• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Discovery of the Gnostic Gospels

Access to the texts was suppressed not only in ancient times but, for very different reasons, in the more than thirty years since their discovery.22 In the first place, villagers from Upper Egypt and the antiquities dealers hoping to make money on the manuscripts hid them to avoid their confiscation by government authorities. Their value became clear in 1947 when the French Egyptologist Jean Doresse was asked by Togo Mina, the director of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, to examine the first of the recovered manuscripts. Doresse identified the manuscript and announced that the discovery would mark a new epoch in the study of the origins of Christianity. Fired by his enthusiasm, Mina asked him to look at another manuscript, held by Albert Eid, a Belgian antiquities dealer in Cairo. Then Mina told Eid that he would never allow the manuscript to leave Egypt—he must sell it for a nominal price to the museum.

But still most of the codices remained hidden. Bahij ‘Ali, a one-eyed outlaw from al-Qasr, had acquired several of them in Nag Hammadi and went to Cairo to sell them. Phocion Tano, an antiquities dealer, bought all that he had, and went to Nag Hammadi in the hope of finding others. Throughout the bombing of Cairo in 1948 Doresse continued to prepare the manuscript of Codex III for publication, while the minister of public education negotiated to buy Tano’s collection for the museum. Hoping to prevent the government from interfering, Tano said that they belonged to a private collector, an Italian woman named Dattari who was living in Cairo.

In 1952 the government nationalized the entire collection and took possession of Miss Dattari’s codices, which were packed in a sealed suitcase, paying her nothing, although she had originally asked for about £100,000. She sued the government, and won a court injunction which delayed research for three years; finally, however, she lost the case.

But the government failed to confiscate Eid’s part of Codex I. In 1949 Eid hid the manuscript among other export items and succeeded in smuggling it out of Egypt. After unsuccessfully trying to sell it in America, he placed it in a safe-deposit box in Belgium where it stayed until Professor Quispel arranged to buy it on behalf of the Jung Foundation in 1952. For the next twenty years there was intense competition among the international group of scholars for access both to this text and to the twelve and a half codices belonging to the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Dr. Pahor Labib, who took over as director of the Coptic Museum in 1952, decided to keep strict control over publication rights. Publishing the definitive first edition of any one of these extraordinary, original texts—let alone the whole collection—would establish a scholar’s international reputation. The few to whom Dr. Labib did grant access to the manuscripts protected their interests by refusing to allow anyone else to see them. In 1961 the director-general of UNESCO urged publication of the entire find and helped set up an international committee to arrange it.23 Ten years later, in 1972, the first volume of a photographic edition of all the manuscripts finally appeared. Nine other volumes followed between 1972-1977, thus putting all thirteen codices in the public domain. Meanwhile Professor James Robinson, director of the Claremont Institute for Aniquity and Christianity, and the only American member of UNESCO committee, had organized a team to copy and privately circulate most of the material to scholars throughout the world, thus involving many people in the research and effectively breaking the monopoly that had controlled the discovery.


With the publication of the first complete edition in English in 1977, and with the completion of the photographic edition expected by 1980, we will have finally overcome the obstacles to public knowledge caused by what Professor Gérard Garitte of Louvain called “personal rivalries and…pretensions to monopolize documents that belong only to science, that is to say, to all.”24

Research into gnosticism has a long history. The first to investigate the gnostics were their orthodox contemporaries. Attempting to prove that gnosticism was essentially non-Christian, they traced its origins to Greek philosophy, astrology, mystery religions, magic, and even Indian sources. Often they emphasized—and satirized—the bizarre elements that appear in some forms of gnostic mythology. Tertullian ridiculed the gnostics for creating elaborate cosmologies, with multi-storied heavens like apartment houses, “with room piled on room, and assigned to each god by just as many stairways as there were heresies: The universe has been turned into rooms for rent!”25

By the end of the nineteenth century, when a few original gnostic sources were discovered, they inspired new research among historians of religion. The great German historian Adolf von Harnack, whose research was much guided by views of the church fathers, regarded gnosticism as a Christian heresy. In 1894, he explained that the gnostics had interpreted Christian doctrine in terms of Greek philosophy, and were thus, in one sense, the first “Christian theologians.”26 But in the process, he contended, they distorted the Christian message and propagated false, hybrid forms of Christian teaching—what he called the “acute Hellenizing of Christianity.” 27 The British scholar Arthur Darby Nock agreed: gnosticism, he said, was a kind of “Platonism run wild.”28

Other historians of religion objected. Far from being a Christian heresy, they said, gnosticism originally was an independent religious movement. In the early twentieth century the New Testament scholar Wilhelm Bousset, who traced gnosticism to ancient Babylonian and Persian sources, declared that

Gnosticism is first of all a pre-Christian movement which had roots in itself. It is therefore to be understood…in its own terms, and not as an offshoot or byproduct of the Christian religion.29

On this point the philologist Richard Reitzenstein agreed; but Reitzenstein went on to argue that gnosticism derived from ancient Iranian religion and was influenced by Zoroastrian traditions.30 Others, including Professor M. Friedländer, maintained that gnosticism originated in Judaism: the heretics whom the rabbis attacked in the first and second centuries, said Friedländer, were Jewish gnostics.31

In 1934—more than ten years before the Nag Hammadi discoveries—two important new books appeared in Germany. In Gnosis und Spätantiker Geist Professor Hans Jonas suggested that gnosticism emerged from a certain “attitude toward existence.” He pointed out that the political apathy and cultural stagnation of the Eastern empire in the first two centuries of this era coincided with the influx of oriental religion into Hellenistic culture. According to Jonas’s analysis, many people at the time felt deeply estranged from the world in which they lived, and longed for miraculous salvation as an escape from the constraints of political and social existence. Using the few sources available to him, Jonas with great penetration reconstructed a gnostic philosophy of pessimism about the world combined with a belief in self-transcendence.32

A nontechnical version of Jonas’s book remains, even today, the classic introduction (The Gnostic Religion, 1958). In an epilogue added to the second edition of this book, Jonas drew a parallel between gnosticism and twentieth-century existentialism, acknowledging his debt to existentialist philosophers, especially to Heidegger, in forming his interpretation of “the gnostic religion.”33

In 1934 also, Walter Bauer published a very different view of gnosticism. Bauer recognized that the early Christian movement was itself far more diverse than orthodox sources chose to indicate.

Perhaps—I repeat, perhaps—certain manifestations of Christian life that the authors of the church renounce as “heresies” originally had not been such at all, but, at least here and there, were the only forms of the new religion; that is, for those regions, they were simply “Christianity.” The possibility also exists that their adherents…looked down with hatred and scorn on the orthodox, who for them were the false believers.34

Bauer’s critics, notably the British scholars H.E.W. Turner35 and C.H. Roberts,36 have criticized him for over-simplifying the situation and for over-looking evidence that did not fit his theory. Certainly Bauer’s suggestion that those later called “heretics” were in the majority in certain Christian groups goes beyond even the gnostics’ own claims: they typically characterized themselves as “the few” in relation to “the many” (hoi polloi). But Bauer, like Jonas, opened up new ways of thinking about gnosticism.

As Doresse had foreseen, the discoveries at Nag Hammadi in 1945 initiated a new epoch of research. The abundance of the texts—and their diversity—made generalization difficult, and consensus even more difficult. Acknowledging this, most scholars now agree that what we call “gnosticism” was a widespread movement that derived its sources from various traditions. As the church fathers had said, some of the texts describe the multiple heavens with magic passwords for each concentric circle, but many other texts, surprisingly, contained nothing of the kind. Much of the literature discovered at Nag Hammadi is distinctively Christian; some texts, however, show little or no Christian influence; a few originate primarily from pagan sources (and may not be “gnostic” at all); others make extensive use of Jewish traditions. For this reason, the German scholar Carsten Colpe has challenged the historians’ search for the “origins of gnosticism.” 37 This method, Colpe insists—as Jonas did before him—leads to a potentially infinite regress of ever remoter “origins,” without contributing much to our understanding of what gnosticism actually is.

Currently, those investigating the Nag Hammadi texts are less concerned to construct comprehensive theories than to analyze in detail the sources unearthed at Nag Hammadi. There are several different kinds of research, each investigating specific groups of texts. Some researchers are concerned primarily with the relationship of gnosticism to Hellenistic philosophy. Other scholars are investigating the literary and formal qualities of the gnostic texts—much of this work was initiated by James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester in their book Trajectories Through Early Christianity—while others have been exploring the rich symbolism of gnostic texts. Another field of research, in which I myself have mainly worked, has been primarily concerned with gnosticism and early Christianity. In my forthcoming book, and in the series of articles to follow, I try to show how gnostic forms of Christianity interact with orthodoxy—and what this tells us about the origins of Christianity itself.

While even the fifty-two writings discovered at Nag Hammadi offer only a glimpse of the complexity of the early Christian movement, we now begin to see that what we call Christianity—and what we identify as Christian tradition—actually represents only a small selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others. Who made that selection, and for what reasons? Why were these other writings excluded and banned as “heresy”? What made them so dangerous? We now have an opportunity to find out about the earliest Christian heresy; and for the first time, the heretics can speak for themselves.

Gnostic Christians undoubtedly expressed ideas that the orthodox abhorred. Some of these gnostic texts, for example, question whether all suffering, labor, and death derive from human sin, which, in the orthodox version, marred an originally perfect creation. Others speak of the feminine element in the divine, celebrating God as both Father and Mother. Still others suggest that Christ’s resurrection is to be understood symbolically, not literally. A few radical texts even denounce catholic Christians as heretics: some gnostics charge that, although they “do not understand mystery,” the orthodox “boast that the mystery of truth belongs to them alone.”38 Such gnostic ideas fascinated the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung: he thought they expressed “the other side of the mind”—the spontaneous, unconscious thoughts that any orthodoxy requires its adherents to repress.

Yet orthodox Christianity, as the apostolic creed defines it, contains some ideas that many people today might find even stranger. The creed requires, for example, that Christians confess that God is perfectly good, and still created a world that includes pain, injustice, and death; that Jesus of Nazareth was born from a virgin mother; and that, after being executed by order of the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, he arose from his grave “on the third day.”

Why did the consensus of Christian churches not only accept these views but establish them as the only true form of Christian doctrine? Historians have traditionally—and correctly—told us that the orthodox objected to gnostic views for religious and philosophic reasons. Yet investigation of the newly discovered gnostic sources suggests another aspect of the controversy. It suggests that these religious debates—questions of the nature of God, or of Christ—also bear social and political implications that are crucial to the development of Christianity as an institutional religion. In simplest terms, ideas which tended to resist that development come to be labeled as “heresy”: ideas which implicitly support it become “orthodox.”

In the article that follows in the next issue we will see that the orthodox doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection is connected with the power of the clergy, who claim their legitimate succession from Peter, “first witness of the resurrection.” We will also see how the orthodox doctrine of “one God” served to support the rule of “one bishop” over the Christian community, while the gnostic opposition to that doctrine posed a challenge to the bishop’s authority. Subsequent articles will show how gnostics frequently described God as Father and Mother—a practice that reflects their attitudes toward the participation of women with men in leadership positions in the churches—and how controversies between orthodox and gnostic Christians over the interpretation of Christ’s passion and death can be seen to reflect the difficult political situation of Christians living under the threat of persecution. Each of these issues shows how the extraordinary texts discovered at Nag Hammadi compel us to revise traditional views, and offer us a startling new perspective on the origins of Christianity.

(This is the first of four articles.)

  1. 22

    For a more complete account of the events briefly sketched here, see Robinson, “The Jung Codex,” pp. 17-30.

  2. 23

    J.M. Robinson, “The Jung Codex,” p.24f.

  3. 24

    Gérard Garitte, Le Muséon (1960), p. 214, cited in Robinson, “The Jung Codex,” p.29.

  4. 25

    Tertullian, Adversus Valentinianos 7.

  5. 26

    Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, trans. from 3rd German ed. (Harper & Row, 1961), I.4, p.228.

  6. 27

    Ibid., p.229.

  7. 28

    Arthur Darby Nock, Early Gentile Christianity and Its Hellenistic Background, 2nd ed. (New York, 1964), p.xvi.

  8. 29

    Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos (1st ed., Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1913; 2nd ed., 1921; English trans., 1970), p.245.

  9. 30

    Richard Reitzenstein, Poimandres: Studien zur griechisch-ägyptischen und frühchristlichen Literatur (Leipzig: Marcus & Weber, 1904), p.81. See also Das iranische Erlösungmysterium (Marcus & Weber, 1921).

  10. 31

    Moriz Friedländer, Der vorchristliche jüdische Gnosticismus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1898; P. Gregg, 2nd ed., 1972).

  11. 32

    Hans Jonas, Gnosis und Spätantiker Geist, I: Die mythologische Gnosis (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1st ed., 1934).

  12. 33

    Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (Beacon, 1st ed., 1958; 2nd ed., 1963), pp. 320-340.

  13. 34

    Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (trans. from 2nd ed., Fortress, 1971), p. xxii.

  14. 35

    H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth: A Study in the Relations Between Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Early Church (London: Mobray, 1954).

  15. 36

    Colin H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society, and Belief in Early Christian Egypt (Oxford, 1979).

  16. 37

    Carsten Colpe, Die religionsgeschichtliche Schule: Darstellung und Kritik ihres Bildes von gnostischen Erlosermythus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961).

  17. 38

    Apocalypse of Peter 76.27-30, p. 642 in NHL. In citing the text, I am following the translation of James Brashler, The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter: A Genre Analysis and Interpretation (Claremont, dissertation, 1977).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print