This week, we’re looking at some of the gnostic gospels discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945.
The Gospel of Thomas
Gospel means Good news. This is actually not a Gospel at all. It has no theme, no actions of Jesus, no crucifixion or resurrection. It is simply a collection of 114 phrases attributed to Jesus.
Some of the phrase are almost identical to the ones we find in the Gospel. Others are corruptions of the earlier Gospel texts on which they were based, and fly off in weird directions. Saying 2 is: ‘Jesus said, Let him who seeks continue until he finds. When he finds he will be troubled. When he becomes troubled he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All.’ Saying 13 describes Jesus as ‘the wise philosopher’. Phrases like these are alluring for people who want to be king of their own life (to ‘rule over the All’), and for people who don’t want to believe that Jesus claimed to be God. However, with the general scholarly consensus being that Thomas was written towards the end of the second century, there’s absolutely no reason to trust it over the earlier source material.
The Gospel of Peter
The explanation of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection that we find in the 4 standard Gospels is supernatural rather than mythological. It is written as history. The Gospel of Peter shows dependence on all 4 Gospels, but also takes a lead from Greek mythology when it talks about the stone in front of the tomb rolling itself away, 2 angels with heads reaching to heaven escorting Jesus from the tomb, and the cross itself following them out while having a chat!
The Gospel of Judas
In what Irenaeus called (in the second century) a work of ‘fictitious history’, Judas is Jesus’ favourite disciple. Bizarrely, in this Gospel, Judas’ part in the arrest of Jesus is not a betrayal but a premeditated plan between Judas and Jesus (who in the film version would be played by Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn). In the plan, Judas helps Jesus complete his earthly mission by helping his soul to be released from his earthly body.
‘You will be cursed for generations, but you will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man that clothes me’.
The soul is released from the unworthy mortal body and sails upwards towards the spiritual God. You can’t get more Gnostic than that!
The reason these Gnostic gospels are so attractive is that they replace the orthodox Christian view that Jesus is the Saviour of the world and the only way to God, with a kind of Hollywood mantra of ‘Find yourself; be true to the real you!’ However, the Gnostic gospels give us no independent historical information about Jesus, nor do they show any knowledge of the Jewish background out of which Christianity grew. Even the most sceptical scholars agree that all were written many years after the 4 canonical Gospels.
The Gnostic Gospels were lost, not because ‘history is written by the winners’ (you remember what happened to most of the disciples!) but because they were rejected as forgeries and a cultish fad. They show no interest in the ministry, teaching or incarnation of Jesus, but simply concentrate on putting obscure mystical teaching into his mouth – teaching which he could not possibly have given.
It may be comforting to think that these writing are true, that we all have a divine spark in side us, and that Jesus came to help us find the God in ourselves. But he didn’t. He really, really didn’t. In fact, it’s better than that! The real Gospel is that Jesus (God incarnate) came to rescue us from our own rebellion against God by a life of service and love and incredible self-sacrifice.
Next week, the Apostle Paul (played by Will Ferrell) meets Morgan Freeman on the road to Damascus.