Andrew K. Hembold, The Nag Hammadi Texts and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967), 88-89.
26 Christopher Tuckett, "Synoptic Tradition in Some Nag Hammadi and Related Texts," Vigiliae Christiane 36 (July 1982):184.
27 Robinson, 32.
29 Francis E. Williams, "Introduction: The Apocryphon of James," in Robinson, 30.
30 Blomberg, 213.
31 Robert Winterhalter, The Fifth Gospel (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 13.
32 Robinson, 131; See Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins, 130-31.
33 Robinson, 131.
34 Ibid., 132.
35 Layton, 377.
36 See Craig L. Blomberg, "Tradition and Redaction in the Parables of the Gospel of Thomas," Gospel Perspectives 5: 177-205.
37 Blomberg, Historical Reliability, 211.
38 Ibid., 212.
39 See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, "The Oxyrhynchus Logoie of Jesus and the Coptic Gospel According to Thomas," in Joseph Fitzmyer, Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1974), 355-433.
40 James D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1985), 101.
42 Ibid., 102.
44 Marvin W. Meyer, "Jesus in the Nag Hammadi Library," Reformed Journal (June 1979):15.
45 Winterhalter, 4.
46 Robert M. Grant with David Noel Freedman, The Secret Sayings of Jesus (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1960), 115.
47 Fitzmyer, "The Gnostic Gospels According to Pagels," 123.
48 James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 287-88.
49 Ibid., 288; see also Blomberg, Historical Reliability, 219.
50 Patrick Henry, New Directions (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), 282.
51 Dunn, The Evidence, 97-98.
52 Raymond E. Brown, "The Gnostic Gospels," The New York Times Book Review, 20 Jan. 1980, 3.
53 F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 278.
54 Robert E. Speer, The Finality of Jesus Christ (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1933), 108.
End of document, CRJ0088A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"The Gnostic Gospels: Are They Authentic?"
release A, April 30, 1994
R. Poll, CRI
A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.
Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute.
This data file is the sole property of the Christian Research Institute. It may not be altered or edited in any way. It may be reproduced only in its entirety for circulation as "freeware," without charge. All reproductions of this data file must contain the copyright notice (i.e., "Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute"). This data file may not be used without the permission of the Christian Research Institute for resale or the enhancement of any other product sold. This includes all of its content with the exception of a few brief quotations not to exceed more than 500 words.
If you desire to reproduce less than 500 words of this data file for resale or the enhancement of any other product for resale, please give the following source credit: Copyright 1994 by the Christian Research Institute, P.O. Box 7000, Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688-7000.
- Gnosticism Mainpage
- Collection of Gnostic Texts
- Demiurge Creator of the World
- Who are the Cathers?
- Gnostic Terms
- Religious Syncretism
- Radical Reevaluation of Christianity
- Christian Origins Hellenism Gnosticism
- Apostle Paul Enemy of Jesus' Church
- St Augustine Father Protestantism
- Zoroaster Versus Jesus
- Original Sin
- Biblical Monotheism and Persian Influences
- Taking a Closer Look at Gnosticism and Christianity
- Gnosticism as explained by Bishop N. T. Wright
- Alexander, the Jews, and Hellenism
- More on Alexander the Great, the Jews, and Hellenism
- Hellenistic Period After Alexander
- Alexandrian Philosophy and Judaism - Jewish Encyclopedia
- Platonism and Christianity
- Allegorical Interpretation
- Hyam Maccoby (The Mythmaker)was mostly right
- Marcion's Church Not Really Gnostic?
- Saint Augustine
» Archive 1 » Archive 2 » Archive 3
» Archive 4 » Archive 5 » Archive 6
» Archive 7 » Archive 8 » Archive 9