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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14

The Gnostic Scriptures

Whay are Gnostic writings

Gospel of Thomas manuscript

Although manuscripts of New Testament books are the most plentiful of early Christian texts known to us, other writings have survived as well. One important group of such writings were produced in the context of an early Christian movement known as Gnosticism.

The Gnostic Scriptures are included in this section because, while long rejected by the mainstream church as heretical, many of the Gnostic writings were likely regarded as sacred texts by those who compiled them - in fact as more sacred than the canonical texts of the New Testament. In addition, they provide further context to the canonical writings of the New Testament and offer different perspectives on the lives and teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles.

The article that follows provides information on the manuscript sources on Gnosticism available before 1945, the history and content of the Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945, and the Gospel of Thomas.

Manuscripts of Gnostic Texts

Probably as a result of the focused opposition by the mainstream church, early sources on Gnosticism have been rather scarce. Until recently, most of the information available to historians about the Gnostics came from the writings of their opponents, the early church fathers.

One of the first writers to refute Gnosticism was St. Irenaeus (c. 140-200 AD), the influential Bishop of Lyons. Around 180 AD, Irenaeus wrote a scathing refutation of Gnostic belief and practice called Against Heresies. He summarized Gnostic views before refuting them, and his accounts have proved to be quite accurate when compared to the actual Gnostic sources. The original Against Heresies was written in Greek; our earliest surviving manuscript is in Latin and may date to 400 AD or as early as 200 AD. {1}

Another early anti-Gnostic writer was St. Hippolytus (d. c.236), a presbyter of Rome and probably a disciple of St. Irenaeus. Hippolytus is probably the author of at least part of Refutation of all Heresies, also known as the Philosophumena. The main purpose of this work, discovered in 1842, is to show that heresies were derived from pagan philosophies, and it quotes some Gnostic sources in doing so.

Tertullian, who lived in Carthage from about 145 to 220 AD, was a fiery writer and propogandist who penned numerous attacks against gnostic heresy. Among his anti-heretical treatises, written in Latin, are The Prescription Against Heretics, Against Marcion, Against the Valentinians, and Against Praxeas. Like Hippolytus and other heresiologists, Tertullian connects heresy to philosophy {2}, an activity he famously opposed in favor of faith. {3}

In addition to descriptions and quotations by ancient authors hostile to Gnosticism, a few original Gnostic texts had been discovered prior to 1945. In her popular book The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels briefly catalogues these texts:

The first emerged in 1769, when a Scottish tourist named James Bruce bought a Coptic manuscript near Thebes (modern Luxor) in Upper Egypt. Published only in 1892, it claims to record conversations of Jesus with his disciples - a group that here includes both men and women. In 1773 a collector found in a London bookshop an ancient text, also in Coptic, that contained a dialogue on "mysteries" between Jesus and his disciples. In 1896 a German Egyptologist, alerted by the previous publications, bought in Cairo a manuscript that, to his amazement, contained the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) and three other texts. Three copies of one of them, the Apocryphon (Secret Book) of John were also included among the gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi fifty years later. {4}

So for most of history, it was only through the writings of their enemies and a few odd fragments that we could know anything about this alternative Christian group, the Gnostics - until a peasant's mattock uncovered one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century.

The Nag Hammadi Library: Discovery and Significance

In December of 1945, while digging in the hills for fertilizer, an Egyptian peasant named Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman discovered an old stone jar. Initially fearful it held a jinn (desert spirit), but even more hopeful it contained treasure, he smashed it open. He was disappointed to find it did not contain gold. For scholars of ancient Christianity, however, it held priceless treasure.

Inside the stone jar, al-Samman found 13 papyrus books, bound in leather. He took them home, where his mother unfortunately used some of the pages to kindle the fire. But the books eventually caught the notice of a local history teacher, and most of them found their way into the Coptic Museum of Cairo. One of the books, Codex I, was smuggled out of Egypt and sold in America. At the urging of a Dutch historian of religion who learned of the manuscript, the Jung Foundation in Zurich purchased it.

The collection of 13 codices, known as the Nag Hammadi Library, has been a focus of much scholarly interest. It has even sparked significant popular interest, thanks in large part to the best-selling Dan Brown novel The Da Vinci Code and popular scholarly works by Elaine Pagels of Princeton, The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.

The documents discovered at Nag Hammadi were written in Coptic, an Egyptian language related to Greek, between 350 to 400 AD. It is believed they were deposited in the jar and hidden by monks from the nearby monastery of St. Pachomius. While the discovery of documents this old is of great importance in itself, what is even more exciting is that they are believed to be copies of even earlier documents. Some fragments are obviously copied from much earlier originals, including Plato's Republic.

But the majority of the documents place themselves in genres of "Gospels" and "Apocalypses" and mention figures such as Jesus, Philip, Peter, and Mary, but are not books that are found in our New Testament. These writings may date to as early as the first century AD - the same time the New Testament books were being written. Some even suggest they are older than the canonical Gospel accounts.

Could these newly discovered writings reflect an alternative form of Christianity in existence shortly after the time of Jesus? Was the Bible, like much of history, written only by the victors? Was it only politics and power that prevented Gnosticism from becoming "orthodox" Christianity? Many recent scholars have suggested an affirmative answer to at least some of these questions. Whatever one's view, the Nag Hammadi Library clearly provides important insight into the history and thought of both Gnostic Christianity and what would become orthodox Christianity.

Contents of the Nag Hammadi Library

As mentioned above, the discovery at Nag Hammadi in 1945 yielded 13 leather-bound books of papyrus, known as codices. The contents of the codices are as follows (see below for links to the text online and in print):

Codex I (The Jung Codex):

  • The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
  • The Apocryphon of James
  • The Gospel of Truth
  • The Treatise on the Resurrection
  • The Tripartite Tractate

Codex II:

  • The Apocryphon of John (long version)
  • The Gospel of Thomas:
  • The Gospel of Philip
  • The Hypostasis of the Archons
  • On the Origin of the World
  • The Exegesis on the Soul
  • The Book of Thomas the Contender

Codex III:

  • The Apocryphon of John (short version)
  • The Gospel of the Egyptians
  • Eugnostos the Blessed
  • The Sophia of Jesus Christ
  • The Dialogue of the Savior

Codex IV:

  • The Apocryphon of John (long version)
  • The Gospel of the Egyptians

Codex V:

  • Eugnostos the Blessed
  • The Apocalypse of Paul
  • The (First) Apocalypse of James
  • The (Second) Apocalypse of James
  • The Apocalypse of Adam

Codex VI:

  • The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles
  • The Thunder, Perfect Mind
  • Authoritative Teaching
  • The Concept of Our Great Power
  • Plato, Republic 588A-589B
  • The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth
  • The Prayer of Thanksgiving
  • Asclepius 21-29

Codex VII:

  • The Paraphrase of Shem
  • The Second Treatise of the Great Seth
  • The Apocalypse of Peter
  • The Teachings of Silvanus
  • The Three Steles of Seth

Codex VIII:

  • Zostrianos
  • The Letter of Peter to Philip

Codex IX:

  • Melchizedek
  • The Thought of Norea
  • The Testimony of Truth

Codex X:

  • Marsanes

Codex XI:

  • The Interpretation of Knowledge
  • A Valentinian Exposition
  • Allogenes
  • Hypsiphrone

Codex XII:

  • The Sentences of Sextus
  • The Gospel of Truth
  • Fragments

Codex XIII:

  • Trimorphic Protennoia
  • On the Origin of the World {5}

Like the New Testament, the Nag Hammadi writings contain several literary genres, including gospels, apocalyptic works, mystical works, and lives of the apostles. The texts listed above may be sorted into genres or topics as follows:

Gospels and sayings of Jesus:

  • The Dialogue of the Saviour
  • The Book of Thomas the Contender
  • The Apocryphon of James
  • The Gospel of Philip
  • The Gospel of Thomas

Creative and redemptive mythology:

  • The Apocryphon of John
  • The Hypostasis of the Archons
  • On the Origin of the World
  • The Apocalypse of Adam
  • The Paraphrase of Shem

Various Gnostic themes (nature of reality, the nature of the soul, the relationship of the soul to the world, etc.):

  • The Gospel of Truth
  • The Treatise on the Resurrection
  • The Tripartite Tractate
  • Eugnostos the Blessed
  • The Second Treatise of the Great Seth
  • The Teachings of Silvanus
  • The Testimony of Truth

Liturgical and initiatory texts:

  • The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth
  • The Prayer of Thanksgiving
  • A Valentinian Exposition
  • The Three Steles of Seth
  • The Gospel of Philip

The feminine principle, particularly the Divine Sophia:

  • Thunder, Perfect Mind
  • The Thought of Norea
  • The Sophia of Jesus Christ
  • The Exegesis on the Soul

Lives and experiences of apostles:

  • The Apocalypse of Peter
  • The Letter of Peter to Philip
  • The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles
  • The (First) Apocalypse of James
  • The (Second) Apocalypse of James
  • The Apocalypse of Paul {13}

Although they were remarkably preserved thanks to the dry heat of the Egyptian sand, most of the codices are damaged in some way and many are missing significant pieces. These gaps, known to scholars as lacunae, are signified in English translations either by noting the gap with brackets and ellipses ([...]) or by enclosing a guess at the missing piece's content in brackets.

The Gospel of Thomas

Of all the Nag Hammadi texts, the Gospel of Thomas has attracted the most scholarly and popular interest. It consists entirely of sayings attributed to Jesus (no narrative of his life, death, or resurrection) and claims to have been written down by Jesus' brother Judas. The Gospel's opening words are:

These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.

(1) And he said, "Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death."

(2) Jesus said, "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the All." {6}

Interestingly, many as one-third of the sayings can be found in the New Testament Gospels. Consider, for example, the familiar-sounding Saying 9 of the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said, "Now the sower went out, took a handful (of seeds), and scattered them. Some fell on the road; the birds came and gathered them up. Others fell on the rock, did not take root in the soil, and did not produce ears. And others fell on thorns; they choked the seed(s) and worms ate them. And others fell on the good soil and it produced good fruit: it bore sixty per measure and a hundred and twenty per measure." {7}

Do the common sayings indicate that one source was dependent on the other, that both made use of a third source, or that both are early records of Jesus' actual sayings? So far, there is no clear answer.

The sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas but not in the New Testament are generally cryptic and reflect a gnostic worldview. Jesus speaks of hidden things becoming revealed and knowing oneself, and he makes many paradoxical statements.

We now have four manuscript sources for the Gospel of Thomas:

  1. Nag Hammadi Codex II, Tractate 2 (pgs. 32-51)
    (Coptic, Fourth century, Prologue-Saying 114)
  2. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 654
    (Greek, Mid-Third Century, Prologue+Sayings 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)
  3. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1
    (Greek, Late Second-Early Third Century, Sayings 26, 27, 28,. 29, 30, 77b, 31, 32, 33)
  4. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 655
    (Greek, Sayings 24, 36, 37, 38, 39)

The Nag Hammadi Codex of the Gospel of Thomas can be read in translation online and in print (see below) and in the original at the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

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External Links on the Gnostic Scriptures

Manuscripts and Translations

  • Marvin Meyer, The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels.
  • James M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (rev. ed.).
  • Grenfell, Bernard P., and Arthur S. Hunt, eds. "1. Logia Iesou." Pages 1-3 in vol. 1 of The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. London: Egypt Exploration Fund, 1898.
  • Evelyn-White, Hugh. The Sayings of Jesus From Oxyrhynchus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920.
  • Fitzmeyer, Joseph A. "The Oxyrhynchus Logoi of Jesus and the Coptic Gospel According to Thomas." Pages 355-433 in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1971.
  • Attridge, Harold W. "Appendix: The Greek Fragments." Nag Hammadi Codex II,2-7 Together With XIII,2*, BRIT. LIB. OR. 4926(1), and pOxy. 1, 654, 655. Edited by Bentley Layton. Vol. 1. New York: Brill, 1989.
  1. "Saint Irenaeus." Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
  2. "Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy." (Prescription Against Heretics, 6). Valentinus is linked to Plato and Marcion is linked to the Stoics.
  3. "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? ... We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel!" (Prescription Against Heresies, 6).
  4. Pagels, xxiv.
  5. Gnostic Society Library.
  6. Gnostic Society Library.
  7. Thomas O. Lambdin translation.
  8. Lambdin translation.

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