Theology Thursday - Philip's Gnostic "Gospel"

The Gospel of Philip is a Valentinian gnostic text dating from sometime during the 3rd century. The translator of this work believed it was “a collection of excerpts mainly from a Christian Gnostic sacramental catechesis.”1 If anyone is interested, he can visit a new bookstore, a used bookstore or the local library and see many books on the co-called “secret” or “lost” gospels of the Christian church (for example, see the image to the left!).

There are people who believe there was no original “rule of faith” or core content to the Christian message. Instead, the hypothesis goes, there were several competing versions of “Christianity,” and what we now know as “orthodoxy” is simply the party which won out over the rest. The so-called “gnostic Christians,” these scholars claim, were originally just as “orthodox” as any other group.

The editor of the Nag Hammadi Library in English waxed eloquent about these gnostic texts and remarked that they reveal “an understanding of existence, an answer to the human dilemma, an attitude toward society, that is worthy of being taken quite seriously by anyone able and willing to grapple with such ultimate issues.”2

Do these texts represent a worldview that can be called Christian? Do they share any meaningful similarities (beyond names and mere quotations) to the Old and New Testament Scriptures? The best way to determine that is to read these texts. To that end, a small excerpt from The Gospel of Philip is presented below:3

A Hebrew makes another Hebrew, and such a person is called “proselyte.” But a proselyte does not make another proselyte. […] just as they [… and make others like themselves, while [others] simply exist.

The slave seeks only to be free, but he does not hope to acquire the estate of his master. But the son is not only a son but lays claim to the inheritance of the father. Those who are heirs to the dead are themselves dead, and they inherit the dead. Those who are heirs to what is living are alive, and they are heirs to both what is living and the dead. The dead are heirs to nothing. For how can he who is dead inherit? If he who is dead inherits what is living he will not die, but he who is dead will live even more.

A gentile does not die, for he has never lived in order that he may die. He who has believed in the truth has found life, and this one is in danger of dying, for he is alive. Since Christ came the world has been created, the cities adorned, the dead carried out. When we were Hebrews we were orphans and had only our mother, but when we became Christians we had both father and mother.

Those who sow in winter reap in summer. The winter is the world, the summer the other eternal realm (aeon). Let us sow in the world that we may reap in the summer. Because of this it is fitting for us not to pray in the winter. Summer follows winter. But if any man reap in winter he will not actually reap but only pluck out, since it will not provide a harvest for such a person. It is not only […] that it will […] come forth, but also on the Sabbath […] is barren.

Christ came to ransom some, to save others, to redeem others. He ransomed those who were strangers and made them his own. And he set his own apart, those whom he gave as a pledge according to his plan. It was not only when he appeared that he voluntarily laid down his life, but he voluntarily laid down his life from the very day the world came into being. Then he came first in order to take it, since it had been given as a pledge. It fell into the hands of robbers and was taken captive, but he saved it. He redeemed the good people in the world as well as the evil.

Light and darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers of one another. They are inseparable. Because of this neither are the good good, nor the evil evil, nor is life life, nor death death. For this reason each one will dissolve into its earliest origin. But those who are exalted above the world are indissoluble, eternal.

Some said, “Mary conceived by the holy spirit.” They are in error. They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman? Mary is the virgin whom no power defiled. She is a great anathema to the Hebrews, who are the apostles and [the] apostolic men. This virgin whom no power defiled […] the powers defile themselves. And the lord [would] not have said “My [father who is in] heaven” (Mt 16:17) unless [he] had had another father, but he would have said simply “[My father].”

The lord said to the disciples, “[…] from every house. Bring into the house of the father. But do not take (anything) in the house of the father nor carry it off.”

“Jesus” is a hidden name, “Christ” is a revealed name. For this reason “Jesus” is not particular to any language; rather he is always called by the name “Jesus.” While as for “Christ,” in Syriac it is “Messiah,” in Greek it is “Christ.” Certainly all the others have it according to their own language. “The Nazarene” is he who reveals what is hidden. Christ has everything in himself, whether man or angel or mystery, and the father.

Those who say that the lord died first and (then) rose up are in error, for he rose up first and (then) died. If one does not first attain the resurrection he will not die. As God lives, he would …

Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not appear as he was, but in the manner in which [they would] be able to see him. He appeared to [them all. He appeared] to the great as great. He [appeared] to the small as small. He [appeared to the] angels as an angel, and to men as a man. Because of this his word hid itself from everyone. Some indeed saw him, thinking that they were seeing themselves, but when he appeared to his disciples in glory on the mount he was not small. He became great, but he made the disciple great, that they might be able to see him in his greatness.

He said on that day in the thanksgiving, “You who have joined the perfect light with the holy spirit, unite the angels with us also, as being the images.” Do not despise the lamb, for without it is not possible to see the king. No one will be able to go in to the king if he is naked.

The heavenly man has many more sons than the earthly man. If the sons of Adam are many, although they die, how much more the sons of the perfect man, they who do not die but are always begotten. The father makes a son, and the son has not the power to make a son. For he who has been begotten has not the power to beget, but the son gets brothers for himself, not sons. All who are begotten in the world are begotten in a natural way, and the others [are nourished] from [the place] whence they have been born.

It is from being promised to the heavenly place that man [receives] nourishment. […] him from the mouth. [And had] the word gone out from that place it would be nourished from the mouth and it would become perfect. For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.


1 Wesley W. Isenberg, “The Gospel of Philip (II, 3),” in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. James M. Robinson, 4th rev. ed. (Leiden; New York: E. J. Brill, 1996), 141.

2 James M. Robinson, “Introduction,” in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 4th rev. ed. (Leiden; New York: E. J. Brill, 1996), 3.

3 Isenberg, “The Gospel of Philip,” in Nag Hammadi, 141–145.

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There are 2 Comments

josh p's picture

I can’t remember, was this one that was originally considered non canonical but still useful for private study? 

TylerR's picture


You're probably thinking of Shepherd of Hermas. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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