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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.

5 thoughts on “The Dead Sea Scrolls vs. the Gnostic Gospels

  1. Greg, thanks for the article. I just came by it while on the Kings Valley website and appreciated the clarification between the two. Great job as always!

  2. Hey Kevin. Thanks!

  3. Very good to know!

  4. Hey there! I was online researching the difference between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library. I wanted you to know that you’re misinformed on your dating for the Gnostic Gospels. It was said above (in reference to the Gnostic Gospels) they:
    “were written much too late to present a viable alternative to the Christian documents regarding the life of Jesus.”
    Not all the materials in the Gnostic Gospels were written at the same time. Take the Gospel of St Thomas…
    Scholars have proposed a date as early as 40 AD or as late as 140 AD.
    The Gospel of Mark was written between 65-80 A.D. Matthew 80-100, Luke 80-130, and John 90-120.
    I thought it was interesting you used the word Forgery to describe the gospels. Though a forgery maybe considered a fake, it is a fake of an original. There is nothing that the Gnostic Gospels were “copied” from. No original that they falsified. They were completely original themselves.

    That being said, most scholars agree that Mark was the first of the gospels to be composed, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke used it, plus a second document called the Q source when composing their own gospels. Many scholars believe the same Gospel of St. Thomas found in the Gnostic Gospels to be this source Q.
    So it’s also interesting that you said,
    “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.”
    Little did you realize you slandered Matthew Luke and John when you said that, becauseI their content is in the Gnostic Gospels. The more you know, the less you unknowingly judge…

    1. Hi Matthew. Thanks for commenting. You’re right, the Gospel of Thomas was the earliest of the gnostic writings with the rest coming from the ensuing centuries. When suggesting that it was written between AD 40 and 140, it appears that you’re quoting from Richard Valantasis (as quoted on Wikipedia). However, Valantasis also notes that most scholars place its writing in the early-to-mid second century. And, as already mentioned, the other gnostic gospels didn’t show up until later… some of them much later.

      Interestingly, while you appear to prefer an early date for the Gospel of Thomas, you seem to favour a later date for the canonical Gospels. For example, an early date for Matthew would be between AD 40 and 70. For Mark, between AD 55 and 59. For Luke, between AD 58 and 65 (based on the absence of any reference to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem or the deaths of Peter, James, or Paul). Some date the writing of John before AD 70, too, though most place it between AD 85 and 100.

      It’s a technicality, but Merriam-Webster includes “the crime of falsely and fraudulently making or altering a document” in its definition of “forgery”. It seems to me that this applies to fraudulently creating a document and claiming it had been authored by someone who had died decades or centuries earlier, particularly when the document alters the earlier Gospel accounts. However, I’m okay with using the word “counterfeit” instead.

      The Q Source hypothesis is just that—an hypothesis. I’m not opposed to it, but it should be noted that not even a fragment of a manuscript has every been discovered to verify it. Plus, not one Church Father makes reference to such a document. Other explanations for the similarity between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) would be divine inspiration and that they were composed by eyewitness (or those who had access to eyewitnesses). As for the Gospel of Thomas being Q, apart from the extremely early dating for Thomas (which is not widely accepted), the dating doesn’t work. If anything, the Gospel of Thomas would have used Q.

      Plus, the Gospel of Thomas contains content that is inconsistent with the Synoptic Gospels, such as the final words: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Thomas 114). This is in stark contrast to Jesus’ affirmation of womanhood, the canonical Gospels’ acceptance of women, and the Biblical claim that God created man and woman in His own image (which Jesus Himself endorsed in Matthew 19:4).

      And no, I was not slandering Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. The Gospel of Thomas is not a narrative account of the life of Jesus, but rather a collection of sayings. The paragraph you quoted was in reference to “accounts of the life of Jesus” like those found in the Gospel of Peter of a talking Cross and Jesus standing as tall as a mountain. These are fanciful accounts.

      “The more you know, the less you unknowingly judge.” I agree.

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