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The Dead Sea Scrolls vs. the Gnostic Gospels

Everyone loves a conspiracy theory. One that has gained prominence in recent years concerns the allegation that the early Church either lost or intentionally hid certain books that told an alternative version of the Jesus story. Most of the debate centres around a group of texts mostly discovered in the middle of the twentieth century, the Gnostic Gospels.

These documents, most of which were discovered near the Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi in 1945, initially appear to be of Christian origin. Yet they contain content that is irreconcilable with orthodox Christianity. They do not, however, pose any serious challenge. They were essentially forgeries dating from the second through fifth centuries.

Unfortunately, the Gnostic Gospels are often confused with another discovery that occurred at roughly the same time: the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was a major event in the mid-1900s (from 1946 to 1956), taking place near the ruins of the city of Qumran. As the story goes, three Bedouin shepherds were tending to their goats near cliffs along the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea when one of them tossed a rock into a nearby cave. When he heard it hit something, he climbed in to see what it was. Hoping to discover a hidden treasure, he instead found what has been labeled as “the greatest archaeological discovery in the twentieth century”.

During the ensuing decade, the seven scrolls found by these shepherds led to archaeologists discovering more than 900 documents. These documents, dating from between 200 BC and AD 68, are generally believed to have been hidden to keep them safe in anticipation of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. About a third of the scrolls were copies of the Hebrew Scriptures which, when compared to later texts, serve to show just how accurately the Old Testament has been preserved throughout the centuries. Another third were Jewish stories and commentaries on the Old Testament books, while the remaining third dealt with the day-to-day life of the Essene/Jewish community who had lived in the region.

Though disputed, one of the fragments (7Q5) is believed by some to contain text from the Gospel of Mark. If true, it would verify the early writings of the New Testament books. Though there are debates about this one fragment, there have been no major scandals connected with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic texts is a different story. Nag Hammadi, an Egyptian city of about 30,000, is located about 300 miles/500 km south of Cairo. In 1945, two brothers were looking for fertilizer in the vicinity of Nag Hammadi when one came upon a buried earthenware jar. He opened it, hoping to find gold, and instead found a collection of leather-bound codices (or books) that were later determined to be Gnostic writings.

The discovery included 52 books in all (45 after eliminating the repeats), with only 5 technically being considered "gospels". Though there have been other Gnostic texts discovered over the years as well, this was a major discovery.

Many of these documents had been known about for centuries, as several other ancient documents contain references to them. Though their titles suggest they had been authored by such Biblical names as Judas, Mary, John, and Thomas, it is believed that even the first of them—the Gospel of Thomas—was not written until the middle of the second century, well after Thomas would have died.

While the documents do contain some fanciful accounts of the life of Jesus, they appear to be nothing more than fables with no basis in actual history. Rather than complementing the Christian faith, they merge Christian beliefs with the spiritual philosophies of the Greeks and Romans.

Whether the Gnostics who wrote the texts were attempting to transform Christianity or create their own religion is unclear. What is clear, however, is that their writings are unreliable historically and were written much too late to present a viable alternative to the Christian documents regarding the life of Jesus. The New Testament Gospels, on the other hand, were written during the first century by disciples of Jesus or those associated with the disciples.

The Dead Sea Scrolls offer valuable insights into historical events, locations, and people; the Gnostic Gospels do not. Rather, the value of the Gnostic writings is in providing insight into the beliefs of a religious sect that splintered from Christianity by incorporating Greeks and Roman mythology. They should not, however, be viewed as an alternative truer account of Jesus that had somehow been suppressed in favour of the Biblical Gospels.