What Are the Gnostic Gospels?
By David Capes, Ph.D.
If you turn on the History Channel, A&E, or National Geographic around Christmas or Easter, you’re likely to hear someone talk of conspiracies by Catholic popes and church councils to suppress the truth about Jesus. The agenda of these former bishops, they claim, is simple: they wanted to hold on to positions of power and influence.
Along the way, these scholars will probably appeal to lost Christianities and secret Gospels. Chief among them are the Gnostic Gospels. So what are the Gnostic Gospels, exactly?
What Is a Gospel?
Let’s first consider what a “Gospel” is. The word “gospel” (Greek, euaggelion) means simply “good news” or “favorable report.” It was a term with political overtones often used in the ancient world. The accession of a new leader could be “good news,” as could reports of a military victory.
Early Christians used the word to describe the essential message of and about Jesus—that is, the “good news” of Jesus. Later, “gospel” took on the more technical meaning of a book that gives an account of Jesus’ life. The New Testament has four such gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books belong to the genre of ancient biographies.1 Unlike modern biographies, they stress a person’s words and deeds and are often written to provide readers with an example of how they should live.
In 1945 a chance discovery yielded a treasure trove of ancient documents in Upper Egypt at a place called Nag Hammadi. The Nag Hammadi Library, as it is known today, contained papyrus codices of forty treatises written in Coptic (an old Egyptian language) dating from the third to fifth centuries CE.2 Most of the documents show Gnostic influences to one degree or another, and a number of the books found are Gnostic Gospels.
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Scholars had known about Gnosticism and Gnostic accounts of Jesus for many years. Most of what was known came from the writings of early Christian leaders like Irenaeus of Lyon (130–200 CE), Hippolytus of Rome (170–236), and Tertullian of Carthage (160–225). These church fathers were convinced the Gnostic teachings were heretical, so they wrote against them, often quoting the Gnostic leaders or summarizing their positions in the process. But the church fathers only quoted fragments of these “heretics,” not full books. With the Nag Hammadi discovery, we suddenly had full books rather than just bits and pieces.
Although scholars are divided on the origin, meaning, and extent of Gnosticism in the ancient world, there are a few characteristics that are broadly accepted about who the Gnostics were and what they believed.
“Gnosticism” is a word used today to describe several complex religious–philosophical movements that flourished from the second to the fourth century AD. It is important to realize that Gnosticism is not a single movement; it is a term used to characterize a variety of movements with particular beliefs and practices led by influential leaders in this specific time period.
At the heart of the Gnostic worldview is the belief that the material world is evil and corrupt; in contrast, the spiritual world is good and pristine. This is easy to demonstrate. Take a nice, fresh apple and put it on a table. What happens to it over a few days, a few weeks, a few months? Before long the apple rots and becomes a smelly mess. Repeat the experiment with a piece of iron. Over time the iron rusts, corrodes, and eventually disintegrates. Try the experiment with a twenty-year-old. At twenty, a person is fit and trim; they feel and look well. Fast-forward fifty years and the same person is now old and tired; their once-firm body sags and hurts most of the time. Before long, they have died and their corpses have decomposed.
Graphic, yes, but it proves a point: Everything we can see and touch in this material world suffers the same fate. It corrodes, decays, and eventually disappears…