There has been a recent resurgence of interest in a category of documents known collectively as Gnostic Gospels. Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code, popularized these writings, although he garnered a fair bit of criticism for the artistic license that he took with the contents. Now that Brown’s book has been made into a movie, even more people are interested in these ‘secret’ ancient documents.
The word “Gnostic” comes from the Greek word “gnosis”. It means knowledge or enlightenment, and is usually used in the context of secret or hidden wisdom. It is human nature to want to know secrets, and the lure of acquiring hidden wisdom that ordinary people don’t have can be a strong enticement.
Most of these documents were discovered in a find known as the Nag Hammadi Library, named after the area in Upper Egypt where they were discovered by farmers digging for fertilizer in 1945. The manuscripts were written in Coptic (an ancient Egyptian language which used the Greek alphabet) and are dated to the 4th century, although they could be copies and/or translations of earlier texts.
So what kind of knowledge can be gleaned from these “secret” books? They are not much of a secret anymore, since the complete text of each can be found on the internet. Here is an overview of the Gospel of Thomas. I was planning to include the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas, but the article was getting too long. So I will make this Part 1, and then post a sequel or two.
The Gospel of Thomas – The introduction of this text states: ”These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote them down.” Didymos is the Greek form of Thomas, so there is a possibility that the author was the apostle Thomas, but Eusebius (an historian of the early church) knew of this document and included it in a group of books that he labeled “the fictions of heretics.”
The text of the gospel of Thomas is a list of sayings attributed to Jesus, and conversations with the other disciples. Some of it does resemble sayings of Jesus that are included in the New Testament gospels, such as:
“Jesus said, “Congratulations to the poor, for to you belongs Heaven’s kingdom.” (v.54)
This resembles Matthew 5:3, which says:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
However, most of the words ascribed to Jesus bear little resemblance to anything from the four gospels. For example, the gospel of Thomas quotes Jesus as saying:
“Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you will bring sin upon yourselves, and if you pray, you will be condemned, and if you give to charity, you will harm your spirits.” (v.14)
That doesn’t sound like anything that the Jesus of Christianity would say. Some of this work just sounds weird:
“Jesus said to them, “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter [the kingdom].” (v. 22)
“Jesus said, “When you strip without being ashamed, and you take your clothes and put them under your feet like little children and trample then, then [you] will see the son of the living one and you will not be afraid.” (v. 37)
But I think that the oddest verse in the gospel of Thomas is the last verse, which was apparently added on at a later date. It concerns Mary Magdalene:
“Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.” Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
Gnosticism refutes the Christian belief that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Rather, salvation is a psychic experience of the soul learning to free itself from the material world. Those seeking answers to spiritual questions should look within themselves, not to the church or the Bible.
I think that the appeal of Gnosticism comes from the mystical esoteric worldview it espouses. Many people have told me that the fundamentalist view of Christianity is too narrow minded and intolerant. They say that religion should be personal and private, based only on your own experiences of God. The gospel of Thomas teaches this view:
“And he (Jesus) took him (Thomas), and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?”
Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you.” (v.13)
Gnosticism appeals to the human desire to be better than others:
“Jesus said, “I disclose my mysteries to those [who are worthy] of [my] mysteries.” (v.62)
From a Biblical perspective, however, it sounds like the same old lie that Satan used to tempt Eve in the garden:
“Jesus said, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.” (v. 108)
Doesn’t that sound a lot like:
“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. (Genesis 3:5,6)
To be continued. Look for the Gnostic gospels of Mary and Judas.