What Are the Gnostic Gospels?
One of the most substantial challenges to early Christianity was the movement known as Gnosticism, whose amorphous and syncretistic nature was very appealing to all kinds of audiences. There were a few commonly held beliefs by the Gnostics:
- A spirit-matter dualism where all materiality was considered evil
- A convoluted system of myriads of divine spirits populating the many spheres of the heavenly realm
- The human need for salvation from the evil of materiality
- The belief that salvation came through the receiving of a secret "gnosis" or knowledge
Gnosticism became a more significant threat to the early church when a movement developed that combined Gnostic beliefs with Christian beliefs. These are the very beginnings of the Gnostic Gospels as we know them today.
A variegated "Christian-Gnostic" movement gained strength in the second century. They held to a strong dualism of spirit versus matter, with high regard for the "spiritual" reality. They were uncomfortable with the belief that Jesus had a human body subject to human weaknesses and offered other theories such as Jesus appearing to have a body or having a supernatural body. They held Jesus in high contrast to Yahweh, who was thought to be an inferior and even immoral deity. To them, salvation was liberation from slavery to the body and the material world. They believed that they possessed the secret saving knowledge or information that Jesus had given to the apostles. A Christian-Gnostic body of literature appeared, the Gnostic Gospels. They claimed these Gospels had apostolic authorship including Peter, Phillip, Thomas and Judas.
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Why Are the Gnostic Gospels Not in the Bible?
The recent discovery of part of the Gospel of Judas has sparked a renewed debate concerning the so-called Gnostic Gospels. Many are confused when reading of the existence of a Gospel from Judas. Is this an authentic Gospel written by the disciple of Jesus? What about other Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas? Can we trust the Gospels in the Bible?
N.T. Wright, a respected authority in the New Testament, has distinguished four main differences between the biblical or canonical Gospels and the Gnostic Gospels. Wright listed and explained these four differences in his little book “Judas and the Gospel of Jesus” (2006, pp.68-83)). The four essential differences between the Canonical Gospels and Gnostic Gospels, according to N.T. Wright are:*
- The biblical Gospels affirm Jesus as the continuation and climax of God’s redemptive history with Israel. They recount how the long history of God’s work through Israel came to its climax with the person of Jesus. Contrarily, the Gnostic Gospels completely detached Jesus from Israel and the history of Israel with God. The God of the Old Testament, as described by the Gnostic Gospels, categorize him as evil and Judaism as totally lost. The Gnostics Gospels saw no connection between Jesus and the nation of Israel and the acts of God in the Old Testament. These reasons may be the biggest reasons why the Gnostic Gospels are not in the Bible.
- The biblical Gospels told the story of Jesus in connection with the life of the early followers of Jesus to show all Christians a plan to follow as they followed Jesus. In a very different way, the Gnostic Gospels put Jesus in the position of giving a secret knowledge (a “gnosis”) to some of his original disciples (the “Gnostic disciples”) to pass it along to others in a secret way. The belief in a secret message by the Gnostic Christians was implicitly a rejection of the “mainstream” Christian church and Christians and their open message to the world.
- The biblical or canonical Gospels, in presenting the story of Jesus, proclaimed that in Jesus God had manifested and launched his kingdom on Earth (as it was in heaven). In a contrary way, the Gnostic Gospels rejected this idea of the kingdom of God at work on Earth in Jesus. The Jesus of the Gnostic Gospels was not interested in this world; he was mostly interested in fleeing from his earthly body and returning to the spirit world.
- The Gospels of the Bible were written in the first century (around AD 70-90). On the other hand, the Gnostic Gospels were written in the second century AD: “The canonical gospels were being read and quoted as carrying authority in the early and middle second century, whereas we do not even hear of the non-canonical ones until the middle or end of that century” (Wright, 2006, p.77).
Are the Gnostic Gospels Reliable?
These four essential differences between the canonical or biblical Gospels and the Gnostic Gospels are a clear indication that the Gnostic Gospels are not authentically apostolic in their authorship, message and frame of time. The Gnostic Gospels are not reliable sources for the life and teachings of Jesus.
*Wright, N. T. (2006) Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have we missed the truth about Christianity? Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.