The Gnostic Gospels figure heavily in the recently popular book by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. One of the most ludicrous claims made in The Da Vinci Code is that there were “more than 80 gospels” considered for the New Testament, and that out of this only four were chosen. Among the many misrepresentations in The Da Vinci Code, this exaggeration deserves special treatment.
The “Secret” Nag Hammadi Texts Discovered
This distortion derives its basis from a discovery of ancient texts and so-called “gospels” which took place in 1945, in the desert sands of Egypt. A person by the name of Muhammad Ali (not the fighter) was digging in a gave when he stumbled across an earthen jar. As was the case with the Dead Sea Scrolls, the discovery took place quite by accident.
A collection of ancient texts were uncovered with this discovery, many with intriguing titles such as the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Truth, Acts of John, and others. The Nag Hammadi Library, published in 1977, consisted of 45 titles – only a few of which were titled “gospels”. In fact, only five are listed as gospels – Truth, Thomas, Philip, Egyptians, and Mary. A far cry from the 80 The Da Vinci Code claims! In fact, most of the Gnostic texts were poems, wisdom literature, and supposed historical narratives. That 80 “gospels” ever existed is a fabrication.
The important thing to remember is that these documents are dated to the 2nd and 3rd centuries — generations AFTER the New Testament gospels were written, adopted and the early church formed (the earliest of the Gnostic Gospels is supposedly the “Gospel of Thomas”, dated by experts to 150 AD). That the Council of Nicea in 325 AD reviewed some 80 gospels and decided to adopt only is nonsense. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had long since been adopted by the church as authoritative.
The few writings in the collection that have been labeled as “gospels” stand in stark contrast to the style, content and teachings of the new Testament gospels. The Gnostic texts read like jumbled collections of sayings, without reference to dates, times or place3. Contrast this with the style and content of the gospels of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark Luke and John. These books are structured chronologically, refer to dates, times and place, historical references and people, and read like actual historical narratives.
The next thing to note is that it is in no way certain who wrote many of these so-called gospel documents (in contrast to the New Testament gospels and letters, which according to scholars were all written by the apostles of Jesus or His disciples).
Secrets “Uncovered” Only Now, or Ancient History?
These so-called gospels and associated texts have a set of common ideas or themes that run through them, which is why they have been labeled “Gnostic” texts. Far from texts that describe “another Christianity”, Gnostic teachings sought to subvert the very core teachings of the Christian faith – which is why many of the early church fathers (several of whom were disciples of the apostles) wrote about them, and preach to their congregations of their errors.
- Irenaeus (c 130-200) – noted in the preface to his Against Heresies that he writes against those who draw away many under a pretense of knowledge.
- Epiphanius (c 310-403) – speaks of “practicing Gnostics” (which is how we received the name given to these spurious teachings)
Other early church fathers writing and speaking out against Gnostic teachings included Hippolytus (c170-236) and Tertullian (c 160-220). These early Church leaders made it clear to their congregations that these texts were in direct opposition to the teachings of Jesus, His Apostles, and the Church. No, there is nothing “secret” about these teachings — the early Church fathers new about these over 1,500 years ago, and were exposing these false and twisted teachings for precisely what they were
Contrary to what The Da Vinci Code claims, these Gnostic texts are not evidence of an “alternative” Christianity. Plain and simple they are evidence of an attack on the very core truths of Christianity — an intense struggle by heretical sects against the teachings of Jesus, the apostles and the early church. In fact, Gnosticism began to infiltrate the early church in the early to mid-second century, many decades after the life of Jesus, the apostles, and the formation of the Church. Think of those that today try to re-create the civil war battles of the 1860’s — that is how far removed the Gnostic texts and movement was from the writings of the New Testament and the birth of the Church. Indeed,Gnosticism arouse outside the bounds of the Church, then sought to infiltrate and destroy it with its false teachings.
Common Themes in The Gnostic Gospels
The Gnostic texts for the most part promote the following ideas in their texts:
- Only certain Christians possessed special knowledge (or “gnosis”), and that this knowledge was only given to the spiritual, the few, the “insiders”. Not everyone had this “divine spark” — only those “in the know” – the intellectuals. Those lacking this spiritual knowledge — well, they were doomed. According to Gnosticism, salvation is attained through the acquisition of special “secret” knowledge, not by grace through faith as the Bible teaches.
Note the following quote taken from The Apocalypse of Peter, a Gnostic text:
“And he [the Savior] said to me [Peter], “Be strong, for you are the one to whom these mysteries have been given. To know them through revelation…”
Contrast this with the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels. Jesus plainly spoke of what was required for salvation – there was no mystery to uncover, no secret revelation to strive for. He reached out to all, and all were invited to partake of salvation in Him. He spoke of the need for restoration – the need for man to confess his sins, turn from wicked ways, and receive the Son to restore right relationship with the Father. Coming into a right relationship with God was accomplished in only one way – by believing and trusting in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ on the Cross, and receiving Him as Lord and Savior. Jesus was quite clear:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. (John 3:16)
Paul in his letter to the Ephesians also stressed the way of salvation: “For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God – not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph 2:8)
- That there exists a dualism in the cosmos – a pure world of ideas and light, and a physical world of corruption and darkness. The “true God” is taught as a part of the world of ideas and light, while another “Creator” made and is involved with the physical world of creation.
According to the Gnostic writings, the transcendent Father is utterly spiritual and had no contact with the created material world. In opposition to Him is the Creator of the physical world, and arrogant being who believes He is the one and only God, So in Gnosticism you have two opposing gods, both believing themselves to be immutable and all powerful.
This is in stark contrast to the teachings of not only Christianity and the New Testament, but the Hebrew Bible as well. In Genesis 1:1 we read: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Throughout the Torah this same God actively deals with His creation in a variety of ways. Not only does He repeatedly describe Himself as the Creator of all things in heaven and in earth — He also refers to Himself as “I, the LORD, am the first; and with the last I am He.” (Isaiah 41:4). There is only one God in scripture, both Old and New Testament – He is both the Father of lights, as well as the Creator of heaven and earth. Note that like Judaism, Christianity ALSO teaches that there is only one true God – the difference being that Christians believe that God is a Trinity – three persons, all of one substance: Father, Son and Spirit.
Note also that this type of Gnostic dualism is impossible from a purely a scientific point of view. You cannot have two, eternal, all powerful, all knowing creator Gods. Most scientists today accept the overwhelming evidence that the universe as we know it was created from a “big bang” (sudden creation event) some 14-17 billion years ago. The inescapable conclusion: one all-powerful being initiated into existence all of what we see today, some 14-17 billion years ago. Now, according to logic, there cannot be TWO all-powerful, all knowing creators. If one is uncreated and all-powerful, the other by definition is not.
- A distorted view of Jesus, His work on the Cross, and Salvation. Gnosticism promotes the notion that there were two Jesus persons – the Lord and Savior Jesus, and the human substitute Jesus. The Savior was from the Father – a spiritual being who had nothing to do with the flesh, bodies or death. The second being was an earthly, human substitute who represented the spiritual Jesus and died on the cross. The earthly substitute suffered and was crucified; the heavenly Jesus laughed at the world’s ignorance:
The Apocalypse of Peter (81:4-24): “I saw him apparently being seized by them, And I said, ‘What am I seeing, O Lord? Is it really you whom they take? And are you holding on to me? And are they hammering the feet and hands of another? Who is this one above the cross, who is glad and laughing?’ The Savior said to me, “He whom you saw being glad and laughing above the cross is the Living Jesus. But he into whose hands and feet they were driving the nails is his fleshly part, which is substitute. They put to shame that which remained in his likeness. And look at him, and [look at] me!”
The Gnostic texts tell of a different Jesus than the Jesus we learn of in the four Gospels. The Jesus of the Gnostics and The Da Vinci Code is a more removed Jesus – almost phantom like. The Jesus of the Gospels and the New Testament is one that Mary Magdalene tried to cling to after His resurrection; a Jesus that had Thomas place his fingers into His pierced hands and side; a risen Jesus with whom the disciples ate meals. According to the true Gospels, that same Jesus suffered, was crucified on a cross, was buried, and rose again on the third day. Not a second Jesus, not a substitute — the eternal living Word of God who was sent from the Father:
John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,”
John 1:14: “And the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
According to the New Testament, after His resurrection Jesus made a point on several occasions to demonstrate that He was not an immaterial spirit. In fact He said in Luke’s Gospel: “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” (Luke 24:39). On another occasion he bid Thomas to place his fingers into his hands and side. This was the same Jesus who was with the Father before the world was, who took on flesh and lived a sinless life, who gave His life to pay the price for the sins of the world, and who rose from the dead and returned to the Father. This same Jesus will one day return to judge the living and the dead.
So… why does this matter? Simply because in the Gnostic view, there was no representation of Jesus on behalf of humanity. According to the Gnostic gospels, the Lord and Savior did not suffer and die on the cross — “another Jesus” did this. In the view of Gnostics the incarnate Word did not die on the cross and pay the ultimate price for the sins of humanity. And in their view, salvation does not lie in faith in the Son of God who paid the ultimate price for our sins – it lies, rather, in our ability to grasp “secret knowledge” and become “enlightened.”
Gnostic teaching regarding the person of Jesus, His work on the Cross, and Salvation is in direct opposition to what is taught in the four Gospels and in the New Testament — which is why the early church fathers so vehemently opposed and fought this evil. The New Testament and the early church believed in ONE Jesus who was with the Father from eternity. Who became flesh, really lived among us, really died, and really rose again. Salvation in the Gospels is by faith and receiving Jesus as Lord and Savior, not by achieving some level of “secret knowledge” — As John’s Gospel tells us “As many as received Him, to them gave He the right to become the children of God, to those that believe on His name.” (John 1:12).
Comparing the New Testament Gospels with the Gnostic Gospels
The Gnostic Gospels are also distinct from the original New Testament Gospels in other ways …
- The New Testament Gospels are rooted and grounded in history, while the Gnostic Gospels seem floating, unattached to specific dates, times and places.
- The Jesus quoted in the Gnostic texts is quite different than the Jesus we know in the New Testament. He is quoted as saying things that are quite out of character and inconsistent with all of His sayings in the four Gospels. For example, take this quote from the Gospel of Thomas, 114:
“Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
While this text has Jesus demeaning the position of women, the Bible teaches that both males and females were created in God’s image (Gen 1:27). Jesus included women in his company, along with the disciples — they traveled, ate and ministered to them. While society at that time demeaned women, Jesus elevated the status of women. This saying quoted in the Gospel of Thomas is quite out of character with the sayings of Jesus documented in the four Gospels.
The Gnostic Gospels: Not What They Claim to Be
- The Gnostic gospels are not new or “secret”- they were around during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, battled by the early church fathers as erroneous teachings that were attempting to draw away the faithful.
- They are not alternatives to the four Gospels, but later heretical texts introduced around 150 AD and later -decades after the early church was founded and the New Testament documents already accepted and in wide use.
- The Gnostic gospels promoted teachings in direct opposition to both Jewish and Christian teaching, which is why they were fought against so vehemently by the early church fathers.That there is one all powerful, all knowing creator god (not dualism as Gnosticism teaches).
That there is one Jesus, the eternal Son of God, existing with the Father and the Spirit before the universe came into existence (not two Jesus’s – one spiritual, one physical).
This same Jesus became flesh, dwelt among us, was crucified, died and was buried, and rose again the third day.
That salvation is by grace through faith (not by acquiring a level of “secret knowledge”).
- The Da Vinci Code, and other recent books and media promoting the ideas espoused by the Gnostics, are attempting to again subvert many of the core beliefs of Christianity. The notion that these represent “another” form of Christianity is nonsense. They were in error then and they are in error now. They were an attack on the church and core Christian belief then, and they are an attach on the church and Christian beliefs now. Don’t be fooled.“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and the Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)
The truth is that we are all created to be in relationship with our maker. But sin has broken this relationship. We all have a “God-sized” hole in our hearts – a hole that we try to fill with all sorts of things – “secret knowledge” that were espoused by the Gnostics; possessions, success, money, sex, etc. But in the end none of this truly satisfies. In reality there is only thing that can fill this void: Jesus. Why? Because He bridges the gap between us and our Maker. We were created to be in fellowship with Him.
Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? If you do, then you have everything to look forward to – in this life, and in the life to come. You were made for a purpose, and your daily walk with Jesus will help you come to realize His purpose in your life and fulfill it. If you don’t have a relationship with your Creator, you can! Here is a link to Billy Graham’s web site that can show you how…
Steps to Peace with God ==> http://www.billygraham.org/SH_StepsToPeace.asp
1. “Breaking the Da Vinci Code”, by Darrell L. Bock, Ph.D. Nelson.
2. “The Da Vinci Hoax”, by Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel. Ignatius.
3. “The Other Bible – Ancient Alternative Scriptures”. Harper Collins.
Christian Research Institute – Journal: Gnostic Gospels – are they Authentic? http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/cri/cri-jrnl/web/crj0088a.html
Christian Research Institute – Journal: Gnostic Gospels – are they Authentic? Part 2: http://www.equip.org/free/DG040-2.htm