Are the Gnostic Documents Reliable?

Article ID: DG040-2 | By: Douglas Groothuis

The following is an excerpt from article DG040-2 from the Christian Research Journal. The full article can be viewed by following the link below the excerpt.


THE RELIABILITY OF THE GNOSTIC DOCUMENTS

Historicity is related to trustworthiness. If a document is historically reliable, it is trustworthy as objectively true; there is good reason to believe that what it affirms essentially fits what is the case. It is faithful to fact. Historical reliability can be divided into three basic categories: integrity, authenticity, and veracity. Integrity concerns the preservation of the writing through history. Do we have reason to believe the text as it now reads is essentially the same as when it was first written? Or has substantial corruption taken place through distortion, additions, or subtractions? The New Testament has been preserved in thousands of diverse and ancient manuscripts which enable us to reconstruct the original documents with a high degree of certainty. But what of Nag Hammadi? Before the discovery at Nag Hammadi, Gnostic documents not inferred from references in the church fathers were few and far between. Since 1945, however, there are many primary documents. Scholars date the extant manuscripts from A.D. 350-400. The original writing of the various documents, of course, took place sometime before A.D. 350-400, but not, according to most scholars, before the second century. The actual condition of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts varies considerably. James Robinson, editor of The Nag Hammadi Library, notes that “there is the physical deterioration of the books themselves, which began no doubt before they were buried around 400 C.E. [then] advanced steadily while they remained buried, and unfortunately was not completely halted in the period between their discovery in 1945 and their final conservation thirty years later.”8Reading through The Nag Hammadi Library, one often finds notations such as ellipses, parentheses, and brackets, indicating spotty marks in the texts. Often the translator has to venture tentative reconstructions of the writings because of textual damage. The situation may be likened to putting together a jigsaw puzzle with numerous pieces missing; one is forced to recreate the pieces by using whatever context is available. Robinson adds that “when only a few letters are missing, they can be often filled in adequately, but larger holes must simply remain a blank.”9Concerning translation, Robinson relates that “the texts were translated one by one from Greek to Coptic, and not always by translators capable of grasping the profundity or sublimity of what they sought to translate.”10 Robinson notes, however, that most of the texts are adequately translated, and that when there is more than one version of a particular text, the better translation is clearly discernible. Nevertheless, he is “led to wonder about the bulk of the texts that exist only in a single version,”11 because these texts cannot be compared with other translations for accuracy. Robinson comments further on the integrity of the texts: “There is the same kind of hazard in the transmission of the texts by a series of scribes who copied them, generation after generation, from increasingly corrupt copies, first in Greek and then in Coptic. The number of unintentional errors is hard to estimate, since such a thing as a clean control copy does not exist; nor does one have, as in the case of the Bible, a quantity of manuscripts of the same text that tend to correct each other when compared (emphasis added).”12Authenticity concerns the authorship of a given writing. Do we know who the author was? Or must we deal with an anonymous one? A writing is considered authentic if it can be shown to have been written by its stated or implied author. There is solid evidence that the New Testament Gospels were written by their namesakes: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But what of Nag Hammadi? The Letter of Peter to Philip is dated at the end of the second century or even into the third. This rules out a literal letter from the apostle to Philip. The genre of this text is known as pseudepigrapha — writings falsely ascribed to noteworthy individuals to lend credibility to the material. Although interesting in explaining the development of Gnostic thought and its relationship to biblical writings, this letter shouldn’t be overtaxed as delivering reliable history of the events it purports to record. There are few if any cases of known authorship with the Nag Hammadi and other Gnostic texts. Scholars speculate as to authorship, but do not take pseudepigraphic literature as authentically apostolic. Even the Gospel of Thomas, probably the document closest in time to the New Testament events, is virtually never considered to be written by the apostle Thomas himself.13 The marks of authenticity in this material are, then, spotty at best. Veracity concerns the truthfulness of the author of the text. Was the author adequately in a position to relate what is reported, in terms of both chronological closeness to the events and observational savvy? Did he or she have sufficient credentials to relay historical truth? Some, in their enthusiasm over Nag Hammadi, have lassoed texts into the historical corral that date several hundred years after the life of Jesus. For instance, in a review of the movie The Last Temptation of Christ, Michael Grosso speaks of hints of Jesus’ sexual life “right at the start of the Christian tradition.” He then quotes from the Gospel of Philip to the effect that Jesus often kissed Mary Magdalene on the mouth.14 The problem is that the text is quite far from “the start of the Christian tradition,” being written, according to one scholar, “perhaps as late as the second half of the third century.”15Craig Blomberg states that “most of the Nag Hammadi documents, predominantly Gnostic in nature, make no pretense of overlapping with the gospel traditions of Jesus’ earthly life.”16 He observes that “a number claim to record conversations of the resurrected Jesus with various disciples, but this setting is usually little more than an artificial framework for imparting Gnostic doctrine.”17What, then, of the veracity of the documents? We do not know who wrote most of them and their historical veracity concerning Jesus seems slim. Yet some scholars advance a few candidates as providing historically reliable facts concerning Jesus. In the case of the Gospel of Truth, some scholars see Valentinus as the author, or at least as authoring an earlier version.18 Yet Valentinus dates into the second century (d. A.D. 175) and was thus not a contemporary of Jesus. Attridge and MacRae date the document between A.D. 140 and 180.19 Layton recognizes that “the work is a sermon and has nothing to do with the Christian genre properly called ‘gospel.’”20The text differs from many in Nag Hammadi because of its recurring references to New Testament passages. Beatley Layton notes that “it paraphrases, and so interprets, some thirty to sixty scriptural passages almost all from the New Testament books.”21 He goes on to note that Valentinus shaped these allusions to fit his own Gnostic theology.22 In discussing the use of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in the Gospel of Truth, C. M. Tuckett concludes that “there is no evidence for the use of sources other than the canonical gospels for synoptic material.”23 This would mean that the Gospel of Truth gives no independent historical insight about Jesus, but rather reinterprets previous material. The Gospel of Philip is thick with Gnostic theology and contains several references to Jesus. However, it does not claim to be a revelation from Jesus: it is more of a Gnostic manual of theology.24 According to Tuckett’s analysis, all the references to Gospel material seem to stem from Matthew and not from any other canonical Gospel or other source independent of Matthew. Andrew Hembold has also pointed out that both the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip show signs of “mimicking” the New Testament; they both “know and recognize the greater part of the New Testament as authoritative.”25 This would make them derivative, not original, documents. Tuckett has also argued that the Gospel of Mary and the Book of Thomas the Contender are dependent on synoptic materials, and that “there is virtually no evidence for the use of pre-synoptic sources by these writers. These texts are all ‘post-synoptic,’ not only with regard to their dates, but also with regard to the form of the synoptic tradition they presuppose.”26 In other words, these writings are simply drawing on preexistent Gospel material and rearranging it to conform to their Gnostic world view. They do not contribute historically authentic, new material. The Apocryphon of James claims to be a secret revelation of the risen Jesus to James His brother. It is less obviously Gnostic than some Nag Hammadi texts and contains some more orthodox-sounding phrases such as, “Verily I say unto you none will be saved unless they believe in my cross.”27 It also affirms the unorthodox, such as when Jesus says, “Become better than I; make yourselves like the son of the Holy Spirit.”28 While one scholar dates this text sometime before A.D. 150,29 Blomberg believes it gives indications of being “at least in part later than and dependent upon the canonical gospels.”30 Its esotericism certainly puts it at odds with the canonical Gospels, which are better attested historically.