Documents for the Study of the Gospels

By David R. Cartlidge; David L. Dungan | Go to book overview

The Gospel of Philip

Introduction: The Gospel of Philip, virtually unknown until 1946, was discovered in the same collection as the Gospel of Thomas. Certain gnostic Christians in Egypt and Syria considered these two gospels, along with the Secret Sayings of the Savior, recorded by Matthias, to be three especially sacred writings, containing nothing less than the secret wisdom that Jesus entrusted to Philip, Thomas, and Matthias, as one gnostic source relates:

When Jesus had finished speaking these words, Philip arose quickly, letting fall
to earth the book he was holding, for it was he who wrote down all that Jesus
said and all that he did. Philip stepped forward and said, “My Lord, is it to
me alone that you have entrusted the care of this word, so that I am to write
all that we shall say and all that we shall do?” … Jesus answered, “Listen,
blessed Philip, so that I may tell you. It is to you, as well as to Thomas and
to Matthias that I, by the authority of the First Mystery, have entrusted the
writing of all that I shall say and that I shall do, as well as all that you shall
see … (Pistis Sophia 42).

The Gospel of Philip contains allusions to the Gospels and Letters of the New Testament. This indicates that these gnostic Christians knew and used these writings, although they considered them to be only the ordinary, common tradition accessible to all Christians, including those who were only “infants” in terms of their spiritual development. But the gnostics valued the Gospels of Philip, Thomas, and Matthias as the gospels of an esoteric tradition, which could be communicated only to those who were spiritually “mature.” For to be “mature” meant to be “initiated” into gnostic tradition (the same Greek word, teleios, can be translated either way).

The Gospel of Philip is neither a narrative gospel, like those included in the New Testament, nor a collection of sayings, like the Gospel of Thomas. Instead it contains a series of short meditations on mystical subjects. The present form of this manuscript comes from a fourth-century Coptic text, although apparently it is related to a second-century Greek “Gospel of Philip,” from which only a fragment remains (Epiphanius, Pan. 26.13.2–3). Commentators disagree on the question of whether the present manuscript preserves the original form of that earlier Gospel; it may have been abridged or amplified.

In one sense, it is paradoxical that the gnostics wrote gospels at all. The Valentinian gnostics, from whom the Gospel of Philip comes, claimed that truth could not be communicated in writing, but only in “living speech” to those who were ready to receive it (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1–3). This may explain why this Gospel is written in strange, symbolic language: it was

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