This essay considers the reliability of the Gnostic Gospels while contrasting them to the canonical Gospels. A few months ago, I wrote an article about the historical reliability of the Gospels. I argued that the Gospels do give us reliable history. This time, I want to look at the flipside of that issue. As you may know, there are other gospels besides the four that we have in the canon of our Bible today (or, more accurately, there are other books that claim to be Gospels). In the early centuries of Christianity, several people wrote books claiming to relate teachings and stories about Jesus, but the Church eventually accepted only four of them as authentic.
In this article, I want to look a bit at these other gospels. Now, there are a lot of them, so we can’t look at them individually. Instead, I want to talk a bit about what is probably the largest and most well-known group of non-biblical gospels, the Gnostic gospels. The Gnostics were an early (heretical) Christian group that had some very, very strange beliefs.
For example, they believed that the material world is bad and only the spiritual world is good. To go along with that, they also believed that we all have a spark of the divine within us and that salvation is achieved through secret knowledge that allows that spark to escape the material world (the Greek word for knowledge is “gnosis,” and that’s where we get the word “gnostic”). Suffice it to say, they were very far removed from the orthodox Christians, the ones whose beliefs we today would recognize as normal Christianity.
These gospels present Jesus and his ministry very differently from the biblical gospels, so they raise some obvious questions for us: Do they contain reliable history? Is the real Jesus the one we find in these books or is the real Jesus the one about whom we read in the New Testament? We don’t have room in a single article to go through these Gnostic gospels one by one, but I would like to give some thoughts on them as a whole, thoughts that already tip the scales against these books before we even begin looking at them individually.
Gnostics, Jesus, and Judaism
To begin, I want first to focus on something else the Gnostics believed. They thought that the God of the New Testament was the true God and that the God of the Old Testament was a lesser deity. As a result, they created a sharp divide between the two Testaments, making their religion at best only tangentially related to the Old Testament and Judaism and at worst directly antagonistic towards them. And that raises a question for us, The Jesus, in which scenario, seems more likely to be the real Jesus in actual history?:
1) The Gnostic Jesus, who at best is only tangentially linked to the Old Testament and at worst is directly opposed to it, was the real Jesus. Later some people distorted his teachings, and turned him into the fulfillment of all the hopes and expectations of the Old Testament.
2) Jesus really did present himself as the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Later, when Christianity and Judaism grew apart, people began to distort his message and to present it as almost entirely non-Jewish.
The second scenario seems a lot more probable to me. I find it hard to believe that someone would find a figure at best tangentially related to the Jewish faith and at worst directly opposed to it and then turn him into its long-awaited Messiah. There is simply not much of a reason for anybody to want to do that. However, we can easily understand why someone, who lived after the break between Judaism and Christianity, and who, being spurred by that break, reinvented Jesus as a non-Jewish preacher.
Since that second scenario is much more likely, we can see right off the bat that the biblical Gospels are almost certainly more reliable than the Gnostic ones.
Apostolic Succession or Secret Transmission
And there is another reason to doubt the historical reliability of the Gnostic gospels. When we look at the records we have of the arguments between Gnostics and orthodox Christians, we find something very telling. The orthodox Christians could trace their teachings back to the Apostles themselves. They had lists of bishops in various cities, and those lists showed that their beliefs were passed on from generation to generation, stretching all the way back to the beginning of the Church.
The Gnostics, on the other hand, could do no such thing. They claimed to pass on secret teachings of Jesus that weren’t proclaimed publicly. Instead, their doctrines were supposedly passed down clandestinely and were hidden from the majority of Christians., That sounds like they were just trying to save face. It sounds like they knew that they could not trace their teachings back to the Apostles, so they had to make up an excuse to explain why they could not. So again, we have reason to doubt their historical reliability.
Granted, none of this proves without a shadow of a doubt that the orthodox Christians were right. It is possible that somebody did take a non-Jewish (or at least barely Jewish) figure and turn him into the fulfillment of the Old Testament or that there really were some teachings of Jesus that were handed down secretly to only a few people. From a purely historical perspective, absolute certainty is impossible. Nevertheless, the Gnostic scenarios are hard to believe. The whole enterprise of Gnosticism and the idea of a Gnostic Jesus just don’t have much inherent historical plausibility, so it is much more likely that the biblical Gospels are accurate.