How the Gospel of Truth Depicts Paul's Secret Teaching: A Study in Second-Century Reception History

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This article shows that the Gospel of Truth (NHC I, 3), dense with allusions to sources now in the New Testament, most often explored for its resonances with Johannine literature, also offers significant evidence for second-century reception of Paul's letters, while highlighting poetic images often overlooked. Correlating the language and literary structure of such Pauline passages as 1 Cor 1-6 with the opening of the Gospel of Truth shows that the latter implicitly claims to reveal the secret and primordial "wisdom of God"that Paul declares he teaches only orally to initiates (1 Cor 2:6-7). Thus, this text exemplifies a kind of "heretical"reading that heresiologists like Irenaeus deplore, when, for example, he cites this very passage to complain that "each of (the heretics) declares that this 'wisdom' is whatever he invents (fictionem videlicet), so that sometimes they claim that the truth is in Valentinus, or in Marcion, or in someone else ..."(Haer. 3.2.1). Furthermore, this research suggests that the Gospel of Truth, narrating primordial creation, followed by a dramatic account of Christ's incarnation and redemption, claims to offer, as the "true gospel,"a spiritual interpretation that far transcends the brief kerygmatic version set forth in 1 Cor 15:1-3. Finally, I suggest, investigating the Gospel of Truth's interpretation of Paul's teaching (which here includes echoes of Ephesians and Colossians) invites us to recognize elements of Paul's letters most often overlooked. For, from patristic times to the present, exegetes who accept Irenaeus's insistence that Paul had no secret teaching have dismissed the apostle's emphatic claim that he did. Furthermore, those focused on dogmatic and ethical themes in Paul's letters often miss poetic and mythological language at play in sources like the Gospel of Truth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalHarvard Theological Review
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Religious studies


  • deutero-Paul
  • Gospel of Truth
  • heterodoxy
  • Irenaeus
  • Nag Hammadi
  • Pauline reception


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