The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic Gospels are mainly second and third century writings produced by people who have been traditionally called Gnostics (see Gnosticism). These writings claim to convey secret teachings given to certain spiritually advanced disciples, usually after the resurrection. With the exception of the Gospel of Thomas, there is most likely no historically reliable information about Jesus in these writings. The five main Gnostic Gospels are described below.

The Gnostics taught that they had the secret knowledge of God and the true nature of the world. They also taught a version of the Gnositic myth. In the Gnostic myth the material world is evil and it was created by an evil, inferior God or angel. In the Gnostic gospels Jesus Christ reveals the way to salvation though gnosis. This gnosis (Greek for knowledge) includes achieving mystical knowledge of God and the true evil nature of the world.

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas is usually considered the main Gnostic Gospel, but scholars debate whether or not it is actually Gnostic. The Gospel of Thomas does not have as negative of a view of the world that is usually found in Gnosticism. For example, in the Gospel of Thomas God creates the material world through the living Jesus; in Gnosticism the world is created by a malevolent lower god. The Gospel of Thomas also does not have the Gnostic myth. Some scholars believe that the Gospel of Thomas presupposes this myth because it has a number of ideas which are also present in Gnosticism or similar to ideas to Gnosticism.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings of Jesus. Each saying is introduced as "Jesus said..."  Occasionally one or more of Jesus disciples will ask Jesus a question. Salvation (i.e. gnosis) is found in the correct interpretation of these sayings. Once one discovers the meaning of these sayings they will have eternal life.

The Gospel of Judas

This is the most recently discovered Gnostic Gospel. It was found in the 1970s and first published in 2006. The Gospel of Judas is a Sethian Christian Gnostic text. The kind of gnosticism labeled by scholars as Sethian views Adam's third son, Seth, as a revealer of gnosis and a savior.

A large part of the Gospel of Judas is the revealing of the Gnostic myth of the creation of the world (see Gnosticism). The version of the Gnostic myth in the Gospel of Judas has many typically Sethian features. For example, the names used to describe the various spiritual beings, both good and evil.

Scholars debate whether or not Judas is a hero or anti-hero in this text. In this gospel, Jesus has a secret discussion with Judas right before his crucifixion. Jesus says, "For you will sacrifice the man who bears me" (56, 17-21).*  If Judas is the hero, this means that Judas helped Jesus' spirit escape form the material world by facilitating the death of Jesus' material body. If Judas is an anti-hero, then his turning Jesus over to be crucified helped to perpetuate the worship of the malevolent god that created the material world. In this view, the Eucharist (i.e. the sacrifice of the Mass, the Lord's Supper, Communion) is the reenactment of the sacrifice of Jesus to the inferior creator god.

In either view, the Gospel of Judas is very critical of orthodox, non-Gnostic forms of Christianity. In this gospel, people who are killed because of their faith are seen as sacrificing themselves to an evil, inferior god. In the Gospel of Judas, non-Gnostics worship the evil god. This gospel was probably a response to Christians who were condemning Gnostic Christians as heretics.

The Gospel of Mary

The Gospel of Mary is a dialogue gospel: meaning it is mostly a dialogue between the risen Jesus and his disciples (including Mary Magdalene = Mary Magdala). In this gospel, Mary is the disciple the Savior loved the most and the disciple that understood him the most. Mary discloses the secret teaching that Jesus gave her to the disciples. Mary talks about the ascent of the soul, which refers to the ascent of the enlightened soul after death and the process of spiritual growth through the seeking of the divine within oneself. Sin is not real, because it could not be created by a good God. Humans create sin out of ignorance.

The community that produced the Gospel of Mary viewed Mary Magdalene to be the most important apostle. She comforts and teaches the other disciples after the Savior is gone. Peter rebukes her and says her teaching is strange.  Levi defends her and points out the Savior loved her the most because of her spiritual insight. In the Gospel of Mary, Peter represents the Christian groups that taught that only men could have authority. The Gospel of Mary comes from a Christian group that looked to Mary Magdalene as their founding apostle and taught that Jesus gave them secret teachings that many other Christian groups don't have. Scholars debate as to whether the Gospel of Mary should be considered Gnostic.

The Gospel of Truth

The Gospel of Truth is a Valentinian Gnostic sermon. Valentinus was one of the most important Christian Gnostic Teachers, and this gospel may have been written by Valentinus himself. He almost became the Bishop of Rome, a precursor to the position of the Pope (who still holds that title).

The Gospel of Truth tells how the material world came into being through ignorance. Everything in the spiritual world began inside God the Father. But since the totality of God is unknowable, ignorance came into being among the spiritual beings (called aeons) within the divine world and ignorance became Error. Error led to the creation of the material world. Jesus the Savior came to reveal the Father to the aeons, thus eliminating ignorance and restoring their relationship to God. Jesus also came into the material world to defeat Error by revealing the Father to humankind. He taught them the truth which brought them out of their forgetfulness of their divine origins, in order to be reunited with the Father.

The Gospel of Phillip

The Gospel of Philip is another Valentinian Gnostic Gospel. This gospel is a loosely organized collection of material such as sayings, meditations, parables, teaching, quotations, and narrative dialogues. The Philip named in the gospel is a combination of two people named Philip in the New Testament: Philip the apostle and Philip the deacon.

The main theme of the Gospel of Philip is the reunification of the human soul with its spiritual counterpart. The Gospel of Philip retells the story of Adam and Eve as part of the Gnostic creation myth. In the Gospel of Philip, Adam and Eve were at first unified as a complete person. When Adam and Eve, male and female, were separated, death entered the world. Christ came to heal the separation and reunite the soul with the body. In the Gospel of Philip, marriage and the unification of the male and female are symbolic of this spiritual unification. The gospel mentions a ritual called the bridal chamber, but it is not known whether or not this was a real ceremony or metaphor for the reunification of the soul and spirit.

*For citations of Coptic documents, including all the Gnostic Gospels, the first number refers to the page number in the original text and the second number refers to the line number. English translations will have the page and line number marked like chapter and verse numbers in the Bible.

For Further Reading

Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels
  • The most important and most reliable introduction to the Gnostic Gospels and the relationship of Gnostic Christian groups to other Christian groups.

Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library
  • A introduction to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library and the other important Gnostic texts, and a description of each of the ancient Gnostic texts.

Marvin W. Meyer, The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus: The Definitive Collection of Mystical Gospels and Secret Books about Jesus of Nazareth
  • A collection of the Gnostic Gospels and other important Gnostic texts, with introductions. (The Gospel of Judas had not been published when this book came out.)

Marvin Meyer & James M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts Complete in One Volume
  • A collection of the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi and the other important Gnostic texts with introductions and notes. This book has the Gospel of Judas and all the other Gnostic Gospels.

Steven L. Davies, The Gospel of Thomas: Annotated & Explained
  • A translation of the Gospel of Thomas with commentary.

Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin W. Meyer, Gregor Wurst, & Francois Gaudard, The Gospel of Judas, Second Edition
  • The text of the Gospel of Judas with introductory and interpretive essays.

Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle
  • Part one is the text of the Gospel of Mary with an introduction, part two has several chapters about the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Mary, and part three has several chapters about Mary Magdala and early Christianity.

Andrew Philip Smith, The Gospel of Philip: Annotated & Explained
  • A translation of the Gospel of Philip with commentary.

Return to the Homepage