The sole surviving manuscript of the Gospel of Philip was discovered among the Nag Hammadi collection of writings. The thirteen codices that constitute this ancient collection were discovered at Nag Hammadi (ancient Chenoboskion) in Egypt in late 1945 by a peasant farm worker named Mohammed Ali al-Samman, in a large sealed earthenware jar. The Gospel of Philip is the third tractate in what is conventionally numbered as the second codex. That codex contains seven tractates in total: The Apocryphon of John (II,1); The Gospel of Thomas (II,2); The Gospel of Philip (II,3); The Hypostasis of the Archons (II,4); On the Origin of the World (II,5); The Exegesis on the Soul (II,6); and The Book of Thomas the Contender (II,7). This is a miscellany of texts, and the various cosmologies, theologies, and ideologies they contain suggest that similarity of ideas was not the basis for the formation of the collection, nor does the context of the wider collection assist with determining the meaning of any individual text within codex II. Rather, each text is best interpreted as a separate entity. The Gospel of Philip commences on page 51, line 29 of codex II and concludes at page 86, line 19. There are various lacunae throughout the text. The title “Gospel of Philip” appears to be the result of two factors. First, Philip is the only named apostle in the text, and secondly the text contains a subscriptio or concluding note, which reads “the Gospel of Philip.” However, unlike other texts such as the immediately preceding Gospel of Thomas, the subscriptio is not set off as a separate paragraph with intervening white space. Instead, it is written as the final line of the text. This has led to the theory that this note concerning authorship was inserted at a later time than the writing of the rest of the text.

The manuscript of the Gospel of Philip is written in Coptic. (Coptic is the alphabetized form of the Egyptian language from around the first century C.E. that uses Greek script with the addition of six or seven Demotic letters which represent sounds present in the Egyptian language, but absent from Greek.) Broadly speaking, the Nag Hammadi tractates, including the Gospel of Philip, have strong affinities with the Sahidic form of the language, which was the most prominent Coptic dialect in pre-Islamic times. From the beginning of the fourth century a number of literary texts are either written in, or translated into this language. The Nag Hammadi manuscripts appear to date from around the middle of the fourth century. It is unclear whether the Gospel of Philip was originally composed in Coptic, or written in Greek and later translated into Coptic. The majority of scholars think that the text is more likely a translation from Greek. The argument is based upon the text's interest in the meaning and etymologies of Syrian words, suggesting that it was originally written in a non-Coptic speaking milieu. Given that other Nag Hammadi texts were translated from Greek, and that this language was the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean, Greek is seen as the likely language of composition. On the assumption of a pre-Coptic stage of the text, and based on an analysis of concepts within the Gospel of Philip, the date of composition is typically assigned to some time between the second half of the second century and the end of the third century. No further precision with dating is possible, since there are no citations or references to the Gospel of Philip in other early Christian writings prior to the fourth century. This may suggest that the text did not enjoy widespread circulation, or that it was designed for internal group use and not as an introduction to the group's beliefs for the uninitiated (cf. the Gospel of Truth). Another factor that may have limited the popularity of the text is the apparent lack of coherence of its disjointed and sometimes repetitive treatment of various themes. Although it is referred to as a gospel, it does not share the literary form of the four canonical gospels. Rather, it is a compendium of more than one-hundred short units or sayings. An exact numeration is problematic, since it is often unclear where one idea finishes and the next begins.

Location in Early Christianity.

A text described as a gospel and composed in the name of Philip is mentioned by the fourth-century Christian writer Epiphanius. In his Panarion he states:

"They [the Gnostics] quote from another gospel too, which was composed in the name of the holy disciple Philip, the following words:"

“The Lord revealed to me [Philip] what the soul must say in its ascent to heaven, and how it must answer each of the powers above:“I have recognized myself and gathered myself together from all sides and have not sown children to the Archon but have uprooted his roots and have gathered the scattered members and I know who you are; for I belong to those from above.”And so it is set free. But if it should prove that the soul has borne a son, it is kept beneath until it is in a position to recover its children and bring them back to itself. (Pan. 26.13.2f.)

The problem with these citations, which Epiphanius alleges are from the Gospel of Philip, is that although the ideas are not dissimilar from those in the text discovered at Nag Hammadi, none matches the wording of any portion of that text.

Labeling the text as “Gnostic” may still be helpful, notwithstanding the criticism that has been raised concerning the utility of the term. First, Epiphanius describes the Gospel of Philip as a text used by the Gnostics. Secondly, it contains features that may be understood broadly as “Gnostic,” as long as one does not see this as representing a single homogeneous or unified movement. In fact, the Gospel of Philip appears to reflect the thought of a particular religious system, Valentinianism, which itself may be grouped under the larger umbrella term “Gnosticism.” The eponymous founder of the movement, Valentinus, was active in Rome between 140–160 C.E. Descriptions of baptismal initiation ceremonies and other ritual practices make it clear that this was a religious group within Christianity. The movement appears to have evolved into two sub-branches, a western form described in the heresiological writings of Irenaeus and Hippolytus, and an eastern form known from primary sources including the Gospel of Philip. Across both systems there is an interest in protology and the structure of the Pleroma, a soteriological scheme dependent on the reunification of the soul, and detailed descriptions of ritual and sacramental practices. Each of these themes is present in the Gospel of Philip, even if their treatment is far from organized or sequential. Instead, the author moves between themes in a non-linear manner by employing various catchwords or associated ideas. Consequently, it is more helpful to trace individual themes.

Theological Ideas.

In terms of protology, the creation of the world is seen as fundamentally flawed. Hence the author states, “the world came about through a mistake. For he who created it wanted to create it imperishable and immortal. He fell short of attaining his desire. For the world never was imperishable, nor, for that matter, was he who made the world” (Gos. Phil. 75,2–9). Here the materiality of the world renders it inferior to higher realms, which are both immortal and imperishable. Treating what now appear to be opposing forces, such as life and death, as essentially separate entities is portrayed as a false understanding of their original unified state. Rather this is a false separation, which requires repair. Consequently entities such as light and darkness are seen as having been originally linked. “Light and Darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers of one another. They are inseparable. Because of this neither is the good good, nor evil evil, nor is life life, nor death death. For this reason each one will dissolve into its earliest origin. But those who are exalted above the world are indissoluble, eternal” (Gos. Phil. 53.14–23). The split that is seen as dividing substances that were original in union becomes part of the central soteriological vision of the text that resolves around the quest for the reunification of the soul.

Therefore, while there is no extended discussion of cosmic and earthly origins, brief comments in the text function as a necessary introduction to one of the central concerns of the Gospel of Philip, the restoration of the original human nature. The unified being is seen as combining male and female elements, but descent into the material world has ruptured that essential union. The result of separation is death. Hence the author states that, “if the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this, Christ came to repair the separation, which was from the beginning, and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation, and unite them” (Gos. Phil. 70.9–17). Adam is seen as a key figure in this soteriological scheme. He functions prototypically, with the derivation of Eve from him being the act that introduces death to the cosmos: “When Eve was still with Adam, death did not exist. When she was separated from him, death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more” (Gos. Phil. 70.9–17). Here salvation is understood not as rescue from sin, but as the reunification of being.

The aspiration for reunification leads into a description of ritual practices. Chief among these was the bridal chamber ceremony. This rite allowed for the repristination of soul, which had become tainted because of the separation of the sexes. Male and female aspects are seen as representing the spiritual person and the respective angelic counterpart, with whom there is a desire to be united in the Pleroma. Consequently, the text states that “males are they that unite with the souls that inhabit a female form…so if the image and the angel are united with one another, neither can any venture to go into the man or the woman” (Gos. Phil. 65.3–4, 24–26). Christ's salvific function is to repair this “gender-based” fracturing of the whole being, which was brought about through carnal intercourse. Reunification occurs in the bridal chamber. Thus, “the woman is reunited to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated” (Gos. Phil. 70.17–22).

It has been suggested that the Gospel of Philip offers two differing sequential patterns of initiation involving the bridal chamber. In the first of these typological descriptions, comparison is based upon progression into the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. Describing the three Temple buildings the author states, “Baptism is the holy building; redemption is the Holy of the Holy; the Holy of Holies is the bridal chamber” (Gos. Phil. 69.22–25). The second pattern (see Gos. Phil. 70.34—71.10) also involves a progression of soteriological rituals, but encompasses some additional stages and different language to describe such rites. These stages involve rebirth, anointing, redemption, and the bridal chamber. As the rebirth of Jesus is closely linked with him being “revealed in the Jordan” (Gos. Phil. 70.34; cf.), it appears that rebirth equates to baptism. This is a lower stage of the initiation process than the anointing. This point is made explicitly in the text when the author declares “the chrism is superior to baptism, for it is from the word chrism that we have been called Christians, certainly not because of the word baptism” (Gos. Phil. 74.12–15). Leaving aside the dubious etymology employed here, it appears that the author is arguing that adherents to the form of Christianity promoted in the text have experienced a higher level of spiritual participation than those who stop at the basic baptismal ritual. Bridal chamber theology, although not systematically explained, is the culmination of the sequential initiation process. Redemption may in fact not be a discrete stage, but something than occurs through undergoing the bridal chamber rite. The “marriage” envisaged is the reunification of the initiate (the male) with his angel (the female). Having undergone this process the reconstituted being must no longer be involved with physical sexual practices. In a broken passage it appears that those who undergo this ritual are seen as being divinized in some sense, and consequently are known as sons of the bridal chamber (Gos. Phil. 76.3–5).

Key Figures.

The most important character in the Gospel of Philip is Jesus. Both the names “Jesus” and “Christ” are fundamental for the text's Christology. In a theologically rich (and again confusing) reflection, the author states,

"“Jesus” is a hidden name, “Christ” is a revealed name. For this reason “Jesus” is not particular to any language; rather he is always called by the name “Jesus.” While as for “Christ,” in Syriac it is “Messiah,” in Greek it is “Christ.” Certainly all the others have it according to their own language. “The Nazarene” is he who reveals what is hidden. Christ has everything in himself, whether man, or angel, or mystery, and the Father (Gos. Phil. 56.3–15)."

Elsewhere, the text states that Jesus had three names “Jesus, the Nazorean, the Christ” (Gos. Phil. 62,8–9). Employing some dubious etymologies, the text notes that Messiah means both “Christ” and “measured.” It is concluded from this, in a broken paragraph, that “it is ‘the Nazarene’ and ‘Jesus’ who have been measured” (Gos. Phil. 62,16–17). The significance of this enigmatic and esoteric interpretation is not explained.

The Gospel of Philip also preserves fifteen sayings attributed to Jesus. Eight of these sayings are otherwise unattested, and while they have no claim to authenticity, some reflect key theological beliefs of the text that have been placed on the lips of Jesus. On the concept of reunification, Jesus teaches his disciples that “you who have joined the perfect light with the holy spirit, unite the angels with us, as being the images” (Gos. Phil. 58,10–14). After performing a type of sign-miracle where he mixes seventy-two colored dyes together which coalesce into white, Jesus describes himself with a self-referential Son of Man saying, “even so has the Son of Man come as a dyer” (Gos. Phil. 63,29–30). Again the meaning is not unpacked. Elsewhere in the text, it is God who is described as the dyer. God's dyeing appears to refer to the baptismal rite, which is seen as imparting immortality (Gos. Phil. 61,12–20). Jesus also appears to address the notion of the recovery of the soul's preterrestrial existence: “Blessed is he who is before he came into being. For he who is, has been and shall be” (Gos. Phil. 64,11–13).

Another key figure in the text is Mary Magdalene. She is first introduced in a list of three women named Mary, and she is distinguished by both being called “Magdalene” and “his companion.” Thus, the text states, “there were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary” (Gos. Phil. 59,6–11). The only other reference to Mary Magdalene in the text describes Jesus' practice of kissing her frequently. Although there are gaps in the text at the point at which this saying is recorded, the sense is reasonably clear and the reconstruction fairly certain.

"And the companion of the [Christ is] Mary Magdalene. [The Lord] loved her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her [mouth]. The rest of the [disciples…]. They said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” (Gos. Phil. 63.30–64.5)."

Such acts of kissing are not sexualized acts in the Gospel of Philip; rather, they function as part of a process by which some process of spiritual rebirth takes place for community members: “For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth” (Gos. Phil. 59.2–3). Therefore, through his act of kissing Mary Magdalene, Jesus may be declaring that he has restored her angelic part and consequently she is the first to have her being reunified.

The figure from whom the gospel takes its name also makes a cameo appearance.

"Philip the apostle said, “Joseph the carpenter planted a garden because he needed wood for his trade. It was he who made the cross from the trees which he planted. His own offspring hung on that which he planted. His offspring was Jesus, and the planting was the cross.” But the Tree of Life is in the middle of the Garden. However, it is from the olive tree that we got the chrism, and from the chrism, the resurrection. (Gos. Phil. 73.8–19)."

This passage contains a mixing of motifs incorporating Edenic images, reflections on crucifixion and resurrection, and reference to the group's ritual practice involving anointing. Here the group's exegetical practices are partially revealed. Biblical themes are interwoven, and loaded with heavily allegorized meanings, which are seen as legitimizing community practices.

Significance.

The Gospel of Philip has been compared to a lightly edited notebook. Its lack of coherence and its failure to explain the meaning of most of its enigmatic sayings make it difficult to ascertain what is actually being described or taught at many points in the text. Despite these limitations, this is a fascinating text that gives some sense of the beliefs and ritual practices of at least one religious group who were broadly aligned with wider Valentinian outlooks. The bridal chamber ritual is a prime example of how the text's elusive descriptions seem to suggest quite opposite interpretations of the same rite. It can either be seen as the exchange of a sacred kiss between celibate members (Gos. Phil. 59.2–3), or as some type of sacramentalized intercourse shared by married community members who reunite their male and female parts (Gos. Phil. 65.19–27). The central interest on Jesus throughout the document suggests that the text is in origin a Christian composition, and not the product of later christianizing of some pre-formed cosmic myth. Therefore, the text is a highly interesting window on one type of early Christian piety.

[See also GOSPELS and NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY.]

Bibliography

  • Foster, Paul. “The Gospel of Philip.” In The Non-Canonical Gospels, edited by P. Foster, 68–83. London: Continuum, 2008.
  • Isenberg, Wesley W. “Philip, Gospel of.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by D.N Freedman, vol. 5, 312–313. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  • Layton, Bentley, ed. “The Gospel According to Philip.” Translated by W.W. Isenberg. In Nag Hammadi Codex II, 2–7, edited by B. Layton, 142–216. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1989.
  • Pearson, Birger A. Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
  • Thomassen, Einar. The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the “Valentinians.” Nag Hammadi and Manichaen Studies 60. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006.
  • Turner, Martha L. The Gospel According to Philip: The Sources and Coherence of an Early Christian Collection. Nag Hammadi and Manichaen Studies 38. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1996.
  • Wilson, Robert McL. The Gospel of Philip. London: A. R. Mowbray, 1962.

Paul Foster