The Other Christians

Elaine Pagels
Elaine Pagels; drawing by David Levine

In 1897 two British scholars, B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt, excavated an ancient garbage dump at the site of the Greco-Roman town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt (modern el-Bahnasa), and discovered the largest cache of ancient papyri ever found anywhere. Publication of these papyri began in 1897 and is still going on. The very first to be published, called P. Oxy. 1, consists of a single leaf from a papyrus codex datable to as early as the second century and inscribed in Greek on both sides with what Grenfell and Hunt referred to as “Sayings of our Lord.” Another papyrus fragment with additional “new sayings of Jesus” was published in 1904, together with eight small fragments of “a lost gospel.” These papyri, very fragmentary, were duly noted by scholars and included in standard collections of New Testament “apocryphal” writings, but no notice was taken of them by the public.

All that changed in 1945, when some Egyptian farmers were digging for fertilizing nitrates in the desert at the base of a cliff some six miles from the modern town of Nag Hammadi. They dug up a large earthenware jar containing twelve leather-bound papyrus codices, plus part of a thirteenth, all of them written in Coptic, the most recent form of the ancient language of the Pharaohs. It is written in a modified Greek alphabet and includes in its vocabulary numerous Greek words. These fourth-century books, containing forty-six different treatises of varying lengths, most of them hitherto unknown, make up what is now called the Nag Hammadi Library. Most of them are “gnostic” writings deemed heretical by ancient church fathers. Publication of these writings began in the 1950s.

The second tractate of Nag Hammadi Codex II consists of a complete collection of some 114 sayings ascribed to Jesus, with the title “The Gospel According to Thomas.” The publication of this gospel in 1959 made it possible for scholars to show that the papyri from Oxyrhynchus are from three different Greek copies of the Gospel of Thomas, whose complete text is now extant only in the form of the Coptic translation we have in the Nag Hammadi collection. This “lost gospel” has attracted an enormous amount of attention, not only on the part of scholars but of the general public as well. It has been translated into several languages around the world.

The opening passage tells us something of the content of Thomas, which, unlike other gospels, consists only of sayings, with no narratives of Jesus’ deeds, death, and resurrection1 :

These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down. And he said, “Whoever finds the interpretation of these sayings will not experience [lit. ‘taste’] death.”

Jesus said, “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he…

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