Wednesday, December 28, 2005

James Robinson on The Gospel of the Egyptians

The next installment of highlights from essays of Charles Horton, The Earliest Gospels, is from James Robinson, 'The Nag Hammadi Gospels and the Fourfold Gospel', pp. 69-87. Robinson argues that the application of the term 'gospel' to The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Philip and The Gospel of the Egyptians is inappropriate, whereas it is appropriate for The Gospel of Thomas. His statements on The Gospel of the Egyptians are particularly striking:

'The editors [Böhlig and Wisse] conclude: "The title 'The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit' should have been preferred but Doresse's title [i.e. The Gospel of the Egyptians] is now too well established to change it". Jean Doresse, the French graduate student and adventurer, was the first to prepare an inventory of the Nag Hammadi Codices. Hence our first information and first dis-information, stems from him. His reason for preferring the title "The Gospel of the Egyptians" is obvious, when one recalls that the leaf from the Nag Hammadi Codices that always hung in public display at the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo was Codex III, p. 69, with the reading "The Gospel of the Egyptians" in full view, as a vindication of Egypt's claim to have had a Gospel of its own. Doresse really knew how to endear himself to the staff of the Coptic Museum, and we have to live with the consequences.' (Robinson, p. 75)


  1. What is his rational for including The Gospel of Thomas? A text with no narrative.

  2. I'm sure there is already secondary literature on this that I haven't seen yet. But I wonder what flexibility the term "Gospel" had in the early church as a literary genre. First Clement at one point seems to refer to one of Paul's epistles as a Gospel. As I recall, the way he phrases it, he says something like "in the beginning of his Gospel," which seems to reflect on a phrase Paul himself had used (in Phillipians I think). When Paul used that phrase, it isn't clear that he was referring to his epistle, but when CLement used it, it sure did look like it. I wonder if Robinson's criticism of the label "Gospel" for the Gospel of the Egyptians is anachronistic. I also wonder how many books that we wouldn't call gospels were called that in early Christianity (orthodox and heterodox). And what is the best way for moderns to deal with this generic issue. After all, not many of us would want to open up the genre of gospel to include Paul's epistles.

  3. Robinson is of course aware that 'Gospels' can be defined in different ways. He is not maintaining that the GoT is in all ways analogous to the canonical Gospels. However, he is drawing a distinction between the GoT and the other Nag Hammadi Gospels.

    'In distinction from the three other Nag Hammadi "Gospels", which really should not be classified as "Gospels", since they do not consist primarily of traditions about Jesus, The Gospel of Thomas, consisting of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, does in this sense qualify as a "Gospel", in consisting primarily of traditions about Jesus.' (p. 79)

    '... the sayings found in The Gospel of Thomas, but not in the canonical Gospels, cannot in most cases be derived from Gnosticism by any stretch of the imagination. The Gospel of Thomas clearly stands in the still-living oral tradition of the transmission of sayings of Jesus.' (p. 79)

    Thus, for instance, saying 65 contains a 'pre-allegorical' parable.

    He argues that in the second century the numbers of mss of Gospels that were later called canonical and of those that were later called apocryphal were roughly equal. The number of copies of canonical Gospels rises after about the year 200.

    He is clearly not using the term 'Gospel' in the more narrow sense of a genre that includes a narrative of Jesus's actions and words that also includes the Passion.

  4. Eric, I presume you're thinking of 1 Clement 47:

    'Take up the epistle of the blessed apostle Paul. What/how first he wrote at the beginning of the Gospel!'

    The second phrase is difficult to render, but I would not take it that ευαγγελιον refers to the epistle, but rather to 'proclamation'.