Discovered near the Upper-Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, the Gnostic Gospels (also known as the Nag Hammadi library, or the Nag Hammadi Codicies) have managed to capture imaginations, and generate heated debate over what biblical canon ought to be, what it is, and why it exists in its current form. This collection is made up of 13 leather-bound Codicies, and contains 52 separate works, most of which are Gnostic treatises. Of the parts that are not, there are three works that are part of the Corpus Hermeticus, and a partially rewritten version of Plato’s “Republic”, complete with Gnostic themes that had not existed prior.
Since their discovery, much of the debate that has surrounded them has focused on whether or not they are to be considered biblical canon. For the majority of Christians, they simply are not considered Scripture for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they are inconsistent with the actual biblical canon. In this post, we will explore why they are inconsistent, and hopefully dispel a few of the more interesting conspiracy theories.
In 1945, a man named Muhammad Ali and his brother were digging for fertilizer near the town of Nag Hammadi, when they unearthed a sealed clay jar. Though they were initially hesitant to open it, fearing that it might contain a Jinn (a type of Arabic demon, and where we get the English word “genie”), they were amazed to find the library carefully hidden within.
Rather than turn it over to local authorities, they chose to hang on to the library, in the hope that they would be able to get a really good price for each piece. The brothers took it home, and kept it there.
Through a series of events, virtually all of the library was eventually acquired by the Egyptian government, and is presently housed in a museum in Cairo. Of the parts that did not make it there, an unknown number were burned by Muhammad Ali’s mother, who feared that the codicies might cause too much trouble, and another part was eventually sold to an organization in the Netherlands, after it had been unsuccessfully offered for sale in the U.S.
Though the Nag Hammadi library was written in Coptic, some linguists have suggested that it had been translated to Coptic from Syriac, based on the wording of certain works, like the Gospel of Thomas. The prevailing scholarly opinion is that it was originally written in Greek, but there is a strong case to be made for a Syriac origin.
In his essay, “The Fifth Gospel?”, for example, Nicholas Perrin points to linguistic analysis to suggest that the Gnostic Gospels were in fact Second Century Syriac documents, rather than First Century Judean. He says, “As I have argued more fully elsewhere, the evidence seems to show that the Coptic
gospel is not so much a witness to the historical Jesus, but instead a witness
to early Syriac Christianity. Following a linguistic analysis of the Coptic collection, with particular attention to the use of catchwords, it appears that
Thomas was not written—per the standard and prevailing assumption—in Greek, as an evolving sayings collection, dating back to the first or early second century. Instead, it seems that our sayings gospel was written in Syriac, as a piece, showing dependence on the first Syriac gospel record,
Tatian’s Diatessaron (c. ad 173).”
A page from Perrin’s “The Fifth Gospel?” showing the comparison between the Gospel of Thomas, the Diatessaron (a Second Century Syriac harmonization of the Synoptic Gospels) , and Scripture.
According to Perrin, the wording in the Gospel of Thomas is more reminiscent of the Diatessaron than the actual Gospel accounts, suggesting that the Gospel of Thomas was derived from the Diatessaron, not from the Synoptic Gospels. What this means for the Gnostic Gospels is that they may well have been written in the wrong time and place, with the wrong content, to be Scripture.
While the Gnostic Gospels themselves were physically dated to the Fifth Century, it is the materials contained within that were dated to the Second Century. This would imply that the Gospel of Thomas was written in the Second Century, never mind the fact that he is not believed to have survived to the turn of the century. Historians place him in India in the late 70’s when he died, yet, the Gospel of Thomas is dated to somewhere between 120-150 AD. That disparity is rather difficult to ignore.
Do bear in mind that I’ve only chosen to focus my attention on one small portion of the overall library because it is so big a detailed analysis would end up becoming a series of its own. The idea is not out of the question, but for now, I plan on sticking with the more skin-deep approach. I trust that the person reading this is more than capable of doing their own research.
Going beyond the age of the documents, there are also the contents to be considered. What the Gospel of Thomas contains is a list of sayings attributed to Jesus throughout His ministry. Some are correct, others only partially so, and most find absolutely no correlation with what is found in the Synoptic Gospels. It runs the full gamut of credibility, however, it also completely lacks a narrative.
While some have suggested that the Gospel of Thomas is as old as the document commonly referred to as “Q”, the fact of the matter is that one would be hard pressed to make the case given the similarities between it and the Diatessaron.
Here are a few examples of what is found in the Gospel of Thomas:
#3. Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father’s) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
#7. Jesus said, “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”
#9. Jesus said, “Look, the sower went out, took a handful (of seeds), and scattered (them). Some fell on the road, and the birds came and gathered them. Others fell on rock, and they didn’t take root in the soil and didn’t produce heads of grain. Others fell on thorns, and they choked the seeds and worms ate them. And others fell on good soil, and it produced a good crop: it yielded sixty per measure and one hundred twenty per measure.” (Similar to the Parable of the Sower)
Note that much of 14 appears to be the very characterization of Gnosticism, while one small portion actually pertains to something Jesus said. This is an example of what I was saying. It is not difficult to insert an outside influence into Scripture and make it sound good. What simply does not help is that people today seem to be unwilling to sit down and engage with Scripture. People do not want to learn, and will be easily duped when someone comes along with heretical teaching that sounds similar to some half-remembered verse they heard in Sunday school.
How They Fail the Test
In my post on what constitutes heresy, I made the point that biblical teaching must be consistent with what is found in the Bible. The Bible is, in and of itself, the final judge of what is Scripture and what is not. Each of the books in Scripture find corroboration with the other books. Both Testaments support each other, with high degrees of agreement. Anything that does not mesh with this system is not to be considered Scripture. This is why the Gnostic Gospels fail as Scripture. Gnosticism is not biblically supported, it is actually proved false by it.
In Part 3, we will take a look at the Corpus Hermeticus.