Metalogos: The Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Truth


(1) Are the Coptic Gospels Gnostic?
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The leaning of sophists towards the bypaths of apocrypha is a constant quantity.’
—James Joyce,
Ulysses

Ever since the initial announcement of the Nag Hammadi discovery, and unto the present day, the library as a whole has been consistently called ‘gnostic’, both in the scholarly literature and in the popular press.[1] To begin with, the entire Nag Hammadi Library was so labeled in the first published editions of Thomas (1956+59, from Biblio.7)which classification was subsequently accepted by virtually everyone who looked into the text. Thus, representative of almost all subsequent publications was the report of Robert M. Grant & David Noel Freedman, The Secret Sayings of Jesus (1960): ‘[Regarding] the Gospel of Thomas, [Jean] Doresse looked through this gospel in the spring of 1949 and later announced that it was “a Gnostic composition”.... The Gospel of Philip contains nothing but Gnostic speculations.’ Wiser counsel, at least regarding Thomas, soon came from no less an authority than Guilles Quispel at the centenary meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in 1964: ‘The Gospel of Thomas ... is not gnostic at all. The adherents of the gnostic interpretation ... must explain how the author could possibly say that the buried corpse could rise again (logion 5, Greek version).’ Unfortunately, however, Quispel's seemingly irrefutable point was soon eclipsed by a surge of fascination, in both academic publications and the media, with gnosticism's apparently more exotic enticements.

While there may well be gnostic writings amongst the several dozen titles found so significantly near the site of Saint Pachomius' archetypal monastery, the three Coptic Gospels in that collection are demonstrably not gnostic in content. This can most readily be shown via an ordinary syllogism; the remainder of the present essay will then consist in proving the two premises, from which the conclusion follows as proven.[2]

1. No text, which affirms the basic reality and sanctity of incarnate life, can properly be labeled ‘gnostic’.
2. The Coptic Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Truth (like the entire Old Testament, the New Testament Gospels and Acts) explicitly assert the sacred reality of incarnate life.
Therefore 3. They are not gnostic writings or compilations. QED

Proof of the First Premise:

Gnosticism, Encyclopædia Britannica, CD-ROM edition 2002: ‘In the Gnostic view, the unconscious self of man is consubstantial with the Godhead, but because of a tragic fall it is thrown into a world that is completely alien to its real being. Through revelation from above, man becomes conscious of his origin, essence, and transcendent destiny. Gnostic revelation is to be distinguished ... from Christian revelation, because it is not rooted in history and transmitted by Scripture. It is rather the intuition of the mystery of the self. The world, produced from evil matter and possessed by evil demons, cannot be a creation of a good God; it is mostly conceived of as an illusion, or an abortion.’


It would merely beg the question to claim that all such passages were inserted into otherwise gnostic documents; to omit from consideration all and only contrary passages per se, constitutes the logical fallacy called petitio principii. Moreover, one would then have to ask why the remaining logia of these three Gospels should be considered gnostic to begin with, since the sanctity of incarnate reality is there nowhere denied.

Conclusion: It follows that the Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Truth are not gnostic compositions or compilations.

It is admittedly scandalous that virtually an entire generation of scholars should have erred regarding something so elementary and so vitally important as this (Th 39!). There were of course a wide variety of gnostic movements and scriptures in antiquity, often influenced by Platonism's epistemological distrust of the senses; and indeed there have been many gnostico-theosophical sects together with their writings in modern times, no doubt more often influenced by Oriental religious traditions than by Plato. But this has no direct bearing on the three Coptic Gospels, which—like the four canonical Gospels—cannot rightly be considered gnostic documents.[4]

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1The citations in Recent Scholarly Comments are but notable exceptions, which the student will encounter only by an extensive review of the more academic literature. More typical are the prejudicial titles Elaine Pagel's best-selling The Gnostic Gospels (1979); E.J. Brill's entire scholarly series, Nag Hammadi Studies: The Coptic Gnostic Library; and The Coptic Gnostic Library: A Complete Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, General Editor James M. Robinson (2006)—for these last two, more appropriate titles would surely be The Coptic Monastic Library etc.

2Or, in the form of a modal inference:

1. (x)(Φx → x)

2. Φa,b,c.

Therefore 3. a,b,c.

Where: → = logical entailment; ~ = negation; Φx = x asserts the sanctity of incarnate reality; Ψx = x is gnostic; a,b,c = the three Coptic Gospels.

3Download the Coptic font and install in C:\Windows\Fonts.

4For a recently discovered Coptic ‘Gospel’ (found in the 1970s near El Minya in Egypt), which by contrast clearly is gnostic as well as pseudonymous, see the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. That document contains such typical gnostic ramblings as: ‘The first is [S]eth who is called Christ, the second is Harmathoth who is [...], the [third] is Galila, the fourth is Yobel, the fifth [is] Adonaios; these are the five who ruled over the underworld, and first of all over chaos.... Then Saklas said to his angels: Let us create a human being after the likeness and after the image. They fashioned Adam and his wife Eve—who is called, in the cloud, Zoe.’ See also April D. DeConick, Gospel Truth, New York Times Op-Ed (1.XII.07).