The Gnostic Bible

Barnestone & Meyer, Editors

The Gnostic Bible (TGB) brings together 1,000 pages of selected books, letters and other works that could and/or arguably should be in either the Old or New Testaments of the Christian Bible and/or in Jewish, Muslim, Zorasterian, Greco-Roman or other religious scriptures. Most prominent among these, to Christians, are the letters or Gospels of Thomas, John, Philip, Paul, James and even Mary Magdalene. (Someone removed six key pages from the latter.) While these ponderous analects may be better suited to religious scholars, some perusal of TGB is helpful, to those interested in the history behind the compilation of the Christian Bible. The word “gnostics” has nothing to do with “agnosticism” (Lat. without + knowledge) and, rather, refers to knowledge without rabbi’s, priests and other clergymen.

Nag Hammadi is a well known enclave in Upper Egypt, which is the home of a substantial library of ancient books, predominantly religious, including parchment scrolls from the Old and New Testament and many other ancient scriptures in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek and Coptic. Many of these were discovered in or around Nag Hammadi in 1945 (about ten years before the much heralded Dead Sea Scrolls were found by shepherd boys in a cave near the Dead Sea). The latter were embraced by the Christian clergy as “gospel”, i.e., authentic Old Testament scrolls. Most of the scrolls found at Nag Hammadi ten year earlier were not accepted, because too many of them provided substantive materials that offended some of the Christian hierarchy, and, had they accepted any of them, they would have felt pressed to accept all. For example, the Gospels of Philip (one of the Twelve Disciples) and of Mary Magdalene (whom some believe was a 13th disciple and also the wife of Jesus and the mother of his son) were too disquieting. In large part, these books did not mention Jesus’ miracles, virgin birth, ascension, etc. The so-called “syntopic Gospels” (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), while contradictory were much less inconsistent and were more supportive of Church dogma. (“Syntopic” does not appear in ordinary dictionaries; it is a clergymen’s word.)

It is important to remember the role of The Septuagint (or Committee of 70) religious scholars that were summoned by Ptolemy II of Egypt (not the Greek astronomer but the Egyptian Emperor), circa 280 BC, to prepare a comprehensive bible for his library. Ptolemy wanted a bible in Greek, and the then current versions were in a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew, which almost no one spoke. The Septuagint hotly debated which books should be included. As the versions of the OT have changed over the past 2500 years and as many books have been deleted (e.g., most recently the 13 books of the Apocrypha that were included in most King James Bibles until 1950 or so), we cannot know exactly which books passed muster or didn’t. (The first King James Version was based largely upon Tyundale’s New Testament and was completed circa 1611. Tyndale had done an admirable job in 1536 of translating ancient versions into something that the masses could understand. Before Guttenberg’s printing press in 1450, the masses didn’t read bibles or anything else.) We do know that many excluded books have since been found and exist, and the Nag Hammadi Library is one of the principle repositories of same, and that library was a principle research source for TGB.

TGB notes that Marcion of Sinope, a rich ship owner turned evangelist, is widely credited as the original organizer of the New Testament. A fiery “Paulinist”, he located Paul’s letters, Luke’s Gospel, etc., and made the changes to suit himself and presented the NT largely in the form in which The Church (Catholic Church) accepted it and has passed it down through the centuries, enduring ongoing re-publications in myriad translations and contemporizing of language and dialects. Devout Christians attacked Marcion for his editing and dubbed him “Marcion the Eraser”. Late in his life, Marcion was branded a “heretic” but his NT remained as the version that formed the core of today’s NT.

There is a religion of Gnosticism, but it does not appear to use TGB as its bible. Gnostics appear to believe in a Divine Mind, outside the flawed universe, to which people can be connected. TGB, however, is a compilation of key texts that were either not found or were expunged along the way by The Septuagint, Marcion and countless others, even as recently as the removal of 13 books of the Apocrypha in the 1950’s, which I was required to read as a child. On balance, TGB’s was too obscure for my tastes but might well be just the ticket for yours.