But, additionally, even ifmost of the citations of Jesus’ words are from a sayings source,^27 the earliest post-apostolic authors clearly refer to these statements as inspired and authoritative, on a par with that of the Old Testament. So once again, the chief point here is that the early Gnostic Gospels of the mid to late second century did not appear in a milieu where “anything goes.” Rather, the sources for Jesus’ life (see below) and teachings were clearly established and accepted. That the canonical Gospels are the texts which incorporate these teachings also says something about their authority.
So the facts certainly appear to indicate that the canonical Gospels were widely recognized as being authoritative well before the late second century. In addition to 1 Timothy 5:18, six major Christian sources refer to the teachings of Jesus alternatively as the Gospel, the words of Christ and Scripture between AD 95 and
Thus, while the Gospels were one major corpus in the New Testament canon to be accepted as sacred, the other was Paul’s epistles. Besides being called Scripture in 2 Peter 3:15–16, verses from Paul’s epistles are referred to, often as inspired, in Clement’s Corinthians(47), Ignatius’ Ephesians(10) and To Polycarp(1, 5), as well as in Polycarp’s Philippians(1, 3–4, 6, 12). In a few of these passages, Paul’s letters as a whole are both discussed and referred to as Scripture.
Therefore, when the earliest Gnostic Gospels were being written in the mid to late second century AD, at least the teachings of Jesus as presented in the canonical Gospels had already circulated for quite awhile and had been well established as Scripture. The same might be said for the Pauline corpus.
In fact, the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts as a whole cite most of the canonical New Testament books and borrow often from some of these works. The Gospel of Truthand the Gospel of Philip, in particular, are examples of Gnostic writings which recognize most of the New Testament as authoritative.^28
So, despite Pagels’ complaint that history is written by the victors,^29 the four Gospels, in particular, were certainly not “forced” into the New Testament canon. Rather, there are fitting reasons why the biblical Gospels were the “victors”—the facts indicate that these writings are simply better-attested sources for the teachings of Jesus.
4.The death and resurrection of Jesus
Fourth, what about the status of the life of Jesus and his death and resurrection, in particular? Does the downplaying of these events in the Gospel of Thomas
27 See the discussion in the next section beow.
28 For a fairly popular treatment, see Andrew K. Helmbold, The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Texts and the Bible(Grand Rapids: Baker, 1967), pp. 88–89.
29 Pagels, Gnostic Gospels, pp. 170–171.
provide any challenge to the orthodox teaching of, say, the centrality of the gospel message?
Initially, it ought to be pointed out that the post-apostolic authors did not ignore the important aspects of the life of Jesus. Along with the emphasis on Jesus’ teachings which we just surveyed, a number of (usually) brief passages concentrate on historical interests. In particular, the death and resurrection appear to be the centralconcern in these texts.^30