The Gospel of Truth

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The Gospel of Truth is not really a gospel at all. It is better seen as a poem or a homily. It does not present a narrative account of Jesus' life; instead, his life is presented around various themes. Most scholars think it is one of the best-written texts found at Nag Hammadi. It has an elegant style and a very lofty outlook; it reflects the author's unique ability to choose just the right word. Some translations have been able to capture and retain that original eloquence. The poem, itself, reveals that the author had received a Hellenistic education. He was an accomplished poet who used the technique of parallel statements to bring forth a deeper meaning from the text. It is likely that he practiced what he preached in the sense that he used his "knowledge" to fully elucidate his ideas.

All this suggests that the author was endowed with a deep spirituality and among the best writers of the early Christian Fathers. Historically, the Gospel of Truth had been thought to be a Gnostic exegesis of various other gospels, including several that are in the canon. More recently, however, scholars have come to a fuller understanding of Gnosticism, and some now claim that it's not Gnostic at all.

Prior to the discovery at Nag Hammadi, scholars only knew about Gnosticism through the writings of those who opposed it. Among the more vociferous were Church Fathers like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Epiphanius. It is not surprising that modern scholars were uniformly opposed to many of its teachings. Now, however, with the discovery of the actual documents, scholars are gaining a fuller understanding of the issues involved. And, the picture has become much more complicated. Among the finer of these documents is the Gospel of Truth.

Scholars believe this might have been one of the earliest writings on the subject of Gnosticism. Whether it can be authoritatively traced to Valentinus remains in dispute, but it was probably written around 140-150 C.E., certainly within his lifetime. The Christian Church was still young – barely 100 years old; doctrine was not yet fixed. The author of this manuscript was acquainted with the New Testament books of Paul, John, and Hebrews, and alludes to them often. There are additional references to almost all of the New Testament books. In contrast, there are no citations from the Old Testament.

Whoever wrote this considered himself to be a genuine Christian. There are many references to Jesus, the Christ. So, what is the role of Jesus in the Gospel of Truth? The idea is that God reveals himself to man primarily through his Word/Logos and his Son. Christianity combined these offices in the person of Jesus. He is both Word/Logos and Son. "The Logos can transmit the thoughts of God to the intellect, or human mind, by means of a silent grace….Thus, we have two teachers: the inner teacher who speaks in our hearts, sometimes called the Logos, Word, Son, or Holy Spirit, which the Gospel uses as synonyms; and the outer teacher, Jesus, who brought forth the Logos and thereby outwardly proclaimed what we are receiving in our hearts." (Lansdowne, p38)

In the Gospel of Truth, the first reference to Jesus has him enlightening those who were in darkness. In a sense, then, Jesus became their guide; he was someone who spoke as a teacher. And though he was tested, he bested them all. Jesus encompassed knowledge and perfection. He was the example for all.

This does not suggest, however, that this author agreed with everything that others had written. Indeed, not. He varied from others, especially from some of the Apostolic Fathers, in his understanding of knowledge and how it was to be valued and understood.

Another of his ideas that was at variance with New Testament teachings revolves around the issue of faith. It is simply not there. Not that faith was a prerequisite for all of Jesus' healings, but faith was generally thought to be necessary for understanding the gospel message. It might be too strong to say that faith and understanding went hand-in-hand, but there was a definite connection. Instead of focusing on faith, the Gospel of Truth champions knowledge, the knowledge that replaces ignorance. The product of ignorance is error, described in the Gospel of Truth as a "fashioner of truth's substitute, figure of falsehood, nothingness, lacking a root, beguiler and captor of human beings, illusion, and devil…."Error" is the devil in the sense of consisting of illusions, or false beliefs, that are part of our environment and can beguile human beings, but do not originate from any particular person." (Lansdowne, p33)

If ignorance is error, then knowledge is part of the good news; it is joyful news because it gives meaning to human life. It is to say that there is an existence beyond this world, a true existence, one that is not entangled with this world. It is an existence rooted in God and one that transcends this world. To the extent that one can see this material world as irrelevant to one's being, that individual is approaching reality.

So, how does one think about the journey? About the time before one is able to arrive at this understanding? The Gnostic approach is that one is living a dream, in a dream world. This has profound implications for one's transgressions. When was the last time you felt guilty (or needed to be punished) for something you had done in a dream? It turns the whole idea of redemption for one's sins upside down. In short, Jesus did not come to save us from our sins; instead the Jesus revelation enabled us to better understand the concept of sonship by replacing our ignorance with knowledge. Life is not to be bogged down by what we have done in the past or might do in the future. Life is defined by our thoughts. While concessions might have to be made regarding the substance of the material world, the goal is to realize that we are not part of this world. We were not created to live in this world. We were created to be the sons and daughters of God, apart from the world. When this understanding is reached, individuals will be at rest. The bottom line is that "true existence can only be found in the perfect awareness of sonship." (1) And it is very important that once a stage has been reached, the individual dare not look back. To dwell on what has already been discarded is to give it more strength and to keep it in our lives.

The individual, therefore, in accordance with the revelation of Jesus, can differentiate within herself various layers of existence. Step-by-step, the individual moves up to higher levels of existence, until she discovers that one's self is truly united with the divine Source. Gnosticism, then, is not a redemptive theology but rather a method that lends itself to right thinking. These ideas are not so far removed from some modern theologies, or existentialism, etc.

"The Gospel of Truth describes three stages on the way of salvation: first, the stage of receiving divine ideas from the Logos and then applying them to purify our lower nature; second, the stage of acting as if the Logos were in charge of our lives, even though many illusions still remain in us; and third, the stage of rest, in which our lower nature is restful because our illusions are largely absent, permitting the Logos to act through us." (Lansdowne, p41)

As scholars become more familiar with the varying aspects of Gnosticism, they are inclined to conclude that it was a new interpretation of Christianity. It was based in the notion that the individual could learn this on his/her own. It was not based in the hierarchy of the church. When the doctrine of the Church Fathers tied salvation to life in the church, one can understand how Gnosticism was declared to be heretical. The Gnostic believed that salvation, that "rest," that ultimate reality, was, in fact, outside the universe. Humans were capable of understanding this. But God was always at the root of it. Understanding God was the goal; in fact, it was the only goal that mattered.

Lansdowne, Zachary F. "The Way of Salvation in the Gnostic Gospel of Truth." The Esoteric Quarterly. 2008. PP. 31-42.

1 Princeton Theological Seminary

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha