Before the publication of the Berlin Codex 8502, resources for the study of gnosticism were almost entirely limited to the refutations of the early church fathers, with such extracts and quotations as they chose to include. The only original gnostic material, in Coptic—the Pistis Sophia in the Askew Codex, the two Books of Jeu, and an anonymous treatise in the Bruce Codex—was late and from a time when the movement had long since faltered. The patristic refutations were inevitably open to suspicion as the propaganda of the winning side, while the Coptic material left the impression that the whole movement was both tedious and bizarre. The Berlin Codex, known as far back as 1896 but published only in 1955, yielded three new documents: a fragmentary gospel of Mary, the Apocryphon of John, and the Sophia Jesu Christi. In contrast, the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in 1945 and gradually made available between 1956 and 1977, contains some forty previously unknown documents together with copies of several texts already known. Fragments used to stiffen the binding of some of the codices suggest a date of about the middle of the fourth century CE, but the Greek originals from which these Coptic texts were translated probably go back in some cases to the second century CE. Thus, the library's significance for the study of some aspects of early Christianity is comparable to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Judaism of an earlier period. The library derives its name from the modern Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi on the Nile north of Luxor, which was the nearest town to the place of the discovery.
The collection consists of twelve codices in their original bindings, plus eight leaves of a thirteenth (Codex XIII), which were apparently found inside the cover of Codex VI. The total amounts to over one thousand pages, in varying states of preservation: some are almost complete, while others are more or less fragmentary. Most of one codex (Codex I = the Jung Codex) was smuggled out of Egypt, but has now been returned for preservation with the others in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. A complete facsimile edition has been published, and translations have been made into various modern languages.
Not all the documents in the library are strictly gnostic. One (Codex VI,5) is a rather poor translation of a short section of Plato's Republic; another (VI,8) is part of the Hermetic tractate Asclepius, previously known from a Latin version. The Teachings of Silvanus (VII,4) is an early Christian wisdom text, while XII,1 is part of the Sentences of Sextus, already known in the original Greek and in versions in other ancient languages. The strongly ascetic tone of the latter work, with the similar ascetic emphasis in other documents, indicates that the collection belonged to a group that stressed asceticism, in contrast to the accusations of libertinism often made against the gnostics in patristic sources. Of the strictly gnostic documents, some are clearly Valentinian in character, such as the gospel of Philip (II,3), the Tripartite Tractate (I,5), and the Valentinian Exposition (XI,2), though there are often variations on the Valentinian system described by Irenaeus. It has been suggested that some texts, such as the Gospel of Truth (I,3) or the Treatise on Resurrection (I,4), may have been written by Valentinus himself, but this is at best speculation. Another major group of documents has been labeled Sethian, because of the prominence given to Seth, the third son of Adam (Gen. 4.25). These include, among others, the Hypostasis of the Archons (II,4), the Gospel of the Egyptians (III,2), the Apocalypse of Adam (V,5), and the Three Steles of Seth (VII,5). These documents do have a number of features in common, which justifies grouping them together, but the existence of an actual sect of Sethians has been disputed and is by no means certain.
It was noted several years ago that a complete gnostic “New Testament” could be put together from the Christian gnostic texts in the library: the gospel of Thomas or of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles, the Letter of Peter to Philip, two Apocalypses of James, an Apocalypse of Peter, and an Apocalypse of Paul. Despite their titles, however, these texts are not comparable to those in the canonical New Testament: the gospels, for example, do not relate the life and ministry of Jesus, his death and resurrection. The Gospel of Truth is a meditation on the theme of Jesus' message, the gospel of Philip a rather rambling discourse whose continuity seems largely due to catchwords or the association of ideas. The gospel of Thomas is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, some parallel to sayings in the canonical Gospels, others completely new, and including all the sayings in the famous Logia papyri found at Oxyrhynchus (see Agrapha). The titles in fact are no sure guide to content: the gospel of the Egyptians and the Apocalypse of Adam have been claimed as non‐Christian documents, and the former is not a gospel in the accepted sense, while the latter is more a testament than an apocalypse. Moreover, similarity of title does not mean that the documents are the same: the gospel of Thomas is completely different from the apocryphal infancy gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Philip is not the one known to Epiphanius, the gospel of the Egyptians not the one quoted by Clement of Alexandria. The Nag Hammadi library itself contains two quite different Apocalypses of James. Mention should also be made here of a group of gnostic “gospels” that report revelations given by the risen Jesus to his disciples in the period between his resurrection and ascension, which the gnostics extended to eighteen months (in the Pistis Sophia eleven years).
Evaluation of these texts is still in progress, and in some respects they raise as many questions as they answer: the identity of the owners, the purpose of the collection, the reasons for its concealment. The discovery has not solved the problem of gnostic origins, or the vexed question of a pre‐Christian gnosticism, but it has enriched our knowledge in several ways. Comparison of different versions of the same document, or different presentations of the same basic system, shows how the gnostics could develop and adapt their ideas, sometimes using older material for their own purposes. Some texts show signs of the Christianization of earlier, possibly non‐Christian material, while the Christian gnostic documents often quote or allude to both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The discovery has given fresh stimulus to theories of a Jewish origin for the movement, but however that may be there is no doubt of the significance of the Jewish contribution. Above all, we now have for the first time a comprehensive collection of firsthand gnostic material, from which it is possible to gain some idea of what gnosticism meant to a gnostic: it was not merely bizarre and eccentric but an attempt to deal with the human predicament, to resolve the problem of evil; not a counsel of despair but a religion of hope and deliverance.
Robert McL. Wilson