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.