"Gnostic" Gospels

Adapted from a review of  THE NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY: IN ENGLISH
[Translated by Members of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity,
James M. Robinson, Director and General Editor. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977. Pp. xvi + 493.]
by Robert A. Kraft and Janet A. Timbie [updated electronic version of this section, 2002]

An earlier form of this material appeared originally in RELIGIOUS STUDIES REVIEW  8.1 (January 1982) 32-52.

The Nag Hammadi Library and "New Testament Apocrypha" Collections

This rapid survey of the NHL materials shows that the explicitly "Christian" ingredient varies considerably among the various writings. A significant number of tractates claim to speak about Jesus and his immediate companions, although seldom by means of extended narrative reports. The person familiar with "New Testament Apocrypha" collections (most notably those edited by M. R. James or by Hennecke-Schneemelcher-Wilson or by J. K. Elliott) will recognize that NHL provides several new candidates for inclusion in such modern anthologies of ancient Christian literature cast in forms similar to the canonical gospels, acts, letters/homilies and apocalypse. Indeed, the most recent editions already have begun this task of incorporation.

GOSPELS. -- The title "gospel" actually occurs in five writings published in The Nag Hammadi Library: 1/3 Gospel of Truth, 2/2 Gospel of Thomas, 2/3 Gospel of Philip, 3/2 Gospel of the Egyptians, and BG 8502/1 Gospel of Mary. Possibly other NHL tractates of which the titles and/or subscriptions have not been preserved also bore this designation. But the four aforementioned "gospels" differ significantly from each other as well as from their canonical namesakes, and only GTh and GMary highlight traditions in which Jesus has a central role as an active participant (GTruth is a meditation on the message concerning Jesus, GPh juxtaposes various anonymously reported teachings; GEgypt deals mainly with the origins of the heavenly and earthly worlds). None of the NHL treatises supply explicit narratives about Jesus' activities prior to his suffering-death-vindication, but several (including GMary and GTh) present "the living" Jesus as instructing one or more of his followers, often in the context of his suffering and/or victory:

5/3 1st Apocalypse of James -- Jesus' conversation with his brother Jacob/James prior to as well as after (?) Jesus' suffering (compare also the 2nd Apocalypse of James);
7/3 Apocalypse of Peter -- Jesus reveals matters to Peter apparently at the very time Jesus is being rejected by the Jewish authorities;
2/7 Thomas the Contender -- Jesus speaks secret words to his twin, Judas Thomas, prior to Jesus' ascension (l38.23);
1/2 Apocryphon of James -- Jesus discourses with the disciples (especially James and Peter) 550 days after his resurrection and prior to his ascension (2.20-24);
BG 8502/1 Gospel of Mary -- Jesus, presumably after the resurrection, instructs the disciples and departs from them (Mary, Peter and Andrew continue to discuss matters);
2/2 Gospel of Thomas -- a series of sayings by "the living Jesus" to his disciples (especially Judas Thomas, Peter, Matthew, Mary, Salome; James the Just also is mentioned);
3/4 Sophia of Jesus Christ -- Jesus appears on the mountain in Galilee to his twelve disciples (especially Philip, Matthew, Thomas) and seven women (esp. Marianne) as "invisible spirit" after the resurrection and reveals many things;
8/2 Peter to Philip -- Jesus appears on the Mount of Olives to the apostles as a great light after he was no longer present "in the body," and later (in Jerusalem?) he sends them out in peace;
2/1 Apocryphon of John -- Jesus discourses to John in a revelation appearance sometime after Jesus had "gone to the place from which he came" (1.13);
3/5 Dialogue of the Savior -- Jesus discourses and converses with the disciples (especially Matthew, Judas/Thomas, Miriam) under undesignated conditions.

These ten writings seem to qualify for inclusion as a sub-category of "apocryphal gospel" materials, and are very similar in some ways to the so-called Epistle of the Apostles that has been preserved especially in Ethiopic translation and also depicts the resurrected Jesus teaching his associates. Other fragmentary "gospel" materials of possibly "gnostic" cast include Gospel of the Egyptians (from quotations; not the NHL Coptic text), Traditions of Matthias (from quotations), and the 11th chapter of Ascension of Isaiah.

Focus on Jesus and his Followers

The Index of Names will not give the reader much assistance in attempting to locate information about the Jesus traditions in NHL, beyond undifferentiated lists referring to Christ, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Mary, etc. This is unfortunate since NHL contains numerous references to the two poles of Jesus' earthly story -- birth and infancy, death and resurrection -- plus a few other matters. Since this is an area of much popular concern, literature like Dart's The Laughing Savior and Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels will doubtless abound in the next few years.

Jesus as teacher/revealer is especially focal in the NHL, as we have already noticed above. While GTh has spurred on research concerning the origin and development of sayings collections (the old "Q hypothesis" with much wider ramifications), the significance of various aspects of the discourse material for discussions of the Fourth Gospel and the New Testament Apocalypse (especially chapters 1 - 3) as well as early Christian prophecy and apocalyptic perspectives will have a more far-reaching impact in the study of early Christianity.

Of special interest in the NH texts is the focus on certain early disciples -- Judas Thomas, Jacob/James (the brother of Jesus), Peter, Paul, Philip, Mathias, Matthew -- and not the least on "the seven women" (SJC beginning, ApocJas 38.16f), with particular attention to one or more named Mary/Mariam/Mariamme and occasional references to Martha, Salome, Arsinoe. The Index of Names is, of course, useful here. On the whole, however, the disciples serve mostly as the foil for the Redeemer's discoursing, and only occasionally do we learn anything about their independent activities.