15 Ibid., especially vol. II, pp. 152, 154.
thought that the claims on behalf of the Gnostic tradition in the early church are very much overstated. We will turn now to an evaluation of several of these contentions.
A Critical Evaluation
As we have already said, we need to be selective in our treatment of these issues. Accordingly, we will propose to just briefly address four central questions, all of which impinge on our understanding of the historicity of Jesus.
These four topics for consideration include some very preliminary thoughts on two issues: the comparative dates of the Gnostic writings and the authority of the Gospels. This will be followed by a somewhat more detailed response to the two charges that the New Testament canon was in a state of flux until the late second century AD, and the general question of the downplaying of the gospel facts of the death and resurrection of Jesus in these writings. It should be noted that the employment of this strategy is designed not just to respond to these four critical areas, but the convergence of the critiques will hopefully provide an overall case against the Gnostic thesis outlined here.
1.Canonical Gospels earlier
First, from the perspective of the time factor alone, the four canonical Gospels are much earlier than their Gnostic counterparts. While the earliest Gnostic Gospels are perhaps dated from about AD 140–200 (see the comments below on the Gospel of Thomas), the canonical Gospels may be dated from AD 65–100, a difference of 75–100 years earlier on the average. Even though these Gnostic texts possibly include earlier material, the Gospels certainly include traditions that predate their writing.
So while Pagels and others would have us suppose that these various Gospels simply circulated together, inviting believers to espouse radically different beliefs,^16 the facts indicate that these two groups of texts were not on an equal footing. The very fact that the canonical Gospels were written decades earlier is at least a preliminary indication that they could possibly also be more authoritative.