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The Discovery of the Gnostic Gospels

This campaign against heresy was an involuntary admission of its persuasive power; but eventually the bishops prevailed. By the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century, when Christianity became an officially approved religion, Christian bishops, who had previously been persecuted by the police, were able to take command of them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed. But someone in Upper Egypt, possibly a monk from a nearby monastery of St. Pachomius,13 hid the banned books to protect them from destruction—in the jar where they remained buried for almost 1,600 years.

But those who wrote and circulated these texts did not regard themselves as “heretics.” Most of the writings use Christian terminology, unmistakably related to a Jewish heritage. Many claim to describe traditional, but secret, doctrines concerning Jesus that were hidden from “the many” who constituted what, in the second century, came to be called the “catholic church.” These Christians were called gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, usually translated as “knowledge.” For as those who claim to know nothing about ultimate reality are called agnostic (literally, “not-knowing”), the person who does claim to know such things is called gnostic (“knowing”). But gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (“He knows mathematics”) and knowing through observation or experience (“He knows me”), which is gnosis. As the gnostics use the term, we could translate it as “insight,” for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. And to know oneself, they claimed, is to know human nature and human destiny. According to the gnostic teacher Theodotus, writing in Asia Minor (c. 140-160), the gnostic is one who has come to understand

who we were, and what we have become; where we were…whither we are hastening; from what we are being released; what birth is, and what is rebirth.14

Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of gnosis. Another gnostic teacher, Monoimus, says:

Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is within you who makes everything his own and says, “My God, my mind, my thought, my soul, my body.” Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate…. If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.15

What Muhammad ‘Ali discovered at Nag Hammadi is, apparently, a library of writings, almost all of them gnostic: Although they claim to offer secret teaching, many of these texts refer to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, others to the letters of Paul and the New Testament gospels. Many of them include the same dramatis personae as the New Testament—Jesus and his disciples. Yet the differences are striking.

Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.

Second, the “living Jesus” of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal—even identical.

Third, orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a unique way: he remains forever distinct from the rest of humanity whom he came to save. Yet the gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates that as soon as Thomas recognizes him, Jesus says to Thomas that they have both received their being from the same source:

Jesus said, “I am not your master, because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out…. He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden shall be revealed to him.” [35.5-7; 50.28-30]

Does not such teaching—the identity of the divine and human, the concern with illusion and enlightenment, the founder who is presented not as Lord, but as spiritual guide—sound more Eastern than Western? Some scholars have suggested that if the names were changed, the “living Buddha” appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus. Could Hindu or Buddhist tradition have influenced gnosticism?

The British scholar of Buddhism Edward Conze suggests that it has. He points out that “Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians (that is, Christians who knew and used such writings as the Gospel of Thomas) in South India.”16 Trade routes between the Greco-Roman world and the Far East were opening up at the time when gnosticism flourished (AD 80-200); for generations, Buddhist missionaries had been proselytizing in Alexandria. We note, too, that Hippolytus, who was a Greek-speaking Christian in Rome (c. 225), knows of the Indian Brahmins—and includes their tradition among the sources of heresy:

They say that God is light, not like the light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge [gnosis] through which the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise.17

Could the title of the Gospel of Thomas—named for the disciple who, according to tradition, went to India—suggest the influence of Indian tradition?

These hints suggest the possibility, yet our evidence is not conclusive. Since parallel traditions may emerge in different cultures at different times, such ideas could have developed in both places independently.18 What we call Eastern and Western religions, and tend to regard as separate streams, were not clearly differentiated 2,000 years ago. Research on the Nag Hammadi texts is only beginning: we look forward to the work of scholars who can study these traditions comparatively to discover whether they can, in fact, be traced to Indian sources.

Even so, ideas that we associate with Eastern religions emerged in the first century through the gnostic movement in the West, but they were suppressed and condemned by polemicists like Irenaeus. Yet those who called gnosticism heresy were adopting—consciously or not—the viewpoint of that group of Christians who called themselves orthodox Christians. A heretic may be anyone whose outlook someone else dislikes or denounces. A heretic traditionally is one who deviates from the true faith. But what defines that “true faith”? Who calls it that, and for what reasons?

The term “Christianity,” especially since the Reformation, has covered an astonishing range of groups. Those claiming to represent “true Christianity” in the twentieth century can range from a Catholic cardinal in the Vatican to an African Methodist Episcopal preacher initiating revival in Detroit, a Mormon missionary in Thailand, or the member of a village church on the coast of Greece. Yet many Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox would agree that such diversity is a recent—and deplorable—development. According to Christian legend, the early church was different. Christians of every persuasion look back to the primitive church to find a simpler, purer form of Christian faith. In the apostles’ time, the legend has it, all members of the Christian community shared their money and property; all believed the same teaching, and worshipped together; all revered the authority of the apostles. It was only after this golden age that conflict, then heresy, emerged: so says the author of the Acts of the Apostles, who identifies himself as the first historian of Christianity.

But the discoveries at Nag Hammadi have upset this picture. If we admit that some of these fifty-two texts give an account of early forms of Christian teaching, we may have to recognize that early Christianity is far more diverse than nearly anyone expected before the Nag Hammadi discoveries.19

Contemporary Christianity, diverse and complex as we find it, actually may display more unanimity than the Christian churches of the first and second centuries. For nearly all Christians since that time, Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox, have shared three basic premises. First, they accept the canon of the New Testament; second, they confess the apostolic creed; and third, they claim that the specific institutional forms their churches take derive from the early church. But every one of these—the canon of Scripture, the creed, and the institutional structure—emerged in its present form only toward the end of the second centry. Before that time, as Irenaeus and others attest, numerous gospels circulated among various Christian groups, ranging from those of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to such writings as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth, as well as many other secret teachings, myths, and poems attributed to Jesus or his disciples. Some of these, apparently, were discovered at Nag Hammadi; many others are lost to us. Those who identified themselves as Christians entertained many diverse religious beliefs and practiced as many different kinds of worship. And the Christian communities scattered throughout the known world organized themselves in ways that varied widely from one group to another.

By AD 200 the situation had changed. Most of Christianity had become an institution headed by a three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, who understood themselves to be the guardians of the only “true faith.” A large number of these churches, led by the church of Rome, rejected all other viewpoints as heresy. Deploring the diversity of the earlier movement, Bishop Irenaeus and his followers insisted that there could be only one church, and outside that church, he declared, “there is no salvation.”20 Members of this church alone are orthodox (literally, “straight-thinking”) Christians. And, he claimed, this church must be catholic—that is, universal. Whoever challenged that consensus, arguing instead for other forms of Christian teaching, was declared to be a heretic, and expelled. When the orthodox gained military support, sometime after the Emperor Constantine became Christian in the fourth century, the penalty for heresy was made even more severe.

The efforts of the majority to destroy every trace of heretical “blasphemy” proved so successful that, until the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, nearly all our information concerning other forms of early Christianity came from the extensive orthodox attacks upon them. Although gnosticism is perhaps the earliest—and most threatening—of the heresies, scholars had known only a handful of original gnostic texts, none published before the nineteenth century.


Why did we not hear news of the Nag Hammadi discovery, as we did about the Dead Sea scrolls, some twenty-five years ago? Professor Hans Jonas wrote in 1962:

Unlike the Dead Sea finds of the same years, the gnostic find from Nag Hammadi has been beset from the beginning to this day by a persistent curse of political roadblocks, litigations, and, most of all, scholarly jealousies and “firstmanship” (the last factor has grown by now into a veritable chronique scandaleuse of contemporary academia).21

  1. 13

    Frederik Wisse, “Gnosticism and Early Monasticism in Egypt,” in Gnosis: Festschrift für Hans Jonas (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1978), pp. 431-434.

  2. 14

    Theodotus, cited in Clemens Alexandrinus, Excerpta ex Theodoto 78.2.

  3. 15

    Hippolytus, Ref 8.15.1-2. Emphasis added.

  4. 16

    Edward Conze, “Buddhism and Gnosis,” in Le origini dello Gnosticismo: Colloquio di Messina 13-18 Aprile 1966 (Leiden: Brill, 1967), p. 665.

  5. 17

    Hippolytus, Ref 1.24.

  6. 18

    Conze, “Buddhism and Gnosis,” op. cit., pp. 665-666.

  7. 19

    One scholar who, even before the Nag Hammadi find, did suspect such diversity is Walter Bauer, whose book, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei im ältesten Christentum, first appeared in 1934. It was translated and published in English as Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (Fortress, 1971).

  8. 20

    See, for example, Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy, pp. 111-240.

  9. 21

    Hans Jonas, Journal of Religion (1961), p. 262, cited in J.M. Robinson, “The Jung Codex: The Rise and Fall of a Monopoly,” in Religious Studies Review 3.1 (January 1977), p. 29.

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