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The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of about fifty-two ancient texts based upon the teachings of several spiritual leaders, written from the 2nd to the 4th century AD. The sayings of the Gospel of Thomas, compiled circa 140, may include some traditions even older than the gospels of the New Testament, possibly as early as the second half of the first century. These gospels are not part of the standard Biblical canon of any mainstream Christian denomination, and as such are part of what is called the New Testament apocrypha. Recent novels and films that refer to the gospels have increased public interest.
The word gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge", which is often used in Greek philosophy in a manner more consistent with the English "enlightenment". Some scholars continue to maintain traditional dating for the emergence of Gnostic philosophy and religious movements. It is now generally believed that Gnosticism was a Jewish movement which emerged directly in reaction to Christianity. The name Christian gnostics came to represent a segment of the Early Christian community that believed that salvation lay not in merely worshipping Christ, but in psychic or pneumatic souls learning to free themselves from the material world via the revelation. According to this tradition, the answers to spiritual questions are to be found within, not without. Furthermore, the gnostic path does not require the intermediation of a church for salvation. Some scholars, such as Edward Conze and Elaine Pagels, have suggested that gnosticism blends teachings like those attributed to Jesus Christ with teachings found in Eastern traditions.
The documents which comprise the collection of gnostic gospels were not discovered at a single time, but rather as a series of finds. The Nag Hammadi Library was discovered accidentally by two farmers in December 1945 and was named for the area in Egypt where it had been hidden for centuries. Other documents included in what are now known as the gnostic gospels were found at different times and locations, such as the Gospel of Mary, which was recovered in 1896 as part of the Akhmim Codex and published in 1955. Some documents were duplicated in different finds, and others, such as with the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, only one copy is currently known to exist.
Although the manuscripts discovered at Nag Hammadi are generally dated to the 4th century, there is some debate regarding the original composition of the texts. A wide range and the majority of scholars date authorship of the Gnostic gospel of Nag Hammadi to the 2nd and 3rd century. Scholars with a focus on Christianity tend to date the gospels mentioned by Irenaeus to the 2nd century, and the gospels mentioned solely by Jerome to the 4th century. The traditional dating of the gospels derives primarily from this division. Other scholars with a deeper focus on pagan and Jewish literature of the period tend to date primarily based on the type of the work:
- The Gospel of Thomas is held by most to be the earliest of the "gnostic" gospels composed. Scholars generally date the text to the early-mid 2nd century. The Gospel of Thomas, it is often claimed, has some gnostic elements but lacks the full gnostic cosmology. However, even the description of these elements as "gnostic" is based mainly upon the presupposition that the text as a whole is a "gnostic" gospel, and this idea itself is based upon little other than the fact that it was found along with gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi. Some scholars including Nicholas Perrin argue that Thomas is dependent on the Diatessaron, which was composed shortly after 172 by Tatian in Syria. A minority view contends for an early date of perhaps 50, citing a relationship to the hypothetical Q document among other reasons.
- The Gospel of the Lord, a gnostic but otherwise non-canonical text, can be dated approximately during the time of Marcion in the early 2nd century. The traditional view holds Marcion did not compose the gospel directly but, "expunged [from the Gospel of Luke] all the things that oppose his view... but retained those things that accord with his opinion"  The traditional view and dating has continued to be affirmed by the mainstream of biblical scholars, however, G. R. S. Mead His Gospel was presumably the collection of sayings in use among the Pauline churches of his day. Of course the patristic writers say that Marcion mutilated Luke's version. have argued that Marcion's gospel predates the canonical Luke and was in use in Pauline churches.
- The Gospel of Truth and the teachings of the Pistis Sophia can be approximately dated to the early 2nd century as they were part of the original Valentinian school, though the gospel itself is 3rd century.
- Documents with a Sethian influence (like the Gospel of Judas, or outright Sethian like Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians can be dated substantially later than 40 and substantially earlier than 250; most scholars giving them a 2nd-century date. More conservative scholars using the traditional dating method would argue in these cases for the early 3rd century.
- Some gnostic gospels (for example Trimorphic Protennoia) make use of fully developed Neoplatonism and thus need to be dated after Plotinus in the 3rd century.
Though there are many documents that could be included among the gnostic gospels, the term most commonly refers to the following:
- Gospel of Mary (recovered in 1896)
- Gospel of Thomas (versions found in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt in 1898, and again in the Nag Hammadi Library)
- Gospel of Truth (Nag Hammadi Library)
- Gospel of Philip (Nag Hammadi Library) 4 Period
- Gospel of Judas (recovered via the antiquities black market in 1983, and then reconstructed in 2006)
References in popular culture
The gnostic gospels received widespread attention after they were referred to in the 2003 best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code, which uses them as part of its backstory. The novel's use of artistic license in describing the gospels stirred up considerable debate over the accuracy of its depiction. As a result of public interest triggered by the novel and film, numerous books and video documentaries about the gospels themselves were produced which resulted in the gnostic gospels becoming well known in popular culture.
The 1999 film Stigmata uses the discovery of an as-yet unknown gnostic gospel as the basis for the story. The end of the film also makes references to the Catholic Church's denunciations of such texts as being heretical.
Season 4, Episode 13 of Gilmore Girls is titled "Nag Hammadi Is Where They Found the Gnostic Gospels."
The videogame Broken Sword 5: The Serpent's Curse is based on the story about the Gnostic Gospels on a painting called "La Maledicció" which was stolen by the Spanish fascists.
- The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities
- Historical Jesus
- Jesus Seminar
- Elaine Pagels. "Extract from The Gnostic Gospels". pbs.org. Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- Elaine Pagels and Michael Licona. "Gospel of Thomas debate". Pax TV. Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- Lance S. Owens. "An Introduction to Gnosticism and The Nag Hammadi Library". The Gnostic Society. Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- See Yamauchi, Edwin (1983). Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of the Proposed Evidence. Wipf and Stock.
- See Bock, Darrell (2006). The Missing Gospels. Thomas Nelson. pp. 28–30. ISBN 978-0-7852-1294-2.
- Stephan A. Hoeller. "The Gnostic World View: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism". gnosis.org. Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- nag-hammadi.com. "The Nag Hammadi Library". Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- Bock, Darrell (2006). The Missing Gospels. Nelson Books. p. 6.
- Ehrman, Bart (2003). Lost Christianities. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. xi–xii.
- Davies, Stevan L., The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom, 1983, p.21-22.
- Nicholas Perrin, "Thomas: The Fifth Gospel?," Journal of The Evangelical Theological Society 49 (March 2006): 66-/80
- Koester, Helmut; Lambdin (translator), Thomas O. (1996). "The Gospel of Thomas". In Robinson, James MacConkey. The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Revised ed.). Leiden, New York, Cologne: E. J. Brill. p. 125. ISBN 90-04-08856-3.
- Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem 4.6.2
- Ehrman, Bart (2003). Lost Christianities. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 108.
- Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origins, Developments and Significance. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Knox, John (1942). Marcion and the New Testament. Ams Pr Inc. ISBN 0404161839.
- Price, Robert (2006). The Pre-Nicene New Testament. Signature Books. pp. Unverified.
- But the followers of Valentinus, putting away all fear, bring forward their own compositions and boast that they have more Gospels than really exist. Indeed their audacity has gone so far that they entitle their recent composition the Gospel of Truth Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses (3.11.9)
- Gnosticism and Platonism: The Platonizing Sethian texts from Nag Hammadi in their Relation to Later Platonic Literature, John D Turner, ISBN 0-7914-1338-1.
- Plotinus, a native of Lycopolis in Egypt, who lived from 205 to 270 was the first systematic philosopher of [Neo-Platonism], "Neo-Platonism". Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12 April 2009.
- "Neoplatonism". 1911 Britannica. Retrieved 12 April 2009.
- Karen L. King. "Excerpts from Gospel of Mary of Magdala". maryofmagdala.com. Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- Elaine Pagels (June 4, 2003). "The Secret Gospel of Thomas". NPR.
- Stefan Lovgren (April 6, 2006). "Lost Gospel Revealed; Says Jesus Asked Judas to Betray Him". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2007-04-22.
- Elaine Pagels and Karen King (March 14, 2007). "The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity". NPR.
- Elaine Pagels (May 22, 2006). "The Truth at the Heart of 'The Da Vinci Code'". NPR. Retrieved 2007-04-19.
- Richard Abanes, The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code, 2004. ISBN 0-7369-1439-0