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The Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip was almost completely unknown from Late Antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and down to the present day, until it was discov­ ered as one of the documents in the Nag Hammadi Library (see p. 19). Although it is easily recognized as a Gnostic work, the book is notoriously difficult to understand in its details. In part this is due to the form of its composition: it is not a narrative Gospel of the type found in the New Testament nor a group of self-contained sayings like the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. It is instead a collection of mystical reflections that have evidently been excerpted from previously existing sermons, treatises, and theological meditations, brought together here under the name of Jesus’ disciple Philip. Since these reflections are given in relative isolation, without any real narrative context, they are difficult to interpret. There are, at any rate, extensive uses of catchwords to organize some of the material, and several of the principal themes emerge upon a careful reading. One of the clearest emphases is the contrast between those who can understand and those who cannot, between knowledge that is exoteric (available to all) and that which is esoteric (available only to insiders), between the immature outsiders (regular Christians, called “Hebrews”) and the mature insiders (Gnostics, called “Gentiles”). Those who do not under­ stand, the outsiders with only exoteric knowledge, err in many of their judgments—for example, in taking such notions as the virgin birth (v. 17) or the resurrection of Jesus (v. 21) as literal statements of historical fact, rather than symbolic expressions of deeper truths. Throughout much of the work the Christian sacraments figure promi­ nently. Five are explicitly named: baptism, anointing, eucharist, salvation, and bridal chamber (v. 68). It is hard to know what deeper meaning these rituals had for the author (especially the “bridal chamber,” which has stirred considerable debate among scholars), or even what he imagined them to entail when practiced literally. It is difficult to assign a date to this work, but it was probably compiled during the third century, although it draws on earlier sources.

Translation of David Cartlidge and David Dungan, Documents for the Study of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994) 56–75; used with permission.

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