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A History of God – Part 4

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/05/02

Before we can use the works from the Nag Hammadi collection or the other remaining or partially remaining documents from early Christianity, we must be able to determine which seem like they may plausibly contain relevant information about Jesus and his teachings from within a reasonable period of time after his death. And note that reconstructing the teachings of Jesus is not my intent. I will leave that to people who are far more interested in the topic than myself.

There are, in total, somewhere around 100 documents listed in the Nag Hammadi collection and documents from the New Testament apocrypha. While I would be fine to detail, individually, my reason for stating that a document would or wouldn’t be worth including in a study for determining the truth, unfortunately that would be very tedious to read.

Mostly, the criteria is one of dating, which is essentially a process of linking a document to a particular author or group of thinking.

Now, the way I view it, if a person is listed as the source of a work, this can mean 1 of 3 things:

1) It is the truth. Which probably means that we can pinpoint how many layers removed from Jesus the content is.

2) It is a white lie. Take for example that St. Paul might be too busy running the church to write a letter that denounces a heresy. Thus, he gives an aid a one or two sentence outline of what he wants, and the aid then goes off to write a five page letter that claims its provenance to be directly from St. Paul. While this does mean that St. Paul didn’t write it, for the purposes of dating the content we can still judge it to be within a certain time period.

3) It is a complete lie. Now if a person is willing to lie, we can presume that he might attribute his source of data to anyone. That person might be contemporary, or it might be 1000 years in the past and the letter made to look like it is ancient when it really is not. However, I would personally hold that taking that position would be foolish. When a person lies — regardless that he might believe the lie himself — he will choose as his source of information someone who others would think capable of actually supplying that information. It is a work of con-artistry and so you need a veil of plausibility. So, not only will you choose someone contemporary, but you will choose whoever would seem to be the best source of information. It is better to say — if you are a contemporary of Jesus — that Jesus told you this bit of wisdom just before he died, than you are to say that Jesus’ gardener told you a story that Jesus told him. If you are acting maliciously, you may as well choose the best name available. So even though we presume that our author is lying, we can still date the creation of the writing based on the source of information that was listed (assuming that there are not some flags that show it cannot be that date). We should, however, assume that the author will prefer someone dead (though within living memory) or physically removed, so it may be 40-60 years later.

If the work is a lie, even then this doesn’t mean that all or most of the work is a lie, simply that segments were purposely added towards some goal. Again, seeking a veil of plausibility, it is the con-artist’s job to include information that is believable — which is most easily accomplished by taking what knowledge is available publicly, and including it.

If no author is proclaimed, one must do the best that he can based on the content to judge its date and import. If an angel, God, or some other timeless entity is proclaimed, it’s fairly well a given that the person had no direct contact to any worthwhile source of information.

In total, the works that I would suggest as containing potentially worthwhile information are:

Apocryphon of James
Apocryphon of John
Gospel of Thomas
Book of Thomas the Contender
Dialogue of the Savior
The Apocalypse of Peter
Teachings of Silvanus
Letter of Peter to Philip
Gospel of James
Infancy Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew
Gospel of the Hebrews
Gospel of the Nazarenes
Gospel of the Ebionites
Gospel of Peter
Questions of Bartholomew
Resurrection of Jesus Christ
Gospel of Judas
Gospel of Mary
Ophite Diagrams
Epistle of Barnabas
Apocalypse of Peter

The disadvantage of these works is that it is hard to place the date of their manufacture and the level of knowledge of the person who wrote them, thus making it difficult to attest to their worthiness. The orthodox texts within the New Testament are of decently known and accepted provenance. But like I noted in my previous post, though we know the provenance of the orthodox works, their worthiness may be just as questionable.

If you click through some of those, you will find that there are two topics which regularly emerge. One is the question how Jewish the church should be, but more prevalent is the question of Gnosticism.


Gnosticism appears, largely, to be the product of the influence of Greek and Roman mystery religions on Judaism, with a healthy touch of Plato’s philosophies thrown in.

A mystery religion is, to some extent, similar to the modern day Scientology, where there are levels of initiation and for each one certain secrets are revealed. In Scientology, those secrets apparently have to do with the revelation of the histories of alien species, while as in Gnosticism you would be initiated into various rituals and esoteric knowledge of how the universe is formulated.

If Jesus’s teachings were Gnostic, this is of great importance in terms of the reliability of the New Testament as a source of knowledge about Jesus and his teachings. With a religion that is specifically built around secrets and levels of initiation, if Paul’s information came from his legal work in debating the early Christians and from learning from Ananias — likely a Christian of the lower levels if he even exists (for no other mention is made of him in any work) — then it’s unlikely that he would know of most of Jesus’s teachings which were secret to the uninitiated. Since he took at least three years before finally visiting the church in Jerusalem, but appears to have already started publicly preaching before that time, it’s also quite likely that he would have been stuck continuing to preach his non-Gnostic version of the religion. Since the Jerusalem church was dependent upon Paul for financial support, they may well have decided to take no issue with his apparent lack of knowledge of the Secrets (Gnosis), in spite of his supposed divine revelation. There’s no evidence for that, of course, but it certainly is more closely in the realm of plausibility than “divine revelation”.

Now, there are two potential arguments to be made that Jesus had nothing to do with Gnosticism, in which case we would be able to ignore all of these Gnostic works that appear in our list of records.

1) Gnosticism may have been a popular general movement at the time and hence it influenced the early church.
2) Gnostic beliefs may have been incorporated into the early church by someone other than Jesus, and it is that individual’s influence which creates the Gnostic branches.

The first issue is simply dealt with. If, for example, you look through the items in the Nag Hammadi collection, you will note that the vast majority of the items are explicitly Christian; the ones which are not are either Sethian or are potentially Sethian (or Gnostic-Christian), i.e. they simply don’t contain any information that could identify their origin. If you look at all known Gnostic sects and who is credited as their founder they either trace themselves back to Jesus (possibly a student of John the Baptist), John the Baptist, Simon Magus (possibly a student of John the Baptist), or Dositheos (possible a student of John the Baptist). The only Gnostic sect which does not claim some relation to John the Baptist, that I have seen, is the Sethians, which is also the only one which has no known originator and which possibly predates Christianity — hence it’s possible that John the Baptist was, for example, the founder of Sethian Gnosticism. Given this direct correspondence to John the Baptist and Jesus, it seems unlikely that there was a general, widespread belief in Gnosticism of which all but the J & J segment somehow disappeared without leaving trace.

As to the second issue, the only person who could possibly be blamed within the early church — that I have found — is Nicholas, one of the Christian deacons in Jerusalem before Jerusalem was destroyed. The problem with that is that it’s not clear that Nicholas was Gnostic, just overly libertine, and that only the Borborites are even rumored to be related to him. All of the Gnostic works of Nag Hammadi claim their knowledge from either Jesus, one of his apostles, or a student of one of those apostles. Outside of the church, clearly the blame would fall on John the Baptist. The New Testament agrees that Jesus inherited many of John’s followers after John’s death, including St. Peter, so it seems plausible that it could be these shared students who caused the introduction of Gnosticism into Christianity. But at the same time, there’s plenty of evidence which leads one to believe that Jesus himself may have been one of John’s adherents. Besides having inherited John’s followers, Jesus was baptized by John; the adoptionist belief espoused in the Gospel of the Hebrews (possibly an earlier text than the Gospel of Matthew) claims divinity entered Jesus upon his baptism by John the Baptist; the Mandaeist school of Gnosticism teaches that Jesus was a student of John; in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist states that Jesus is the one who “comes after me”, the two travel together to Judea to baptize people, and whenever Jesus is in danger of being arrested, he uses John’s influence as a method of protection. If we accept that Jesus was a follower or even just a competitor of John the Baptist, we have no particular reason to think that Jesus wouldn’t have been a Gnostic preacher.

Since it seems unreasonable to expunge these Gnostic documents, if one wants to properly create a version of the truth of Jesus and his teachings, you must include them. They may well contain third hand information — which is quite likely, given the destruction of Jerusalem — but it would at least be information that is more likely to have come from the disciples of Jesus that he had when he was living, however corrupted it may be. And more importantly, these documents definitely are part of a branch of knowledge that was systematically expunged. Even if you hold the Pauline tradition to be perfectly valid, as I pointed out in my previous blog to reconstruct the truth you must include records from all branches of the tree.


Ultimately, one cannot prove definitively that John the Baptist nor Jesus were Gnostics. Between John, Jesus, Simon Magus, and Dositheos, in fact the only one who can fairly decently be believed to even have existed was John the Baptist and what he taught seems to be largely a mystery unless you do presume him to have been a Gnostic. Possibly Paul did know everything that Jesus did, via divine revelation or otherwise, but it would be foolish to think that the odds aren’t at least even between both options. Even if you accept magic and divine revelation as possible, the story told in the New Testament doesn’t explain why Gnosticism would have been born and why it would be so inextricably linked to the Christian religion as to have created at least an equal body of work (seeing as it’s certain that we are still missing most of it, and what we have already constitutes an equally large corpus) within a century of Jesus’ death.

Just like you can feel free to worship Yahweh as a storm deity, there’s nothing to stop you from studying Sethianism and plunging into it as the closest approximation of what Jesus taught. But of course, from the fact that there’s no evidence that Jesus felt Yahweh to be a storm god, why you would feel that he had divine knowledge to begin with is quite the question.

If you accept the idea that Sethianism (of all Gnostic sects) was likely the closest to what Jesus taught, you may also consider the following documents as worth adding to the above list:

The Second Treatise of the Great Seth
Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit
Apocalypse of Adam
Trimorphic Protennoia

These works make no claim and show no appearance of knowing Jesus or anyone who knew him, and so I excluded them. They are, however, Sethian documents of plausibly 1st or early 2nd century derivation. The Ophite Diagrams, which I did include before, also have no listed originator but are accepted as being 1st century documents from a Christian sect.


2 Responses to “A History of God – Part 4”

  1. Roberta said

    All very interesting. Great work on the historical origin of Christianity. This is not an easy subject! In regards to St. Thomas; I have found him to be kind of fascinating. There are some who claim that Thomas — really Judas Thomas, ‘thomas’ meaning ‘twin’ in Aramaic, was the twin of Jesus. And Thomas does claim that Jesus told him ‘secret sayings’ which could be likely if they were twins. The term ‘doubting Thomas’ comes from him as he was the apostle who doubted the resurrection and even if Jesus was really dead — he needed to see Jesus and feel the wounds to know that this was true. I could see a twin not wanting his brother to really be dead. A twin would feel particularly close to his/her sibling. Thus, when Paul took over the church, and there is no doubt that Paul was the one who sort of ‘usurped’ the church and Jesus, I could see that Thomas, if Thomas really were Jesus’s twin brother, could be upset with that and might have gone to Egypt to try and bring together a group of followers who could be taught what he believed Jesus ‘really’ taught. And there are some who claim the authority of the Gnostic Church to be St. Thomas. If that is so, then the Gnostic Church follows Thomas, who, of course, would claim Jesus to be the progenitor of the Gnostic Church and that the beliefs, secrets, and sayings of Jesus would be attributed to Jesus himself because that is what Thomas (or Judas Thomas — Judas the Twin) would have believed to be true.

    Who knows, though — this is interesting stuff!

    • Thomas is attributed as the source of information for more Gnostic texts than other apostles, but given that Thomas traveled the most widely and lived until his natural death (unlike the other apostles), that would make sense. Overall, many of Jesus’ noted followers were likely his relatives. That may mean that he had few followers or it may mean that he preferred to keep his family at the center of the action, but either way it does mean that Thomas wasn’t alone in potentially holding a familial motivation. And of course Thomas isn’t the only name given as a source of Gnostic information.

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