The Gnostic Texts

(If you want to skip the introduction and just read the Gnostic texts themselves, you’ll find a list of links to them below.)

The Gnostic texts are the scriptures that were written and used by Gnostic Christians in late antiquity (the first few centuries AD/CE). Those groups also used some of the texts that would later make their way into the official New Testament, such as the writings attributed to the apostles Paul and John, but the scriptures that we today call “Gnostic texts” are the ones that were only used by the Gnostics and were written by them to articulate a distinctively Gnostic perspective on the world and salvation. These texts are literary expressions of a remarkable spiritual vision that continues to inspire people today, almost two millennia after they were written.

Before going any further, let’s make sure that we’re on the same page with regard to what “scripture” is. Bentley Layton, one of the luminaries of the scholarly study of Gnosticism in the latter half of the twentieth century, has an excellent definition: scripture is “written religious literature that members of a religion or group consider authoritative in matters such as belief, conduct, rhetoric, or the running of practical affairs.”[1] That’s the function that the Gnostic texts served in the communities that originally wrote and used them.

Most of the Gnostic texts that we possess today were lost in the figurative sands of time and the literal sands of the Egyptian desert until their rediscovery in the mid-twentieth century. They largely belong to a collection that modern scholars call the “Nag Hammadi Library” after the Egyptian town closest to where the texts were found buried in a clay jar. Although the Nag Hammadi Library contains an assortment of philosophically and mythologically related texts, it wasn’t a “Gnostic Bible” or anything of the sort, because no official canon of Gnostic scriptures existed among any Gnostic group that we know of in antiquity.[2]

The Gnostic texts were originally written in Greek, the same language as the early Christian texts that would eventually make their way into the New Testament.[3] Today, however, the versions we possess are almost all translations into Coptic, a version of the ancient Egyptian language written in Greek characters rather than hieroglyphs.[4] Most of the Gnostic texts were originally written in the second and third centuries AD.[5]

Many of the Gnostic texts are attributed to Jesus’s apostles and other important figures from Christian and Jewish tradition. As with some of the New Testament scriptures that bear the names of such figures, however, it’s almost impossible that any of the Gnostic texts were the work of their alleged authors. Jesus’s apostles would have been dead by the time the Gnostic scriptures were written, and it’s highly unlikely that any of them would have theologically endorsed the beliefs that the Gnostics (or other groups of Christians from the second and third centuries) placed on their lips. Like parts of the New Testament, the Gnostic texts should be considered pseudonymous – the work of later, anonymous Christian authors who were writing in what they saw as the legitimate apostolic tradition but ultimately weren’t who they claimed to be.[6]

Without further ado, here are some of the Gnostic texts themselves, in English:

• The Secret Book of John: Perhaps the quintessential Gnostic text, the Secret Book of John claims to give its readers a front-row seat to what took place in Heaven prior to creation, the tragic creation of the world by a monstrous pseudo-god, and the true God’s attempts to save the sparks of divinity that were trapped on earth. Approximately 8,000 words plus a brief introduction.

• The Reality of the Rulers: A text that recounts and interprets episodes from the Gnostic creation myth that illustrate the character of the demonic “archons” or “rulers.” Assumes prior knowledge of the Gnostic creation myth. Approximately 3,000 words plus a short introduction.

• The Gospel of Philip: A set of Gnostic interpretations of Jesus’s teachings and later Christian traditions such as the sacraments, and which contains some of the most frequently-quoted passages in Gnostic literature. Approximately 8,500 words plus a short introduction.

• The Gospel of Thomas: This Gnostic or at least proto-Gnostic gospel is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus that try to point the reader toward mystical union with Christ and thereby salvation. Approximately 5,000 words plus a short introduction.


[1] Layton, Bentley. 1987. The Gnostic Scriptures. Doubleday. p. xvii.

[2] Ibid. p. xi.

[3] Robinson, James M. 2008. “Preface.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. xi.

[4] Robinson, James M. (ed.). 1990. The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume. Harper San Francisco. p. 13.

[5] Robinson, James M. 2008. “Preface.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. xi.

[6] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 9-11, 30-31.