Posts Tagged ‘Gnostic’

You can hardly escape watching programs or seeing in books (such as The DaVinci Code) which imply that certain books were banned from being included in the New Testament. The whole question of the formation of the canon of the New Testament is very complex and needs to be addressed carefully and methodically. With that warning I am sharing a link below to an article that discusses this question.


Actually, I found the main value in the article not in what it said about the canon, but in how it described what books churches from the second century on might have had available to them. This is found in the first half of the article, and I would encourage you to read it. It provides some good information about what early Christians may have read at a time when the canon was still being decided upon. Christians today often have difficulty understanding how different churches were in the first three centuries before Christianity became a legal religion. This article paints a word picture that simplifies that understanding.

At some point, I wish to add my own thoughts on the canon of both the Old and New Testaments, but for now I would encourage you to read this article. It has some good information.

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Perhaps you saw the segment on the Today show, discussing a fragment of papyrus which purports to say that Jesus was married.  I have decided to put my two cents in since others appear to be doing so (in my mind prematurely).

The discovery was announced by Dr. Karen King of Harvard Divinity School.  She admits that the announcement is somewhat premature; however, she decided to release the information, because the discovery had already leaked out, and she was concerned that the publicity might be even more sensational than it already is.

There are a number of concerns about the manuscript itself. First of all, is the question of what archaeologists call “provenance.” We do not know where the manuscript was found or even by whom. Provenance has been a hotly debated topic that was brought up for instance with the “James Ossuary.” When scholars and scientists do not know the setting in which an artifact was discovered, it becomes more difficult to date and authenticate it.

And this is another problem with the early release of this information. Although the preliminary evidence leans toward the manuscript being authentic, that is not certain at this time. Everyone needs to wait until all testing is completed before drawing final conclusions.

Another problem with the manuscript is its small size, smaller than a business card. It has eight lines of text, actually not even eight lines, because the fragment contains only portions of eight lines, not nearly enough to provide complete sentences or context.

The manuscript is written in Coptic, which is a form of Egyptian written with Greek letters. The controversial part of the text is a portion that apparently can be translated, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ .” Another portion reads, “She will be able to be my disciple.”

If this sounds like very little upon which to base the view that Jesus was married, you are agreeing with what most scholars have said so far. Even Dr. King emphasizes that the manuscript is not evidence that Jesus was married. Rather she sees it as being part of a discussion among early Christian groups concerning marriage and celibacy.

The manuscript has been tentatively dated to the fourth century, which would make it 200-300 years after the canonical books of the New Testament, although Dr. King believes it may have been a copy of an earlier second century work. It appears likely that this manuscript may fit into the teachings of the Gnostics, an early offshoot of Christianity. Their philosophical beginnings can be detected in some books of the New Testament, but they did not really develop until the second century and became more prominent in the third and fourth centuries. Some similarities have been made to the Gnostic gospels of Mary, and Philip. There also appear to be similarities to the Gospel of Thomas, which may or may not be Gnostic.

When we put all this together, we have an early document that may have been written when the question of marriage and celibacy was being discussed. At this point, few if any scholars, including Dr. King, are suggesting that this manuscript is in any way historical or that it provides information about Jesus that should cause us to rethink the accounts in the canonical gospels.

If I were wise, I would stop with the previous paragraph, but I feel compelled to bring up an issue that may disturb some people. As I said, there is no evidence that this manuscript should be taken as evidence that Jesus was married. That appears to be extremely unlikely, and this manuscript does not make it more likely that Jesus was married.

But would it matter if Jesus were married? It seems that some Christians would be horrified if that were true. But why should that be? Would Jesus being married indicate that He was somehow less spiritual for that? What would be the source for this attitude? Throughout the centuries, there has been an ascetic strain in Christianity that seems to believe that a celibate Christian is somehow more spiritual than a married Christian.  I emphatically do not share this view. As someone who feels strongly about the sanctity of marriage and the family, I reject the notion that marriage is somehow an inferior relationship. Although there is no substantive evidence that Jesus was married, it is perhaps significant that His first miracle, described in John chapter 2, occurred during a wedding feast He attended at Cana. Much has been said about upholding traditional marriage. Perhaps we should begin that by examining our own views of marriage and spirituality. To be blunt about it, marriage, and specifically sexuality within marriage, is not less spiritual than celibacy, and we should not act as if it is.

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Last night I was watching a television documentary discussing the so-called “Gnostic” gospels. I suspect many of you have heard of these writings and how they present a very different picture of Jesus than we find in our four canonical gospels. It is true that these gospels do describe Jesus differently from what we find in our accepted four gospels, and finding them opened up the opportunity to study a branch of early Christianity which we had previously known only from its opponents. While I have not read all these writings, I have read many of them, and the stories they tell are interesting.

At the same time, I was disturbed by how the “documentary” portrayed these gospels. I was especially concerned when statements were made that virtually any Biblical scholar would recognize as false. I am not speaking of how one interprets these writings or whether or not they might provide genuine information about Jesus that is not found in our four gospels. As I have repeated many times, we all have our beliefs, and these beliefs will influence how we interpret evidence. This was obviously true with those who produced this television program, just as it is true for me. No, what concerns me is not with their interpretation, but their presentation of what they purport to be facts. Interpretation is one thing; facts should be another. If I cannot trust that “facts” will be presented objectively, how can I trust anything that is said?

During the program, the narrator admitted that what are known as the “Nag Hammadi” texts date from the fourth century AD (the 300s), although they were originally written earlier. So far, so good. But then the narrator went on to say that the earliest manuscripts we have of the accepted four gospels date from the same period, so there is no way of knowing which were written first. This statement is simply not true, and shame on the program for saying it.

Here are the facts. We have manuscripts of all four of the canonical gospels that date to the second century. Below are the four gospels with the earliest manuscripts we possess. Obviously, the dates are approximate, but they are generally recognized as accurate.

Matthew — manuscript p45 (AD 225-250)

Mark — manuscript p45 (AD 225-250)

Luke — manuscript p75 (AD 200); manuscript p45 (AD 225-250)

John — manuscript p52 (AD 100-150); manuscript p66 (AD 200); manuscript p45 (AD 225-250).

This means that the earliest manuscripts of the four canonical gospels date from 50 to 100 years earlier than the Nag Hammadi gospels. It is simply not true that the earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels date from the same period as the Nag Hammadi gospels. Nor is there any real question that the four gospels in our New Testament were all written earlier than the Nag Hammadi gospels, if only because Gnosticism did not really develop until the second and third centuries.

I wish to close by making two points. The first is an appeal to all of us to make every effort to separate our opinions from the facts and to be clear when we are expressing our opinions. This is true in religion, politics, or any other area of our lives. Let us be very clear about what we know to be true, as opposed to what we believe to be true. If I present as a fact what is only my interpretation, I lose all credibility, because facts will eventually come out.

Finally, please do not accept what you see presented in these documentaries uncritically. They are designed to be entertaining and to improve ratings. If they can present or manipulate evidence in a way that is sensational, that attracts more viewers and improves their ratings. It is truly unfortunate that we cannot trust even the “facts” presented in these programs, but regrettably this is the case. I have found two other areas presented by this same network in dealing with Biblical issues in which they presented “facts” that were simply incorrect. If something that is said does not appear to be correct, search it out. What is presented may be accurate, and you can learn something. At the same time, it is also possible that what is presented as “facts” are not correct. We live in an information age, and it is incumbent on each of us to maintain a healthy skepticism about the information with which we are presented.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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