The apocryphal gospels - what’s in a name - The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster

The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster (2009)

Chapter 1. The apocryphal gospels – what’s in a name?

There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

(John 21.25)

So ends the Gospel of John, with an acknowledgement that it contained only a limited number of the traditions about Jesus. But is this statement mere authorial hyperbole, or does it reflect a reality that in the gospel writer’s day there was a vast number of stories and sayings attributed to Jesus in circulation? If, even to a limited extent, the author of the fourth gospel portrays the prevailing circumstances of his own day, it becomes fascinating to ask what happened to all these extra traditions concerning Jesus. In all likelihood the vagaries of ancient history would mean the vast majority were lost in the mists of time. Romantic notions of such material surviving through long chains of oral tradition reaching down two millennia are simply fanciful. For such additional traditions to survive, the only plausible mechanism would be through the medium of written texts: either copied and transmitted by scribes down through the centuries, or through the chance preservation of ancient manuscripts.

Up until about the 1870s, only the first of these two alternatives was known to have led to the preservation of extra-biblical traditions concerning Jesus. Manuscripts recounting stories purporting to be events in the life of Jesus before his public ministry, or further post-crucifixion narratives, were generally the types of documents that had survived through scribal copying. Hence the written sources tended to be medieval or early-modern copies, many centuries removed from the date of composition of these extra-biblical stories. In many ways these represented a ‘gap-filling’ exercise, by providing details of the so-called ‘hidden years’ of Jesus’ life.

However, during the last quarter of the 19th century, as archaeologists commenced large-scale excavations in Egypt and scholars began trawling through dusty library collections, long-buried and long-forgotten manuscripts started to emerge. The first discovery, made in 1885, was a relatively small scrap of six incomplete lines of text found amongst the papyrus collection of Archduke Rainer in Vienna. Whether this text is actually part of a separate, larger, previously unknown gospel, or is simply a variant reading of part of the Gospel of Mark, is contested. Nonetheless, it was the first window on the murky world of the transmission of ancient non-canonical Christian texts. A more substantial discovery was unearthed at an archaeological dig at Akhmîm in Upper Egypt during the winter season of 1886/7 by members of a French team. A small book, or codex, was exhumed from a monk’s grave and this contained 4 texts in its 66 pages. The first, ranging over 9 pages, was identified as a fragment of the lost text the Gospel of Peter, which had previously been known only by name, having been discussed by various early Christian writers. The rapid stream of discoveries continued through the last decade of the 19th century.

In 1897, two young Oxford scholars, B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt, commenced an archaeological dig at an Egyptian village called el-Behesna, some 100 miles south of Cairo and 10 miles west of the Nile. The village name stems from the Arab period and did in fact represent the renaming of what had been a much larger city known as Oxyrhynchus. As is the case now, when Grenfell and Hunt arrived at Oxyrhynchus little remained of that ancient settlement apart from one stone column - and various rubbish heaps, each about 30 feet deep. The mixed debris of those rubbish heaps contained a vast number of papyrus fragments - basically what turned out to be the waste paper of the day. This contained a fascinating array of documents, including tax receipts, bills of sale, personal letters, and census records. Such finds were the so-called ‘documentary papyri’ that provide such vivid insights into the everyday lives of people from the various social strata of that ancient society. Combined, however, with such documents were literary texts. Fragments of Homer and schoolboy exercises in copying Euripides were found, along with various Christian texts. Apart from ecclesial texts and fragments of writings contained in the Bible, new texts were discovered that purported to record the actual words of Jesus or those of his followers. In fact, the very first text from the Oxyrhynchus trove to be published was entitled Sayings of Our Lord and contained both previously unattested sayings and versions of sayings that varied from the parallels in biblical texts. It would only later transpire that these fragments were part of a larger text known under the title of the Gospel of Thomas. However, what this series of early discoveries did was to open up the possibility that an alternative source of traditions about Jesus existed and that this might offer a radically different insight into the teachings and person of Jesus. From these early discoveries, scholars collected together these disparate texts and published collections of ‘apocryphal’, or ‘non-canonical’, gospel texts. They shared in common the fact that they were not included among the biblical writings. Thus a new sub-branch of investigation into early Christianity began to emerge - the study of the apocryphal New Testament.


1. This map shows the location of three important manuscript discoveries in Egypt: Akhmîm, Nag Hammadi, and Oxyrhynchus

The meaning of the term ‘apocryphal gospels’

The very title ‘apocryphal gospels’ is a highly contested label. Taking the word ‘gospel’ first, it may be thought that it is self-evident what this term means. Depending on the definition employed, the meaning of the word ‘gospel’ may appear obvious. A recent writer commenting on the Gospel of Judas stated that this work does not deserve the label ‘gospel’ since, according to the author in question, it says nothing about the ‘real’ Jesus. From this perspective, the definition of the term ‘gospel’ appears to become little more than a shorthand way of referring to writings about Jesus that were later deemed to be ‘orthodox’. In other words, the term is narrowly and exclusively defined as referring to one of the four gospels contained in the canonical New Testament. Such circular thinking automatically excludes from the discussion those texts which some early Christians may have considered authoritative, even of equal value alongside the ‘four Gospels’ that are instantly recognizable today. These additional texts need to be taken on their own terms and judged against the historical background in which they were written, rather than being excluded on the basis of anachronistic and theologically motivated criteria.


2. Oxyrhynchus - excavation of ‘rubbish’ mounds at this site led to the discovery of between a quarter to half a million papyrus fragments. Fewer than 6,000 of these have been published at the time of writing


3. An image of the original excavation at Oxyrhynchus. Children were often employed for the delicate work because of their more careful handling of the papyri, and their body-weight made less impact on the mounds

Returning to the term ‘gospel’, it is important to understand that this word had a range of meanings even before it came to be used as a term for designating written texts about Jesus. There are basically two sources of evidence which help to clarify the meaning of the Greek word group relating to ‘gospel’ (the noun, euangelion = ‘gospel’, and the verb euangelizImage = ‘to announce glad tidings/to proclaim good news’) prior to its use to designate early Christian texts that employed the term as a title. The first comes from the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures known as the Septuagint. In that collection of texts, this word group refers to an oral proclamation or the announcement of some news. Often the news is a positive event (Isa. 52.7; Nah. 2.1). However, this is not uniformly the case. In one Old Testament story, a messenger thinking that he is bringing ‘good news’ to David of King Saul’s death soon learns that David does not consider this as glad tidings. The unfortunate herald pays the ultimate price for being unable to distinguish between good and bad news (2 Sam. 4.10)! The second source of evidence does not emerge from biblical material, but rather from the use of the term in association with the imperial cult. The Jewish historian Josephus, who skilfully advanced his own career by predicting Vespasian’s rise to imperial office, wrote of the effect of the proclamation of the new emperor taking office in AD 69 at the culmination of one of the most turbulent years in Roman history: ‘Every city kept festival for good news [euangelia] and offered sacrifices on his behalf’ (Jewish War IV.618). In the so-called Priene inscription. The laudatory language that describes Augustus refers to the consequences of his ascension and reign in the following manner; It is ‘resulting in signalling to the world through him the good news [euangelion] of the birthday of our god’ (lines 40-1).

Therefore, it is unsurprising that in the earliest stages of the Jesus movement, the term ‘gospel’ denoted an oral proclamation of some event of significance, usually with positive ramifications - such as the accession of a new emperor. Christian usage of ‘gospel’ language may have looked to the antecedents in the Old Testament, but would also have been attuned to the popular contemporary usage as part of the imperial cult, especially in the eastern Mediterranean where emperor veneration appeared to flourish. If this were the case, then Paul’s appropriation of ‘gospel’ language was far from a politically neutral manoeuvre. Rather, in a subversive and controversial manner the one who styled himself as ‘apostle to the gentiles’ intentionally took hold of the language of the imperial cult in order to claim that Christ, not Caesar, was the source of good news and the manifestation of divinity.

So if the term ‘gospel’ started its Christian phase as referring to oral announcements, why, how, and when did it come to be associated with written documents? Perhaps the first two aspects of the question are somewhat easier to answer - at least partially. As the numbers of first-generation followers of Jesus diminished, there was presumably a need to enshrine community tradition in order to preserve and communicate the message. It is almost certain that the content of early forms of written tradition was derived from oral proclamations known as ‘gospel’. The earliest of the canonical gospels, that written by Mark, opens with the words ‘Beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ …’ (Mark 1.1). So it appears that as early believers began to crystallize what had previously existed as an oral proclamation into a written form, the same term ‘gospel’ was used to describe the content of the written message. However, the title of this literary work, either simply ‘according to Mark’ or ‘the Gospel according to Mark’, was almost certainly not part of the text when it first circulated. It was, therefore, a striking change for a term that was used to describe oral proclamations to be applied as a description of a written work, especially given the presumably significant differences in content. So when did this relabelling first occur? Like many innovations, its originator and the specific circumstances that led to this daring use of terminology are unknown, but texts written by Christian figures in the 2nd century use the term ‘gospel’ to refer to written documents as though this terminology was widely understood and was a common way to refer to the type of documents under discussion.

The ‘hard evidence’ for the earliest demonstrable use of the term ‘gospel’ to designate a written form rather than an oral proclamation comes from two sources. First, the earliest manuscripts of the writings with titles using the term ‘gospel’ date to around the year AD 200 and the decades that follow. An early copy of the papyrus manuscript of the Gospel of John known as P66 dated at some point around the end of the 2nd century has the title ‘Gospel according to John’; the slightly later manuscript containing both Luke and John (P75) has a title at the end of Luke stating ‘Gospel according to Luke’ and then at the beginning of John, ‘Gospel according to John’. Thus, while there may not have been consensus even in the same manuscript concerning whether such titles belonged at the beginning or the end of the text, these writings were already being labelled as ‘gospels’.

The second piece of evidence is even earlier. Writing around AD 180, Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon, in his work Adversus Haeresus (‘Against Heresies’) refers on multiple occasions to written documents using the term ‘gospel’. In book 3 of this work, he refers to the four evangelists issuing ‘gospels’ in different geographical locations - although the location of Luke’s Gospel is not specified (Ad. Haer. 3.1.1). Irenaeus uses the term ‘gospel’ to denote written documents unambiguously on many occasions and without explanation. The very fact that he offers no explanation leads to the supposition that he was not the innovator of this usage, and the natural way in which he uses such terminology suggests that ‘gospel’ as a designation for a written document had been established for some time. While certain scholars have argued for such usage stemming back to the beginning of the 2nd century, such a claim cannot be established with any certainty. Rather, it appears more accurate to state simply that by the second half of the 2nd century Christian writers could quite naturally speak of certain written documents as ‘gospels’.

The designation of those gospels outside the fourfold collection as ‘apocryphal’ is a description that originated with post-Enlightenment scholars. Although this remains a common way of referring to such texts, the term can carry negative associations. Thus it may be preferable to call such texts ‘non-canonical’, thereby simply distinguishing them from the four gospels that formed part of the canon of the New Testament at a later stage in history. It must be remembered that the distinction between ‘canonical’ and ‘non-canonical’ texts is anachronistic, in that it did not apply at the time when the texts were written. Such a separation was possible only a few centuries later when a fixed list of New Testament texts began to emerge. Although recognizing the limitations of terms such as ‘apocryphal’ or ‘non-canonical’, both these labels will be used to refer to the range of gospels under discussion. This approach recognizes the fact that this has become the common designation, but behind such shorthand labels it needs to be seen that these are imposed modern categories that were not used by Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when many of these texts were being produced or circulated.

How many gospels are there?

Irenaeus not only provides the earliest certain usage of the term ‘gospel’ to refer to written documents, he also gives the first extant reference to the existence of a fourfold gospel collection. While he asserts that there is only one gospel (i.e. the central message of Christianity), he also declares that it is known and received in a fourfold form and he explicitly names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors of the four documents (Ad. Haer. 3.11.8). This may seem to settle the debate about the number of gospels. However, it is well known that the writing of history is dominated by the perspectives of those who are victorious in battles over territory or ideas. Irenaeus’ position anticipates what was to become the received orthodoxy of 4th-century Christianity, yet even his complex arguments against competing views subvert his claim that it is self-evident that there can be no more or no fewer than four gospels.

In the process of refuting the followers of Valentinus, Irenaeus accuses them of ‘possessing more gospels than there really are’ (Ad. Haer. 3.11.9). He goes on to name one such document, the ‘Gospel of Truth’, but argues that this is so discrepant from the four ‘received’ gospels that it should not be classed in the same way. Despite his protestations, this argument vividly betrays the fact that for other Christians in the 2nd century there were indeed other gospels than the four sanctioned by Irenaeus. For those who read such ‘alternative’ writings, these documents were not of a lesser standing, but could be read as authoritative texts disclosing divine revelation. Other early Church figures reveal knowledge of documents bearing the title ‘gospel’ which do not belong to the corpus of the fourfold gospel. For instance, the 4th-century Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea recounts the story of Serapion, bishop of Antioch, visiting the town of Rhossos in his diocese. While there, he became acquainted with a document known as the Gospel of Peter. Initially he stated no objection to this ‘gospel’ being read alongside the four received gospels. However, on his return to Antioch, advisors instructed him that some form of this text was used by a group known as the Docetics - deemed to be heretics. Consequently, Serapion wrote to the church in Rhossos rescinding his earlier permission to use this text (Eusebius, H.E. 6.12.1-6). In addition to numerous examples of early Christian writers mentioning the names of texts containing the word ‘gospel’ in the title, there are also manuscripts of non-canonical gospels that occur with titles bearing the term ‘gospel’. It is difficult to enumerate how many texts, disputed or otherwise, might be described as gospels since some are categorized because of their form rather than an explicit title, but recent attempts would perhaps list around 40 distinct ancient texts in this category.

Unless a restrictive canonical approach is adopted that allows only the fourfold collection to be labelled as ‘gospels’, there is obviously a greater number of texts that potentially could be included in this category. The problem arises in deciding what to include or exclude. Upon reading the text, it is perhaps possible to sympathize with Irenaeus’ refutation of the ‘Gospel of Truth’ as being a gospel. On the likely assumption that the text of the same title discovered at Nag Hammadi is the document to which Irenaeus refers, then it must be admitted that it does not read like one of the familiar four canonical texts. However, this text, like the Gospel of Mark, uses the term ‘gospel’ in its opening phrase, and this is no doubt intended as an important clue as to how its contents are to be understood. Presumably such a designation was not problematic for those early Christians who read it.

On the other hand, there are texts that, in the form in which they survive, do not bear the word ‘gospel’ in their title, such as the infancy account attributed to Thomas or the Gospel of Peter (although Christian writers refer to texts known by these titles), but nonetheless they do convey traditions and teachings of Jesus. Perhaps the best strategy is to investigate various texts as ‘gospel-type’ writings. These writings would include texts that designate themselves as ‘gospels’ either through a title or description of contents. The selection also includes untitled writings that may be identified with titles of ‘gospel writings’ known by early Christian writers (an example would be the Gospel of Peter). Furthermore, it is helpful to consider those writings such as the Protevangelium of James, which has been labelled as a ‘gospel’ by scholarly convention rather than ancient attribution. Admittedly, this may cast a very wide net, and the grouping is functional rather than strictly defined, but the benefit in at least considering such a wide range of potential gospel texts is that it enriches the understanding of the diversity of this category in early Christianity and beyond, and seeks to ensure that texts are not excluded on the basis of preconceived theological boundaries.

It is therefore necessary to be aware of different types of gospel texts that circulated in the ancient world. As different texts are discussed here, some of these gospels will be seen to be narrative accounts, others will catalogue sayings of Jesus, while still other texts concern not the adult ministry of Jesus but his childhood or even his mother’s birth. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, a number of gospel texts purportedly record discourses that occurred after the resurrection with figures privileged to receive such revelatory instruction.

Gnosticism: misnomer or helpful category?

Many of the alternative gospels that have come to light in recent manuscript finds, or those documents named as gospels by early Christian writers, were labelled either descriptively or pejoratively as ‘Gnostic’. One trend in recent scholarship has been to question the utility of this term, arguing that it is both too broad and also repeatedly misused. It has been suggested that such labelling is not only unhelpful, but actually misleading. Consequently, the total abandonment of the term has been advocated. While some of the criticisms levelled against the use of this term are warranted, especially the labelling of any text with a mystic or cosmological interest as being ‘pre-’ or ‘proto-Gnostic’, to abandon the term altogether seems akin to throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater and in the process losing a helpful heuristic tool that is of value if correctly understood.

Part of the critique against using the term ‘Gnosticism’ is that it does not create a useful taxonomy for categorizing the variety of religious movements of the 2nd century that are often grouped under this umbrella. Furthermore, it has been stated that the label ‘Gnosticism’ is a modern construct, unknown to the ancients, and that there was no such thing as a coherent Gnostic religion in the 2nd century. It is indeed true that there was no unified Gnostic religion in this period. Then again, neither was there any monolithic or clearly defined and governed Christianity - especially in the first half of the 2nd century. Despite what later succession lists suggest, there was no papal figure occupying episcopal office in Rome. Instead, Christianity, even in the imperial capital, was at best a loose confederacy of house churches for much of the 2nd century, and at worst it was a collection of competing groups disputing the way to express their devotion to the Christ figure. In response to such observations, those who reject the category of Gnosticism would tend to argue that by contrast Christianity was not only a self-designation in the contemporary Greek vocabulary of the early centuries of the movement, but that it represents a phenomenon that has had a continuous existence since then, whereas Gnosticism seems to have disappeared by the end of the 5th century and is not spoken of again until the post-Enlightenment period. In this regard, it may be comparable to the use of the term ‘Charismatic’ to describe the ‘religion’ of various groups that have widely divergent practices but nonetheless share a belief that ecstatic Spirit-led experiences distinguish them from the wider category of Christians.

Similarly, ‘Gnosticism’ as used here does not refer to a fully thought-out belief system, or to a coherent and well-developed ‘religion’. Rather, it is intended as a useful shorthand way of denoting a collection of groups with some highly significant differences, but unified by some strikingly similar features. Although there is debate as to whether Gnostic thought pre-dates Christianity, without offering any judgement on that issue here the term will be used to refer only to those texts that attempt a synthesis of developed cosmology with some form of the Jesus tradition. First, these groups understand the created realm to have been brought into existence by a ‘demiurge’ - a mediator figure who is below the all-high and fully spiritual God. This device preserves the taint of the material realm from contaminating the spiritual sphere. Consequently, the demiurge is an intermediary to whom responsibility for the creation of the earth can be ascribed, and this in turn protects the supreme divinity of the spiritual realm from contact with what is conceived as being the defiling physical sphere. Second, there is a sustained interest in rites of ascent that allowed initiates to return to the higher spiritual realm. Third, those who adhered to such ideas should not be seen as a well-formed and hermetically discrete entity removed from wider Christianity. Instead, the devotees of Gnosticism are probably best thought of as being elitist early Christians who co-existed alongside proto-orthodox Christians but claimed superior insight into the mythological and deeper spiritual reality of the Christ-redeemer figure.

There is also diversity within the wider category of Gnosticism, which can be clarified by a range of subcategories. Taking its name from its supposed foundational figure Valentinus, Valentinian Gnosticism had perhaps the least developed cosmology and deviated least from emergent orthodoxy. Nonetheless its divergences are striking. It advocated a belief in various aeons, or emanations from God. The first series consisted of 30 aeons, or 15 complementary male and female pairs. People were seen as being comprised of both a spiritual female angelic part and a material male human part. The reunion of the fractured being could only be achieved through participation in Valentinian rituals, and ascent through the realms of the various aeons. A key text for understanding the wider theological perspective of Valentinianism is the Gospel of Truth, to be discussed in the next chapter.

Valentinus, the person with whom the origin of the Valentinian thought system is linked, remains a shadowy and allusive figure to modern enquirers. The little that can be patched together of his life suggests that Valentinus was an influential and respected intellectual teacher in Rome who received his own training in the academic hothouse of Alexandria. He appears to have arrived in Rome around AD 140 where he was a prominent teacher for approximately 15 years. After this he most likely moved to Cyprus, where he continued his teaching activity. During the period of Valentinus’ sojourn in Rome, two other leading Christian intellectuals were operating in the imperial capital: Marcion, with his radical revisionist approach to the Jewish origins of Christianity which sought to jettison any links the new movement had with the God of the Old Testament; and Justin Martyr, an intellectual apologist for Christianity who presented the outlook of the new religion in philosophical terms in order to defend it from the charge of being a flimsy and folkloric movement. Although judged by the perspective of history in markedly different ways, these three figures shared much in common as they attempted to offer robust presentations of Christianity.

It is perhaps noteworthy that around this time, the middle of the 2nd century, in Rome, much of the impetus and leadership came from independent teachers who attracted groups of students. There does not appear to have been any centralized authority figure, rather as in the mid-1st century the system of loosely connected house churches seems to have prevailed. Therefore the notion of a succession of bishops of Rome, tracing their lineage back to Peter, appears to be a construct of later Church history and is not representative of the first 100 years or so of Christianity in Rome.

It was amid this charged and rarified atmosphere that intellectuals such as Valentinus, who had been attracted by the person and teachings of Jesus, tried to offer an articulate and rigorous exposition of the Christian faith. It is unfortunate that only a few fragments of his own works survive, and then usually embedded in the writings of his opponents. Yet even those who disagree with his theology acknowledge his ‘brilliant mind’ (Jerome, In Hos. 2.10) or the beauty of his poetic language (Tertullian, De Carne 17). The influence of Platonic thinking on Valentinus is obvious both in the preserved fragments and the comments made by those writing against him. This is also to be understood against the wider backdrop of a renaissance of philosophical thinking in the 2nd century usually known as the Second Sophistic. Such a revival and return to the great philosophical writers of 4th-century BC Athens also explains why one finds a fragment of Plato’s Republic as one of the texts in the sixth Nag Hammadi codex. Concepts and ideas borrowed from Plato shaped the thinking of Valentinus, and a cosmology was developed that longed for the soul’s deliverance from the constraints of the material realm. While certain texts at Nag Hammadi have been identified as Valentinian, it is uncertain how many of these were written by Valentinus. Instead, the majority appear to have been penned by his followers. Those who adhered to this form of Christianity were perhaps part of an emerging leisured and socially privileged wing of the Church in Rome which, while not representing the majority of Christians, perhaps because of their affluence and status had a disproportional influence on their own local gatherings. While the Gospel of Philip is but one text to emerge from this Valentinian environment, its compendious nature means that it gives various snapshots of key theological ideas and liturgical rites that were practised by Valentinian adherents.

Sethian Gnosticism takes its name not from the movement’s intellectual founder, but from Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, who plays an important role in the theology of the Sethians. This form of Gnosticism, with its strong Jewish elements, is often seen as having intellectual origins prior to Christianity. Hence it is suggested that it was formed from an intermingling of Jewish and Platonic ideas. While this is debatable, the key texts that are usually seen as reflecting Sethianism, such as the Apocryphon of John, the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians, and the Gospel of Judas, are, as they stand, Christian writings which depict their similar cosmogonies through the eyes of figures known from the New Testament. The origin of Seth is seen as being the result of a divine incarnation. In this sense, Seth is more closely tied to the spiritual realm than are the descendants of Cain. Consequently the strand of humanity which is derived from Seth is superior spiritual stock, and the spiritual seed within such individuals leads them to participate in the veneration of Seth and to strive for the upward journey of the soul so that it may return to the realm from where Seth descended. The theological system adopts a via negative in describing the ultimate divine being as invisible, intangible, and ineffable. Thus the transcendence of God who defies human categorization is a significant, although not unique, feature of Sethian thought.

Ophite Gnosticism is best known through the writings of early Christian figures who opposed the outlook of the group. Akin to other forms of Gnosticism, its belief system also looked for the upward ascent of the soul through the various spheres of the archons. Such a journey was possible only for the enlightened soul who had become the possessor of certain mantras of magical words that allowed progress to the next higher level. Origen, the learned 3rd-century writer, states that their system of thought had been diagrammatically represented and that he himself had obtained a copy of this diagram, with great difficulty. Various attempts have been made to understand this pictogram from Origen’s written description, and while there is consensus surrounding many features, the finer details are disputed. What the diagram depicts, as it is described, is a series of linked and concentric circles representing the multiple spheres that might be encountered in the soul’s journey. Again a fundamental feature is the ascent of the soul as it escapes the material world and returns to its pristine spiritual state.

Although it is necessary to be aware of many of the partially valid criticisms that have been levelled against using the term ‘Gnosticism’, nonetheless it remains the most convenient and helpful umbrella term for categorizing a range of diverse religious expressions of Christianity that taught complex mythologies and cosmologies. Within this wider category a number of branches can be identified, as we have described. These share many ideas and are not totally separate systems of thought. Thus a text may have multiple features, and these may not uniformly represent just one sub-branch of Gnosticism. As mentioned, there is an ongoing debate concerning the existence of a pre-Christian form of ‘Gnosticism’. In part, this is due to the identification of significant Jewish elements in a number of texts. Since some of the motifs appear closer to internal Jewish exegetical questions, and are not discussed in Christian contexts apart from Gnostic texts, it has been suggested that there was an original Gnostic religion which pre-dated Christianity, but was at a later point subsumed by that new religious movement. However, despite trawling evidence from various potentially related traditions, such as Mandaic and Manichaean texts, there has been no compelling evidence of a developed form of ‘Gnosticism’ prior to Christianity. Consequently, despite the discovery of new texts many scholars ‘have remained unconvinced that they demonstrate the existence of a fully-fledged Gnosticism with a redeemer myth prior to Christianity’. For this reason, here the label ‘Gnostic’ will be used to denote Christian Gnostic texts that begin to surface from the 2nd century onwards.

The rediscovery of the non-canonical gospels

Most of the non-canonical gospels, if they were known at all throughout the Middle Ages and early-modern period, were known only by name. As has been mentioned, this changed dramatically from the late 19th century onwards. The dry and desiccating conditions of Upper Egypt had provided the ideal climate for the preservation of papyrus documents. The Oxyrhynchus find was perhaps the most spectacular discovery of ancient texts. Grenfell and Hunt found mounds 30 feet deep containing a mixture of rubbish, earth, and precious papyrus texts. These were excavated by Egyptian labourers, piled in baskets, and then boxed and sent back to Oxford. One papyrus roll was protected in a Huntley and Palmer’s biscuit tin, others were shipped in tea chests. The volume of this find is hard to quantify, but around a quarter to half a million papyrus fragments were discovered. Texts unearthed over a 100 years ago are still being sorted, edited, and published. A count shows that at the time of writing, 73 volumes of published texts have appeared, containing transcriptions and analyses of nearly 5,000 documents - somewhere between 2% and 4% of the texts.

Just over half a century was to pass before the next large cache of writings was discovered. However, during the intervening period some discoveries of individual texts came to light. During the first half of the 1930s, the so-called ‘Unknown Gospel’ - Papyrus Egerton 2 - was purchased from an antiquities dealer by the British Museum. At the time, the text caused quite a stir since its dating to the middle of the 2nd century meant that it was then viewed as the oldest surviving Christian manuscript. It was considered startling that such a divergent text should go back to the earliest generations of the Christian movement and, at the time of its discovery, should pre-date all surviving manuscripts of any text in the New Testament. Although not quite as ancient, the next huge find occurred again in Egypt, where the climatic conditions had proved so favourable to manuscript preservation, shortly after the end of the Second World War. Located in Middle Egypt, Nag Hammadi (the anglicized form of its Arabic name) is a small town of some 30,000 inhabitants located 80 kilometres northwest of Luxor, known as Chenoboskian in classical antiquity. Unearthed at the foot of a cliff, a local farm hand made one of the most interesting manuscript discoveries for casting light on a distinctive branch of early Christianity. More of the details of this spectacular and dangerous discovery will be outlined in the next chapter. Suffice to mention that the find comprised of 12 leather-bound papyrus codices, along with pages torn from a 13th book, buried in a sealed jar. The texts in these books contain, among other things, a mixture of esoteric and mystical Christian thinking, apocalyptic visions, a fragment of Plato’s Republic, and a similarly broken and truncated version of the Sentences of Sextus - a widely circulating text in the late antique and medieval periods providing moral instruction. Such diversity reflects the eclectic reading tastes of those who were probably elite early Christians, perhaps continuing to exist within mainstream Christianity.


4. Bernard P. Grenfell (right) and Arthur S. Hunt (left), the two young scholars from Queen’s College, Oxford, led the excavation of the Oxyrhynchus site. They were entrusted with this task, which was funded by the Egypt Exploration Society, in all likelihood because more senior scholars were either more interested in pharoanic Egypt or considered the task unlikely to yield substantial results

Manuscripts have continued to come to light in the 21st century. Although acquired in 1961 by the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, and accessioned as Papyrus Berolinensis 22220, the nature of this text did not become known until 1991, when the sheets of manuscript were first worked on for conservation purposes. The text was first published in 1999 and given the title Gospel of the Savior by its editors. The text known as the Gospel of Judas first became widely known only in 2006, although the codex of which it was a part appears to have first been discovered in a tomb in Middle Egypt as early as 1978. From here it passed through the murky and illicit world of antiquities dealers, finally being purchased by the Maecenas Foundation in Switzerland in 2001, when scholarly work began on the restoration of the codex, which had been badly mishandled since its discovery. At one point it appears to have been frozen, in the mistaken belief that this would assist preservation. Quite the opposite was the case - and the structure of this codex and its brittle pages were severely damaged. Thanks to the skilled work of a team of manuscript restorers, much of its contents were expertly pieced together, but even so large parts of what was apparently a near complete codex when discovered have been irrevocably lost.

The significance of the apocryphal gospels

Exaggerated claims are often made concerning the non-canonical gospels that often leave scholars shaking their collective heads. Reports are not infrequent that suggest that a new discovery is sensational, earth-shattering, or heralds the end of Christianity. The basic problem with such claims is that they try to make a textual discovery say something about a period well before the text was written. In particular, there is a failure to see the majority of these texts as products of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, with little historical relevance for answering questions about the historical Jesus of 1st-century Judaea. Instead, since they often react against ecclesial hierarchies and institutional religion, these recently recovered texts can be seen as a vehicle for repristinating the image of Jesus in a way that not only makes him a radical figure, but also a highly mystical one who resonates with modern spiritual tastes. The problems that beset the project of recovering an accurate portrait of the historical Jesus from the canonical gospels are well known. These difficulties become no less acute in relation to non-canonical texts. In fact, in many ways they are exacerbated by greater historical distance, a worldview that refracts the teaching of Jesus through the lens of a multilayered understanding of the heavens through which the soul must ascend to recapture its true divine nature, and through allowing ecstatic visionary experience to predominate over the maintenance of tradition. The New Testament itself is not free from such problems, although perhaps some of its texts are not affected to the same degree as some of the apocryphal writings, which are even more heavily overlaid with developing theological concerns. Having said this, what then is the value of the non-canonical gospels, and why bother reading such texts?

Primarily these texts say much concerning the diversity and vibrancy of those groups in the 2nd and 3rd centuries which claimed to stand in continuity with the Jesus movement of the 1st century. Given the radically divergent ways in which the core allegiance to Jesus could be expressed, such fluidity at the earliest stages of development should prompt extreme caution about interpreting Christianity as a monolithic and doctrinally unified form from which Gnostics, Docetics, and a host of other ‘heretics’ diverged. It appears far more accurate to speak of divergent and at times competing strands which sought to promote their own perspectives in relation to the significance of Jesus. While it is perhaps tempting to project contemporary concerns and theological questions back onto ancient contexts, such ancient documents may offer some significant resources for discussing current issues as long as it is recognized that they come from a culturally distant society, their perspectives are shaped by prescientific understandings, and that the worldviews they encapsulate originate from a pre-Enlightenment mode of thought.

While the texts as ‘whole documents’ may reflect a period later than the 1st century and thus enshrine the concerns of various Christian groups living in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, nonetheless there remains the possibility that individual sayings or certain accounts may occasionally go back to the life of Jesus. This situation is much the same for the canonical gospels. Perhaps the major significant difference is that the majority of scholars would date the composition of the canonical gospels to the 1st century, whereas the majority of scholars (although with some notable dissenting voices) would date the non-canonical texts in their completed forms to later centuries. While this certainly does not mean the canonical gospels are pristine historical accounts, it does mean that the greater ‘historical gap’ between the events they purport to report and the time of the writing of the non-canonical gospels should give pause for thought before building too much on their alternative portrayals of Jesus as being of greater historical worth than their canonical counterparts. The process of recovering authentic sayings or deeds of Jesus from the four canonical accounts is a highly contested endeavour. To believe that this is an easier task for the non-canonical reports is frankly naïve. Notwithstanding this important caveat, a number of scholars have felt that it may be possible to recover authentic Jesus sayings from non-canonical sources - in particular from the Gospel of Thomas. It is perhaps instructive to consider the findings of one highly controversial attempt to do just this.

The Jesus Seminar was founded by Robert Funk in 1985. Its primary aim was to determine the authentic words of Jesus. Although there have been many other attempts to do this, there had not previously been such a large-scale collaborative enterprise; the Jesus Seminar at its greatest extent grew to a body of more than 200 scholars. By 1993, after bi-annual meetings, the deliberations were completed. Using coloured beads, each scholar cast a vote relating to every saying of Jesus contained in the four canonical gospels and in Thomas to indicate their own critical sense of whether the individual saying originated with Jesus. The colours and their designations were as follows: red, Jesus almost certainly said this (or something very similar); pink, Jesus probably said something like this; grey, Jesus did not say this but it reflects his ideas; black, Jesus did not say this and it represents later perspectives or different traditions. Interestingly, of the hundreds of Jesus sayings, the votes of this body of scholars reached the required level for a ‘red’ saying (0.75 on a scale of 0 to 1.0) in relation to only 15 sayings of Jesus. Admittedly, some of these sayings occurred in more than one gospel so they had multiple attestation, but even counting repeated sayings separately gives only 25 instances of sayings deemed to be unquestionably authentic. Of these 25, 12 occur in Luke, 9 occur in Matthew, 3 in Thomas, 1 in Mark, and none in John. Many of the authentic sayings in Matthew and Luke are part of what scholars believe was an early source called Q, which these two gospels are believed to have shared as a written strand of Jesus’ sayings. While such statistics may appear shocking to some people, it illustrates the difficulty scholars have in definitively linking any saying contained in either the canonical or non-canonical gospels back to Jesus. Although many would dispute the meagre findings of the Jesus Seminar, and the approach has been widely criticized, often for downplaying the apocalyptic and end-time aspects of Jesus’ teaching, the success in bringing together so many scholars to discuss the issue was a major achievement, and very few scholars would claim that it was an easy task to determine authentic Jesus sayings in any strand of the traditions preserved about him in the early Church.

It is for this reason that claims that the non-canonical gospels as a whole reveal an alternative portrait of Jesus free from the theological overlays of a developing ‘orthodoxy’ must be seen as being false. Admittedly, the early Church developed hierarchical structures and male-dominated forms of leadership, and a number of the non-canonical gospels critique such developments. However, these texts defend the perspectives of their authors and of the communities that read them, but not by presenting a more historically reliable version of the life and teachings of Jesus. Instead, for ideological purposes they create a new way of thinking about salvation, the universe, and the individual’s personal search for completeness. In order to critique apostolic Christianity, many of these texts re-invent the story of Jesus, rather than taking readers back to authentic historical bedrock. Thus, the value of these texts must be understood for what it is - a glimpse into the battles fought during the 2nd and 3rd centuries between Christians with radically different understandings of salvation, church order, and the significance of Jesus.