Series - "Ancient Historical Evidence for Jesus of Nazareth" (pt.6)

This will be the second to last post for the Historical Evidence for Jesus of Nazareth. We will be looking at Gnostic Sources. These sources are different from all the others in that these works often make the claim to be Christian. Scholars still debate the question of the origin of Gnosticism and it is generally said to have flourished mainly form the 2nd to the 4th centuries A.D. It is from the 2nd to the 4th century we get the materials of this section.
It must be admitted that this group of writers was still more influenced by the New Testament writings than the others. Although many of the ideas in these four books are Christian, Gnosticism in many of it forms and teachings was pronounced heretical and viewed as such by the church.


The Gospel of Truth
This book was possibly written by the gnostic teacher Valentinus, which would date its writing around 135 - 160 A.D. If not, it was probably at least from this school of thought and still dated in the second century A.D. Unlike some gnostic works, The Gospel of Truth addresses the subject of the historicity of Jesus in several short passages. It does not hesitate to affirm that the Son of God came in the flesh. The author asserts that “the Word came into the midst . . . it became a body.

 Later he states:
       "For when they had seen him and had heard him, he granted them to taste him and to smell him and to touch the beloved Son. When he had appeared instructing them about the Father . . . . For he came by means of fleshly appearance"

From these two quotations this book indicates (1) that Jesus was the Son of God, the Word and (2) that he became a man and took on an actual human body which could be perceived by all five senses. (3) We are also told that he instructed his listeners about his Father.

 According to The Gospel of Truth, Jesus also died and was raised from the dead:
Jesus was patient in accepting sufferings . . . since he knows that his death is life for many . . . he was nailed to a tree; he published the edict of the Father on the cross. . . . He draws himself down to death through life . . . eternal clothes him. Having stripped himself of the perishable rags, he put on imperishability, which no one can possibly take away from him.

Here and later  the author states (4) that Jesus was persecuted and suffered and (5) that he was “nailed to a tree,” obviously referring to his crucifixion. (6) We are also told of the belief that it was Jesus’ death that brought salvation “for many,” which is referred to as the imparting of Light to those who would receive it. It is also asserted (7) that Jesus was raised in an eternal body which no one can harm or take from him. The theological overtones in The Gospel of Truth (as well as in other gnostic writings) present an obvious contrast to the ancient secular works inspected above. Yet, even allowing for such theological motivation, these early gnostic sources still present us with some important insights into the historical life and teachings of Jesus.

The Apocryphon of John
Grant asserts that this work is closely related to the thought of the gnostic teacher Saturninus, who taught around 120 - 130 A.D. The Apocryphon of John was modified as it was passed on and was known in several versions. Irenaeus made use of one of these versions as a source for his treatment of gnosticism, Against Heresies, written ca. 185 A.D. Thus, by this time, at least the major teachings of The Apocryphon of John were in existence.

In a largely mythical treatise involving esoteric matters of gnostic theology, this book does purport to open with a historical incident. We are told: It happened [one day]when Jo[hn, the brother] of James,—who are the sons of Ze[bed]ee—went up and came to the temple, that a [Ph]arisee named Arimanius approached him and said to him, “[Where] is your master whom you followed?” And he [said] to him, “He has gone to the place from which he came.” The Pharisee said to him, “[This Nazarene] deceived you (pl.) with deception and filled [your ears with lies] and closed [your hearts and turned you] from the traditions [of your fathers].

This passage relates (1) that John the disciple, in response to a question from Arimanius the Pharisee, stated that Jesus had returned to heaven, a possible reference to the Ascension. (2) The Pharisee responded by telling John that Jesus had deceived his followers with his teachings, which is reminiscent of the Talmud’s statements about Jesus. Whether such an encounter between John and Arimanius actually occurred or not, such is apparently a typical view of Jesus’ teachings from the standpoint of the Jewish leaders.

The Gospel of Thomas
This book describes itself in the opening statement as “the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke.” Grant notes that this collection of teachings thereby purports to be the words of the risen Jesus, thus accounting for the almost complete absence of statements concerning his birth, life and death. The text is usually dated from around 140 - 200 A.D.
In an incident similar to Jesus’ question at Caesarea Philippi, reported in the synoptic Gospels, The Gospel of Thomas also presents Jesus asking his disciples, “Compare me to someone and tell Me whom I am like.” They respond by describing him as an angel, a philosopher and as an indescribable personage.
In a later passage the disciples refer to Jesus as the consummation of the prophets. Jesus is said to have partially answered his own question on several occasions. He describes himself as the Son of Man, which is also the name most commonly reported in the Gospels.

 In another instance Jesus speaks in more specifically gnostic terminology: Jesus said, “It is I who am the light which is above them all. It is I who am the All. From Me did the All come forth, and unto Me did the All extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find Me there.

In these passages which concern the identity of Jesus, we are told (1) that Jesus asked his disciples for their view. (2) Their responses were varied, with the comparison of Jesus to a philosopher being especially reminiscent of the references by Lucian and Mara Bar Serapion. Jesus then identified himself as (3) the Son of Man, (4) the Son of His Father and (5) as the All of the Universe.
The Gospel of Thomas also records a parable concerning the death of Jesus and relates his subsequent exaltation. Again, Jesus is identified as “living” or as the “Living One,” a reference to his post resurrection life.

The foregoing references in The Gospel of Thomas require further comment. Initially, they often appear to be dependent on gospel testimony, especially in the question of Jesus’ identity and in the parable of the vineyard. Additionally, the overly obvious gnostic tendencies, such as those found in the identification of Jesus with the “Undivided” and with the “All,” including monistic tendencies, certainly cast doubt on the reliability of these reports.

The Treatise On Resurrection
This book is addressed to an individual named Rheginos by an unknown author. Some have postulated that Valentinus is the author, but most scholars object to this hypothesis.

For the author of The Treatise of the Resurrection, Jesus became a human being but was still divine:
The Lord . . . existed in flesh and . . . revealed himself as Son of God . . . Now the Son of God, Rheginos, was Son of Man. He embraced them both, possessing the humanity and the divinity, so that on the one hand he might vanquish death through his being Son of God, and that on the other through the Son of Man the restoration to the Pleroma might occur; because he was originally from above, a seed of the Truth, before this structure (of the cosmos) had come into being.

In this passage we find much gnostic terminology in addition to the teachings (1) that Jesus became flesh as the Son of Man in spite of (2) his true divinity as the Son of God who conquers death.

So Jesus came to this world in the flesh of a man, died and rose again: For we have known the Son of Man, and we have believed that he rose from among the dead. This is he of whom we say, “He became the destruction of death, as he is a great one in whom they believe.” Great are those who believe.

In less esoteric language we are told (3) that Jesus died, (4) rose again and (5) thereby destroyed death for those who believe in him.

We are told of Jesus’ resurrection in other passages as well:
The Savior swallowed up death. . . . He transformed [himself] into an imperishable Aeon and raised himself up, having swallowed the visible by the invisible, and he gave us the way of our immortality.
Do not think the resurrection is an illusion. It is no illusion, but it is truth. Indeed, it is more fitting to say that the world is an illusion, rather than the resurrection which has come into being through our Lord the Savior, Jesus Christ.


These two quotations even present an interesting contrast on the subject of Jesus’ death and resurrection. While the first statement is mixed with gnostic terminology, the second assures believers that the resurrection was not an illusion, which reminds us of some gnostic tendencies to deny the actual, physical death of Christ.

Once again, these previous four sources are theologically oriented, freely incorporating many gnostic tendencies, in addition to being generally later than most of our other sources. While these two qualifications do not necessitate unreliable reporting of historical facts about Jesus, we are to be cautious in our use of this data.

Research the Evidence, Find the Truth and have Intelligent Faith!!

- Nelis