The Greek Gospel of the Egyptians

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Imagine the excitement of scholars when they discovered among the Nag Hammadi codices (discovered in Upper Egypt in 1945) one that was entitled, "The Gospel of the Egyptians." Prior to this discovery, they only knew about this gospel from references to it by various Church Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Hippolytus of Rome. And those references were oftentimes couched in unfavorable terms. Scholars soon determined, however, that the codex at Nag Hammadi was a completely different document; it was a Coptic version with a theology derived from Adam's son, Seth. So it is that the Greek Gospel of the Egyptians still waits to be discovered.

Scholars are interested in the Greek Gospel of the Egyptians because there are some similarities to the Gospel of Thomas, for which there is no shortage of scholarly interest. However, there are only about eight known paragraphs referencing the Gospel of the Egyptians; two of them are very similar to sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas. Additionally, in both Gospels, Jesus talks to someone named Salome, who might be identified as a disciple of Jesus in the Thomas version (the text is missing, but Salome is the most likely referent).

Based on its name, one might expect this to have been a commonly used gospel for faithful Egyptians. (It was probably so-named to distinguish it from the Gospel of the Hebrews that had been used more exclusively in Alexandria by Hebrew-speaking Jews.) Since the book was written in Greek, most assume its readers were Gentile-speaking converts, though others suggest that many Egyptian Jews were also fluent in Greek. Still others think Christians outside the city might have relied upon this Gospel. Again, it is questions like this that cannot be definitively answered. Scholars do think, however, that this gospel was read in the Egyptian churches, perhaps well into the 3rd century.

Since Clement of Alexandria was already quoting from it in his work entitled, "Stromata," which scholars think was written around the turn of the century, the Gospel would have had to be written before that. So most scholars give it a date of the early-to-mid second century – possibly prior to 150 CE. Hippolytus of Rome, who wrote at approximately the same time, also made a few references to it. In the fourth century, Epiphanius, the renowned heretic hunter, claimed that the Sabellians had used this gospel. Sabellius was active in the latter half of the second century, but Epiphanius gives no source for such a claim. The sad thing, of course, is that no actual texts of this gospel exist, which raises the question of whether these few quotations are representative of the entirety of the Gospel or whether these authors simply picked out a few points upon which to comment.

What they commented upon, however, is quite interesting. The Gospel opens with Salome addressing Jesus. She asks, "How long will people die?" Jesus responds: "So long as women bear children." A later comment by Jesus, also spoken to Salome, is: "I have come to destroy the works of the female." For this, however, Clement adds, "By 'female' he meant desire and by 'works' he meant birth and degeneration."1 (Not that this helps much to soften the words.) The idea seems to be that as long as women have children, people will die – the circle of life will continue. Clement does point out that this doesn't mean that life is evil or that creation is inherently wicked; it's just recognizing that, in nature, life is followed by death.

Salome continues that she did not have any children, and wonders if this is a good thing. Jesus replies again, "Eat every plant, but that which has bitterness, do not eat." There is no explanation accompanying this statement.

Another perplexing passage also involves Salome. This time she asks when she would know the answer to her question (presumably a new one, but the question has been lost). Jesus responds, "When you have trampled upon the garden of shame, and when the two become one, and the male with the female [is] neither male nor female." Interestingly, this last saying can also be found in the Gospel of Thomas.

Scholars have tried to understand the context of the statements as well as Clement's quotation of them. Speculation abounds, but they are clearly associated with the notion that desire and sexual activity are somehow opposed to God's will. And, it does not seem that Clement is in opposition to such a view.

That, of course, brings up the whole notion of asceticism in the early Church. Scholars are still studying its origin and impact upon the Church, but they do know that asceticism was flourishing by the second century. One such sect referred to themselves as "Encratites," meaning "the self-controlled." They eschewed marriage and forbade drinking wine or eating meat. They despised the writings of Paul, but were rather orthodox in their beliefs. It was their practice of those beliefs that resulted in their being deemed heretics. Over time, they taught that woman was the work of Satan and wine was a drop of venom from the great Serpent. In 382 the Roman Emperor put out an edict pronouncing death to those calling themselves Encratites.

It is presumed that "the garden of shame" refers to the human body. "When the two become one" refers to returning to the primordial and androgynous state when there is no longer any differentiation between the sexes, which is, inherently, sinful. These notions are common to many gnostic writings, which oftentimes viewed the body as an entrapment for the soul. Some of this is based upon creative interpretations of the Creation accounts. In Gen. 1:27, there was androgynous man before God "created them male and female." In Genesis 2:21ff, God created woman from "one of the man's ribs," again indicating that sexual differentiation came later. Salvation, then, would require the body to fall away, and the sexes to be reunited into one flesh. Some people believed this happened at the time of baptism; others think it was a social construct foisted upon a society that was both stratified and hierarchical.

For a long time, scholars dismissed Gnostic writings as nothing more than heretical texts, as labeled by established Christians, especially the Church Fathers. Since Nag Hammadi, however, they have been able to read and study the primary texts. One message that comes through over and over is that Gnostics had no regard for the material world – it was simply irrelevant. They had moved on; they were "enlightened." So, when it came to interacting with the world, anything was legitimate, including renouncing it. Their roots probably predate Christianity. Even Paul writes: "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever" (1 Cor 9:25). The idea is that people can sacrifice for a greater gain. And in 1 Cor 7:29, Paul writes: "…the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not." No doubt, these teachings were based on his belief that the end of the world was near, but he clearly preferred that people should be as chaste as he was. That would free them up to concentrate totally on imitating Christ. It is not surprising to find these ideas (along with many others) evolving over time into a more ascetic lifestyle. Some would argue that their roots are still present today.

Be that as it may, it is probably speculative to make final assessments about this Gospel based on the few extant quotations, however, it is interesting that there are no deeply Christological or soteriological questions involved. Indeed, it seems focused on sayings of Jesus given directly to his followers. Nor is there any interest in baptism or how to become a follower.

1 Erdman, Bart.  p18.

Old Testament Apocrypha

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