In 1945, an Arab peasant found a set of codices attributable to Gnostic Christians from the 3rd and 4th Century CE called the Nag Hammadi Library. Like other Gnostic Gospels, the collection found in Nag Hammadi provides alternate versions of Bible stories that defy the official canon of both the Catholic and Orthodox church. Among the collection is a gospel called the Testimony of Truth, which proclaims to reveal the truth of many of the Bible’s mysteries and challenges the nature of Christian faith.
The Testimony of Truth questions the virgin birth of Christ, martyrdom, and the nature of God and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Similar to the account of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, the Testimony of Truth’s telling of the Garden of Eden was omitted from the official canon. In this version of the story, the writer of the Gospel presents the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of knowledge as benevolent, while God is both jealous and manipulative.
Common in the Gnostic Gospels is the portrayal of the serpent as a paragon of truth and knowledge rather than a manifestation of evil and deception. Nowhere is that made more apparent than in the Testimony of Truth. This serpent is a liberator who wants to provide Adam and Eve with wisdom by encouraging them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. The creature is seen as a herald of enlightenment and truth, doing his best to fight back against a dictatorial deity.
God is portrayed as the villain. According to the Testimony of Truth, God is a jealous tyrant who wants to prevent humanity from gaining knowledge and is described as a "malicious grudger" who entraps Adam and Eve. He is omniscient and knows Adam will partake of the tree after he's forbidden to do so, but then casts him out of paradise for doing it.
Adam and Eve are thus not betrayers of God's trust and the originators of human sin, but rather the victims of a jealous and vindictive God.
The Testimony of Truth says of Christ’s birth:
John was begotten by the World through a woman, Elizabeth; and Christ was begotten by the world through a virgin, Mary. What is (the meaning of) this mystery? John was begotten by means of a womb worn with age, but Christ passed through a virgin's womb. When she had conceived, she gave birth to the Savior. Furthermore, she was found to be a virgin again. Why, then do you... err and not seek after these mysteries, which were prefigured for our sake?
The writer of this gospel questions whether a virgin truly bore Christ. The book directly criticizes a common Christian belief and questions the church's orthodoxy.
Stories of martyrs who sacrificed their lives for their belief in Christianity during periods of Roman persecution were common in the 1st through 3rd centuries CE, but the Gnostic text criticizes the concept and act of martyrdom.
The Testimony calls into question the wisdom of emulating Christ by sacrificing one’s self, describing it as an empty and futile attempt at redemption. The Testimony of Truth proclaims that even though martyrs think their sacrifice in the name of Jesus Christ will ensure salvation, they are mistaken. Anyone who belongs to Jesus will supposedly be saved during Earth's final days; thus the act of martyrdom is pointless.
A treasure trove of Gnostic Gospels, including the Testimony of Truth, were discovered in upper Egypt in 1945, but the story remained obscure until the discoverer himself decided to tell his story 30 years after.
Muhammad 'Alí Al-Sammán and his brother were digging for fertile soil when they found an earthenware jar filled with 13 papyrus books. They brought the books home, but left them to avenge their father's slaying. After doing so, they feared police would search their home while investigating the incident, so the brothers gave the books to a local priest who sold them through the black market.
By the 1950s, the books attracted the attention of the Egyptian government, who acquired them and stored them in Cairo’s Coptic Museum.