Increasingly, the Gnostic Gospels and documents are being treated as a historical source for the life of Jesus that is as accurate or more accurate than the canonical Gospels. This claim has come and gone many times in the last 200 years. The most recent example is bestselling book, The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown. This is only the latest in a number of attempts to overturn the historical validity of the canonical Gospels by referring to Gnostic documents. Can these Gnostic works claim the same historical authenticity? Do they present an alternative history to the Bible that is at least as historical? Many Muslims and modern critics of Christianity would have us think so but the evidence is wanting. Here is why the Biblical Gospels are still to be regarded as the most reliable historical information concerning Jesus. This basic information and viewpoint is what more sensible minds have returned to as they have considered the full historical evidence concerning Gnostic texts:
1) The main reason why the Gnostic gospels are not to be regarded as authoritative or historically accurate is that these works are written considerably later than the canonical Gospels. The Gnostic works are 2nd century at the earliest whereas the Biblical Gospels were written in the 1st century by the Apostles and their close associates. For example, Basilides (died 140 AD), held to be the first great Gnostic theologian, is the first recorded exponent of the view that someone else died on the cross other than Jesus. He claimed to have received this teaching from a secret tradition going back to the Apostle Peter, but he offers no documentary evidence to support this claim.
2) The next reason they are not to be regarded as more reliable is that they were written with a theological agenda that is a syncretistic mix of many religious ideas and traditions. They drew on Christian biblical texts and other religious traditions to developed their own religious systems. They are therefore secondary sources to the more primary biblical ones.
3) A major feature of Gnosticism is a theological bias toward docetism. This is a belief that Jesus didn't actually become a man but only appeared to be one, or that the real, spiritual Son of God was using the human Jesus as a vehicle of expression. With this is an aversion to the belief that Jesus really died on the cross. This belief colours gnostic attitudes toward the biblical crucifixion accounts. There is variety as to how the crucifixion is viewed but all avoid the belief that Jesus actually suffered there as a man for mankind's sin. It is because of this difficulty with the biblical presentation of Christ's death that the gnostic alternatives were invented and offered. They are secondary interpretations of the more primary biblical accounts.
4) Also, the tenor of Gnosticism is not strictly tied to a historical worldview. Gnostic religions are based on the private revelations supposedly given to charismatic individuals that are then passed on secretly to a select few. They consciously do not base themselves on events that are publicly verifiable. They are secretive and elitist. They do not expose themselves to public scrutiny. The Biblical gospels, however, as well as Paul's writings are consciously historical in that they claim to be publicly verifiable. Luke 1:1-4; John 19:35; 21:24,25; Acts 26:25,26; 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 are all statements that the biblical records of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection were historically verifiable when they were written.
5) The Gnostic records show great differences of opinion as to the details of Jesus' life. They do not present a coherent alternate historical view of Jesus' life and ministry. They instead show the differences one would expect from a diverse collection of private secret "revelations" given to many individuals who are drawing on a variety of religious traditions. Some present views more or less in line with the biblical accounts. Others deny that Jesus died on the cross. A basic idea of Gnosticism is that secret, revealed knowledge is the key to salvation. A variety of views of Jesus are presented to under gird this idea. The biblical Gospels, however, do present a coherent view.
6) The Gnostic accounts also are not confirmed by non-Gnostic and non-Christian historical sources such as Roman and Jewish histories. The biblical Gospels, however, are confirmed by these non-Christian histories.
In all, it is clear that Gnosticism developed later than Christianity and used much of the Bible in its development. It combined many other religious traditions and ideas with many from the Bible to create a variety of syncretistic systems that share broad similarities loosely called Gnosticism. There is no firm evidence that components of these systems contain material that is more historically reliable than the biblical Gospels. The accounts they have that differ from the canonical Gospels can be explained sufficiently in other ways.
Prepared by Keith E. Small, 24 April 1996.