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The Discovery of the Gnostic Gospels

I

In December 1945, in the Upper Egyptian desert, an Arab peasant made an astonishing discovery of thirteen papyrus books—a discovery that is radically changing our understanding of the early Christians, their church, and their beliefs. The circumstances of this find were for years obscure, perhaps because the discovery was accidental, and its sale on the black market illegal. Even the identity of the discoverer remained unknown. According to one rumor, he had found the books near the town of Nag Hammadi at the Jabal al-Tarif, a mountain honeycombed with more than 150 caves. Originally natural, some of these caves were cut and painted, and used as grave sites as early as the sixth dynasty, some 4,300 years ago.

Thirty years later the discoverer himself, Muhammad ‘Ali al-Samman, told what happened.1 He and his brothers had gone out to the Jabal to dig for sabakh, a soft soil they used to fertilize their crops. Digging around a huge boulder, they hit a red earthenware jar, almost a meter high. Muhammad ‘Ali hesitated to break the jar, considering that a jinn, or spirit, might live inside. But thinking that it might also contain gold, he raised his mattock, smashed the jar, and discovered inside the thirteen papyrus books, bound in leather. When he returned to his home in al-Qasr, Muhammad ‘Ali dumped the books and loose papyrus leaves on the straw piled on the ground next to the oven. Muhammad’s mother, ‘Umm-Ahmad, admits that she burned much of the papyrus in the oven along with the straw she used to kindle the fire.

A few weeks later, as Muhammad ‘Ali tells it, he and his brothers avenged their father’s death by murdering the man who had killed him, Ahmed Isma ‘il. The brothers “hacked off his limbs…ripped out his heart, and devoured it among them, as the ultimate act of blood revenge.”2 Fearing that the police investigating the murder would search his house and discover the books, Muhammad ‘Ali asked the local priest, al-Qummus Basiliyus ‘Abd al Masih, to keep at least one of them, perhaps more. During the time that Muhammad ‘Ali and his brothers were being interrogated, Raghib Andrawus, a local history teacher, had seen one of the books, and suspected that it might be of value. He got hold of one of them from the priest and sent it to a friend in Cairo to find out its worth.

Some of the manuscripts were soon being sold on the black market by antiquities dealers in Cairo. Egyptian government officials eventually bought one and confiscated ten and a half of the thirteen leather-bound books (or “codices”) and deposited them in the Coptic Museum there. But a large part of the thirteenth codex, containing five extraordinary texts, was smuggled out of Egypt and offered for sale in America. News of this codex soon reached Professor Gilles Quispel, a distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht, in the Netherlands, who urged the Jung Foundation in Zürich to buy the codex. After it was purchased, he discovered that some pages were missing, and flew to Cairo in the spring of 1955. There he borrowed photographs of some of the texts from the Coptic Museum and hurried back to his hotel to decipher them.

Tracing out the first line, Quispel was astonished, then incredulous, to read: “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.” Quispel knew that his colleague Henri-Charles Puech, using notes from another French scholar, Jean Doresse, had identified these opening lines with fragments of a Greek Gospel of Thomas discovered in the 1890s. But the discovery of the whole text raised new questions: Did Jesus have a twin brother, as this text implies? Could the text be an authentic record of Jesus’ saying? According to its title, it contained the Gospel According to Thomas; yet, unlike the gospels of the New Testament, this text identified itself as a secret gospel.

Quispel also recognized that while it contained many sayings known from the New Testament, some of them, placed in these unfamiliar contexts, suggested other dimensions of meaning. Some passages, Quispel found, differed entirely from any known Christian tradition: the “living Jesus,” for example, speaks in sayings as cryptic as Zen koans:

Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” [45.29-33]

The Gospel of Thomas was only one of the fifty-two texts preserved from the find at Nag Hammadi. Bound into the same volume with it is the Gospel of Philip, which attributes to Jesus acts and sayings quite different from those in the New Testament:

…the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples, [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended] by it, [and]…said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you as much as [I love] her?” [63.32-64.5]3

Other sayings in the Gospel of Philip criticize common Christian beliefs, such as the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, as naïve misunderstandings. Bound together with these gospels is the Apocryphon (literally, “secret book”) of John, which opens with a claim that it will reveal “the mysteries [and the] things hidden in silence” (1.2-3) that Jesus taught to his disciple John.

Muhammad ‘Ali later admitted that some of the texts were lost—burned up or thrown away. But what remains is astonishing: some fifty-two texts from the early centuries of the Christian era—including a collection of early Christian gospels, previously unknown. Besides the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip, the find included the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel to the Egyptians, which identifies itself as “the [sacred book] of the Great Invisible [Spirit].” Another group of texts consists of writings attributed to Jesus’ followers, such as the Secret Book of James, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter.

What Muhammad ‘Ali discovered at Nag Hammadi, it soon became clear, were Coptic translations, made in the fourth and fifth centuries, of still more ancient manuscripts. The originals had been written in Greek, the language of the New Testament: as Doresse, Puech, and Quispel recognized, part of one of them had been discovered by archaeologists about fifty years earlier, when they found a few fragments of the original Greek version of the Gospel of Thomas. 4

About the dating of the manuscripts there is little debate. Examination of the Coptic script and of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings place them c. AD 350-400.5 But scholars sharply disagree about the dating of the original texts. That some of them, at least, appeared before c. AD 120-150 we can gather from Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyon. Writing c. AD 180, he declares that heretics “boast that they possess more gospels than there really are,”6 and complains that in his own time such writings already have won wide circulation—from Gaul through Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor. If Irenaeus is accurate about this, we can estimate that it would have taken a good many years for the writings to have become so widely diffused.

Quispel and his collaborators, who first published the Gospel of Thomas, suggested that the original Greek text was written in c. AD 140.7 Some scholars reasoned that since these gospels were heretical, they must have been written later than the gospels of the New Testament, which are dated c. 60-110. Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University has recently suggested that the collection of sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, although probably compiled c. 140, may include some traditions even older than the gospels of the New Testament, “possibly as early as the second half of the first century” (50-100)—as early as, or earlier than, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.8

Scholars investigating the codices found at Nag Hammadi discovered that some of the texts give an account of Adam and Eve very different from the one in Genesis: the Testimony of Truth, for example, tells the story of the Garden of Eden from the viewpoint of the serpent. Often in gnostic literature a symbol of divine wisdom, the serpent here convinces Adam and Eve to partake of knowledge, while “the Lord” threatens them with death, trying jealously to prevent them from attaining knowledge, and expelling them from Paradise when they achieve it.9 Another text, mysteriously entitled Thunder, Perfect Mind, offers an extraordinary poem spoken by a feminine divine power:

I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin…. I am the barren one, and many are her sons…. I am the silence that is incomprehensible…. I am the utterance of my name. [13.16-14.15]

These diverse texts include, then, secret gospels, poems, and quasi-philosophic descriptions of the origin of the universe, as well as myths, magic, and instructions for mystical practice.

II

Why were these texts buried—and why have they remained virtually unknown for nearly 2,000 years? Their suppression, and their burial on the cliff near Nag Hammadi, it turns out, were both part of a struggle critical for the formation of early Christianity. The Nag Hammadi texts, and others like them, which circulated at the beginning of the Christian era, were denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians such as Bishop Irenaeus in the middle of the second century. We have long known that many early followers of Christ were condemned by other Christians as heretics—but nearly all we knew about them came from what their opponents wrote attacking them. Irenaeus, who supervised the church in Lyon, c. 180, wrote five volumes entitled Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-called Knowledge, which began with his promise

to set forth the views of those who are now teaching heresy…to show how absurd and inconsistent with the truth are their statements…. I do this so that…you may urge all those with whom you are connected to avoid such an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ.

He denounces as especially “full of blasphemy” the “famous” Gospel of Truth.10 Is Irenaeus referring to the Gospel of Truth discovered at Nag Hammadi? Quispel and his collaborators, who first published the Gospel of Truth, argued that he is; one of their critics maintains that the opening line (which begins, “The gospel of truth”) is not a title.11 But Irenaeus does use the same source as at least one of the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi—the Apocryphon of John—as ammunition for his own attack on such “heresy.” Fifty years later Hippolytus, a teacher in Rome, wrote another long Refutation of All Heresies to “expose and refute the wicked blasphemy of the heretics.”12

  1. 1

    See James M. Robinson’s introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library (Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 21-22. Hereafter cited as NHL. Citations abridged here are provided in full in my forthcoming The Gnostic Gospels.

  2. 2

    Ibid., p. 22.

  3. 3

    The words placed in brackets indicate scholarly reconstructions of the texts, which are damaged in these places.

  4. 4

    See discussion by Wilhelm Schneemelcher in Edgar Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha (translated from Neutestamentliche Apocryphen) (Westminster, 1963), Vol. I, pp. 97-113. See also Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “The Oxyrnynchus Logoi of Jesus and the Coptic Gospel According to Thomas,” in Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (Scholars Press, 1974), pp. 355-433.

  5. 5

    James M. Robinson’s introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 15-18.

  6. 6

    Irenaeus, Libros Quinque Adversus Haereses 3.11.9 (hereafter cited as AH).

  7. 7

    Michel Malanine, Henri-Charles Puech, Gilles Quispel, Walter Till, Robert McL. Wilson, introduction, Evangelium Veritatis (Zürich and Stuttgart: Rascher, 1961).

  8. 8

    Helmut Koester’s introduction to the Gospel of Thomas, NHL, p. 117.

  9. 9

    See, for example, Testimony of Truth 45:23-48:18, in NHL, pp. 411-412.

  10. 10

    Irenaeus, AH, 3.11.9.

  11. 11

    Hans Martin Schenke, Die Herkunft des sogennanten Evangelium Veritatis (Berlin, 1958; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1959).

  12. 12

    Hippolytus, Refutationis Omnium Haeresium 1 (hereafter cited as Ref).

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