A growing number of scholars are advocating that we replace the New Testament Gospels with some recently discovered texts from antiquity, primarily the Nag Hammadi codicies discovered in Egypt in 1945. They argue that these texts predate the canonical Gospels. The discovered texts from Egypt are important because they provide a window on the world of the second and third centuries A.D.
Even though the canonical texts are ostensibly our earliest sources for the study of Christianity in the first century, some scholars have advocated increasingly early dates for some of these newly discovered texts. If, for example, some text from Nag Hammadi predates our canonical Gospel, then we could rewrite Christian history from another perspective-namely, the perspective of Gnostic Christianity. The claim that a certain text promises to rewrite Christianity is continually used as a selling point for many of these textual discoveries.
Surprisingly, some texts in the New Testament itself-the pastoral letters (1-2 Timothy and Titus) and the epistles of John-have been dismissed as late Christian forgeries because they denounce Gnosticism. Scholars have long recognized that Gnosticism is a later Christian heresy that began in the latter half of the first century, yet when new textual discoveries that are written by Gnostic Christians surface, there is a general push to date them earlier than some of our canonical sources. If the Pastoral epistles and the epistles of John are widely recognized as late Christian texts because they treat the subject of Gnosticism, then other texts written by Gnostics should likewise be dated late.
The real questions that these texts should be encouraging are whether Gnostic Christians were in the majority by the end of the first century or whether the proliferation of Gnostic texts is a witness to the regional popularity of that movement in certain areas of the empire, such as Egypt. Dozens and dozens of Gnostic texts have been identified; for every canonical text, there are at least three or four surviving Gnostic texts. The sheer volume of texts testifies to the popularity of the movement.
But the volume of texts does not provide evidence about the earliness of these documents. They are widely recognized as late, and even in situations where a Gnostic text is dated early, there is a subsequent later dating for the Gnostic materials in the document. In other words, many of the texts that are dated early also contain information that should be dated late. So, for example, the Gospel of Thomas may contain some elements from the decades before A.D. 70, but much of it comes from the end of the first century.
The same statement is not generally true of the Gospels. They have early and late materials in them, but the time span covered by that dating is not as broad as with the non-canonical materials. The Gospel of Matthew, for example, contains materials that go directly back to Jesus Christ, whereas some of the information, such as the narrative settings and the genealogy composed by Matthew, are later, around the time of A.D. 70. Therefore, the Gospel of Matthew’s latest material is equal in time frame to the Gospel of Thomas’ earliest material. The New Testament Gospels and epistles are the earliest sources on what Jesus said and did.
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