The gospels from Nag Hammadi - The Apocryphal Gospels: A Very Short Introduction - Paul Foster

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

Chapter 2. The ‘gospels’ from Nag Hammadi

Discovery and publication

The story of the discovery of the 12 bound codices and the remains of a 13th volume at Nag Hammadi is shrouded in intrigue, murder, and revenge. The manuscript collection was unearthed by a fieldworker by the name of Muhammad Ali al-Samman who lived across the Nile from Nag Hammadi in a small hamlet called Qasr. After the sugarcane harvest he was out digging for fertilizer at the base of a nearby cliff. This incident occurred about half a year after the murder of his father in a blood feud. The date of the father’s death is recorded in the Nag Hammadi register of deaths as 7 May 1945. Muhammad Ali, although unable to date events by the calendar, was able to remember that the discovery was a few weeks before Coptic Christmas (7 January 1946) and about half a year after his father’s death. This makes the likely date of discovery early December 1945.

What Muhammad Ali actually unearthed was a large jar sealed with a bowl that had been attached by bitumen at its opening. In the hope of treasure, he broke the jar open, but he was disappointed to discover only a collection of old books. Apparently he tore some codices up to share among the camel drivers who were present with him. However, the majority declined his offer, so he bundled


5. The site of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, which were unearthed when Muhammad Ali al-Samman was digging for soft soil to use as fertilizer. The books were discovered near Nag Hammadi, between Denderah and Panopolis. The collection of codices had been carefully placed in a tomb in the Pacomian cemetery at the foot of the Djebel el Tarif cliff

them up together again and took them home. These were left in the enclosed courtyard of his house, and it has been reported that his mother burned some of the pages as kindling for the outdoor clay oven. After having attempted to sell the books for about an Egyptian pound or to barter them for some cigarettes, Muhammad Ali was informed by somebody who saw the codices that they were written in Coptic not Arabic. After having deposited Codex III with a Coptic priest, this volume eventually came into the possession of the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Codex I, which turned up in an antique shop and then was smuggled out of Egypt, was finally purchased by the Jung Institute in Zurich and hence became known as the Jung codex. Most of the remaining codices were acquired by a Cypriot antiquities dealer in Cairo, Phocion J. Tano(s).


6. The Nag Hammadi codices. The papyrus sheets were carefully housed in robust leather bindings tied with leather straps

After the application of some pressure, he was persuaded to ‘entrust’ them to the government. The Egyptian government then nationalized the codices and housed them in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

During the time immediately after the discovery of the codices, other events took place in Muhammad Ali’s life which were personally of greater significance. After the murder of his father in the blood feud, Muhammad Ali’s mother had charged her seven sons to keep their mattocks sharpened. The opportunity for revenge came unexpectedly but action was taken swiftly. James Robinson, a leading Nag Hammadi specialist who had direct contact with Muhammad Ali, recorded the recollection of the bloodthirsty attack in the following manner:

Muhammad Ali’s memory of revenge: Someone ran to his house to tell the family that the murderer AImagemad Imagesma*Imagel was asleep in the heat of the day on a dirty road nearby, with a jug of sugarcane molasses, the local product, by his side. The sons grabbed their mattocks, fell on the hapless person before he could flee, hacked him up, cut open his heart, and, dividing it up among them, ate it raw, the ultimate act of blood vengeance.

Understandably Muhammad Ali was reluctant to lead Robinson to the site of the discovery after this, since it would take him close to the territory of the family of AImagemad Imagesma*Imagel and he feared that a further act of blood vengeance would be exacted against him. Robinson sought out the family of AImagemad Imagesma*Imagel who said they felt that they had exacted revenge when, at a later date, they had opened fire on a funeral cortège involving the family of Muhammad Ali. At this, Muhammad Ali was persuaded to take Robinson to the site where the jar containing the codex had been found.

The story of the discovery took some time to come to light, and the publication of the texts was an equally slow and delayed task. The 1950s was a period of virtual inaction due to political turmoil in Egypt and a lack of impetus from certain academic quarters. It is not fruitful to lay blame or to name individuals involved in this tardy translation and publication process. What should not be entertained is the notion of any conspiracy theory involving the suppression of these texts. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, there was no Vatican cover-up, simply individual scholars wished to have the glory of publishing as many of the hitherto unknown texts as possible. The surprising thing is that those who had this opportunity in the first decade or two after the discovery did not capitalize on it. Not until the late 1960s did the photographs of the codices begin to filter into the public domain, thanks largely to the semi-clandestine work of James Robinson in reproducing the UNESCO copies of the images at a Paris photographic shop over a single weekend when he had been given access to the files. Facsimile editions were then published at a relatively brisk pace between 1972 and 1977, at which stage the whole corpus was made available in the public domain. Also during 1977, the one-volume edition entitled The Nag Hammadi Library in English was published. This brought together the English translations that had appeared in the facsimile volumes. At last scholars could readily consult the entire corpus of texts that had been unearthed some 33 years earlier.

The ‘gospel’ texts from Nag Hammadi

The question concerning the number of ‘gospel’ texts discovered among the Nag Hammadi writings is not easily answered. This is not due to fragmentary manuscripts, for on the whole the texts are well preserved, but stems from the difficulty that has been discussed in Chapter 1 of defining what actually is a gospel, and what is not. One helpful clue, at least to the ancient attitude to these texts, is self-reference. Yet as has been mentioned, this can result in too narrow a definition. A number of the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi include the word ‘gospel’ in self-referential description. Four texts explicitly contain the term ‘gospel’, either in titles at the beginning or end of the documents, or in the opening sentences - not so much as a title, but as a description of contents.

For pragmatic reasons, in this chapter four Nag Hammadi texts will be discussed: The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Truth, and The Gospel of the Egyptians. Although these have either had the term ‘gospel’ applied to them, or use the word as a description of their contents, they represent a disparate collection of writings. There are other texts in the Nag Hammadi collection which could also be thought of as gospel-type texts. These include ‘revelation dialogues’ such as the Apocryphon of John or the Sophia of Jesus Christ. Although those two texts are not discussed at length in this book, in some ways they share greater similarities in genre with dialogue gospel texts discussed in Chapter 5.

The Gospel of Thomas

Amongst the non-canonical gospels, Thomas has generated the most interest and offered the greatest prospect of recovering independent early Jesus material outside of the corpus of the four canonical gospels. Although various Greek fragments of Thomas were excavated at Oxyrhynchus in 1897 and 1903, it was not until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945 that these fragments could be conclusively identified as part of the Gospel of Thomas, and that a thoroughgoing analysis of its theological ideas could be undertaken due to the possession of a fairly complete text. The Nag Hammadi text was written in Coptic (the indigenous language of Egypt which began to be widely used from the 1st century AD and continued until the language was finally replaced by Arabic in the 17th century), and that Coptic version of Thomas dates to around the 4th century.

The Coptic text comprises a series of a brief prologue and 114 sayings attributed to the ‘living Jesus’. The text opens in the following manner: ‘These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.’ The designation of Jesus as ‘living’ has occasioned discussion. Various suggestions have been offered. It is possible that the word ‘living’ is used to denote Jesus in his post-resurrection state - such resurrection dialogues are well known in the corpus of apocryphal writings. Alternatively, it has been noted that the epithet ‘living’ could be used to indicate that Jesus possesses eternal life and provides such life to others. A more literary variation is to point out that this description represents Jesus as living through his sayings.

Furthermore, the names attributed to the one who wrote down the sayings, ‘Didymus Judas Thomas’, also require some explanation. Taking these three names in reverse order, first, Thomas is the name used in the canonical gospels for one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. While this name occurs only once in the disciple lists of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it is in the Gospel of John that Thomas gains most prominence, being mentioned on seven occasions. Interestingly, the word ‘Thomas’ may be related to the Syriac term t’oma, meaning ‘twin’. Second, the name ‘Judas’ became stigmatized in early Christianity because of the infamous Judas Iscariot. This meant that those who also possessed this name, especially among the circle of disciples, were distinguished from the betrayer of Jesus either by name changes or the addition of further names. In the Old Syriac version of John’s Gospel, in one place where the Greek text refers simply to ‘Thomas’ the Syriac text describes him as ‘Judas Thomas’ (John 14.5). Third, the term ‘Didymus’ is used in John’s Gospel to describe Thomas both in John 11.16 and 20.24, as well as in a variant reading at John 14.5. Didymus is the Greek word for ‘twin’. This means that the notion of Thomas’ ‘twinship’ is heavily and intentionally emphasized by calling him ‘Didymus Judas Thomas’. In another non-canonical text, The Acts of Thomas, the apostle known as Judas Thomas is identified by a talking colt as ‘twin of the Messiah and Apostle of the Most High’ (Acts Thom. 39). So in one branch of early Christianity, which appears to be centred in Syria, this Thomas who is a twin is in fact the twin (in some way) of Jesus. Such proximity to the foundational figure of Christianity instils the words of Thomas with great authority. This privileged wisdom allows the readers (or probably originally hearers) to enter into a narrative world and access a set of different Jesus traditions, which are not totally unrelated to the four Gospels of the Bible.

Nearly all of the sayings open with the standard phrase ‘Jesus said’, but Saying 1 is different. It states, ‘And he said, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these words will not taste death”’ (Gos. Thom. 1). The very fact that this opening saying does not explicitly identify the subject as Jesus lends weight to the suggestion that this is an editorial comment addressed to the readers, instructing them what they must do. However, the means of finding the interpretation of the ‘words’ that follow is not stated. Presumably for the original readers of this text, authorized meanings would have been discussed within the community that preserved it. It is not until Saying 2 that the actual words of Jesus are unambiguously presented. The second saying states: ‘Jesus said, “Whoever seeks, let him not cease seeking until he finds; and when he finds he will be troubled, and when he is troubled he will be amazed, and he will reign over the All.”’ Again the emphasis is on the pathway of discovering hidden understanding. Such a saying may align with later Gnostic ideas about privileged knowledge and elitist forms of Christianity. However, since Thomas lacks an overarching description of a cosmological system consisting of multilayered heavens, this may well mean that Thomas itself did not originate in the context of a well-formed Gnostic belief system, but was attractive to later readers who adhered to those more fully developed cosmologies. The progression that saying outlines, through the stages of being troubled, then amazed, then reigning, suggests that perplexity and confusion are prior stages on a journey of spiritual discovery. There is an important difference between the form of the final clause in the Coptic and Greek versions of this saying. The later Coptic version promises that the ‘seeker’ addressed in this saying will eventual ‘reign over the all’. By contrast, in the Greek version, which although lacunous (i.e. there are some holes in the manuscript) can be reconstructed with a fair degree of certainty, the final clause states ‘he will reign, and reigning he will have rest’.


7. The end of the text of the Gospel of Thomas. As is common with ancient documents, the title is written at the end of the text. The Coptic script reads ‘The Gospel of Thomas’

What can be made of these discrepant versions? It appears that the Greek version is original, both on internal grounds and also because Clement of Alexandria (writing around the year AD 200) knows a version of this saying that contains a reference to ‘rest’. One option would be to explain the variation as arising from a copyist’s or translator’s error. The Greek word for ‘rest’ (ImageναπαImageστεαImage) may perhaps have been misread as ‘all’ (ImageπImageντα), especially if the first word had been split over two lines as it is in the surviving Greek manuscript, with the letters Imageναπα- written at the end of a line. Such mistakes are not uncommon among scribes working in poor conditions and copying poorly written exemplar texts. However, it may be the case that this change was due to design more than accident. The notion of ‘the all’ may be related to the concept of the pleroma, or the fullness, which becomes important both in certain New Testament Christological formulations (see in particular Col. 1.19; 2.9) as well as in a number of other texts discovered at Nag Hammadi (the Gospel of Philip is a noteworthy example). In this case, it is possible that the original text-form has been freely adapted by later users for theological and ideological reasons. The sense of dislocation that may have been experienced by the adherents to exclusivist and marginal communities may have led to a celebration of such an aspirant existence, and this may have been combined with the belief that pursuit of the ascetic life would lead ultimately to reigning over the true cosmic order. In this sense, the potentially alienated audience who read this text may have coped with their sense of dislocation by clinging to the belief that the disturbing ascetic lifestyle they adopted would lead to a higher form of knowledge which would be linked with elevated status in a cosmic reality that they themselves could perceive.

The Gospel of Thomas is correctly categorized as a sapiential text, which transmits wise sayings. However, the type of wisdom it contains is not the public or received wisdom that emanates from mainstream sources, such as one finds in the Book of Proverbs. Rather, it comprises veiled and counterintuitive insights that are in essence world-inverting. Jesus can assert that a lion consumed by humans is blessed because it is transformed into humanity (Saying 7), or that the one who understands the world has been transformed into a corpse (Saying 56), or again that money should not be lent for interest but given to those who cannot repay (Saying 99). While it would perhaps be wrong to characterize this text as a ‘monastic rule’, it does promote a solitary and self-contained existence. Thus in Saying 49, Jesus says: ‘Blessed are the solitary and the elect, for you will find the kingdom, for you came forth from it, and you will return to it again.’ Advocacy of solitary existence according to this saying creates contemplative space which results in the discovery of the kingdom. The notion of journey is also important. The seeker of insight will recognize dislocation from place of origin but contemplation is the pathway that allows return to that elevated state. This sense of displacement and pilgrimage is reinforced in the shortest of the sayings in this collection. There Jesus pithily states ‘Be passerby’ (Saying 42). Physical itinerancy may not be the aim of this saying. Rather, it appears to promote an inner recognition of a lack of place as one seeks a return to the true state of origin and existence. In effect, a sense of disengagement from the world is seen as an essential part of the seeker’s spiritual journey. Such a perspective coheres with sayings found in the four canonical gospels: ‘the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Matt. 8.20/Luke 9.58); disciples of Jesus are not to worry about clothing, but rather must learn from the way God adorns the lilies of the field (Matt. 6.28); and the cares of the world ‘choke’ true discipleship (Mark 4.19).

One particularly interesting aspect of the outlook of the Gospel of Thomas is its attitude to various disciples and group leadership. From the outset it is clearly stated that Thomas is the medium through whom the sayings of Jesus are transmitted. This provides Thomas with a certain authoritative function as interpreter of the Jesus tradition. However, in Saying 12, when the disciples enquire directly who will be their leader after Jesus ‘departs’ from them, it is not Thomas who is designated for this role, but James the Just. This James was the brother of Jesus (Matt. 13.55), who had according to tradition experienced a vision of the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15.7), and became leader of the church in Jerusalem (Gal. 1.19; 2.9; Acts 12.17). He was put to death by stoning at the behest of Annas the Jewish high priest around AD 61, during the power-vacuum that followed the death while in office of the Roman procurator Festus and prior to the arrival of his successor Albinus. Perhaps more significant than these biographical details is the fact that James is usually seen as representing a form of Jewish Christianity that maintained a more positive attitude towards Jewish law, traditions, and practices. While proclaiming allegiance to Jesus as Messiah, this form of Christianity was in many ways dissonant with the more radical pro-Gentile form of Christianity spread around the eastern Mediterranean and beyond by Paul. It is interesting that the Gospel of Thomas promotes the authority of James and thereby aligns itself with some form of Jewish Christianity. Perhaps, however, the link with James the Just in the Gospel of Thomas is more a strategy than a theological statement. It is striking that while many of the sayings in Thomas are anti-hierarchical and advocate a solitary spirituality, at this point the text draws upon the authority of an individual figure. The issue here may be more to do with legitimating the type of spirituality that is being advocated, by linking the community and its teachings with the heritage of James.

Yet in the saying that follows on from this statement concerning James the Just, Thomas is elevated above two other prominent disciples because of his insight into Jesus’ true nature. The purpose of this short narrative is focused upon the correct way to describe Jesus. Moreover, it appears intentionally to correct the confession, which according to Matthew’s gospel was made at Caesarea Philippi by Simon Peter. There Peter declared of Jesus that ‘you are the Christ, the Son of the living God’. This perspective is affirmed by Jesus, who declares, ‘blessed are you, Simon Barjona, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 16.16-17). By comparison, the Gospel of Thomas appears to subvert this perspective with the following exchange between Jesus and three of his disciples, Peter, Matthew, and Thomas:

1Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Compare me, tell me whom I am like?’

2Simon Peter said to him, ‘You are like a righteous angel.’

3Matthew said to him, ‘You are like a wise philosopher.’

4Thomas said to him, ‘Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like.’

5Jesus said: ‘I am not your master. After you drank, and become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out.’

6And he took him and withdrew. He spoke to him three words.

7Then when Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, ‘What did Jesus say to you?’

8Thomas said to them, ‘If I tell you one of the words which he said to me, you will take up stones and throw them at me; and a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.’

(Saying 13)

The opening question recalls the twin enquiries made by Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is? …but who do you say I am?’ (Mark 16.13, 15). The choice of both Simon Peter and Matthew as literary foils, whose perspectives are corrected by the mysterious ‘non-answer’ of Thomas, can perhaps be explained. First, Peter makes the central declaration concerning Jesus which lies at the heart of early Christology - namely, ‘Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God’. Such ‘certainties’ seem discordant with the ineffable and veiled nature of Jesus that is affirmed by the Thomasine community.

It is interesting that in this saying the Gospel of Thomas changed Peter’s ‘confession’ about Jesus to a declaration that he is ‘a righteous angel’. It is uncertain whether this change is designed to make the Petrine position more susceptible to rebuttal, or whether such a declaration is seen as not being incorrect, but represents the lowest stage in a hierarchy or progression of Christological understandings. Either way, such an ‘angelomorphic Christology’ is viewed as defective by the author either in its entirety or its extent, and interestingly Jesus chooses not to respond to this answer.

While the first type of response may draw on motifs already found in Jewish apocalyptic texts, the second response offered by Matthew, that Jesus is the sagacious philosopher, aligns more with a certain strand of wisdom tradition. The portrayal of Jesus as the supreme teacher is prominent in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 23.8), and here Thomas may be critiquing what it views as the limited understanding that Jesus is simply the rabbi par excellence. Finally Thomas speaks out and declares that Jesus is beyond categorization or description. Here there seems to be a concatenation of various Jewish mystical tradition tied up with the Christological perspectives of the Thomasine community. It has been suggested that the three unrepeatable words spoken by Jesus are linked with the divine name Yahweh, which because of its sacredness is not uttered in Jewish tradition. When the divine name is discussed during Moses’ encounter with God in the wilderness at the burning bush, God provides an allusive response which is encapsulated but not unpacked in three Hebrew words (Image) ‘I am who I am’ (Exod. 3.14). It is likely that Jesus has revealed to Thomas that he is the one who bears the divine name - and because of the sacred nature of this name Thomas cannot reveal this to his fellow disciples.

Hence the issues of authority figures and Christology are closely linked in the Gospel of Thomas. It appears that differences in understanding the essence and nature of Jesus were demarcation points between Thomasine Christians and other branches of the nascent Jesus movement. One further significant authority figure surfaces in Thomas in its final saying. Only here is Mary Magdalene mentioned in the text and her gender is presented by Peter as a barrier to her participation in the benefits of community life. There is possibly a critique of the exclusion of women from authority roles in the emergent orthodox church. The response proposed by the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas may strike readers as being misogynistic by modern standards, especially because of its lack of affirmation of Mary as a female. Instead Jesus offers the possibility of some type of gender transformation. ‘Jesus said, “Look, I will lead her that I may make her male, in order that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven”’ (Saying 114). This type of gender transformation needs to take account of three contemporary factors:

1) the encratic life of the Thomasine community;

2) perspectives on gender change in other non-canonical texts;

3) Jesus’ own apparently gender-transcending being in certain texts.

The solitary life advocated in the Gospel of Thomas was seen as the path to ascertaining entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

Therefore, in line with the wider phenomenon of developing Christian monasticism, especially in the Egyptian context of the 3rd and 4th centuries, a harsh life of self-denial is seen as a means of pursuing a more elevated spirituality. Other texts that are found in the Nag Hammadi corpus likewise require devotees to undergo some gender change. For instance, the Gospel of Philip sees the adherent’s spiritual journey as resulting in the reunification of a being’s earthly male part with its now separated angelic female part. This view of salvation is to effect a repair of ruptured beings that now are tainted by gendered fragmented pieces of the full being. Finally, in Saying 114, Jesus appears to speak from beyond the realm of gendered existence since he is able to address Peter and his associates as ‘you males’. In this sense, Jesus becomes a mystical example for the Thomasine community of wholeness of being that transcends gendered existence. Moreover, it is by reaching beyond narrow gender categories that one is able to enter the kingdom of heaven - which is the goal of members of this community, although their understanding of the kingdom appears radically different to that of their fellow Christians in other communities.

The Gospel of Thomas offers a mystical version of Christianity, that is elitist, self-denying, and focused upon a higher realm of existence. Esoteric knowledge and commitment to the secret interpretations of the community are central to its understanding and are the basis of its allegiance to the teachings of Jesus. While the form of mysticism that is found in the Gospel of Thomas is far less complex than the detailed cosmologies and assent-journeys found in other texts generally labelled as ‘Gnostic’, it is possible to see why Thomas was a text that appealed to adherents of these more developed belief systems. The Gospel of Thomas defies easy categorization. Some of the material it contains is undoubtedly early and may even occasionally preserve versions of sayings that perhaps pre-date the more developed forms found in the canonical gospels. Also in the case of material unparalleled in the canonical gospels, some of these sayings might preserve material which in some form originated with the historical Jesus. Notwithstanding these facts, as the Coptic 4th-century version of the text is preserved, it represents a text that underwent revision, with the accretion of added traditions, to make it ‘live’ for the successive generations that treasured, used, and quarried these saying to draw themselves closer to the ‘living Jesus’ who speaks these enigmatic words.

The Gospel of Philip

In comparison with the canonical gospels, the Gospel of Philip shares very few points of contact with the traditions contained in those four texts. Its outlook is radically dissimilar. It understands salvation not as rescue from sin, but as the reunification of being. Such a process is possible for initiates only through undergoing the ritual of the ‘bridal chamber’. While sexual imagery is prevalent in describing this sacral rite that seeks to reunite male and female parts of being, the text in other sections promotes ascetic practices and sexual continence. Therefore the imagery of sexual union appears to be just that - ‘imagery’—and not a reflection of physical practice. This is, however, debated, with some scholars understanding the text as promoting sacred intercourse among group members with the voyeuristic participation of the ‘sons of the bridal chamber’ as a type of ‘sacramental practice’ in the group.

The text presents a highly developed, although often unclear, cosmology of the soul’s progress to higher realms of existence. Perhaps the continuing value of this text is to allow insight into the diversity that existed in ancient Christianity. It has been observed that the Gospel of Philip exhibits close connections with Valentinian perspectives on the human state, the salvific transformation, and the mode of existence after death.

Only one partial copy of the Gospel of Philip survives. Like the Gospel of Thomas, this text is found in what has become numbered as codex II of the Nag Hammadi collection, and is the third text in that volume following on immediately after Thomas. What is noteworthy about this arrangement is that it represents the oldest extant example of two non-canonical gospels being collected together in antiquity. Moreover, unless the arrangement is a totally random compendium of miscellaneous texts (and that is not impossible), then presumably the compiler saw at least some connection or similarity of outlook between these texts. This surviving copy of the Gospel of Philip was written around the middle of the 4th century, but presumably it was composed somewhat earlier, and for a variety of linguistic reasons it appears likely to have been originally composed in Greek. While the standard critical edition of this text proposed a date of composition in the second half of the 3rd century, scholarly consensus has settled on a slightly earlier dating in the first half of the 3rd century - with some scholars suggesting an even earlier date in the latter half of the 2nd century.

To modern sensibilities, the Gospel of Philip appears to be a loosely connected series of rambling material. It is not the diversity of literary forms - such as parables, aphorisms, invective, sayings of Jesus, and dogmatic statements - that gives this impression (for such a range also exists in the canonical gospels). Rather, it is the disjointed flow of material as the text moves from one unit to the next. Due to this lack of a linked sequence of thought, it has been suggested that the Gospel of Philip is an incoherent document formed by an editor who excerpted material from existing texts that had a congenial theological outlook. Others have not been quite so negative in their assessment of the structuring of material in the Gospel of Philip. It has been helpfully noted that modern assumptions concerning the ‘flow’ and structure of a literary text should not be applied uncritically to ancient documents. Meandering and digressive writing styles are to be found in many highly prized ancient documents - works such as the Sentences of Sextus, or the Egyptian Instruction of Ankhsheshonqy - parallel the chain arrangement of ideas found in the Gospel of Philip, and this should not automatically be thought of as a chaotic arrangement. Moreover, in the Gospel of Philip such chains of disparate material are often linked by catchwords that aid the transition from one section to the next. The contents of this text are not easily catalogued, due to the rapid jumps between ideas and the different types of material found within small blocks of the text. However, it is possible to give a broad-brush outline of some of the most significant material in the Gospel of Philip. In the numbering system in the following table, the first number refers to the page number of the codex and the second to the line number. This is the common referencing system.




1) a number of themes recur almost like a refrain throughout the text;

2) the writer’s point is often less than obvious and the very esoteric metaphors seem to be designed for those already ‘in the know’;

3) a number of sections describe the actual cultic practices of group members.

When reading the Gospel of Philip, three features quickly become apparent:

The bridal chamber

Without doubt, the bridal chamber ritual was one of the central liturgical and sacramental practices for Valentinian Christians. This ritual was closely linked to the understanding of the plight of the soul - the eternal aspect of a being that was now trapped in a binding material form. The bridal chamber appears to have been an actual place where a ceremony of reunification, purification, and dedication to a spiritual marriage took place. There was a belief that the material human form was the result of a rupture of the true spiritual being that led to a gender-based separation of being into two parts: the male aspect that had ‘fallen’ to earth, and become combined and tainted with physical matter; and the female part that was contained in a being’s angel and inhabited a higher cosmic level. The soteriological scheme of the Gospel of Philip promised the prospect of repairing this gender-based fracturing. One of the key descriptions of the purpose of the bridal chamber ritual clearly shows that its primary concern was the reunification of the female spiritual part of the being with the entrapped male part.

If the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this, Christ came to repair the separation, which was from the beginning, and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation, and unite them. But the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed, those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated. Thus Eve separated from Adam because it was not in the bridal chamber that she united with him.

(Gos. Phil. 70.9-22)

It has been suggested that the Gospel of Philip offers two differing sequential patterns of initiation involving the bridal chamber. In the first of these typological descriptions, a comparison of the soul’s spiritual journey is based upon the physical progression into the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. Describing the three buildings or areas of the temple, the author states, ‘baptism is the holy building; redemption is the Holy of the Holy; the Holy of Holies is the bridal chamber’ (69.22-25). The second pattern (see 70.34-71.10) also involves a progression of soteriological rituals, but encompasses some additional stages and different language to describe such rites. The stages involved are described as rebirth, anointing, redemption, and the bridal chamber. As the rebirth of Jesus is closely linked with him being ‘revealed in the Jordan’ (70.34), it appears that this rebirth equates to baptism. This is a lower stage of the initiation process than the anointing. This point is made explicitly in the text when the author declares ‘the chrism is superior to baptism, for it is from the word chrism that we have been called Christians, certainly not because of the word baptism’(74.12-15). Leaving aside the dubious etymology employed here, it appears that the author is arguing that adherents to the form of Christianity promoted in the Gospel of Philip have experienced a higher level of spiritual participation than those who stop at the basic baptismal ritual.

Bridal chamber theology, although not systematically explained, is the culmination of the sequential initiation process. Redemption may in fact not be a discrete stage, but something than occurs through undergoing the bridal chamber rite. The ‘marriage’ envisaged is the reunification of the initiate (the male) with his angel (the female). Having undergone this process, the reconstituted being must no longer be involved with physical sexual practices. In a broken passage, it appears that those who undergo this ritual are seen as being divinized in some sense, and consequently are known as ‘sons of the bridal chamber’ (76.3-5). It is interesting to note that baptism, while not totally disparaged, is seen as only the first phase of Christian initiation. There appears to be an implicit criticism of emergent orthodoxy’s position that baptism was the only entrance rite required to become a Christian.

Jesus kisses Mary Magdalene

One aspect of the Gospel of Philip that has been unduly sensationalized is the scene where Jesus kisses Mary. This broken passage can be translated into English in the following manner to highlight the gaps in the text:

And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. [… loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her […]. The rest of [the disciples …]. They said to him ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’

(Gos. Phil. 63.30-64.5)

Despite these gaps in the manuscript, it is obvious that from the perspective of the text, it describes the privileged role of Mary Magdalene and that she enjoys an obvious degree of intimacy in her relationship with Jesus. However, various reconstructions of the text have tried to make the type of relationship more explicit bysexualizing the level of intimacy and describing the kiss as one that is given on the mouth. Typical among the reconstructions is the following:

And the consort of [Christ is] Mary Magdalene. [The Lord loved Mary] more than [all] the disciples, and kissed her often on her [mouth]. The others too […] they said to him ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’

(Gos. Phil. 63.30-64.5)

Too often this is interpreted by conspiracy theorists or the writers of popular literature as providing a window into Jesus’ physical relationship with Mary Magdalene and revealing ‘a truth’ that the institutionalized church has suppressed. The reality is far less exciting. The practice of exchanging kisses among fellow Christian believers is known from the pages of the New Testament. Paul tells the addressees of his Epistle to the Romans to ‘greet one another with a holy kiss’ (Rom. 16.16). In the wider culture, kisses were a common way of greeting family members and did not carry the same overtones that have become attached to this practice in a highly sexualized modern society. Since many who followed Jesus became ostracized from their families, like many new religious movements Christian literature presented a fictive kinship whereby the replacement family of believers becomes the authentic locus for the use of signs of familial affection. The second factor that needs to be recognized is that in a number of non-canonical gospels Mary becomes a subversive authority figure for the marginalized groups that read these texts. She is presented as a significant figure because of the quality of her insight and discipleship, thereby critiquing the forms of Christianity that centred upon the more structured and hierarchical leadership of figures such as Peter.

The Jesus tradition in the Gospel of Philip

Only occasionally does the Gospel of Philip present a saying of Jesus. To be precise, in this long text there are only 17 instances of this phenomenon, and 9 of these are citations or modifications of Jesus’ words as already found in the canonical gospels. The remaining 8, which are introduced with typical introductory formulae (‘the Lord said’, ‘the Saviour said’, or ‘he said’), place enigmatic sayings on the lips of Jesus which resonate with Valentinian theology. A few examples illustrate this tendency. In line with the salvific hopes of this form of Christianity, Jesus addresses his disciples saying ‘You who have joined the perfect light with the Holy Spirit, unite the angels with us also, as being the images’ (Gos. Phil.58.10-14).Here, the doctrine of reunification with the angelic part of one’s being is advocated by Jesus, as is the acknowledgement that the earthly part is just the ‘image’ of a transcendent reality. A fresh Son of Man statement compares Jesus with a dyer.

The Lord went into the dye works of Levi. He took seventy-two different colours and threw them into the vat. He took them out all white. And he said, ‘Even so has the Son of Man come as a dyer.’

(Gos. Phil. 63.29-30)

Interestingly, a related version of this story is to be found in some manuscripts of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The imagery of the ‘dyer’ also occurs earlier in the Gospel of Philip (61.12-20). God is called a dyer, since he dips things in water to make them become immortal. This seems to be an image that is used to describe baptism, the fact that the mixture of 72 colours is transformed to white may be a further allusion to the purification of baptism.

Another enigmatic saying placed on the lips of Jesus which reflects Valentinian cosmology occurs when the Lord said, ‘Blessed is he who is before he came into being. For he who is, has been and shall be’ (Gos. Phil. 64.10-12). Here the emphasis is on the pre-existence of the true ‘Gnostic’ believer who has the prospect of existing again in that reunified state.

There are almost certainly no additional independent sayings of Jesus contained in the Gospel of Philip which derive from the historical Jesus. As a means of understanding the message of the actual person Jesus who taught in 1st-century Galilee, this apocryphal gospel offers nothing. However, as an insight into how 2nd- and 3rd-century Christians in one section of the Jesus movement understood the foundational figure of their faith, there is much that can be learned.

The ‘value’ of the Gospel of Philip is not easy to assess, for it depends on what is being valued. As mentioned above, as a means of gaining insight into the historical Jesus the text could be classed as worthless. However, other historical insights can be gained from this text, especially concerning the type of Christianity practised by a group with a highly mythical and esoteric understanding of salvation. Such perspectives need to be recognized as historically significant, but their historical value stems from understanding the actual contemporary situation from which they emerged and the form of spirituality they promoted. Moreover, such traditions offer the potential to trace an early phase of the reception of the Jesus tradition amongst one small branch of the larger movement that claimed adherence to his teachings. For those interested in the larger history of Christianity and who wish to hear the voices suppressed by the dominant groups that emerged, the Gospel of Philip is an invaluable resource.

The Gospel of Truth

Unlike the previous two gospels treated in this section, the third text to be considered is not associated with an individual authority figure, such as Thomas or Philip. The Gospel of Truth takes its name from the opening clause of the long introductory sentence that commences this work: ‘The gospel of truth is joy for those who have received from the Father of truth the grace of knowing him…’. Furthermore, Irenaeus in his heresiological work Adversus Haereses (3.11.9) knows of a Valentinian work circulating under the title of ‘Gospel of Truth’. Unfortunately he does not cite the work or discuss its contents at length, so it is impossible to be certain that these two texts are identical, but the evidence is certainly suggestive. If that is the case, then the Gospel of Truth found at Nag Hammadi is likely to have been written between AD 140 (the start of Valentinus’ career) and AD 180 (the date of composition of Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses). This would mean that the Gospel of Truth would be one of the earliest surviving Valentinian texts.

Two copies of this text are found among the Nag Hammadi codices. It is the third work in codex I, and the second work in codex XII. Due to the highly fragmentary nature of that second witness to the text, that copy is used chiefly to corroborate readings found in the more complete form which is treated as the base text for most modern editions. Like the Gospel of Philip, the work is seen as Valentinian in character, but it may represent an earlier phase of that school of thought. It has been suggested that this work may have functioned as an introduction to Valentinian thought. The intended audience may have been members of the wider Church who had not previously been exposed to the type of elevated philosophical speculations contained in this elitist branch of Christianity. Furthermore, because of the similarities between the ideas in the Gospel of Truth and those fragments of Valentinus’ own writings preserved by certain early Christian writers, some have suggested that Valentinus himself was the author of this work. Its stylistic flourishes and less developed theological system lends weight to this suggestion, but while it is an attractive proposal, ultimately it remains unprovable.

The Gospel of Truth is perhaps not the kind of text that would usually be classed as a ‘gospel’. Jesus does not speak, none of his earthly deeds are recorded, and no additional biographical information is provided. Yet for the author of this text in a very real sense this was ‘the gospel’ since it clearly set out the good news of the restoration of entrapped beings from ‘the fog of error’. Whereas certain other ‘Gnostic’ texts present a radical disjunction between the supreme God who cannot be tainted by the material realm and the host of lower beings who function as intermediaries with the physical world, such a separation is not as convoluted in the Gospel of Truth. Admittedly, the material creation is ‘the substitute for truth’, but through the Word and the Holy Spirit the Father intervenes in a less distant manner. This treatise on salvation outlines ‘the Word that came forth from the pleroma, the one who is in the thought and the mind of the Father’ (Gos. Truth 16.35-36).

The concept of the ‘pleroma’ is highly significant in Gnostic thought - although the exact meaning of the term is somewhat of a ‘moving target’. In wider Greek literature the basic meaning of the term is that of ‘fulness’. However, in Christian texts this concept of ‘fulness’ has a narrower field of reference. It is something that belongs to the Supreme Deity and represents a spiritual sphere that can be inhabited by the perfect ‘Gnostic’ disciple at the highest level of upward cosmic ascent. Embryonic ideas about the pleroma can be found within the pages of the New Testament. In the prologue to John’s Gospel, which was so influential upon Gnostic thinking, the author declares that ‘from his [the Word’s] fulness we have all received’ (John 1.16). According to Colossians, the fulness dwelt within the Son (Col. 1.19, 2.9), and through the participation of believers in the Son they become partakers of this fulness. Such ideas become vastly expanded and developed in numerous Gnostic texts, where often the pleroma becomes the goal of spiritual journey. In this sense, the pleroma is like a nirvanic state of perfect spiritual consciousness, when the deity is purely contemplated and the distractions of material existence have been totally stripped away.

Thus for the author of the Gospel of Truth, since the Word comes forth from this realm, there is the possibility of communication between the perfect spiritual realm and the corrupted earthly existence. Moreover, the Word comes forth from the mind and thought of the Father as the medium of communication and vehicle for restoration. The relationship of the Father to the Son was to become the central question in the Christological controversies of the 3rd and 4th centuries. The so-called Logos (or ‘Word’) Christology of the 2nd century was a key aspect of Justin’s thought. In his First Apology, he stated that those who lived in accordance with the Logos (here playing with the double meaning of the term both as a philosophical technical term for rationality and also as a title for Jesus) are the true followers of God. He goes on to stress that in Jesus the Logos has become fully revealed. At this point, the thinking of the ‘orthodox’ Justin is remarkably close to that found in the Gospel of Truth, although the latter offers a more developed cosmology of the relationship of the Word to the Father. Likewise the Holy Spirit is presented as having an extremely close relationship with the Father. The Gospel of Truth can describe the Spirit both as the bosom of the Father (Gos. Truth 24.10-11) and also as the tongue within the Father’s mouth (Gos. Truth 26.35-36). This bodily imagery which sees the mouth as belonging to the Father, the Spirit being the tongue in the mouth, and the Word being uttered forth from that vocal organ describes three tightly related entities. Unsurprisingly, the imagery used to describe the relationship of Father, Word, and Spirit is susceptible to the later charge of modalism - which was seen as defective since it basically confused the three persons of the Trinity by saying that God was not in essence Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - but could choose to appear in one of these modes as either whim or necessity demanded. However, it is anachronistic to judge 2nd-century writers by the standards of 4th-century debates. Instead, what is important is to note how in the Gospel of Truth the assumed relationship between Father, Word, and Spirit sits comfortably in the wider thought on this issue in the mid-2nd century.

There is a tendency when discussing Gnostic texts to make the generalized classification that they have a ‘docetic’ understanding of Jesus. The term ‘docetic’ describes the view that Jesus’ humanity was not real, but simply the way he appeared to those who did not have a true perception of his being. In such texts, the true nature of the divine Logos that inhabits the shell of the human form becomes apparent at some stage during the Passion. The divine being usually leaves the outer shell, since it belongs to a higher realm that cannot be tainted by human suffering, or ‘passibility’. While a number of Gnostic texts promulgate such an understanding, the Gospel of Truth is not one of these. Rather, it describes and celebrates the way in which the death of Jesus communicates the message of the Father through the medium of the cross.

For this reason Jesus appeared; he put on that book; he was nailed to a tree; he published the edict of the Father on the cross. O such great teaching! He draws himself down to death though life eternal clothes him. Having stripped himself of the perishable rags, he put on imperishibility, which no one can possibly take away from him. Having entered the empty spaces of terrors, he passed through those who were stripped naked by oblivion, being knowledge and perfection, proclaiming the things that are in the heart, […] teach those who will receive teaching.

(Gos. Truth 20.24-21.2)

While some of the images may be unfamiliar (such as ‘putting on the book’), the basic understanding would appear remarkably similar to what was later to become the ‘orthodox’ understanding of the death of Jesus. The reality of the crucifixion is affirmed, and Jesus although dying paradoxically is the one clothed in eternal life. There also appears to be a reflection on the tradition of Christ’s descent into hell - ‘having entered the empty spaces of terrors’ - which was such an important motif in medieval thinking. Furthermore, although incomplete, the text also appears to speak of Jesus making a proclamation of his teaching to those beings that inhabit those regions. Such ideas took on great importance in later non-canonical texts such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, in which the Lord releases all the righteous from the power of Hades. They are led forth by Adam, the originator of sin, who is given the sign of the cross on his forehead (and in one of the Latin versions, on the heads of all the saints who accompanied him; Latin A, 8.2). He then leads the company of the righteous into heaven.

Another key point of contact between the thought of Justin Martyr and the Gospel of Truth in the area of Christology relates to the Son being the possessor of the Father’s name. The Gospel of Truth states that the Father was pleased to give his own name to the Son (Gos. Truth 40.23-41.3). In effect, this name-sharing denotes the status of the Son as the Father’s emissary and reveals the privileged relationship they share. In his Dialogue with the interlocutor Trypho, Justin makes the striking claim that ‘the name of God himself, which he says was not revealed to Abraham or Jacob, was Jesus’ (Dial. 75). Without rehearsing the convoluted exegesis of Old Testament passages that Justin provides to substantiate this claim, what is striking is the similarity and centrality of this idea in the works of two writers who would be cast as representing the diametrically opposed poles of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ by later Church figures. In fact, comparison of their thought reveals a high level of correspondence at a number of points.

Both truth and error become animate or personified entities in this text. Thus it is stated that ‘error became powerful; it worked on its own matter foolishly, not having known the truth. It set about with a creation, preparing with power and beauty the substitute for the truth’ (Gos. Truth 17.14-20). Here another key concern of Gnostic theology comes to the fore, the explanation of the disruption of the original higher cosmic order and the origins of the material realm. This area of theology, known as protology, is key in many of these mythological texts. It is assumed that by understanding the cause of the original rupture of the ideal state of existence, the Gnostic disciple may begin to pursue the path of return to that higher state. In essence, soteriological concerns are the central aspect of the majority of Gnostic gospels. Such salvation is usually a personal journey, it is interiorized, involves special knowledge and a return to a pristine state of existence. As these notions became more developed and speculative, the ideas of canonical and non-canonical gospels became more obviously polarized. However, the Gospel of Truthsuggests that in the earlier phases, Gnostic thought could be viewed as not too distant from the wider stream of philosophical Christianity, most notably as represented by writers such as Justin.

The Gospel of the Egyptians

The fourth ‘gospel’ text to be treated from the Nag Hammadi corpus, the Gospel of the Egyptians, survives in two independent versions found as the second text in both codex III and codex IV. From the outset, in order to disambiguate between texts, it needs to be noted that the work known by the same title from the writings of various Church Fathers and for which some excerpts are preserved in the writings of Clement of Alexandria is not the same text as that preserved at Nag Hammadi. Usually it is a great help to textual critics to have two versions of the same text; however, in this case the different versions exacerbate problems of reconstruction. The text in codex III originally comprised of 30 pages, but only 26 have been partially or completely preserved. Codex IV is in a much poorer state. Although ‘parts of all its eighty-one inscribed pages have been preserved, the majority of them are extant only in fragmentary form and these fragments were thoroughly mixed up by the time these were put in plexiglass containers’. It may be thought that the existence of the copy in codex III would assist in organizing the fragments. However, the two versions represent independent translations of what was presumably an original Greek text. The two versions differ widely in meaning, word order, and choice of terms employed for the Coptic translation. So even prior to attempting to unravel the meaning of this extremely abstruse text, scholars must first try to piece together its form.

The formal title given at the end of this document is ‘The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit’. However, at the beginning of the colophon on the last page of this text, the work is described as the ‘Egyptian Gospel’ - hence the source of the modern title. This connection with Egypt is less than obvious. To suggest an Egyptian origin is one possible inference, but there is little to support this apart from the reference in the colophon and the location of discovery (but this does not make other Nag Hammadi texts specifically ‘Egyptian’). The association may have more to do with the central figure of Seth in the narrative, and possible associations that had been drawn between the Seth of the Old Testament and the Egyptian god of the same name.

Whereas both the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Truth are plausibly seen as products of the Valentinian school of thinking, the Gospel of the Egyptians is noticeably different in its worldview. Centring on the figure of Seth and the race that emanates from him, this tractate is representative of a branch of Gnostic thought usually designated as Sethianism. In fact, the diversity of theological outlooks found among the Nag Hammadi writings is one of the key reasons that some scholars have expressed disquiet over retaining the label ‘Gnosticism’. While the observed diversity is a reality, there are points of contact between Valentinian and Sethian thought which probably make the description ‘Gnostic’ a useful umbrella term as long as it is recognized that it covers a number of related, but not identical, religious belief systems.

The standard critical edition of the Gospel of the Egyptians divides the text into four large units:

1) the origin of the heavenly world (III 40.12-55.16 ¼ IV 50.1-67.1);

2) the origin, preservation, and salvation of the race of Seth (III 55.16-66.8 ¼ IV 67.2-78.10);

3) the hymnic section (III 66.8-67.26 ¼ IV 78.10-80.15);

4) the concluding section dealing with the origin and transmission of the tractate (III 68.1-69.17 ¼ IV 80.15-81 end).

The opening section discusses the nature of the supreme God, from whom emanates a series of lesser divine beings. In rank below the supreme God is a trinity of Father, Mother, and Son (Gos. Eg. 40.1-4). The Mother figure also bears the name Barbelo. This figure is a well-known character in Sethian texts, but here, after a series of untranslatable magical words, she is described as being self-originating, she concurs with the supreme God, or the Father of silence, she is virginal and presides over heaven. As beings emanate from each of the successive levels of divine figures the silent Father nods his approval and the pleroma of lights is well pleased.

Another feature of the text which appears bizarre to modern readers is the use of what appear to be nonsense words or letter combinations. At one point, the text reads as follows:

Domedon Doxomedon came forth, the aeon of the aeons, and the throne which is in him, and the powers which surround him, the glories and the incorruptions. The Father of the great light who came forth from the silence, he is the great Doxomedon-aeon, in which the thrice-male child rests. And the throne of his glory was established in it, this one on which his unrevealable name is inscribed, on the tablet […]oneistheword, the Father of the light of everything, he who came forth from the silence, while he rests in the silence, he whose name is in an invisible symbol. A hidden, invisible mystery came forth iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii[iii] ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage[ImageImage o]ooooooooooooooooooooo uu[uuu] uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu eeeee eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee aaaaaaaa [aaaa] aaaaaaaaaaaa ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage[ImageImage] ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage.

(Gos. Egyptians 43.8-44.9)

The symbolic significance of these vowels is a mystery. They are somehow related to the divine name. Perhaps they are seen as being the vowels that enable one to sound the divine name YHWH, which since Hebrew is a consonantal alphabet does not contain the required vowels. While the best that can be achieved is informed speculation, such non-standard letter combinations appear in a range of other texts, such as the Books of Jeu, and for the devotee of such esoteric knowledge they are often understood as secret passwords that allowed the progress of the soul’s upward ascent through cosmic spheres that were guarded and closed to those without such information.

The mythology that is outlined is often beyond the comprehension of modern readers and one suspects that only those ’insiders’ fully immersed in the secret meanings of the text would have any chance of grasping the hidden esoteric sense of these recondite writings. The purpose of such texts was to veil their hidden wisdom from outsiders. They have certainly succeeded in this goal.


These four ‘gospels’ found among the Nag Hammadi corpus of texts show vast differences in the literary forms they employ, the transparency of their contents, and the underlying cosmological systems that govern their worldview. By comparison, the four canonical gospels show a far higher degree of homogeneity in form and theological outlook. Admittedly, the Gospel of John is somewhat different in tone from the other three canonical accounts, but when compared to the range of non-canonical texts considered here the differences among the canonical accounts appear relatively minor.

This raises the larger question of how such a disparate group of texts were brought together in the same collection. We know nothing of the person or group responsible for the collection, but it can be observed that the perspectives of these four Nag Hammadi gospels, although different, do nonetheless have various similarities. They all promote the pursuit of hidden knowledge, they offer hermeneutical keys to progress in the spiritual journey, in various ways they are all world-denying, and their chief concern is soteriological - seeking the salvation of the individual and a return to a repristinated state of being. For elitist mystical Christians, such a diverse range of texts was presumably a repository of spiritual ideas that enriched one’s ascent through the heavenly spheres.

Examination of the texts themselves both problematizes and yet simultaneously helps in answering the question, ‘what is a gospel?’ A text like the Gospel of Thomas shows that a series of sayings attributed to Jesus could be regarded by certain disciples as encapsulating the core teachings of the movement’s foundational figure. By contrast, in the Gospel of Philip, although not totally absent, sayings are minimized, and descriptions of liturgical rites and a compendium of Valentinian beliefs constitute ‘a gospel’ for those who read this text. The Gospel of Truth records no sayings or deeds of the earthly Jesus - yet the text remains very Christocentric.

It stands in a stream of Christological reflection that asserts that Jesus is to be understood as the divine Logos. This understanding, which in its own day was the prevalent means of representing the relationship between the Father and the Son, may suggest that the outlook of the Gospel of Truth was perhaps not seen as aberrant in its contemporary setting as it would be viewed by later generations. However, what is striking is that a text written in the form of a treatise with little concern to record the words or deeds of the historical Jesus could nonetheless self-referentially call itself a ‘gospel’. Finally, the Gospel of the Egyptians is perhaps the text that looks least like what most people would understand as a gospel. In fact, this text may even represent the ‘Christianization’ of a pre-Christian complex salvation myth. So how does one answer the question, ‘what is a gospel?’ In part, it depends on the selection of texts that are allowed to be described by that term. The approach here has been to consider texts from Nag Hammadi that refer to themselves as gospels or have the word ‘gospel’ appended to them as titles or colophons. Admittedly, this may cast a wide net - but it is representative of the usage of the term in early Christian circles.