The Laughing Savior: The Discovery and Significance of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library
The story of the study of early Christianity since the 1930s is the story of great archaeological discoveries. The Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi, not far from Luxor in the Nile valley, take their place alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Manichaean texts found by Karl Schmidt in a Cairo antique shop in 1933 as among the major chance finds that have altered accepted views of the different traditions that helped to form Christianity in the early centuries AD.
Gnosticism (gnosis means “knowledge”) has been one of the most elusive problems in early Christian research. Between AD 130 and 180 a succession of brilliant teachers centered in Alexandria dominated Christian intellectual life. They had been preceded by at least two generations of teachers in Syria and Asia Minor who had reflected an earlier more Semitic and Jewish-Christian strain of Gnostic ideas. The Alexandrians, however, Basilides (flor. 130), Valentinus (flor. 140-160), and Heracleon (flor. 170-180) were among the pioneers of an authentic Gentile Christianity. They probed the deep questions of the purpose and origins of pain and evil and the meaning of life itself, questions which man has always asked and to which neither Jesus nor Paul had themselves given philosophically satisfactory answers. They produced the first works of Christian theology, and in their elaborate systems they attempted to find a place for all knowledge and experience both scriptural and pagan in a scheme of salvation centered on a divine figure, Christ. For them Christ was Saviour, Paul was the Apostle, but Plato was the Philosopher and Homer was the Poet. These latter were divinely inspired and their works also held the keys of knowledge for those who sought.
The Gnostic interpretation of Christianity, however, had little apparent connection with Biblical faith. Scripture was for simpletons. The earthly Jesus had even less place in their scheme of salvation than he did in Paul’s. Moses interpreted only the will of an inferior god, Jahwe. The Gnostics believed rather in a radical dualism that governed the relation between God and the world. God was separated from creation, which was the work of lesser, evil powers, who had no capacity to know God. Yet man’s inmost being belonged to the divine world. At some stage it had fallen into the visible world and had become imprisoned and drugged into slumber by its denizens. It could be freed only by accepting the call of a “divine messenger” (Christ) and thus enlightened would return to its heavenly home at the end of time. The Gnostics claimed to possess the secrets of that enlightenment. They claimed to have succeeded where the philosophers of their time had failed. “We alone know the necessity of birth and the ways by which man enters the world; and so being fully instructed we alone are able to pass through and beyond decay.” Knowledge was the liberating force. It did not “pass away” as Paul had accepted. It was the central factor in the new religion of Christianity beckoning mankind toward…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.