The Gospel of Truth is one of the Gnostic writings discovered at Nag Hamadi.
Nag Hamadi is a location in Egypt where thirteen ancient books were found in 1945, and translations of these books were finally completed in the 1970s. Along with the Gospel of Truth, the Nag Hamadi library (as it has come to be called) also contains the more well-known Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.
The term Gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis, which simply means “knowledge.” (For instance, an agnostic is someone who claims to have no knowledge of God’s existence.) The Gnostics were a heretical branch of Christianity that taught that special knowledge was imparted to their leaders and that this special, secret, hidden knowledge was the true key to salvation. The Gnostics believed that this knowledge was not revealed in the canonical gospels or in the rest of the canonical writings of the New Testament but is revealed in the Gnostic writings, including the Gospel of Truth. According to Gnosticism, Christ came to save us from ignorance more than from the penalty of sin. The first line of the Gospel of Truth highlights this aspect of salvation: “The gospel of truth is joy to those who have received from the Father of truth the gift of knowing him by the power of the Logos” (tr. by Robert M. Grant)
The Gospel of Truth does not contain any firsthand accounts of Jesus’ life such as we find in the New Testament gospels, although it does use some similar language. For instance, the Gospel of Truth contains this description: “He labored even on the Sabbath for the sheep which he found fallen into the pit,” which seems to be a reference to Jesus’ healing of the man with a withered hand in Matthew 12:9–14. However, the passage goes on to put a Gnostic spin on it by saying, “He saved the life of that sheep, bringing it up from the pit in order that you may understand fully what that Sabbath is, you who possess full understanding.”
In another passage, the Gospel of Truth starts out with something that sounds very much like the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15:1–7: “He is the shepherd who left behind the ninety-nine sheep which had not strayed and went in search of that one which was lost. He rejoiced when he had found it.” But, once again, the Gospel of Truth expounds on the story in typical Gnostic fashion, inserting some esoteric knowledge that can only be understood by a select few: “For ninety-nine is a number of the left hand, which holds it. The moment he finds the one, however, the whole number is transferred to the right hand. Thus it is with him who lacks the one, that is, the entire right hand which attracts that in which it is deficient, seizes it from the left side and transfers it to the right. In this way, then, the number becomes one hundred. This number signifies the Father.”
The New Testament gospels give us eyewitness accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus. The Gospel of Truth gives us esoteric and mystical teaching about God and the world. Much of it is difficult to make any sense of.
The discovery of the Gospel of Truth and other ancient documents at Nag Hamadi has caused some people to question the validity of the canonical New Testament. Many reason that these early “Gnostic Christians” understood the original teachings of Jesus better than those who compiled the canonical New Testament. There is a rise of Gnosticism today, including a resurgence of Gnostic churches.
In the final analysis, the Gospel of Truth is written far later than the New Testament gospels and epistles. Most scholars put the date of composition of the Gospel of Truth between AD 140 and 180. The work was known to several of the early church fathers who rejected it.
While the Gnostic works from the Nag Hamadi library can give us valuable insight into the controversies and heresies in the early church, they cannot give us reliable information about the gospel—a gospel that not only informs us but offers forgiveness of sin to everyone who believes. “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13).