What are the ‘gnostic gospels’?

Wikipedia/Nag Hammadi Codex II. Photo: Wikipedia Wikipedia/Nag Hammadi Codex II. Photo: Wikipedia

Q: I remember hearing a few years ago about the Gospel of Judas and how it was a “gnostic gospel.” What does that mean exactly, and why isn’t it in the Bible?

A: You have asked a great question and one that is becoming increasingly relevant due to recent media interest in the figures of the New Testament. This interest has led to the production of several television programs. It is important for Christians to know what is accurate in such programs and what is inaccurate. Some of these programs refer to the gnostic gospels in an effort to subvert authentic Christian faith.

When people speak about the gnostic gospels, they are almost always referring to a collection of ancient writings (in Coptic) that were discovered near the upper Nile village of Nag Hammadi, in Egypt, in 1945. These manuscripts, which scholars have dated to the fourth century, were most likely hidden in an effort to preserve them from destruction following a decree of St. Athanasius banning the use of heretical writings. An English translation of these documents has been published and can be easily referenced online.

Some of these writings bear the title “gospel” along with the names of significant people in the New Testament. For example, the Nag Hammadi library contained writings identified as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Truth, among others. Other gnostic writings have also been discovered in recent times, including the Gospel of Judas.

However, although these writings bear the name “gospel,” great care should be taken to distinguish them from the four authentic Gospels of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

In order to understand who wrote the gnostic gospels and why they were banned, we have to remember that early Christianity had to confront several movements that were teaching false beliefs about Jesus. In the first century, the great challenges to authentic faith came from such groups as the docetists (who believed that Jesus did not have a true material body of flesh and bone) and the adoptionists (who believe that Jesus was “adopted” by God the Father at some point in his life and was given divine powers only at that time), among others. In the second century, a group of people emerged who were known as the gnostics.

The gnostics believed that the material body actually trapped a “divine spark” within it and that this divine spark could only be set free through special (and even secret) knowledge, or gnosis in Greek. The gnostics composed writings in the second century claiming that they had received this special knowledge from people who knew Jesus directly. They attempted to legitimate and authenticate their writings by giving them the name “gospel” and attributing them to one of the Twelve Apostles.

While the gnostic gospels may have used some material from the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, they also modified this material in a way that distorted the Christian message and even contradicted true apostolic teaching.

Those who held firmly to the authentic faith passed down from the apostles began to identify themselves as “Catholic” and clearly distinguished themselves from the gnostics and other such groups. We see this intentional separation based on correct faith occurring as early as the year 107 in St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Church in Smyrna: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

In order to safeguard Christians from being led astray by these errant teachings of the gnostics and others, the local Catholic Church in Rome published a list of acceptable writings as early as the late second century (c. A.D. 170) called the Muratorian Canon. This list was then circulated in the early Christian world to prevent any further confusion caused by the gnostic influence. The Council of Nicaea then formally defined the list of writings that were to be considered as part of the New Testament in the year 325. Since that time, the gnostic gospels and other gnostic writings have been rejected by all Christians.

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - September 2017

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.