'Gnostic' Texts vs. the New Testament

Two scholars debate whether texts like the Gospel of Thomas are incompatible with traditional Christianity.

Elaine Pagels Ben Witherington III

The final installment of Beliefnet's scholarly smackdown on Paul and early Christianity became a wide-ranging debate on Gnostic scriptures and whether they contradict the four traditional gospels. Weighing in are two preeminent Bible scholars: Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton and author of the bestselling Beyond Belief; and Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky and author of numerous books.

Ben | Elaine

Dear Elaine:

In this e-mail, I want to address the formation of the canon, the Gospel of Thomas, and the role of Gnosticism in early Christianity. This is a tall order for a single e-mail, but I will do my best.

Let's start with the subject of Gnosticism first. I, along with the majority of New Testament scholars, do not think we can really talk about there being an extant belief system called "Gnosticism" in the first century A.D. Most scholars prefer the term "proto-Gnostic" for ideas found in some documents that may date to the first century A.D.

The earliest of the so-called Gnostic Gospels is generally agreed to be Thomas. As you know, there is considerable debate as to whether one should really even call this document Gnostic.

But let's suppose for the sake of argument that it is. Is there any good reason to think this document, or any Gnostic document, comes from the first century A.D. or represents early Christian beliefs from the apostolic age? In my view, the answer is probably "no," for a whole host of reasons:

1) There seem to be echoes, allusions, and partial quotations from all sorts of NT documents in Thomas-not only echoes of all four canonical Gospels but also echoes from some of the Pauline corpus, from Hebrews, and from Johannine literature. In addition, as Craig Evans has pointed out, there is rather clear evidence that Thomas' author knows the final redaction of the four canonical Gospels, not just its source material.

"The entire system of salvation offered in Gnostic documents is at odds with that [of] New Testament texts." --Ben Witherington III

Evans writes*: "Quoting or alluding to more than half of the writings of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Col., 1 Thess., 1 Timothy, Hebrews 1, Rev.), Thomas could be little more than a collage of New Testament and apocryphal material that have been interpreted, often allegorically, in such a way as to advance second- and third-century Gnostic ideas."

Evans' careful demonstration shows that Thomas is even dependent on documents widely believed to be written in the last decade of the first century--i.e., the Johannine literature, including Revelation. I can't think of any scholar who has written a commentary on John and thinks that Thomas is earlier, or that Thomas influenced John.

Where could the author of Thomas have come into contact with all this material before at least the early second century A.D.? My answer is, nowhere. Thomas could not have been written before the second century A.D., particularly because the Gospel of John--which you rightly say bears the closest affinity with Thomas of any canonical Gospel--dates to the last decade of the first century.

There is no strong case to be made that any Gnostic document, even Thomas, reflects first-century Christian beliefs. To the contrary, even Thomas is a meditation on the earlier documents of the New Testament era. Earliest Christianity was certainly less diverse than you and Karen King seem to think, and there were already standards of right believing in the first century A.D.

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