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The Gnostic Secrets

The Laughing Savior: The Discovery and Significance of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library

by John Dart
Harper and Row, 154 pp., $7.95

The Nag Hammadi Library in English

edited by James M. Robinson
Harper and Row, 493 pp., $16.95

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 salvation.

So much was evident from the writings of the Church fathers, Irenaeus (flor. 185), Clement of Alexandria (flor. 190-200), and Hippolytus of Rome (flor. 200-225). Their works of refutation preserved long extracts of Gnostic treatises, but one could not be sure that the quotations were exact or in context. Until the end of World War II only eight complete Gnostic works were known, and two of these remained unpublished.

In December 1945, however, two peasants were digging fertilizer in a cemetery near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, not far from the original monastery set up by Pachomius in the reign of Constantine (circa AD 320). They came on a jar and broke it to examine its contents. Inside they found bits of yellow parchment, and looking further saw thirteen leather codices loosely bound together. They took them home and not for the first time the story becomes muddied by outside factors. The two peasants were involved in a blood feud with another family in the village. This preoccupation eventually led to their depositing their find for safety in the house of a local Coptic priest, but not before most of one codex had ended up in the kitchen stove.

News of the find gradually percolated to Cairo, and here John Dart’s book takes up the tale. He gives a splendid account of how and why it has taken twenty years for the Nag Hammadi to be made fully available to scholars. More than that, his book is an essential introduction to the study of Gnosticism. The author has done for the Nag Hammadi documents the same service as Edmund Wilson did for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One way or the other, a single codex containing five Nag Hammadi treatises reached the Coptic Museum in Cairo in October 1946. The director, M. Togo Mina, had the good fortune to know a young French scholar, Jean Doresse, who was studying Egyptology in Paris at the École des Hautes Études. In the autumn of 1947, Doresse arrived in Egypt with his wife, and the director showed his find to them. “He asked me if I could identify the contents of the pages,” Doresse said. “From the first few words, I could see that these were Gnostic texts….” It was the story of Karl Schmidt over again: spotting a single phrase gave the clue to a whole series of documents, only this time the texts were Gnostic and not Manichee.

Other codices had meantime been acquired by collectors in Cairo, and to their credit none of these seems to have behaved unreasonably. Had the Belgian antique dealer Albert Eid been able to interest the University of Michigan or the Bollingen Foundation in New York in 1949 with a codex containing the Gospel of Truth and other Gnostic works, publication would have been speeded up by years. As it was, first the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war, then the death of Togo Mina in 1949, then the appointment of Doresse to a post in Ethiopian archaeology conspired with long-drawn-out negotiations with dealers to prevent the codices surfacing for the scholarly world. Only in 1952 was Eid’s codex purchased by the Jung Institute in Zurich and serious research on its contents begun.

Once again political events, this time the Suez War, intervened. Not for another decade, after the famous (or infamous!) Messina conference in 1966 on the origins of Gnosticism, was the world of Western scholarship truly aroused to the importance of the discoveries. Then at last resources were pooled. Photographs of all thirteen codices were provided by the Coptic Museum at Cairo. A team was coordinated largely through the persistence of enthusiasm of Professor James M. Robinson, Director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate School in California, and the work of study and translation went forward.

Dart’s book is far more than an exciting archaeological narrative. The trouble at the Messina conference was that too many old hobby horses alleging the Iranian and other Oriental origins of Gnosticism were paraded. Once again, study seemed to evaporate into myth. Dart, however, following a clue dropped long ago by Rudolf Bultmann, emphasizes the unmistakable Jewish background of the Gnostic movement. In so doing he opens up new vistas of research into the nature of late Judaism and Christianity in the first three centuries.

He also builds on Hans Jonas’s study, The Gnostic Religion.* Jonas, too, was a pupil of Bultmann, and his fine study, though based on research carried out during the 1930s, has been successfully updated as more and more has emerged from the Nag Hammadi finds. Jonas, while emphasizing the Jewish background of Gnosis, had also seen the connections between Gnostic writings and pagan Gnostic (Hermetic) works such as the Poimandres. Now that Hermetic writings have been discovered at Nag Hammadi, his perception has been rewarded. He also looked forward from Gnosticism to Manichaeism, and once again archaeology, this time in the form of the Cologne Papyrus (published by Koenen and Merkelbach in 1970), has vindicated him. Mani rejected the teachings of the Baptist sect in which he grew up and accepted instead the radical dualism of third-century Gnosticism as the basis of his creed. Jonas’s work has, if anything, gained in stature by the publication of the Nag Hammadi documents.

To this reviewer, the approach to Gnosticism via late Judaism has always seemed the most promising. No development within Christianity down to AD 200 could be conceived that lacked a synagogue background. Gnosticism was no exception. The assumptions of Gnostic thought were Jewish, derived from speculations on Genesis and the Book of Daniel, while their vocabulary owed much to Judaism also. The scene, for instance, of the Secret Teaching of John, three copies of which were included in the Nag Hammadi library, is set on the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem. The disciples of Jesus are upbraided by a Pharisee for “deserting the traditions of their fathers.” That those fathers and their traditions were accepted as Jewish can be seen from the part that Wisdom (Hebrew “Hokhmah”), archons with Hebrew or Aramaic names, and Adam himself play in Gnostic legend.

Christianity did not enter a world existing in a religious vacuum. In Palestine, the Dead Sea Scrolls enable Jesus’ mission to be placed within the context of current Jewish apocalyptic and messianic hopes. One can see the Scrolls, the mission of John the Baptist, and Jesus’ ministry as a progression and development from current movements within Palestinian Judaism.

Judaism, of course, was not confined to Palestine. One of the effects of the conquests of Alexander the Great had been to open the whole Mediterranean world to Jewish migration. By the first century AD there was hardly a city from Babylon in the east to Carthagena in the west that did not have its Jewish community. These Jews shared some of the messianic aspirations of their Palestinian brethren, but they interpreted them within the context of the Greek civilization that surrounded them. They accepted the Greek language and accepted also the idea of a transcendent God and an other-worldly goal of salvation.

Concepts of God were spiritualized. Like Zeus, God became thought of as the single uncreated Being, Father of All, who created the universe through His Wisdom and Power. Jahwe, on the other hand, found himself demoted to the level of an Archon and in the Testimony of Truth, quoted aptly by Dart, one sees how he comes in for severe criticism for his treatment of Adam, and is called an “envious slanderer” and a blind, ignorant “God.” Indeed, despite rabbinic discouragement, the Genesis narrative of creation became the subject of intense speculation among educated Jews. So orthodox a scholar as the historian Josephus claimed, for instance (Antiquities 1.2.3), in 93 AD that Adam had given dominion over the stars and knowledge of the zodiac to his son Seth. The sect whose library was found at Nag Hammadi seems to have been called Sethites. One can see in the person of Philo of Alexandria (circa 20 BC to AD 40) how a Hellenistic Jew, loyal to his nation, sought a synthesis between speculative Judaism and current Greek philosophy, in which he asserted that the world had been created by angelic powers subject to God’s Word and in which man’s salvation was seen as the ascent of the illumined and instructed soul toward God.

Hellenistic Judaism was an extraordinarily vigorous religion, but its adherents were not wholly satisfied with an impersonal Wisdom or Word as agent of the Father. They looked for a visible Saviour who could combine these characteristics with the messianic tradition. Paul’s preaching in the synagogues of the Dispersion had an electrifying effect. The Easter story of the Risen Saviour, assimilated by Paul to a heavenly Being, the “first-born of all creation” (Proverbs 8:22) of the Wisdom literature, exactly met their hopes. “We are kings,” exclaimed the Corinthians (I Cor 4:8). Freedom and knowledge were theirs.

This ecstatic sense of freedom may have contributed to the sexual license that characterized some of the Gnostic sects. There is little to be said for the Secret Gospel of Mark, discovered by Morton Smith, as belonging to the authentic Gospel at any time, but by the end of the first century the Book of Revelation (2:20) leaves no doubt about the existence of libertine Jewish-Christian sects in some of the cities of western Asia Minor. From that moment, sexuality was the counterpart of strict abstinence among Gnostic sects, exemplified in particular by the Carpocratians of Alexandria. Irenaeus says of these that they believed that “no one could be saved except by passing through every action…. At every sinful and infamous deed an angel was present” (Against the Heresies 1.31.2). The Gnostics, therefore, provided a doctrinal justification for libertine actions, seeing these as the ultimate freedom, the final renunciation of the shackles of the Law. Wherever it was preached the power of the name of Jesus was acknowledged as extraordinary. The Christ of the Christians became the catalyst of previous Jewish speculation. The Nag Hammadi library demonstrates how these hopes and speculations throughout the Dispersion were expressed in Gnosticism, first Jewish and then Christian.

There is a final, uncovenanted bonus. One of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Gospel of Thomas, proved to be the complete version of fragments of sayings (Logia) attributed to Jesus that had been found among papyri at Oxyrhynchus in 1897. These sayings had sometimes been given a Gnostic slant, but they included most of the Parables of the Kingdom contained in Matthew Chapter 13, only so worded as to suggest that they came from a different source. Grounds exist for believing that the core of the Gospel of Thomas is indeed an early Aramaic-based Gospel, something like the “Q” (Quelle) text on which the three Synoptic Gospels were based. The circulation of this Jewish-Christian text among Gnostics in the Nile Valley is a further indication of the movement’s Jewish background.

James Robinson’s work collects in one volume translations of all the writings found at Nag Hammadi, and he himself has been mainly responsible for their editing. It is not, however, a work to plunge into. The introduction tells of the discovery and research bringing the story down to the assembly of the research team of thirty-one scholars who have had the responsibility of editing individual documents. There is a one-page description of each text, before each translation. Here one feels the editor must have faced a difficulty. The translations already take up nearly 450 pages of print, and yet to be intelligible to the ordinary reader, they require a considerable knowledge about Gnosticism itself. To describe it as a “withdrawal from involvement in the world” begs too many questions in so prosperous an age as the century of the Antonines and Severi (AD 138-235). The Gnostics experienced joy in their lives. “The Gospel of Truth is joy for those who have received the grace of knowing from the Father of Truth…he whom they call ‘the Saviour’…,” they declared. Far more were included in the possibility of salvation than in orthodox Christianity of the day. The three grades of salvation—“ransom,” “salvation,” and “redemption”—opened the gates wide. Theirs was a self-confident religion. “A Gentile does not die, because he has never lived,” they proclaimed. We have left Judaism behind us! The layman, too, may find himself baffled by headings such as “Trimorphic Protennoia.” Something on the lines of Werner Foerster’s Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts (Vol. II) was needed to guide the reader through the translated texts. James Robinson administers his medicine in stiff doses.

This admitted, the study of the texts is indeed rewarding. As the editor states, rarely has a generation of students had such an opportunity. For the first time non-Christian Gnostic works can be read alongside Christian works of the school of Valentinus just as they were placed next to each other in the fourth-century Sethite codex. One can read of how the Divine Saviour stood by and laughed at his enemies, while they crucified Simon of Cyrene in his place—the “Laughing Savior” that Dart took as the title of his book. The two studies complement each other, and together they put second-century Christianity in an entirely new light. Alongside the “Great Church” with its reliance on tradition and on a morality based on Pharisaism were forms of Christianity that reflected the revolutionary nature of the message of Jesus and Paul. “Christ made all things new”—Marcion’s cry was also that of the Gnostics. Gnosis was real self-understanding, the gateway to salvation and the overthrow of hitherto dominant demonic powers.

If Gnosticism ultimately failed to conquer the Mediterranean world, it left a considerable legacy. In the third century, the theology of Origen (185-254), and in particular his exegesis of Scripture, owed much to the Gnostics. In popular piety, the Gnostic legend of the Assumption of the Virgin survived Egyptian Monophysitism in the sixth century to find its way into Western Europe during the early Middle Ages and since 1950 to be elevated to the rank of Roman Catholic doctrine. The Gnostic Birth Narratives, with their romances of Jesus’ family and childhood, provided the material for many a medieval Byzantine painting. European religious life and art would have been poorer without the Gnostics. There is an element of Gnosticism in mystics such as Simone Weil, and even in some of the reflections on sexuality in our own day. “To know thyself” may mean to draw on some of the experiences and insights of second-century Gnostics. John Dart, Jean Doresse, and James Robinson have opened the secrets of a religion which the Gnostics themselves had hoped would be kept sealed until the Last Day.

  1. *

    The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity (Beacon, 1958; second, revised edition Peter Smith, 1977).

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