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The Gnostic Gospels and Bible Preservation and Canon


Gnostic gospels and the preservation and Canon of ScriptureMany people claim the Gnostic gospels teach true religious doctrine. Some even claim they belong in the Scriptures. They are often used to justify modern beliefs and practices. Has the Bible canon been properly identified and preserved?

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Introduction:

“The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of about fifty-two ancient texts … written from the 2nd to the 4th century AD. … These gospels are not part of the standard Biblical canon of any mainstream Christian denomination…” – “Gnostic Gospels,” Wikipedia

Why do these texts matter to us?

Some people claim they belong in the New Testament but the Catholic Church banned them.

Others claim they prove parts of the New Testament are missing.

Some base false doctrines on them: feminism, sexual immorality, reincarnation, the Occult.

They are a fundamental part of modernist doctrine taught by denominations.

They influence millions of people by popular books and movies like The DaVinci Code.

In short, they are a major basis of false doctrine. We need to know how to defend the truth.

The purpose of this study is to examine the Gnostic gospels in light of Scripture.

We seek to know what role, if any, should the Gnostic gospels have in our service to God.

Facts about the Gnostic Gospels

Information from the “Gnostic Gospels,” Wikipedia

 Gnostic gospels include many documents, but the most common are:

Gospel of Mary (recovered in 1896)

Gospel of Thomas (found in Egypt in 1898 and in the Nag Hammadi Library)

Gospel of Truth (Nag Hammadi Library)

Gospel of Philip (Nag Hammadi Library)

Gospel of Judas (recovered in 1983, and then reconstructed in 2006; see photo)

“It is now generally believed that Gnosticism was a Jewish movement which emerged directly in reaction to Christianity. … gnostic gospels were not discovered at a single time, but rather as a series of finds. The Nag Hammadi Library was discovered … in December 1945. … the Gospel of Mary … was recovered in 1896 … and published in 1955. [For] others, such as with the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, only one copy is currently known to exist. …… the majority of scholars date authorship of the Gnostic gospel [sic] of Nag Hammadi to the 2nd and 3rd century.…”

Information from Other Sources

Gnostic “gospels” are not narratives of Christ’s life (like New Testament gospels).

(Bock, pages 61,62; compare Olson, pages 174,175)

They were not written by the Bible characters whose names are attached to them!

The author of the Gospel of Phillip is completely unknown. (Kirkwood, pages 80-82,91,92; Olson, pages 62,66,67)

The “Gospel of Mary Magdalene” was written so long after the first century that Mary Magdalene could not have been alive to write it.

The Gnostic writings were dated from the second to the fourth or fifth centuries.

Most of them quote the New Testament, so must have been written afterward.

The Gospel of Phillip quotes the New Testament thirteen times. (Kirkwood, pages 92,93)

The Gospel of Thomas, is believed to have been written before 200 AD, but quotes the New Testament 166 times. (Kirkwood, page 94)

(We have only two ancient copies of the Gospel of Mary, both very fragmentary, dated in the early third century. It also quotes the New Testament. – Kirkwood, pages 96.97)

(The better-known texts were written in the second century to the middle of the third century AD – Kirkwood, page 91; Bock, page 64; See also Wikipedia above. The earliest possible dates for a few Gnostic writings may be the early second century, but a few are dated as late as fourth, or even fifth century. – Olson, page 64)

Some Doctrines Taught in the Gnostic Gospels

Gnostics differed widely in their views. They combine mythology, astrology, and the Occult, much like the New Age Movement. (Olson, pages 48ff,54,55) But here are a few main beliefs.

“Gnosticism” means knowledge. Gnostic texts claim to contain mysterious, secret truths that Christians did not possess. (Bock, page 65)

John 16:13; 2 Timothy 3:16,17 – The Bible says God revealed all truth and all good works through the apostles. Writings that teach doctrine unknown to the apostles, cannot be true.

(Mark 16:15,16; 1 Timothy 2:4)

Docetism: the doctrine that God can have nothing to do with the physical earth. So, the real Christ did not live on earth in the flesh and did not die on the cross.

They claim that Jesus was not really Christ or God in the flesh but only appeared to be. (Kirkwood, pages 84,87; Olson, pages 50,67,68; Bock, pages 76-80) The Gospel of Phillip specifically denies that Mary conceived Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit (“Some say Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit; they are mistaken…”). It also denies that Christ died and then arose. (Kirkwood, pages 92,93; Kostenberger, page 166)

1 John 4:2-4; 2 John 7; John 1:1-18; Hebrews 2:9-18; Acts 17:2,3 – But Bible writers claimed Jesus is Christ and came in the flesh so He could die for sin. Those who deny this are anti-Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38 – The Holy Spirit conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb.

1 Corinthians 15:3-11; Matthew 27 & 28; Mark 15 &16; Luke 23 & 24; John 19 & 20 – Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection are fundamental to the gospel. All four gospel writers record His death on the cross, burial, and resurrection.

(Mark 16:5-7; John 20:1-9; Matthew 28:11-15; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-31; 1 John 1:1-3 – The Bible says Jesus’ physical body returned to life as proved by the fact the body left the tomb and appeared to people who touched Him, etc. )

The supreme god of Gnosticism is not the Creator God of the Old Testament.

They view the Old Testament Creator God as evil, equated with Satan, who mistakenly thinks he is the true God. Adam was born as the result of a relationship between Jehovah and Sophia (wisdom). Cain and Abel were not sons of Adam and Eve, but were conceived when Jehovah forced himself on Eve. (Kirkwood, pages 84-86; Olson, page 52,71; Bock, pages 68-73)

John 1:1-3; Acts 14:15; 17:24; Hebrews 1:10; 11:3 – But the New Testament confirms the Old Testament teaching that the one true God made the heavens, the earth, and everything in them.

Leviticus 11:44; 1 Samuel 2:2; Psalm 99:5,9; Revelation 4:8; 15:3,4; 16:5 – God is always infinitely righteous and holy, never wicked.

Genesis 2:7; 4:1,2 – God created Adam from dust. Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve.

(“Several of these Gnostic works ridicule the creator God as a blind and ignorant tyrant… In the Apocryphon of John, for example, the creator God is said to be weak and ‘impious in his madness.’” – Brashler reviewing The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels)

Gender confusion. God is both god and goddess, both Father and Mother.

In the Gospel of Thomas, “Jesus said … ‘For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Kostenberger, page 165) They claim Jesus said: “I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son.” (Bock, page 74; see also Olson, pages 50-52, and Brashler)

But the Bible repeatedly calls God our “Father,” never our “mother” nor “goddess” nor by any other feminine name or term – Matthew 6:9; Hebrews 12:9; James 3:9; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; 1 Peter 1:17; Matthew 5:43-48; 1 John 1:3; John 14:6-11,20-31.

Salvation comes through secret knowledge, not Divine forgiveness.

Matthew 26:28; 20:28; Ephesians 1:7; 1 Peter 1:18,19; 2:24; Hebrews 2:9; Revelation 1:5; 5:9; Hebrews 10:9-13; Romans 5:6-11 – Salvation comes through the sacrifice of Jesus.

Reincarnation (repeated life cycles)

(Kirkwood, page 86; see also Olson, pages 49,50. See also The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, via Brashler.)

But the Bible teaches humans have only one earthly life and death.

Hebrews 9:27 – It is appointed unto man once to die.

Ecclesiastes 12:7 – At death, the body returns to dust and the spirit returns to God (not another body).

(Luke 16:26 – When one has died, his destiny is fixed.)

Rather than reincarnation, the Bible teaches resurrection.

John 5:28,29 – All in the tombs will come forth to the resurrection of life or damnation.

Hebrews 9:27; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Acts 17:30,31 – Man is appointed once to die, and after that judgment. Each person is rewarded for what he did in the body: just one body, not many.

(1 Corinthians 15:22)

Gnosticism is a thorough perversion. One accepts it only if he has rejected the Bible.

The Preservation of Scripture

Some claim that the Catholic Church, led by Constantine and the Council of Nicea, determined the New Testament canon, rejected the Gnostic gospels, and rewrote the Scriptures to defend their doctrine. This claim in confused by the claim of Catholicism that they gave us the Bible.

In fact, the Gnostic gospels were never seriously considered to be inspired, and the question of what books belonged in the New Testament (“canon”) was largely settled in the second century AD, long before the Council of Nicea in 325 AD or the existence of the Catholic Church as such. Constantine made no effort to determine what books should be in the Bible. (Kirkwood, page 72,73; Bock, pages 102,110-123; Olson, pages 64-66,176)

But what evidence is there that the Scriptures we have accurately record the original message?

God Promised to Preserve His Word for All Future Ages.

Isaiah 30:8 – God’s words were written in a book for the time to come for ever and ever.

Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:22-25 – God’s word endures forever, unlike grass that sprouts but dies.

2 Peter 1:15 – Peter wrote so, after he died, people would remember these teachings “always.”

2 John 2 – The truth will be with us forever.

The all-powerful God, who always keeps His word, promised to preserve the Scriptures.

(Psalm 119:152,160; John 12:48; Psalm 12:6,7 (?); Deuteronomy 31:9-13,24-26; Matthew 24:35; Hebrews 13:20)

The Old Testament Demonstrates God’s Preservation of His Word.

For both the Old and the New Testaments, similar methods were used to write, collect, copy, and make a list of canonical books. But we can trace the preservation of Old Testament Scriptures through history to see if God kept His promise to preserve it. (Dates cited here are approximate.)

Old Testament evidence

The oldest Old Testament books were written by Moses about 1400 years BC.

Joshua 23:2,6 – About 60 years after Moses, Joshua charged Israel to keep all Moses wrote.

1 Kings 2:3 – 400 years after Moses, David charged Solomon to keep Moses’ commands.

2 Chronicles 34:14-19,29-31 – About 800 years after Moses, Josiah restored the worship of God by obeying the commands written there.

Nehemiah 8:1-3,8 – Some 900 Years after Moses, the people of Israel again re-established the service of God by following the Scriptures. (Compare verses 13-18; 9:3.)

Note that Scripture was still accurate and authoritative centuries after it was written.

New Testament evidence

When Jesus and His disciples lived, about 1400 years after Moses, copies of the Old Testament were widely circulated and studied as God’s word (Luke 4:16-21; Acts 8:28-35; 15:21).

Matthew 15:1-9 – Jesus quoted the Old Testament as being the commandment of God, and He rebuked those who did not obey it.

Luke 24:27,44-46; John 5:39,45-47 – Jesus fulfilled Moses, the prophets, and the psalms.

Matthew 22:29-33 – Jesus rebuked people for not knowing Scripture. Then He proved His teaching by an argument that depended on the accuracy of the tense of a verb written by Moses.

Acts 17:11 – The Bereans were noble-minded, because they searched the Scriptures to determine whether or not they were being taught the truth.

The Dead Sea scrolls, discovered in 1947, include portions of nearly every Old Testament book. They show essentially no change in our copies of the Old Testament since 200-100 BC.

The New Testament was written, copied, circulated, collected, translated, and preserved exactly like the Old Testament. If God accurately preserved the Old Testament till Jesus’ day, who can doubt that He has likewise preserved the whole Bible through the centuries till today?

This is also confirmed by thousands of ancient New Testament manuscripts and translations, some dated with a few centuries of the New Testament.

(See also Acts 17:2,3; Matthew 4:4,7,10; 1 Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4; John 10:35; Luke 10:25-28; 16:29-31; Matthew 22:41-45; 21:13; 13:13-15; Mark 12:10,11; Romans 11:2-4; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; Nehemiah chapter 13; Ezra 3:2ff; 7:10; Daniel 9:2,11-13; 2 Kings 17:37; 1 Chronicles 16:40; 2 Chronicles 17:9; 25:4; 31:3,4; Psalm 1:1,2; 19:7-11; chapter 119; Luke 7:24-27; 18:31; 22:37; John 13:18; 19:24,28,36f; Acts 18:28; 2:16-36; 15:13-21; Romans 1:1-4; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.)

That the Catholic Church Did Not Rewrite the Bible Is Confirmed by the Fact that the Bible Repeatedly Condemns Catholic Doctrine!

Whole hosts of Catholic doctrines disagree with Scripture. If the Catholic Church rewrote the Bible to defend their doctrine, they did a terrible job! Examples include the following doctrines:

* Peter was the first Pope, the head and foundation of the church (see Ephesians 1:22,23; 5:22-25; 1 Corinthians 3:11; 9:5; Matthew 8:14; Acts 10:25,26; Matthew 23:9.)

* Mary the Mother of Jesus was sinless and people should pray and bow to her (see Romans 3:23; 1 Timothy 2:5; Acts 10:25,26)

* People must confess sins to Catholic priests (James 5:16; 1 Timothy 2:5; 1 Peter 2:5,9)

* Priests and bishops must not marry (1 Timothy 3:2; 4:1-4; Titus 1:5,6)

The truth is that the Catholic Church acknowledges that much of their doctrine is based, not on the Bible, but on councils, Popes, and tradition, so why would they try to rewrite the Bible?

We can know the Bible has been accurately preserved because God repeatedly promised to preserve it. The Old Testament demonstrates His faithfulness to that promise. And we have many ancient Bible manuscripts and uninspired records to confirm that He has accurately preserved it.

Gnostic Gospels and the Canon of Scripture

The question of what books belong in the New Testament is determined by what books are inspired (2 Timothy 3:16,17; 2 Peter 1:20,21). This is the defining issue of this study! If the Gnostic writers were not guided by God, then they have no religious authority, and we should reject them.

Evidence for the Inspiration of New Testament Books

1) All New Testament books were written by apostles or associates of apostles.

Apostleship is basic, since (after Jesus died) only apostles or their associates were inspired.

Jesus promised that the apostles would be inspired.

John 16:13; 14:26 – Jesus promised that the Spirit would guide the apostles into all truth. This was fulfilled beginning in Acts 1:2-8; 2:1-11,14ff.

Matthew 10:19,20 – The Holy Spirit would tell the apostles (verse 5) what and how to speak.

(John 15:27 shows that John 16:13, etc., was were addressed to the apostles.)

(1 Corinthians 14:37; Ephesians 3:3-5; Luke 10:16; 1 Corinthians 2:10-13; 2:3-5; Galatians 1:8-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:13)

Other people received inspiration only by personal involvement of apostles.

Acts 8:14-21 – The Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of apostles’ hands (verse 18).

Acts 2 & 10 – Holy Spirit baptism also involved the activity of apostles.

It follows that only apostles or people who had direct contact with apostles were inspired.

(Acts 6:6; 19:1-7; Romans 1:8-11; 2 Timothy 1:6)

God confirmed the inspiration of these writers by miracles done through them.

Acts 14:3; Hebrews 2:3,4 – God bore witness to the message of inspired men, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.

(Mark 16:20; John 5:36; 20:30,31; Acts 2:22; 2 Cor. 12:11,12; 1 Kings 17:16-24; 18:36-39; Exodus 4:1-9; 7:3-5; 14:30,31)

2) All New Testament books were written within a lifetime of Jesus’ death by eyewitnesses or associates of eyewitnesses.

This follows from the first point. Gospel writers were not only inspired, but they testified about what they had personally witnessed or what they had personally heard from eyewitnesses. But the apostles and all other inspired people passed away by about the end of the first century.

Acts 1:1-3,8 – Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would empower the apostles to be His witnesses.

2 Peter 1:16-18 – Peter testified that, rather than following fables about Jesus, the apostles were eyewitnesses of His majesty. (5:1)

(Acts 1:21,22; 10:39-41; John 20:30,31; 21:24; 19:35; 1 John 1:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15:1-8; 15:14,15; Acts 13:31; 22:15; 26:16)

(Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-3 – As a historian, Luke recorded Jesus’ life based on testimony of eyewitnesses. He likewise wrote a history of the early church, but he himself was an eyewitness of many events in the early church.)

3) All New Testament books agree with other inspired books.

All inspired writing must agree with all other inspired writing.

Galatians 1:8,9 – If any man taught a different gospel, he was accursed.

2 John 9-11 – Anyone who brought a different doctrine should not be supported.

Jesus promised that the apostles would be guided to speak all spiritual truth. So, any book that teaches different doctrine cannot be inspired and does not belong in Scripture.

(1 John 4:1,6; 1 Timothy 1:3 Revelation 22:18,19; 1 Peter 4:11; 2 Timothy 1:13; John 5:43; Matthew 7:15-27; 1 Corinthians 14:33; John 16:13; Acts 17:11; 2 Peter 3:15,16)

4) All New Testament books were generally recognized soon after the first century.

Some early disciples had the gift of discerning spirits (1 Corinthians 12:10). Some personally knew the apostles and prophets, so would have seen their miracles (2 Corinthians 12:12).

The list of inspired books was well known even in the second century, with very few doubts (these were resolved by the fourth century). But there was never any doubt that the four New Testament gospel accounts of Jesus’ life were inspired. If the first-century Christians considered a book to be inspired or uninspired, how are we going to disprove them 2000 years later?

These tests can determine the canonicity of any book. Remember, this process was guided by the providence of God, who promised to protect and preserve His word. The means used to preserve the Old Testament were the same means used for the New Testament. We can be sure we have the proper books in the New Testament because of God’s Divine promise.

Evidence Regarding the Inspiration of the Gnostic Gospels

Compare the evidence for New Testament inspiration to the evidence for Gnostic writings.

1) Gnostic books were not written by apostles or associates of apostles.

They were not written by people whose names they wear. No one knows who the writers were.

They were written too late to have been written by apostles or associates of apostles!

Further, there is no evidence of miracles done by Gnostic writers to confirm their inspiration.

2) The Gnostic writings were not written within a lifetime of Jesus’ death nor by eyewitnesses or people associated with eyewitnesses.

All were written in the second century or afterward! Gnostic writers cannot even claim to give eyewitness testimony, so they have no serious historic value, let alone the authority of inspiration.

3) Gnostic teaching contradicts Bible teaching on many points.

We have documented that they are hopelessly incompatible and can never be harmonized with Scripture. If the Bible is true, the Gnostic texts cannot be true.

4) The early Christians expressly rejected the Gnostic gospels.

Early Christian writers refuted them as heresy. True Christians believed the Gnostics were wrong, and the Gnostics believed the Christians were wrong. To characterize Gnosticism as true Christianity, is to misrepresent both Christianity and Gnosticism. (Bock, pages 89-97)

Gnostic writings were rejected because they were not inspired. They are human doctrine!

5) The Gnostic gospels were not preserved nor available through the centuries.

God promised to preserve His word on earth. He did preserve the Bible, but Gnostic writings were missing till the 19th or 20th century, and many now are only fragmentary. Why should we view them as authority, when they were unavailable to guide people for over 1000 years?

Some may claim this is because people opposed the Gnostic texts. But many powerful people attempted to destroy the Bible, yet the Bible survived in fulfillment of God’s promises. If the Gnostic writings were from God, He would likewise have made them available through the years.

Conclusion

Many people today view the Gnostic gospels as religious authority because they are old and because they agree with modern emphasis on diversity, political correctness, and the postmodern view that there is no absolute truth, so whatever you believe to be true, for you it is true.

Such views demonstrate, not just a lack of faith in the New Testament, but also a lack of belief in the power of evil and Satan. Scripture repeatedly warns that the devil is the world’s greatest counterfeiter. Whatever God makes for good, Satan will make a counterfeit. Satan has false plans of salvation, false plans of worship, false churches, false miracles, and false revelations.

The Bible repeatedly warns about false teaching. Are there books today that claim to teach the truth but differ from the Scriptures? They are all around us! So why should we be surprised if some were written soon after the New Testament was completed? What should we do about these books? We should compare all teaching to the New Testament. If it does not agree, we should reject it like we do the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, Greek mythology, and other false doctrine.

Bibliography

Breaking the Da Vinci Code, Darrell L. Bock; Nelson Books, 2004 (cited in these notes as “Bock”)

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown; Doubleday publishers, 2003 (cited in the notes as “Brown”)

The Da Vinci Hoax, Carl Olson and Sandra Miesel; Ignatius Press, 2004 (cited in the notes as “Olson”)

The Heresy of Orthodoxy, Andreas Kostenberger and Michael Kruger, Crossway, 2010

“Nag Hammadi Codices Shed New Light on Early Christian History,” James Brashler; Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries, Joey Corbett – Editor; 2011; Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington, DC 20016; www.biblicalarchaeology.org (cited in these notes as “Brashler”)

Unveiling the Da Vinci Code, Bo Kirkwood; Selah Publishing Group, 2005 (cited in these notes as “Kirkwood”)


(c) Copyright David E. Pratte, 2019

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