On “The Gospel of Truth”

This is the third in an occasional series on non-canonical writings. Parts I and II are also available.

By Deirdre Good

The Gospel of Truth is a sermon on salvation. In the opening paragraph, a familiar term “gospel” is introduced rapturously and then explained as a discovery of a search for the Father: “The gospel of Truth is joy for those who have received from the Father of truth the grace of knowing him..” Those who embark on a search for the Father (re)discover their origins from the Father. This knowledge is a movement of creation but not separation, implicit in declaring the Son as the Father’s name.

Composed by a brilliant orator, perhaps the second-century Valentinus himself, the sermon describes how the Savior effects in humanity a transformation from ignorance to knowledge. As in the case of the Epistle to the Hebrews, however, we know little of the author or the sermon’s recipients. Most scholars assign this text in the Nag Hammadi Library to Valentinian Christianity since topics like “the Father,” “aeons,” “the Pleroma (fullness),”

“Deficiency,” and “Rest” occur. The sermon describes the role of Error as a type of lower creator or Demiurge in contrast to which the author emphasizes truth as the spoken and written disclosure in which the Son is the Name of the Father

The text describes searching as both promise and ignorance. Ignorance generates agitation, fear, and its palpable effects: “agitation grew dense like a fog so that no one could see.” In such a climate, personified Error grows powerful– creating from matter a substance that shapes substitutes for the truth. Error’s forms of forgetfulness and fear hold people captive and blind.

To overcome the fog of ignorance, forgetfulness must be annulled. The moment knowledge of one’s true origins from the heavenly realm are regained (Valentinians believe such knowledge lies dormant in humanity) error ceases to exist as it has no root. As Savior, Jesus brings a way that is truth and knowledge to awaken within humanity awareness of its identity as children of God. The Savior does this as speech, in that the Word teaches; as Light, by enlightening the way; as fruit of the Father’s knowledge, by being eaten and the result is joy; as book by publishing the Father’s edict on the cross in being nailed to a tree, thus overcoming fear and offering life for many.

When Jesus calls them, the elect are brought back “into the Father, the Mother, Jesus of the infinite gentleness” (24,8), into the bosom which is the Holy Spirit. From a state of weary searching they attain a state of dynamic rest. The author plays with the external/internal dynamic of this search and muses out loud, “It is amazing that they were in the Father without knowing him, and that they were able to come forth by themselves, inasmuch as they were not able to perceive or recognize the one in whom they were” (22:27-34).

The Savior changes an external search for knowledge into recognition by the saved that the Father contains the movement from ignorance to knowledge. This transformation eventually collapses a distinction between external and internal spheres. Because the Savior has become incarnate and has died on the cross in the external (cosmic) sphere, it ceases to exist. Thus, what happens at the end of the process becomes what exists implicitly in the Father at the beginning. The rest attained by enlightened ones at the end is what was in the Father’s thought from the beginning.

However, collapse of the material realm does not mean it is disparaged. References to the name of the Father being “on their heads” likely refers to baptism. A reference to Christ anointing “with the ointment” the “ones he brings back” alludes to an anointing ritual. Allusive references to sacraments fit within a sermon.

Towards the end of the sermon, hearers are exhorted to be concerned about the Father of the all and the true brothers. The Savior is a way for the lost, knowledge for those who were ignorant, a discovery for those who were searching and a support for those who were wavering. Listeners are to speak of the truth with searchers, strengthen the feet of those who stumble, feed the hungry, give rest to the weary and awaken those who sleep. Using imagery of an alluring fragrance, the children are drawn back to the Father. The sermon concludes with images of unity and rest.

The Gospel of Truth is a profound meditation on Jesus’ saving function. It challenges our ideas that Valentinian Gnostics had no sacraments and that they were elites uninterested in the welfare of the community. Even if it isn’t in the canon of the New Testament, if we let it speak for itself, we can experience something of the diverse voices of early Christianities in the period of Christian Origins.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

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