Gnostic Gospels – Introduction
The Gnostic gospels are a product of Gnosticism. Gnosticism, broadly construed, recognizes two deities: the Demiurge-flawed and wicked creator of a flawed and wicked material world-who is often equated with the God of the Old Testament; and the “good God,” the Father of Jesus, who sent his Son to show humans the way of salvation from the corrupt material world. Salvation, under Gnosticism, does not require forgiveness of sins or necessarily entail any type of physical sacrament; it instead consists primarily of acquiring secret knowledge, or gnosis.1 Until the middle of the twentieth century, the primary access scholars had to Gnostic writings came through polemics written against them by church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. Despite the fervor that characterizes these anti-gnostic polemics, it appears, based on recent discoveries, that these church fathers were charitable in their treatments. The most heralded of these recent discoveries contains the Nag Hammadi collection of Coptic documents, “discovered by a happy accident” in Upper Egypt toward the end of 1945.2 This collection of documents sparked anew much scholarly discussion as to the relationship between Gnosticism and early Christianity, especially in terms of what sort of dependence relationships can be ascertained among their respective textual traditions. Despite recent popular and scholarly infatuation with the “gospels” of the Nag Hammadi collection, their textual inferiority demonstrates that they are not to be accorded the status reserved for thecanonical gospels of the Bible.
The word gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge”, which is often used in Greek philosophy in a manner more consistent with the English “enlightenment”. Some scholars continue to maintain traditional dating for the emergence of Gnostic philosophy and religious movements. It is now generally believed that the evidence suggests that Gnosticism was a Jewish movement which subsequently reacted to Christianity or that Gnosticism emerged directly in reaction to Christianity. The name “Christian gnostics” came to represent a segment of the Early Christian community that believed that salvation lay not in merely worshipping Christ, but in psychic or pneumatic souls learning to free themselves from the material world via the revelation. According to this tradition, the answers to spiritual questions are to be found within not without. Furthermore, the gnostic path does not require the intermediation of a church for salvation. Some scholars, such as Edward Conze and Elaine Pagels, have suggested that gnosticismblends teachings like those attributed to Jesus Christ with teachings found in Eastern traditions.
Interesting Key Terms / Spiritual Order
The pneumatics (“spiritual”, from Greek πνεῦμα, “spirit”) were, in gnosticism, the highest order of humans, the other two orders being psychics and hylics. The pneumatic saw himself as escaping the doom of the material world via the secret knowledge. Outsiders could only know these secrets by joining a gnostic group. To be a gnostic is to believe in three planes of existence: the pure unknown (demiurge), the material world of coitus and comfort, and the pure spiritual realm of ascension or escape.
Hylic (from Greek ὑλή (hylē) “matter”) is the opposite of psychic (from Greek ψυχή (psychē) “soul”).
In the gnostic view, hylics, also called Somatics (from Gk σῶμα (sōma) “body”), were the lowest order of the three types of human. The other two were the psychics and thepneumatics (from Gk πνεῦμα (pneuma) “spirit, breath”). So humanity comprised matter-bound beings, matter-dwelling spirits and the matter-free or immaterial, souls.
Somatics were deemed completely bound to matter. Matter, the material world, was seen as “evil” in the gnostic world view. The material world was created by a demiurge, in some instances a blind, mad God, in others an army of rebellious angels as a trap for the spiritual Ennoia. The duty of (spiritual) man was to escape the material world by the aid of the hidden knowledge (gnosis).
Somatics were human in form, but since their entire focus was on the material world, such as eating, sleeping, mating, creature comforts, they were seen as doomed. The pneumatic saw himself as escaping the doom of the material world via the secret knowledge. Somatics were thought to be incapable of understanding.
For consideration of these dynamics see for example, The Gospel of Judas, believed to be a gnostic text, where Jesus is posited as a Pneumatic and the other disciples, non-gnostics, as Somatics.