'Gnostic' Texts vs. the New Testament

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

Elaine PagelsBen 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:

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