Coptic refers to the language and culture of Christians in Egypt from approximately the second century A.D. until today. Coptic is the final stage in the development of the ancient Egyptian language; Coptic is written in the Greek alphabet and incorporates many Greek words. Before its use as a popular language gradually died out after the Moslem conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, Coptic was the language of a rich but little-known literary and liturgical corpus of which the Nag Hammadi manuscripts are one of the best-known representatives.

Gnostic (pronounced “nostik”) refers to the beliefs and practices of a variety of religious groups that relied on secret knowledge revealed only to a select few. (Gnosis is the Greek word for this non-empirical insight.) Gnostic teachers frequently combined spiritual wisdom from several sources and traditions, including Christian, Jewish, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, or Iranian thought, into syncretistic systems reserved for their own devotees. In these systems, physical and historical ways of understanding reality and human experience were rejected in favor of spiritual and mystical modes of understanding. Some scholars reserve the term “Gnostic” for the developed systems of heretical Christian teachers of the second century A.D. such as Basilides and Valentinus. Others use the term “gnosis” (note the lower case “g”) as a general term. It is important to remember that “Gnostic” does not always mean “heretical,” since the definition of orthodoxy was an ongoing process that was not complete when Gnostic ideas and practices flourished.


Codex (plural codices) is the Latin word for “book.” In English it has come to refer to handmade books, of which the Nag Hammadi Codices are among the oldest surviving examples.


Page references are to the hardcover edition of The Gnostic Gospels.


In the scholarly literature devoted to the study of the Nag Hammadi Codices, a system using Roman numerals for each codex followed by an Arabic number in italics for the tractate within that codex is generally accepted. Most scholars add the page and line number of the original Coptic manuscript after the codex and tractate reference, while others omit the tractate reference at times. Thus II,1: 11, 18–22 is a reference to lines 18–22 on page 11 in the first tractate of Nag Hammadi Codex II. This tractate is known as the Apocryphon of John.


Her use of the term “Gospels” both in the title of her book and the text itself is only partially justified by the use of Gnostic writings such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of the Egyptians (once mistakenly referred to as the Gospel to the Egyptians), and The Gospel of Truth. She uses the other Gnostic writings and even the writings of the Church Fathers more than she uses the Gnostic Gospels. Her publishers may have had something to do with the provocative use of the term “Gnostic Gospels” in the title of the book.