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The Gnostic Gospels
I. Introduction. Two or three years ago, when we returned to the States from Israel, I was surprised to find a whole new type of book in the bookstores in America. Taking a look at the religion section of Barnes and Noble, I found books like the following:
The Gnostic Gospels; The Gospel of Thomas; The Gospel of Mary Magdalene; The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus; Beyond Belief: the Secret Gospel of Thomas; Jesus and the Lost Goddess; The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Gnostic Gospels; the Gospel of Philip; and many more.
I also discovered that liberal scholars were promoting these books as new, authentic Gospels they claimed were just as important as the four gospels we have in the Bible. Among those emphasizing these books were the Jesus Seminar scholars (especially the Gospel of Thomas), as well as several feminist scholars such as Elaine Pagels, Margaret Starbird, Karen King, and so forth.
These scholars tell us that ancient Christianity was different from what we think. They tell us that there were many different kinds, or branches, of Christianity (Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities) and that everything except the Orthodox branch was suppressed. Why were the other groups suppressed? We know it was because they were considered heretical. But the liberal scholars tell us it was either (1) because these groups promoted women over men (so therefore a male-dominated church suppressed tem), or (2) for political reasons.
Some writers say Constantine collated the Bible as we know it (Dan Brown). That is, he put it together, he decided which books would go in, and so forth. This is complete nonsense. But there are people who believe it (brought out in DaVinci Code). The reason, they say, that Constantine chose the 4 gospels that we know was because they were the ones favored by the Orthodox party, and it was the Orthodox party that helped him stay in power. So he chose Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for political purposes. So they say.
What Constantine actually did was send out 50 Bibles to the main churches of the Empire. But he had nothing to do with the content of those Bibles. He did not address the matter of content, nor did the Council of Nicea. The matter of the content of the NT is another question we will talk about a little later.
II. Origin. So where did these new Gnostic books come from? Well, first of all, it’s important to know that they are not new. Some of them were already known in ancient times. For example, Origen (c. 200) knew about the Gospel of Thomas and considered it spurious, or false. Eusebius (c. 325) knew about the Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Matthias, and several others, and considered them heretical.
But the reason why these have come to public attention in recent times is because of a discovery that took place at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, in 1945. Two years before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, 13 leather-bound papyrus codices were discovered near the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. [story] These 13 codices, or books, contained 52 Gnostic writings. They were studied and published, and today we have them in English, in a nice volume called The Nag Hammadi Library, edited by James Robinson.
Not everything in the Nag Hammadi library is a gospel. Only four of them are actually called gospels. They are: Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of the Egyptians. The other writings are various kinds of essays, treatises, and theological writings. But they are all Gnostic. (There are other Gnostic gospels, such as the Gospel of Mary, but the Gospel of Mary was not a part of the Nag Hammadi group of texts; it is found in the Berlin Gnostic Papyrus. Also the Gospel of Judas is in another papyrus.)
Another reason why they are drawing so much attention right now is simply that they are part of a cultural revolution that is going on in the West. It goes hand in hand with the exodus from Christianity in the U.S. and Europe that began gathering steam in the 20th century. The influx into U.S. universities of feminist scholars who believe traditional Christianity puts down women gave support to the trend to look for more congenial (so they thought) forms of faith. Postmodernism with its emphasis on deconstruction gave further impetus to the growing tendency to look with skepticism on the text of the Bible.
(Postmodernism: 1. An extreme relativism, 2. There are no absolutes, 3. Opposition to metanarratives, 4. deconstruction, 5. Therefore anything goes.)
A few scholars have gone so far as to say that these recently discovered writings are the authentic history of Jesus rather than the New Testament gospels. But most scholars, even liberal ones, do not go that far. Some also put all the blame on the Emperor Constantine, for causing the books to be suppressed.
In The DaVinci Code, the character Teabing says the Bible was collated by Constantine: “Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ’s human traits and embellished those gospels that made him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up and burned.”
There are a number of mistakes here, but one of the main ones is the idea that the “other gospels,” the ones that didn’t make it into the Canon, present Jesus as just a human being. This is not true. In fact, the Jesus Seminar and other scholars who have latched on to the Gnostic gospels because they seem to present a human Jesus have made a serious mistake (shot themselves in the foot). In the Gnostic gospels Jesus is completely divine. In fact, it’s his human nature that the Gnostic gospels fail to do justice to. The Gnostics didn’t believe he was completely human, and this is one reason why they seldom call him “Jesus.”
III. Who wrote the Gnostic gospels? They come out of a group, or a movement, in the ancient world called Gnosticism. This word comes from a Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge. So, briefly, Gnostics believe in salvation by knowledge, rather than salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. And this knowledge is not just a matter of knowing something, like knowing history or geography or something like that. It’s a special, mysterious experiential knowledge that only Jesus gives to people. In most of these gospels Jesus is just a “talking head.” He doesn’t do anything. There are no healings, no resurrections of people, no incidents like the wedding banquet, no arrest, no crucifixion, no resurrection, no atonement. Jesus just talks, and gives information, or knowledge.
So we know they come from the Gnostics, but within the Gnostic world, we don’t know who wrote the Gnostic gospels. Most of them fall into the category of pseudepigrapha. This means false writings, in the sense that they are attributed to some known person, some famous person, but that in actuality no one knows who wrote them. For example, the Gospel of Thomas. It is attributed to Thomas, but even liberal scholars don’t think Thomas actually wrote it. Or the Gospel of Mary. Almost no one thinks that Mary Magdalene actually wrote it. Even the liberal feminist scholars don’t think that. Gospel of Philip likewise.
There were some well-known Gnostic leaders in ancient times. One of them was Valentinus. There were also Basilides, Marcion, and a leader called Bardaisan, who visited India and may have brought back some Buddhist elements. (Some elements in the Gospel of Thomas sound Buddhistic.)
It’s possible that some of these books were written by the people just mentioned. For example, many scholars think Valentinus may have written the Gospel of Truth. But even if he did, he would never sign his name to it. If he wrote, The Gospel According to Valentinus, no one would give it a second thought. Especially because by that time almost everybody knew there were only 4 gospels. So the writer would put some famous person’s name on it, like Thomas, or Philip. Or Mary. This happened quite a bit in Bible times, and in fact there is a whole set of books from the OT period (or inter-testamental period; some of them found at Qumran) that are in the same category: Enoch, Esdras, the Apocalypse of Baruch, etc.
IV. Time of writing. Another question is, when were these books written? Most scholars say that none of them were written before the second century. In other words, the earliest one was written at least a hundred years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The Jesus Seminar scholars want to push Thomas back into the first century, but there is no evidence for that. It’s just their wishful thinking. Most scholars don’t put them back that far.
About the dating, there are a few points to keep in mind. (1) First, as I said, even most liberal scholars don’t put them earlier than the second century. (Elaine Pagels says 2nd century or later.) (2) Secondly, the canonical gospels seem to be known by the writers of the Gnostic gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas, which means the canonical gospels must have been written first (some of the Synoptic “sayings” appear in Thomas, pp. 46-48). (3) Historically, Gnosticism did not become a problem in the Church until the second century, which means it was not really strong until the second century. The earliest Christian writings, like the letters of Ignatius, letter of Polycarp, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, Apology of Justin Martyr, etc. don’t mention Gnosticism, or if they do, only marginally. (4) The elevation of the female, making Mary Magdalene the chief disciple, etc. is obviously a later development. We do not see such a trend in NT times. This also speaks for a late date for most of the writings.
V. Salvation in Gnosticism. In Gnosticism, salvation is not a matter of the redemption of the whole person—body, soul and spirit. Gnostics believe that the problem of man is that his spirit, which is good, has been trapped in a physical body, which is bad. So spirit is good, flesh is evil. That means that the body of flesh cannot be redeemed or saved. The idea is to get out of the body, to get away from the body, and to go up to the heavenly realm of spirits. To Gnostics, that is what constitutes salvation. It is not a moral problem, but a problem of being (ontological problem).
So in Gnostic thinking, Jesus came to let us know (1) who we are (which is divine), (2) where we came from (the Kingdom of Light), and (3) how to go back to our original home.
One writer summed it up this way:
The world is miserable…a cesspool of ignorance and suffering…and
salvation will come not by trying to make it better but by escaping it
altogether…we do not belong here in this awful world. We have come
from another place, the realm of God. We are trapped here, imprisoned.
And when we learn who we are and how we can escape, we can then
return to our heavenly home.
This type of thinking and teaching is a little bit similar to Buddhism. Buddhism says life is made up of pain and suffering, and it teaches that by meditation and contemplation we can arrive at the place where we no longer have an individual existence but we are absorbed into Nirvana, or the World-Soul. It is an escape from the present existence, and Gnosticism also represents an escape from the present physical world in which we find ourselves. It is not a redemption of this world, but an escape from it. Nor is a redemption of the body, but an escape from it. (But Paul, Romans 8… “whole of creation…”)
(Conservative Buddhists believe that the ultimate goal of man is to be released from the cycle of rebirth and suffering. This is a state of rest without continuation of earthly desires. Whether or not this state is conscious is not defined. They deny annihilation, but they also deny existence as individuals distinct from others.)
Gnosticism also ties in with New Age philosophy in some aspects. New Age proponents would say our problem is not sin, but rather ignorance, and that each one of us contains a spark of the divine. God is not only in us, but he is found everywhere, in all religions and faiths. What we need to do is understand our mystical potential by self-realization and try to attain to a higher consciousness.
VI. Theology. Gnosticism teaches the existence of two Gods. There is a higher, perfect God who is high up, unknowable and unapproachable. But there is another God, an inferior one, who created this world with all its problems. They identified this inferior God with Jehovah of the OT. They taught that Jesus is the son of the loving God of the NT, whereas the inferior God of the OT is the one who created this world. That’s why it’s full of problems. So they rejected the OT, and they also rejected Judaism. One of their leaders, Marcion, made up his own canon (collection of NT books). It consisted of 11 books, ten of Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Luke (a form of it).
Gnosticism did not become strong until the second century AD. Nobody knows exactly how it got started. Scholars think it borrows from Platonism, Greek mystery cults, Zoroastrianism, Egyptian religion, the Kabbalah of Judaism, and probably Buddhism. But there were beginnings of it even in the first century, and we can probably detect seeds of it even in the NT, as some of the NT writers are already beginning to try to combat Gnosticism. For example, in II John, verse 7, John criticizes those who deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Gnostics taught docetism, a doctrine which says that the physical body of Christ was just a phantom, or an appearance; he only appeared (Gr. dokeo) to have a body. The Apostle Paul also talks about “knowledge that puffs up” (I Cor 8:1); contrast this with the “pride” of the “elite.” 2 Timothy 2:16-18, Hymenaeus and Philetus taught the resurrection had taken place already. Also Gospel of Philip (Gn. P 284 and 264).
Characteristics of Gnosticism:
The notion of a remote, supreme divinity, known under a variety of names, including Pleroma and Bythos (Greek: “deep”). But sometimes known as the God of love, or the “good God,” whereas there is also an “evil God” known as the Demiurge, who created all evil.
Emanations: Gnostics believe that instead of God creating everything, things emanated from Him. There is a whole series of spiritual beings (aeons) that emanated from God, one of them being Christ, and then the one on the very bottom is said to be Jehovah of the OT. There are two gods, or central beings: the Supreme Being, who is the God of love, and the Demiurge, who is the God of the OT. In the original mythology, all of the aeons have partners. Sophia, who was one of the aeons, tried to bring about an emanation without her partner, and the result was a reprehensible being called Yaldabaoth—otherwise known as the Demiurge.
Matter is completely evil, so the body cannot be saved. There is no resurrection of the flesh/body. The idea is to escape from the body and return to the Kingdom of Light. Since matter is evil, it will ultimately be dissolved (Gospel Mary talks about this).
Dualism. There is an eternal struggle between good and evil, the “good god” and the “bad god,” between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, matter and spirit, etc.
Docetism. Christ did not have a physical body, but only appeared to do so. The reason is obvious: since matter is evil, the divine Christ would not take on a human body. In many of the Gnostic writings he is not referred to as Jesus. The reason is probably because that would imply a human body, and it would also imply his Jewish background, both of which they deny. He is often called either “Christ” or the “Savior.” Many of them call him the “Savior.” This is a dead giveaway that it is a Gnostic document. [Thomas uses “Jesus”]
Also because Jesus did not have a human body, so they say, he did not really suffer. For example, in the First Apocalypse of James, Jesus supposedly says: “Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And this people has done me no harm.” In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus says: “I did not die in reality, but in appearance…”
Women in Gnosticism. In Gnosticism God is both god and goddess (he is androgynous); Gnostics emphasize God’s feminine side. In her book, The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels has a chapter called “God the Father/God the Mother.” But there is some ambivalence in Gnosticism concerning women. On the one hand, they like to emphasize the importance of female disciples such as Mary Magdalene and Salome. But there is also some misogyny in Gnosticism, and the feminine is often seen as the cause of sin and misery in the world. Gospel of Thomas, No. 114.
Anti-Semitism. Jews are viewed as worshippers of the inferior God of the OT. Marcion removed all Jewish elements from the texts that he included in his canon.
He only used the Gospel of Luke, but he purged it of all its Jewish elements.
Names often seen and heard in Gnosticism: Barbelo, Seth, Yaldabaoth, Sophia, Bythos, Armozel, and of course many others. (Seth is a heavenly figure who manifests himself as Christ, Zoroaster, or Melchizedek, etc.) If you look at a text like the Gospel of Judas, and you start seeing some of these names, you know immediately that you have a Gnostic writing.
VII. How the Canon was formed (brief overview). The word “canon” means a measure, or measuring-stick (like a ruler, or yardstick). Then it came to mean a criterion. After that it gradually came to mean that which is measured. For our purposes, it refers to the 27 books that make up the NT.
The formation of the Canon was a slow process. It was not decided overnight. And it is very important to understand that no church council decided the canon. The Council of Nicea did not even bring up that topic; much less did the Emperor Constantine decide it.
A number of things happened to bring the matter of inspired books to the attention of Church leaders. These things caused them to think, “We most know which books are authoritative for our lives, and which are not.” (1) The fact that shortly after the apostles all died, others began to write books that were not considered inspired, (2) Gnostic leaders like Marcion began to put together their own canon (he had 11 books in his canon), (3) In the persecution of Diocletian at end of 3rd century, the authorities began to demand that Christian books be handed over to be burned. Christians wanted to know which books to risk their lives for.
So there was a need to define which books were considered inspired. How did they do it? They used certain criteria, and here are some of them: (1) The text in question must have been written near the time of Jesus; in other words, it couldn’t be a recent production. (2) It must have been written by an apostle or an associate of the apostles. (3) It had to enjoy widespread usage among the established churches; in other words, had to prove it had power to encourage and edify people. (4) It had to be “orthodox”; that is, it had to agree with the rule of faith (such as the Apostles Creed; Serapion and the “Gospel of Peter”).
The canon was finished by the second century, and church writers quite from most of them. But the earliest list we have that coincides exactly with our 27 NT books is a letter written by Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 AD.
VIII. Individual books.
1. The Gospel of Judas. First of all, this book has caught everyone’s attention, but it is probably the least important, and the least “readable” of any of the Gnostic books. It is clearly Gnostic, because it talks about cosmology, stars, luminaries, and Gnostic names like Barbelo, Adamas, Yaldabaoth, Seth, etc. It is also pretty uninteresting to read, as compared with the canonical gospels.
When was it written? Since Irenaeus, writing about 180, mentions it, it must have been written before that time. The Coptic manuscript was found near El Minya, Egypt, in the 1970s and finally found its way to scholars. The manuscript itself has been carbon-dated to plus or minus 50 years of 280.
Several of the Gnostic books single out one disciple and elevate that disciple above the others, ascribing to that one special secret knowledge. This was true of the Gospel of Thomas, and also the Apocryphon of James, or Secret Book of James. Here, it is Judas.
I should add here that this is not a gospel. There is no good news here. There is no atonement, death, resurrection, or anything like that. It is completely Gnostic, and according to this text even Jesus needs to get out of the physical body and go back to the Kingdom of Light.
If you read it, you can see that one of the purposes is to rehabilitate, or to elevate Judas. For example, at one place Jesus says to Judas, “Step away from the others, and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve [disciples] may come to completion with their god.”
In another place Jesus says to Judas, “You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations—and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy [generation].” And then, “[Come], that I may teach you about [secrets] no person [has] ever seen. For there exists a great and boundless realm, whose extent no generation of angels has seen, [in which] there is [a] great invisible [Spirit].”
You may have heard that in this book Jesus conspires with Judas to get Judas to bring about his death. If it means that, it’s all in a couple of short sentences: “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”
The very last sentence reads: “And he received some money and handed him over to them.”
There is another thing that is important here. Jesus is always talking about “your god” and “their god” and so forth in a disparaging way. This means Jesus is distancing himself from the god of the disciples. Who is this? It’s the “inferior” god of the OT. The whole Gnostic program is right here. Jesus comes from the Supreme Deity above, while the disciples are worshipers of the inferior god of the OT. For example, in one place Jesus laughs at the disciples who are praying. They ask him why he is laughing at them. He says, “I am not laughing at you. [You] are not doing this because of your own will but because it is through this that your god [will be] praised.”
(A copy may be printed off by going to the National Geographic Society.)
2. The Gospel of Mary.
The Gospel of Mary is also an important one. It is short because about half of the manuscript is missing. It is not a part of the Nag Hammadi library. The Coptic version is in a Berlin Gnostic codex (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502), and there are also two Greek fragments from papyri. There are six pages missing at the beginning, and four missing from the middle. So it is incomplete. It consists of a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples and Mary Magdalene. Again, no one knows for sure when it was written, but some have suggested the 2nd century.
This also is clearly Gnostic. It starts out talking about matter; toward the end it talks about all things being dissolved, and about the soul taking a journey upward through the various heavenly “powers.” It says there is no sin in the usual sense of the word. Sin is ontological rather than moral or legal. It simply consists in the fact that the good spirit of man has gotten tangled up in matter, which is evil.
Mary has a vision, and she is elevated in a sense by being given special knowledge, but even in this document there is an underlying misogyny. Mary is elevated only insofar as she has become “male” in her thinking and attitudes. For example Mary herself says (5:3), “Let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us into men.” Sometimes she is referred to as the first female apostle. But if she has been elevated to a position of leadership, it is only because she has overcome her female nature and has become like a man.
There is a clash between some of the disciples, especially Peter, and Mary Magdalene, and it is brought out in some of the other Gnostic gospels also. Mary has a special vision, in which Jesus reveals some special things to her, which she passes on to the disciples. After she finishes telling the disciples about the vision and special revelation she got from the Savior, first Andrew questions it and says he doesn’t believe it. Then Peter says, “Did he really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”
Then Mary breaks down and cries, and Levi scolds Peter and says, “But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us…” And this idea is also brought out in the Gospel of Philip.
3. The Gospel of Philip.
This is a kind of anthology of sayings or meditations, definitely Gnostic in character. Some think it was written by a disciple or disciples of Valentinus (c. 100-175), who was a well-known Gnostic leader in the second century. The book was written maybe in the second century or later, but the intro-duction in the Nag Hammadi Library says perhaps as late as the second half of the third century.
Interestingly, the Gospel of Philip has a lot to say about marriage. As Marvin Meyer puts it, sexuality, marriage, and the bridal chamber are familiar themes in this gospel. Loving and kissing are also discussed in the Gospel of Philip. However, lest we get excited, or turned off, at least part of the time he’s using these things in a figurative or spiritual sense.
“The place of sexuality and marriage in the Gospel of Philip and other Valentinian texts has been debated by scholars, and some have emphasized a more physical and others a more spiritual understanding of marriage among Valentinians.” The bridal chamber is even seen as a kind of sacrament. “Ultimately the bridal chamber leads to a union that has implications for this world and the next, and as a result, the bridal chamber may be considered the greatest of the sacraments.”
There is a famous section in this gospel that scholars have latched onto, to try to say that there was some physical connection between Jesus and Mary. Here is what the section says:
The companion [koinonos] of the [savior] is Mary Magdalene. The [savior loved] her more than [all] the disciples, [and he] kissed her often on her… [the word “mouth” is not in the original].
The other [disciples] …said to him. “Why do you love her more than all of us?”
The savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? If a blind person and one who can see are both in darkness, they are the same. When the light comes, one who can see will see the light, and the blind person will stay in darkness.”
There are many other interesting things in Philip. [note some of them from the Gospels of Mary]
4. The Gospel of Thomas.
In the library of Gnostic literature, the masterpiece is usually considered to be the Gospel of Thomas. Of all the Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Thomas is referred to the most often and is the most often quoted. Thomas was one of the 52 Coptic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. This was not the first time scholars had come upon this gospel. A half century earlier three Greek fragments had been discovered at Oxyrhynchus, but scholars didn’t know what it as. They were published simply as the Sayings of Jesus. Only when the entire book was discovered at Nag Hammadi and scholars compared the two, did they realize that the Oxyrhynchus fragments were from the Gospel of Thomas.
It consists of 114 sayings. They purport to be “secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” Who actually wrote it? Even liberal scholars do not believe that Thomas the apostle actually wrote it. As far as authorship is concerned, it belongs in the category of pseudepigrapha.
In Thomas, as in the other Gnostic gospels, Jesus is a talking head. There are no stories here about Jesus: no birth, no baptism, no miracles, no travels, no trial, no death, no resurrection. Most of the sayings are introduced by the words, “Jesus said…” There is also no pattern to the sayings; they seem to be random.
Some of the sayings are similar to the ones in the canonical gospels. Sometimes the similarities are close, like Saying No. 20:
The disciples said to Jesus, Tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. He said to them, It is like a mustard seed. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large branch and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky. And then here is another one that is very similar: Jesus said, If a blind person leads a blind person, both of them will fall into a hole.
On the other hand, there are a number of cases where a saying of Thomas will begin in a familiar way and then end with a strange twist. For example, Saying No. 2: Jesus said, Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all.
Some of them are very strange and puzzling, like Saying No. 11: Jesus said, This heaven will pass away, and the one above it will pass away. The dead are not alive, and the living will not die. During the days when you ate what is dead, you made it come alive. When you are in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one, you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?
So what are the specifically Gnostic elements of the book?
Special or “secret” information is revealed to one disciple or apostle (introduction)
Rather than a gospel of the cross, it is a gospel of “wisdom.”
It says one will not taste death if he discovers what the “sayings” mean (1).
Jesus refers to the “the all” (2) which is the Pleroma.
Jesus speaks of the disciples coming from the “light” (50)
There is no reference to the OT
Jesus talks about “deficiency” and “ignorance” but not “sin.”
The words “poverty,” “ignorance,” and “drunkenness” are all Gnostic words to refer to those who have not grasped the truth.
There is no second coming
There is a need to circumvent the powers and rulers to get up to one’s true home (50)
Salome, Mary, few others ask the right questions and so are considered part of the inside group, whereas other disciples ask wrong questions.
5. The Gospel of Peter.
Finally, we need to look briefly at the Gospel of Peter. The Gospel of Peter is sometimes not lumped with the other Gnostic gospels. It does tell a story—in fact, the story of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. There is no “talking-head” Jesus. There are no wise sayings, or proverb-like sayings. No talk of cosmology, strange names, salvation by knowledge, or anything like that. However, there is at least one element in this gospel that makes it a borderline Gnostic text. And that’s the docetic statement about Jesus feeling no pain.
No one knows who wrote this document. It was apparently in existence at the end of the 2nd century. Serapion of Antioch (c. 199) read it and concluded it was not orthodox. Eusebius listed it in his fourth group, as “heretical.” The Jesus Seminar scholars like this gospel, for some reason, and think it is a more accurate account of what might have happened, than the 4 gospels. They’re always doing this, and it reveals a desire to get away from what they call the “canonical imperialism” of the 4 gospels and other canonical books.
This text is incomplete. It starts abruptly and then breaks off abruptly at the end. Starts with Pilate washing his hands of responsibility, and then stops with “There was with us Levi of Alphaeus, whom the Lord…”
The book has some strange elements. We’ll just list a few of them and then be done with it.
*It ascribes responsibility for the crucifixion to Herod. Pilate has to ask Herod if he wants to do something about Jesus, like requesting the body for Joseph.
*It says Jesus remained silent on the cross, because he did not suffer.
*There are some fantastic things in this text, like the Cross speaking, young men whose heads reach to the heavens…etc.
*It uses the expression “Lord’s Day” which would not have been appropriate for that time, unless it was written quite a bit later.
*It may be anti-Semitic in the way it talks about “the Jews” realizing what they have done, etc.