Nag Hammadi and the Gospel Tradition

Written by Christopher Tuckett Reviewed By Edwin Yamauchi

Christopher Tuckett, Lecturer in NT Studies at Manchester, has undertaken the ambitious study of analysing a great mass of parallels to the synoptic gospels found in the Coptic Nag Hammadi tractates and the related Berlin Codex (8502). He excludes from his study The Gospel of Thomas (Nag Hammadi Codex II, tractate 2) inasmuch as it has been the subject of numerous comparisons.

The original stimulus for the project came from the contention of J. M. Robinson and H. Koester that The Gospel of Thomas contains primitive traditions similar to the hypothetical Quelle which underlies the gospels of Matthew and Luke. For the most recent expositions by these scholars see J. M. Robinson, ‘The Nag Hammadi Library and the Study of the New Testament’, and H. Koester, ‘Three Thomas Parables’, in The New Testament and Gnosis, ed. A. H. B. Logan and A. J. M. Wedderburn (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1983), pp. 1–8, 195–203; H. Koester, ‘Gnostic Sayings and Controversy Traditions in John 8:12–59’, and J. M. Robinson, ‘On Bridging the Gulf from Q to the Gospel of Thomas (or Vice Versa)’, in Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity, ed. C. W. Hedrick and R. Hodgson, Jr (Peabody: Hendrikson, 1986), pp. 97–110, 127–175.

Tuckett found that The Apocryphon of James (1, 2) betrayed knowledge of the gospels of Matthew and Luke (p. 97). The text does contain a number of interesting independent sayings on such as a parable of dates, which the author does not consider ‘necessarily dominical’ (p. 89). On the other hand C. W. Hedrick, ‘Kingdom Sayings and Parables of Jesus in The Apocryphon of James: Tradition and Redaction’, NTS 29 (1983), pp. 1–24, has argued that this saying, along with others, fits the criteria for determining authentic sayings of Jesus.

Synoptic allusions in (The Gospel of Truth I, 3 and XII, 2) can be explained as due to dependence on Matthew (pp. 58, 68), as is also the case with The Apocryphon of John (II, 1; III, 1; IV, 1; BG 8502, 2) (p. 27). All the synoptic allusions in The Gospel of Philip (II, 3) can be traced to Matthew except for the reference to the Good Samaritan, which comes from Luke (pp. 74, 80). The Sophia of Jesus Christ (III, 3 and BG 8502, 3) is likewise dependent upon Matthew and Luke (p. 35).

Synoptic tradition in Authoritative Teaching (VI, 3) reflects a dependence on Matthew (p. 51), whereas The Concept of Our Great Power (VI, 4) betrays knowledge of Matthew and perhaps of Luke (p. 137). The Second Treatise of the Great Seth (VII, 2) is exceptional in betraying its dependence on Mark (15:21) in its reference to Simon of Cyrene (p. 124). The author argues that all of the synoptic material in the Apocalypse of Peter (VII, 3) (pp. 108, 117, 123), and also in The Teachings of Silvanus (VII, 4) (p. 46) can be explained on the basis of Matthew alone.

Melchizedek (IX, 1) betrays knowledge of Mark (p. 139), and The Testimony of Truth (IX, 3) depends upon Matthew and Luke (p. 144), as does also A Valentinian Exposition (XI, 2) (p. 83). The Interpretation of Knowledge (XI, 1) depends on Matthew (p. 145). The Gospel of Mary (BG 8502, 4) also relies on Matthew (p. 38).

The author’s search for pre-synoptic sources in the Nag Hammadi tractates turned out to be futile, as he discovered that allusions to synoptic materials were dependent upon the gospels in their present final form (p. 9). His repeated discovery that the tractates relied primarily on Matthew is consistent with the popularity of the first gospel among the early churches (p. 150).

Tuckett concludes:

One important, albeit negative, result of the analysis undertaken here is that there appears to be no evidence for the use of pre-synoptic sources by the authors of the texts studied. Insofar as they reflect synoptic tradition at all, the texts examined here all seem to presuppose one or more of the finished gospels of Matthew, Mark or Luke … there is also no evidence for the continuing survival and use of a Q source (or any other pre-redactional synoptic source) by Gnostic communities (p. 149).

His conclusion thus runs counter to the convictions of scholars such as Robinson and Koester. On Koester’s attempt to argue that The Dialogue of the Savior (III, 5) points to a common source similar to Q, which underlies parallels in The Gospel of Thomas, John, and 1 Cor., Tuckett points out that there are three sayings in the Dialogue which appear ‘to show clear knowledge of Matthew’s finished gospel’ (p. 130).

Inasmuch as decisions on NT allusions in the Nag Hammadi tractates are often based upon subjective judgments, we have probably not heard the last word on this subject. But we can be grateful to Tuckett for his labours, which pose a clear challenge to those who believe these texts contain traditions earlier than the canonical ones.


Edwin Yamauchi

Miami University, Oxford, Ohio