The Gnostic Gospels


Various philosophies on the religious meaning of life emerged in the Roman Empire. Among them the Gnostics inhabited the eastern Mediterranean for about 100 years before and after Christ, in such a way that some were Christians and Jews. They used secret knowledge (gnosis) to get closer to God. Gradually the established Christian church declared these beliefs as heresies and persuaded the Gnostic Christians to abandon them. 

The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of early Christian and Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.

Most of the texts were composed in the second and third centuries A.D. This means that the earliest were written about the same time as the latest books included in the New Testament. Their originals were composed in Greek, like the N.T. books, but the Nag Hammadi library was translated into Coptic, an evolved variant of the ancient Egyptian language written in a modified form of the Greek alphabet.

The manuscripts were found in jars buried in caves. The most likely reason for their hidden burial was the Easter letter written in 367 by Athanasius, archbishop of Alejandría. He set out the canon of scriptural books for Christians, which corresponds to the present-day New Testament texts. The monasteries were enjoined to read only these texts and to get rid of all other early Christian scriptures, which were now to be considered unorthodox. It seems likely that monks from the Pachomian monastery, which stood near caves, may have hidden their non-canonical scripture texts.

Previous to 1945 scholars relied on orthodox Christian writers who denounced gnosticism to understand it. However, these texts allow the Gnostics to speak with their own voice. 

The formats of the texts varied in time and place. There are 4 copies of The Secret Book of John extant and none are identical. This happened with the contemporary New Testament texts, too, due to copying errors. For example the original version of Mark's gospel ended at 16:8. The canonical redaction has twelve extra verses which underline the spreading of the good news of the resurrection.

Gnosticism appears to form an integrated part of Christianity and its theology is based on the writings attributed to Paul and John, according to the historian Simone Pétrement. If this is sustained then gnostic ideas must have originated later than the end of the first century. 


List of Nag Hammadi Tractates:

Codex I:

1. The Prayer of the Apostle Paul

2. The Secret Book of James

3. The Gospel of Truth

4. The Treatise on the Resurrection

5. The Tripartite Tractate

Codex II:

1. The Secret Book of John

2. The Gospel of Thomas

3. The Gospel of Philip

4. The Reality of the Rulers

5. On the Origin of the World

6. The Exegesis on the Soul

7. The Book of Thomas (The Contender Writing to the Perfect)

Codex III:

1. The Secret Book of John

2. The Gospel of the Egyptians

3. Eugnostos the Blessed

4. The Wisdom of Jesus Christ

5. The Dialogue of the Savior

Codex IV:

1. The Secret Book of John

2. The Gospel of the Egyptians

Codex V:

1. Eugnostos the Blessed

2. The Revelation of Paul

3. The First Revelation of James

4. The Second Revelation of James

5. The Revelation of Adam

Codex VI:

1. The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles

2. Thunder: Perfect Mind

3. The Authoritative Teaching

4. The Concept of Our Great Power

5. The Republic by Plato (588a-589b)

6. The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth

7. The Prayer of Thanksgiving

7a. Scribal note

8. Asclepius 21-29

Codex VII:

1. The Paraphrase of Shem

2. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth

3. The Revelation of Peter

4. The Teachings of Silvanus

5. The Three Steles of Seth

Codex VIII:

1. Zostrianos

2. The Letter of Peter to Philip

Codex IX:

1. Melchizedek

2. The Thought of Norea

3. The Testimony of Truth

Codex X:

1. Marsanes

Codex XI:

1. The Interpretation of Knowledge

2. A Valentinian Exposition

2a. On the Anointing

2b. On Baptism A

2c. On Baptism B

2d. On the Eucharist A

2e. On the Eucharist B

3. Allogenes

4. Hypsiphrone

Codex XII (mostly destroyed):

1. The Sentences of Sextus

2. The Gospel of Truth

3. Fragments

Codex XIII:

1. Three Forms of First Thought

2. On the Origin of the World

The Secret Book of John

This was written as an explanatory supplement to the Gospel of John. It was probably written between 90-95 A.D., when the Gospel of John was composed It is presumed written in Alejandría, Egypt, because of its Jewish, Greek and Egyptian influences.

The Secret Book of John explains that spiritual salvation depends on knowledge about the origins of the universe and the human condition. Christ appears to the apostle John to offer this information. He underlines monotheism but insists that God cannot be properly described in human language. Several beings arise from the divinity. Among the first were the Holy Spirit and Mary, Christ and the angels. The last entity is Wisdom (Sophia) which, without permission, gives birth to a monstrous demiurge who is expelled from heaven and creates the mundane material world. This is the origin of evil. Wisdom later repents.

The demiurge and his followers create Adam so as to attain a spark of divinity and control the world. Heavenly beings descend to help Adam achieve gnosis, the knowledge of their true nature and their final home in heaven. Thus humans became locked in the struggle between gnosis and their material nature. 

The Reality of the Rulers 

These tales were written down in Greek in the 2nd. or 3rd. century, probably in Alejandría or Syria.

The aim of the narrative episodes is to inform the reader about the demonic rulers who try to keep human souls imprisoned in the world. The stories are based on the gnostic creation myth which describes the nature of these demons, whom the Gnostics identify with other people's gods.

The traditional gnostic creation myth held that the evil demiurge created the catastrophic material world, contrary to the will of God. However the Reality of the Rulers informs that God was guiding the activities of the rulers so that they were saving the sparks of divinity lost when they were expelled from heaven. God is really in control, a message closer to proto-orthodox Christianity.

The majority of Christians in the 2nd. and 3rd. centuries believed that the God of creation in Genesis was the same as the divinity from whom Jesus came. However, the Gnostics thought they were two different, possibly opposed, entities: the demiurge and the true God. 

The Gospel of Philip

This text was probably written down originally in Syria during the second half of the second century. Philip was also said to have exercised his apostolate in the Western Mediterranean.

The Gospel of Philip contains interpretations on the meaning of Christ's message and the later Christian traditions. It deals with themes of importance to the gnostic Christian group, the Valentinians: salvation viewed as a mystical transformation (gnosis) during one's lifetime; the need to renounce earthly matters to attain gnosis; the spiritual relationship between your soul and your guardian angel; the hidden meaning of the Christian sacraments; the myths and doctrines of Christianity, not as truths, but symbols to bring about salvation. 

The gospel makes bold assertions such as: someone who achieves gnosis is not just a Christian, but Christ himself, because united with him; resurrection is something which happens while you are alive; the conventional symbols of Christian identity, such as baptism, mean nothing without an inner spiritual change; the gospel also contends that:

“In the other world, God created humans to worship him. In this world, humans create gods and worship their creations. It would make more sense for the gods to worship humans "

Pop culture has also misunderstood and spread a concept included in The Gospel of Philip:

Mary Magdalene was the companion of the Savior. He loved her more than all the other disciples, and kissed her on her [text missing] more often than he kissed the rest of the disciples.” 

In other sections the same gospel refers to 'kissing' as a metaphor for words which would move the listener to more spirituality. The contextual interpretation of the quote would thus make a less melodramatic reading: that Jesus spoke more often on spiritual matters with Mary than with other disciples.

The Gospel of Thomas

Scholars date this text as it stands today to the end of the first or early second century, mostly due to the evolution of the concept of Kingdom of God in first century Christianity. The Gospel includes material from a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, also used by the canonical gospels.

Gospel of Thomas consists of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus rather than a story about Jesus’s life. Some of these sayings are different versions of sayings that are also found in the New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. One of them – saying number 17 – is also recorded by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:9. The other sayings in the Gospel of Thomas aren’t found anywhere outside of this gospel.

It is highly unlikely that the author was the apostle Thomas. However, 'thomas' means twin in Aramaic and Syriac. The gospel shows Thomas as Jesus' spiritual twin. He does this through attaining gnosis: salvation consisting in a mystical, experimental knowledge of the nature of reality, including self. Gnosis is a mystical identity with Christ:

“Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am. I, too, will become him and the hidden things will be shown to him.”

The Gospel of Thomas asserts that gnosis cannot be put into words. It shows Jesus deliberately giving cryptic answers to his disciples to force them to understand salvation through intuition. The text mocks contemporary notions of the Kingdom of God as an upcoming event and insists that it is a spiritual state.

“The Kingdom of God is within you and all around you. Those who come to know themselves will find it.” 



The concept of gnosis was well-known in the ancient world before its adoption by the Gnostics. Plato's idea of gnosis was insight into the essence of something, and that came about through meditation or divine grace.

The 'mystery religions' which spread during the Roman Empire claimed that gnosis was the gift received by initiation. The followers became members of a spiritual aristocracy.

The Gnostics used the word to indicate that they did not belong to this meaningless world but another divine one. It was a transcendence of this world. 

“Those who have not known themselves have known nothing, but those who have known themselves already have acquired knowledge about the depth of the All.”

Gnosis was not simply a way to salvation: it was salvation. You could be saved while still alive, before death. Most second century Christians agreed that Christ had brought salvation to the world. For the Gnostics, he was a model for how to achieve gnosis. According to the Gospel of Philip, the successful Gnostic is:

“... no longer a Christian, but a Christ.”

The proto-orthodox Christians (whose direction descendents are the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox varieties of today), together with the Gnostics, all referred to the same timeline of information descending from Christ. However, they disagreed on the methods of transmission of the beliefs. The proto-orthodox tradition held that beliefs were handed down through people in specific offices of the Church, such as bishops and others, within the 'rule of faith'. The Gnostics asserted that their teachings had been revealed directly by Christ and other biblical figures to individuals who were spiritually advanced. They rejected institutional intermediaries. 

The proto-orthodox tradition gained more and more power within the Church by declaring heretical any beliefs not conforming to their own. The Valentinian gnostic sect attempted to compromise with the powerful proto-orthodox tradition to conform a more united Christian community. They advanced the concept that faith is the uniting factor of Christian believers. However, in the power struggle for dominance this compromise was rejected and the proto-orthodox Christian tradition became the reference for Christianity to this day.

Gnostic Dualism

The core tenet of Gnosticism was a dualism named 'anticosmicism'. This is the belief that the world is basically evil and opposed to the divine:

Winter is the world, summer is the other… the eternal realm.”

True spirituality was about transcending this world and its creator. Gnosis was a mystical insight, not of this world, but rather unnatural. It also taught that human Gnostics were superior to the universe, the creator and rulers. The gnostic version of the original fall from grace did not involve original sin since it was caused by the creator. 

“Adam was more intelligent than the creators and the first ruler. When they realized that Adam was enlightened and could think more clearly than they and was stripped of evil, they took and threw Adam into the lowest part of the whole material realm.”

After the creation of Eve humans were given the water of forgetfulness so that they could not know their origin. However, the innate spark of divinity remained and just needed a saviour to awaken it.

The pagan neo-platonist philosopher Plotinus was a strong critic of the Gnostics. In his work, Against Those Who Say that the Universe and Its Maker Are Evil he asserts that the Gnostics thought well of themselves and badly of the universe. He found this offensive and sacrilegious.

Fellow Christians of the Gnostics, led by the heresy hunter, Irenaeus of Lyons, considered blasphemous the concept of a malevolent creator.

Both the Gnostics and the proto-orthodox Christians found a similar reference in the Joannine and Pauline scriptures, which contain the dualist God/world theme. However, the Gnostics inflated the concept into the doctrine of anticosmicism; the proto-orthodox Christians tried to bridge the gap between the world and the divinity.


The competing Christian groups resorted to disqualifications about each other. It was usual to qualify the Gnostics as hedonistic libertarians who lacked any morals. 

However, the gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi Library universally advocate harsh asceticism and detachment from worldly desires. The Secret Book of John recommends apatheia, the absence of desire and emotion, a concept similar to stoicism. The Gospel of Thomas states that the goal of ethics for all Gnostics is, for the sake of their spirit, to:

 “lay down their animal nature.

Gnostic spirituality was based on the theological concept of “anticosmicism”, the belief that this world is absurd and evil, its existence contrary to the will of the good God. The human soul, a fragment of God, has infinite value; the mundane, physical world has no value whatsoever. Gnostic spirituality aimed at liberating people from earthly society, quite the opposite of practising a sensorial hedonism. Less attachment to worldly things meant freeing the spark of God in oneself.

Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons

Against Heresies by Irenaeus is a book in five parts. In the first two the author sets out the full teachings of the Gnostics in a very dense manner. In the third to fifth books Irenaeus explained how Christian doctrine refutes gnostic beliefs. 

It was his struggle against the Gnostic movements that led Irenaeus to develop sacramental theology and Christology. The Gnostics held that spiritual things are good but material ones are evil. This meant that the incarnation was impossible.

Irenaeus developed the idea of the necessity of atonement and redemption through Jesus’ humanity. This is the “Recapitulation theory of Atonement.” It emphasised the concept of Christ as the second Adam, but who is victorious where Adam failed. Christ reversed mankind's adamic tradition from disobedience to obedience, rolling back the evolution of human life. 

Irenaeus argues from tradition insisting that orthodox Christianity was passed down from the apostles who knew Jesus personally. He claimed that the Gnostics and Marcionites were distorting this apostolic tradition.

The Gnostics offered secret knowledge, available only to some, as the path to salvation. The author contended that orthodox Christianity is handed down through Church authorities. 

Irenaeus viewed creation as good and destined for heaven; the Gnostics believed the material world was flawed and that believers should endeavour to escape to the realm of the spirit.

Both Christian traditions interpret Paul's verse of 1Cor. 15:50 in different ways:

"I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable."

The gnostic Valentinians understand this text as meaning that the resurrection is a spiritual phenomenon. Irenaeus counter argues that Christians would finally rise from the dead with bodies of flesh.

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