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Gnostic Literature

The study of Gnosticism was long hampered by the circumstance that it was known almost entirely from the writings of its orthodox Christian oppo.nents. Fully developed Gnostic thought in the second century provided a major doctrinal challenge to the church and prompted the polemical writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and later Epiphanius. The longest Gnostic work, which has been known for some years, is Pistis Sophia, a work closely related in thought to some of the more recently discovered Gnostic documents. The understanding of Gnosticism has been greatly advanced by the discovery of a "library of Gnostic writings" near Nag Hammadi (Cheno.boskion) in upper Egypt. The manuscripts are in Coptic and date from the late fourth century, but they contain writings that were originally in Greek and produced for the most part in the second and third centuries. The Nag Hammadi collection consists of twelve codices plus one loose tractate for a total of fifty.two tractates. Six are duplicates within the collection itself, and six were previously known works, leaving forty new documents, of which thirty are in relatively good condition.

The Gospel of Thomas

This is a collection of 112 to 118 (according to different editions) sayings attributed to Jesus, some of which were already known in Greek from a collection in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. The Gospel of Thomas appears to be one of the earliest works in the collection and demonstrates the existence of collections of sayings of Jesus (a "sayings gos.pel") in the early church. It has a strong ascetic tone but otherwise is not so pronouncedly Gnostic, although clearly consistent with Gnostic understandings.

The Gospel of Truth

This may be identified with a work of that name that Irenaeus attributes to the followers of Valentinus (Against Heresies Ill.ii.9). It is not properly a "Gospel," but a meditation on the truth of redemption. Its theme is that the human state is ignorance, and salvation is by knowledge imparted by Jesus.

The Gospel of Philip

This is another sayings or discourse Gospel, also from Valentinian circles. It offers information on Gnostic liturgical practices.

The Apocryphon of John

appears to have been one of the most popular of the Gnostic works, for three copies of it were found at Nag Hammadi and one other was previously known. It provides a close parallel to the Gnostic system described in Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.29.

The Epistle to Rheginus, On the Resurrection

sets forth a position close to that of the orthodox in terminology but emphasizes a resurrection of the soul.

The Apocryphon of James

like many Gnostic documents, is a Post.resurrection revelation of Jesus. He gives blessings and woes through Peter and James.

The Hypostasis of the Archons

describes the efforts of the world rulers to deceive humankind in Genesis 1.6. The myth is close to that of the Ophites or Sethians in Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.30.

The Tripartite Tractate

is the most ambitious and comprehensive theo.logical undertaking in the Nag Hammadi corpus. It has points of contact with the Valentinian teacher Heracleon and attempts to present Gnostic teaching, in response to orthodox criticism, in a way more acceptable to the great church.

Eugnostos the Blessed and The Sophia of Jesus Christ

are two versions of the same document, the former a letter by a teacher to his disciples and the latter a revelation discourse of Jesus to his followers. The former is important as a non.Christian form of Gnosticism whereas the latter is a Christianized version of the same.

These writings give us more of the inner religious spirit of Gnosticism, whereas the heresiologists (specialists in heresies) concentrated on the bizarre and on the outer structure of the Gnostic systems. Otherwise, the new finds correspond to the picture given by the Christian authors in its main outlines. The non.-Christian nature of many tenets of Gnosticism is evident, although it at.tached itself to the Christian revelation. The concern with the Old Testament points to an area of proximity to Judaism if not to a specifically Jewish origin.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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