Books that Didn’t Make the Cut: The Gnostic Gospels

Capernaum - Kfar Nahum - IsraelJesus didn’t really die on the cross.  He married Mary Magdalene, moved to France, and had several children.  All that claptrap about his identity as God’s incarnate Son, his sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead?  All propaganda foisted upon you by a deceptive church.  The real truth is to be found in the writings of other groups of “Christians” you never heard of: they were repressed and silenced…until now!

The preceding paragraph is idiotic (as well as blasphemous).  Fortunately, it doesn’t reflect my own thinking.  It does reflect the teaching of a group of ancient heretics: Gnostic Christians.  It also reflects the historical assessment of some scholars of our day (folks like Princeton’s Elaine Pagels) that the writings of these heretics deserve at least equal standing with the gospels in your bible.

Gnosticism (the “g” is silent) has been big business in recent years.  We need look no further than author Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – a bestselling book turned Hollywood blockbuster (featuring Tom Hanks!) – to see the popularity of this long ago almost forgotten movement.

Where did Dan Brown and Elaine Pagels find this stuff?  Their sources are documents (dating from the second through the fourth centuries) such as The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Judas.  What are these books?  Why aren’t they found in our bibles?  Is this a conspiracy?!?

Let’s rewind and start at the beginning.  With Jesus himself.  Jesus chose twelve men to be his apostles.  In so doing, Jesus announced that he is reconstituting Israel.  Just as there were twelve tribes in Israel, now there are twelve apostles – true Israel is centered on and identified with Jesus and his work.  These twelve carried on the ministry of Jesus and authoritatively grounded the church and its teaching.  The scriptures of the New Testament gained their standing based on the apostolic origin and the authority of those apostles.

The canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written within the first century, as early as the 50’s (for Mark), as late as the 90’s (for John).  They had a well established pedigree and identity with their apostolic authors.  The canon itself was formally fixed later, but the early apostolic bona fides of these books are what won the day in recognizing them as scripture.  The church was also aware of another group of writings which lacked these credentials: the writings of the Gnostics.

Who were the Gnostics?  The Gnostics were a group who had a set of fundamental beliefs very different from those taught in traditional Christianity.  There are lots of different types of Gnosticism, but most Gnostics teach some form of the following:

  • Spirit/Matter. Spirit is good; Matter is bad.  Bodies are bad.  Our souls are trapped in these material shells.  We want to get rid of our bodies and get back to good spiritual realities.  (Christianity doesn’t teach that matter is bad – God declared the Creation “very good.”  The problem with the body and the soul is sin.)
  • Two gods. There are two gods: the bad god, called the Demiurge, is the god of the Old Testament – he created everything, which is bad.  The good god is the God of the New Testament – he is spirit and we want to get back to him.
  • Secret Knowledge. Gnosticism gets its name from the Greek word gnosis, which means “knowledge.”  All Gnostics taught that you needed to get some sort of secret knowledge to escape the bad body and get back to the good god.  Salvation is essentially learning the secret handshake.
  • Jesus and the Gnosis. Not all Gnostics claimed to be Christians, but some glommed on to Christianity because it seemed to offer a suitable vehicle for their secret knowledge philosophy.  Jesus became the keeper of secret knowledge and you can get “saved” through him, though not in the orthodox sense of faith in his substitutionary atoning death for your sins.  Rather, you get access through Jesus to the secret handshake that would open the door to the spiritual world.
  • Weird Ethics. Because the Gnostics taught that the body was bad, they taught that it was good to punish the body by treating it poorly. Therefore, some Gnostics were very hard on the body, embracing a form of radical asceticism (intense fasting, absolute chastity even in marriage, etc.). Others pursued the opposite course and embraced a form of licentiousness – the body is bad so let’s punish it by doing all sorts of base things with it: drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, etc.  Either course led in a direction contrary to orthodox Christian ethics.

To ground their teaching they penned documents that use the form of the canonical gospels, attributing them to the apostles – Thomas, Judas, and so on.  But these “gospels” have no connection to the historical person of Jesus.  They don’t reflect his teaching or his work.  They also have nothing to do with the apostles that they identify with ( The real Thomas had nothing to do with the “Gospel of Thomas”!).  They instead reflect the beliefs of people with an alien worldview living centuries later.

Unfortunately, this isn’t communicated to modern audiences.  Instead people are told, “We’ve discovered these ancient documents that the church doesn’t want you to know about.  They reveal a very different Jesus from the one in your bible.  And these should be read alongside of, or even instead of, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”  And people believe it.  Some folks just love a good conspiracy theory.  Some are just too lazy to study the history of the canon.  Some are just happy for an excuse not to have to deal with the actual Jesus of the bible.

The Gnostic gospels aren’t reliable documents for learning anything at all about Jesus.  They are late documents (though ancient from our perspective) that teach us more about the confused people who wrote them than they do about Jesus.  If you really want to know anything about Jesus, you’ll have to open the New Testament.