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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

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.

III

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

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.

IV

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. 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).

  13. 13

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

  14. 14

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

  15. 15

    Hippolytus, Ref 8.15.1-2. Emphasis added.

  16. 16

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

  17. 17

    Hippolytus, Ref 1.24.

  18. 18

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

  19. 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).

  20. 20

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

  21. 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.

  22. 22

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

  23. 23

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

  24. 24

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

  25. 25

    Tertullian, Adversus Valentinianos 7.

  26. 26

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

  27. 27

    Ibid., p.229.

  28. 28

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

  29. 29

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

  30. 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).

  31. 31

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

  32. 32

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

  33. 33

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

  34. 34

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

  35. 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).

  36. 36

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

  37. 37

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

  38. 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).

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