Scholar Dan Wallace notes the Gnostics agenda which was “an effort to combine Greek philosophical Neoplatonism – with its emphasis on the value of ideas and the devaluing of matter – with Christian symbolism. The hope, in part, was to create an expression of Christianity more in line with Greco-Roman thought and culture” (1). Exegete William Craig explains that “Gnosticism was an ancient near eastern philosophy which held that the physical world is evil and the spiritual realm is good. Salvation comes through secret knowledge of the spiritual realm, which liberates the soul from its imprisonment in the physical world” (7). The Gnostics were essentially a “sect, most likely beginning in the second century, which largely viewed the material world as evil and considered the knowledge of hidden things as the only route to salvation” (2). However, scholars approach the Gnostic Gospels (GG) and documents with caution, especially when they provide alleged historical narratives on the historical Jesus. There are several persuasive reasons as to why this is the case.
Firstly, the works that they penned are quite late having been written between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. That allows much time for embellishment and motive to rework the original New Testament narratives. We see this most clearly in the Gospel of Peter’s account of Jesus exiting the tomb, as Craig recounts, “one has only to read the account in the Gospel of Peter, which describes Jesus’s triumphant egress from the tomb, accompanied by angelic visitants, followed by a talking cross, heralded by a voice from heaven, and all witnessed by a Roman guard, the Jewish leaders, and a multitude of spectators!” (3) This is the kind of data that we get from the GG: fictional, embellished, reworked renderings of the historical accounts within the New Testament gospels. Wallace thus rightly reveals that the claim that the Gnostic material provides any credible historical insight into early Christianity “is historically false,” as well as a “misleading and anachronistic attempt to write a revisionist history.” And, as Professor N.T. Wright explains, what we do read in the Gnostic materials “is a fictional character called ‘Jesus’ talking to fictional character[s]” (4). The Jesus of the Gospel of Judas is also a laughing Jesus and as far as we know from our primary New Testament sources Jesus wasn’t one to laugh, or he at least isn’t ever mentioned to have laughed (he certainly wept and feared, but no laughing). Moreover, even his disciples laughed for no reason which disagrees with what we have in our New Testament. When it comes to the historical Jesus we have to be very careful what we consider from these Gnostic texts.
Secondly, they were written by, as the name implies, Gnostics. These anonymous authors, however, ascribed the names of the original disciples (Peter, Judas and Thomas, for example) and other prominent New Testament figures (Mary) to their accounts in order to disingenuously gain unwarranted credibility. The point being is that none of the people whose names are given actually wrote these texts; this is known as pseudepigrapha. For example, it is just not possible for, say, Judas to have written the Gospel of Judas because by the time the Gospel of Judas was actually written (towards the end of the 2nd century) he would have long been dead, as Wallace argues that “This date makes it clear that the gospel’s origin is too late to be authentically from Judas” (5).
Moreover, the motives of the Gnostic authors are clear. They were anti-Christian, had very different theological beliefs to early Christians, and tried to rework the real historical Jesus to their advantage in order to validate their religious views. This reconfiguration goes to some extremes whereby the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas adds in information into Jesus’ youth years of where we don’t have any data (except for a brief mention in the original Gospel of Luke). In this account Jesus sometimes uses malevolent supernatural powers to his advantage. As a child Jesus allegedly made clay birds which he then brings to life (a pointless miracle that has no spiritual meaning as do the ones we read within the original New Testament gospels). In it we also have a Jesus who curses a fellow child whose body then withers into a corpse (Jesus was just one when he allegedly made this curse) and also curses the neighbours of Joseph and Mary by striking them blind. This is clearly not what one would consider the Jesus of history to be; a person who scholars believe was an influential teacher who preached against violence. And whenever the historical Jesus did perform miracles they were full of meaning such as, for example, demonstrations of the power of God, his authority, and mercy on those who were sick and maim.
Moreover, the later differences in theology are enormous. The Gospel of Judas teaches a great divorce between God and his creation which disagrees with both Judaism and Christianity. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings alleged to have been said by Jesus. Again, this is a stark chasm between the 1st century Jesus of the gospels and the one we find in Thomas. For example, Thomas is a work of secret sayings and in which emphasis is placed on salvation achieved by knowledge. In other words, Salvation in Thomas seems to focus on what is in a person rather than on trust in a saviour. Third, Thomas, the twin, may well be considered Jesus’ twin in this work. Beyond this we have no evidence for Jesus ever having a twin, although he did have siblings. Jesus also denies being the disciples’ teacher, which is at odds with the gospels. The early church fathers likewise condemned much of these writings, especially the Gospel of Peter.
What is worse is that these Gnostic writings are drawing on pre-existent gospel material and rearranging it to conform to a Gnostic worldview (9). In other words, they do not contribute any valuable independent attestation to the words and deeds of Jesus. This brings into question the Apocryphon of James, for example, which claims to be a secret revelation of the risen Jesus to James, his brother. This is no more than a reworking of Jesus’ real brother James that we find within the gospels to fit a Gnostic agenda. At best, argues Professor Raymond Brown, what we find are “works [from which] 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” (11).
The many dissimilarities presented here are, argues Wallace, “at odds with the picture of Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, not to mention the rest of the New Testament” (6). Professor Blomberg agrees writing that “most of the Nag Hammadi documents, predominantly Gnostic in nature, make no pretense of overlapping with the gospel traditions of Jesus’ earthly life” (8). Douglas Groothuis concludes that the Gnostics and their texts were “heretical hangers-on who tried to harness Christian language for conceptions antithetical to early Christian teaching… they do not receive superior marks as historical documents about Jesus” (10).
1. Wallace, D. 2010. Dethroning Jesus. p. 87.
2. Wallace, D. 2010. Ibid. p. 120.
3. Craig, W. Visions of Jesus. Available.
4. Wright, N. 2006. Judas and the Gospel of Jesus. p. 64.
5. Wallace, D. 2010. Ibid. p. 83.
6. Wallace, D. 2010. Ibid. p. 127.
7. Craig, W. 1998. “Rediscovering the Historical Jesus: The Presuppositions and Presumptions of the Jesus Seminar” in Faith and Mission.
8. Blomberg, C. 1987. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. p. 208.
9. Groothuis, D. 1991. “The Gnostic Gospels: Are They Authentic?” in Christian Research Journal, vol. 13 (3).
10. Groothuis, D. 1991. Ibid.
11. Raymond Brown, “The Gnostic Gospels,” The New York Times Book Review (1980).