Some thirty years ago, near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, an Arab peasant discovered about fifty-two ancient papyrus texts, including gospels and other secret writings attributed to Jesus and his disciples. In addition there were sayings, poems, myths, philosophic treatises, and instructions for magical or mystical practice—all of them Coptic translations of Greek texts. Some, apparently, contain material that derives from the first and second centuries of the Christian era.
The discoveries at Nag Hammadi demonstrate that what we call Christianity—and what we identify as early Christian tradition—presents only a small selection of early sources, chosen from among dozens of others. Why were writings such as those discovered at Nag Hammadi excluded from orthodox tradition and banned as “heresy”? What made gnostic views so dangerous that leaders of the orthodox church condemned them as an “abyss of madness and blasphemy against Christ”?
Those who wrote and circulated these texts did not think of themselves as heretics, but as Christians who possessed secret knowledge (gnosis) concerning the meaning of Jesus’ life and teaching that was hidden from the majority of believers. Because of their claim to higher knowledge, they came to be called gnostics (literally, “those who know”)
From ancient orthodox polemics, we have long known that the gnostics challenged doctrines which, in the second century, came to be held as sacred in early Christian creeds. Bishop Irenaeus, who supervised the church in Lyon (c. 180), and wrote the Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Gnosis, tells us, for example, that they challenged the belief that Christ rose bodily from the dead, and the belief in “one God.” Traditionally, historians have told us that the orthodox objected to gnostic views for religious and philosophical reasons. Certainly they did: yet investigation of the newly discovered gnostic sources suggests another dimension of the controversy. It suggests that these religious debates—specifically, the questions of the resurrection and of the nature of God—had social and political implications that were crucial to the development of Christianity as an institutional religion.
Consider, for example, the political implications of the doctrine of resurrection. The statement that “Jesus Christ rose from the grave” may be the most fundamental element of Christian faith: certainly it is the most radical. For Jesus’ followers, his resurrection was the turning point in world history, the sign of its coming end. Orthodox Christians since then have declared in the apostles’ creed that Jesus of Nazareth, “crucified, dead, and buried,” was raised” on the third day.” At first, according to the New Testament gospel of Luke, the disciples themselves, in their astonishment and terror, immediately assumed that they were seeing his ghost. But Jesus challenged them: “Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see that I have” (Luke 24.36-43). Since they remained incredulous, he asked for something to eat; as they watched in amazement, he ate a piece of broiled fish.
The North African theologian Tertullian (c. 190), writing …