Skeptic criticism says the church cast out the Gnostic texts to retain control over dogma and to suppress minority voices. History and thoughtful textual criticism, however, says otherwise.
Although it may be surprising to some, exactly what books are part of scripture, particularly New Testament scripture, has not always been a clear-cut case. There have been debates, arguments, and councils on the topic as soon after the lives of the apostles as Irenaeus, who writes in the second century against certain Gnostic texts. Even certain approved books of the New Testament canon are sometimes called into question, such as Jude, which is drawn up as suspect by some for quoting the apocryphal Book of Enoch.
So if this is the case, what actually caused certain books to be accepted and others to be rejected? Were they reasons according to consistent Christianity, or were they political reasons? In particular, what about books such as the Gospel of Judas or the Gospel of Thomas which present a different side of Jesus? Are they equally valid books suppressed by controlling church fathers?
What is Gnosticism?
This question must be answered before any other. Gnosticism developed as one of the earliest Christian heresies, but really qualifies as its own world religion, although many Gnostics would have considered themselves Christians. Gnostics place the core of salvation and the need for it not in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice and the sinfulness of mankind, but rather in gnosis, or knowledge. The human race is not fallen because we sinned. Rather, we are fallen because we are ignorant. Spirit is good and matter is evil, the physical world being created by the evil and ignorant demiurge (a lesser God which to the Gnostics was frequently seen as Jehovah of the Old Testament), and the spirit being part of the higher, greater God, an altogether separate being from the aforementioned creator God. Dualism is very important in Gnosticism. The spirit, from which gnosis comes, is good, while matter is evil.
From this dualism, Gnosticism branches out into several errant doctrines, not any of them held by all Gnostics, but many held by most. For instance, some believe that Jesus had no material body, but only appeared as having one, actually being a spirit. Jesus might have died on the cross, might not have, but to virtually all Gnostics, the cross was incidental rather than crucial. Jesus did not come to die, and the manner of his death is of no great significance. Rather, the gnosis that he brought is of supreme importance, and therein lies the key to redemption. For Gnostics, this knowledge is often (though not always) a secret knowledge of sorts. Certain Gnostic religions have two separate castes, a “Perfect” caste (essentially Gnostic monks who are treated better than the lay people), and a caste that serves them. The former of these are considered to have the perfect knowledge.
There’s an entire mythology in addition to canonical Scripture that comes with this and explains it more fully. If you’re more interested in the details of Gnosticism, please check out our podcast episode that deals with this religion in more depth.
What are the Gnostic Gospels?
The Gnostic gospels are texts which endorse the Gnostic view of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, contains many alleged sayings of Jesus, some of them clearly endorsing a secret knowledge as the key to salvation. The Gospel of Judas goes even further than this, portraying Judas as being among the “perfect,” and being given a fuller picture of God’s plan. Judas, according to this gospel, was acting under the command of Jesus when he betrayed him.
There are many texts that are considered Gnostic. There are many Gnostic texts even beyond the gospels. However, when we are considering the Gnostic gospels, the most common are the gospels of Thomas, Judas, and Mary. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings by Jesus, some found in the other gospels, but many obviously deviant from the canonical gospels. The Gospel of Judas, as has been alluded to, portrays a different picture of Judas, seeing him as the true apostle rather than the betrayer. It also teaches that the sacrifice of Jesus was not needed to appease the almighty God, but lower gods and angels. The Gospel of Mary, made famous by Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, shows Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene and having children. In this gospel, Jesus entrusts a great deal of secret knowledge and honor to Mary, who is commonly opposed by Peter for no other reason than that she is a woman (he plays this role in other Gnostic texts as well; it was common for Gnostics to have a low opinion of the apostle Peter, particularly because of the Catholic Church’s regard for him as the supposed first pope).
Are They Reliable?
The question of reliability ultimately comes down to legitimacy. If it is most probable that the writer of the Gospel of Thomas was actually the apostle Thomas, for example, then it is reliable. This could cause some problems for mainstream Christianity given the inherent contradictions in doctrine, but to use that as a basis for its rejection is to beg the question. The question of a book’s legitimacy is independent of the consequences of that fact.
The legitimacy of the Gnostic gospels, however, is questionable at best. This is due to three reasons: date, consistency, and historical context.
While the Bible would not be compiled as the Bible for many, many years, the canonical gospels were being circulated before the Gnostic gospels were probably even written. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright notes this very fact: “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.”
There are some fragments of the canonical gospels found in these Gnostic books, particularly the Gospel of Thomas. But the church history that N.T. Wright cites gives us a proper explanation: that the Gnostic gospels, being written perhaps a full century after the canonical gospels (most of the New Testament was written between 70 and 90 A.D.) pulled from the tradition of the canonical gospels.*
As I noted earlier in this post, legitimacy ought to be considered independent of the consequences of such conclusions. But that does not mean we cast out all evidence with which we form our picture of Jesus and of the apostles. Given the reliable accounts of Matthew and John (Mark and Luke, while being canonical eyewitness accounts, were not written by apostles), an entirely different view of Judas seems highly suspect, especially if it was in fact written by Judas himself. If it was not (which would seem apparent given the presence of his death in the book, unless it was finished by a second party), then the problem of legitimacy persists, because one is then writing without and against true apostolic authority. The appointed apostles of Jesus win out in credibility, and handily so.
In the Gospels of Thomas and Mary the contradictions are not as immediately obvious, although still present. Instead, it must be asked whether it is likely that while the canonical gospels treat the message of Jesus as being out of God’s grace and for all, the Jesus of the Gnostic gospels came to appease lower gods and angels while offering secret knowledge of salvation to a select few. Can both be true? We have very good reason to trust the canonical gospels, so where the two come in conflict (as opposed to simply offering new information), the well-attested earlier gospels win out yet again.
Finally, to treat the Gnostic gospels as truly reliable accounts is to betray a deep ignorance of Gnostics themselves. I’ve mentioned already that they had a deep mythology in addition to the Genesis account. But Gnostics themselves did not take these things literally, at least in the strictest sense. Andrew Phillip Smith, a Gnostic scholar who is not a believer, says in his book The Gnostics that the Gnostics were not terribly interested in their stories being strictly true. They were interested in their stories as stories; they used myth as a method to communicate their values. This is why certain Gnostic figures, such as Mani, the father of the Manicheans, would consider not only Jesus, but also figures of Buddhism, as redemptive figures.
To treat the Gnostic gospels as equally valid historical accounts is bad scholarship. At most, they show an alternate perception of Jesus in splinter groups from the early church. But to treat them as though they could be serious and accurate accounts of the life of Jesus is to misuse not only the books themselves, but also to be disingenuous with the approach and intentions of the Gnostics themselves.
*There is some debate on the dating of the Gospel of Thomas. There are generally two camps, one with an early date of around 50 A.D. and another with a late date of around 140 A.D. Given N.T. Wright’s historical context, and when Gnosticism was rising in popularity, the later date seems more appropriate.