A cache of twelve papyrus codices and pages from a thirteenth was discovered in late 1945 by villagers a few kilometers from the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. The collection as a whole has usually been dated to the fourth century CE, since dates from this period are found on a few of the scrap documentary papyri used to stiffen some of the leather covers. The codices contain a total of fifty-two tractates written in Coptic, many or possibly all of which are translations from Greek. Most of the Greek originals would probably date from the second or third century CE, and in some instances conceivably earlier—though the only work whose original is without question earlier than the second century CE is a tractate consisting of a section from Plato's Republic (588a–589b).

The Nag Hammadi books have stirred enormous interest, especially among historians of ancient Christianity and related movements in the Late Antique period, primarily because the contents represent mostly heterodox forms of Christian religious expression. Several contain versions of myths or religious doctrines that were reported and condemned by ancient Christian heresiologists such as Irenaeus of Lyons, Hippolytus of Rome, or Epiphanius of Salamis. Texts from Nag Hammadi often provide a rare (in some instances, the only) glimpse we have of writings from advocates of these heterodox teachings.

Most of the mythology and doctrine in these codices has conventionally been categorized under the rubric of “Gnosticism,” or, as some prefer, “Gnosis.” The Greek term gnosis (“knowledge”) in this case refers to special, redeeming revelation about the true nature of humanity's relation to the divine and to the material world. Most definitions of “Gnosticism” add more specific features, such as a virulent anticosmic attitude; a distinction between the creator of the cosmos and the true God; a rejection of conventional ethics; or a deterministic soteriology involving a special race of humans who alone possess the secret gnosis, and who are destined to be saved because of their divine ancestry. However, modern debate about an adequate definition of “Gnosticism” or “Gnosis” has been fueled precisely by ongoing study of texts such as those from Nag Hammadi, since even the supposedly “Gnostic” writings in the collection manifest remarkable diversity on some of the alleged characteristics just mentioned. Therefore, the problematic category “Gnosticism” is avoided here, though attention may be called to certain recurring features that presumably are among the elements in these codices that stirred the interest of their fourth-century owners.

Demiurgical Myths of Origin.

At least half of the codices in the collection contain at least one tractate that consists primarily of a myth of origins, recounting a theogony or a cosmogony and anthropogony, or all of these. And well over half of the tractates in the collection include either mythology or allusion to mythology that we might label “demiurgical”—meaning simply that the responsibility for being the fashioner (Gr., demiurgos) of the material cosmos is removed from the most transcendent God and assigned to one or more lower beings. Indeed, while there are several “non-demiurgical” works within the collection, all the codices seem to contain at least one demiurgical tractate.

Although it is a matter of continuing debate, some researchers consider demiurgical traditions such as these to be the product of pre-Christian speculative myth among Jewish heterodox circles, with Egypt alleged to have been among the primary locales for such Jewish heterodoxy. In any event, Christian versions of demiurgical speculation are certainly attested in several regions of the Roman Empire at least as early as the first half of the second century CE. Famous examples in Egyptian Christianity from that period include the teachers Basilides and his son Isidore, and Valentinus, who is said to have moved from his native Egypt to Rome in about 140 CE. Demiurgical speculations in Christian circles were attacked by critics as the false teaching of pseudo-intellectuals, and as adulterations of the gospel with pagan myth that were a threat to monotheism. Nevertheless, such cosmologies were popular within certain philosophical currents in the Hellenistic-Roman period, especially among Pythagorean and Platonic circles. For many Christian converts, a demiurgical worldview must therefore have seemed the most natural intellectual framework within which to organize and make sense of theological and scriptural traditions. It is clear that some deemed demiurgical myth a solution to questions of theodicy that confronted a stricter monotheism, since demiurgical myths removed from the transcendent God any direct responsibility for physical and moral imperfections in the material realm.

It was already known from heresiological literature that there was great variety in the myths resulting from demiurgical speculation. A general idea of the range in character and variety among demiurgical cosmogonies in the Nag Hammadi collection can be illustrated by reference to four examples.

The myth in the Paraphrase of Shem depicts a cosmogonic process beginning with three primordial roots: the infinite Light; the Spirit, portrayed as an intermediate power; and evil, ignorant Darkness. Darkness possesses Mind, which in the course of the myth seems to belong more naturally to the realm of Spirit. How Mind had come to be entangled in Darkness is not actually explained, but in any event, evil is accounted for in this dualistic myth as belonging to the nature of one of the original powers. The cosmogonic activity is initiated by an arousal of Darkness that is willed by the infinite Light, with the benign purpose of separating Mind from Darkness. This separation process is a fundamental theme woven throughout the myth, and it seems to express the human experience of mind/spirit struggling with an awareness of a more transcendent order while burdened by existence in the realm of nature. On the one hand, the cosmogonic process in this very obscure narrative seems to include negative effects, in that in some sense it requires the descent of Light and Spirit into Darkness. Various elements of the material cosmos are portrayed as products of impurity—i.e., sexual acts within the realm of aroused Darkness, involving the Womb of Nature and the entities begotten from her. On the other hand, the ultimate result of the process is revelation, a clarification of the distinction between Darkness and the higher elements, and the eventual separation of these. Shem, the visionary who reports the revelation in the tractate, is presented as the mythical ancestor of those who rejoice in the thought of the Light, walk in Faith, and are separated from Darkness.

The lengthy, untitled treatise known today as the Tripartite Tractate offers a monistic demiurgical myth that differs fundamentally from the cosmogony in the Paraphrase of Shem. In the Tripartite Tractate, there is only one first principle, the absolutely incomprehensible Father, whose transcendence is stressed with an elaborate negative theology. Yet, paradoxically, the unknown Father wishes to be known, and the myth recounts this self-revelation by means of the gradual reification of aspects of the Father's self-knowledge or image. The divine attributes are depicted mythically as personal entities emanating from the Father—the population, as it were, of divine “perfection” (Gr., pleroma). Even though the Father's essence is unsearchable, he breathes a spirit into all things that creates in them the idea of searching after the unknowable, so that they are drawn to him as if by a sweet aroma. One of the entities, the logos (Gr., “reason,” “word”), in the impossible attempt to comprehend the Father, produces only imperfect shadows and copies of divine perfection, and this becomes the origin of all material and moral imperfection in the universe. The logos immediately realizes this tragic and arrogant fruit of what had been a benign and even divinely willed intent. Converted to proper humility, the logos is restored to perfection by divine grace and revelation. The escalating defects spawned by the original mistake must then be brought under control through the fashioning of the ordered cosmos, and a lower being—a demiurge, the Creator—is used by the logos for this purpose. The remainder of the myth describes the creation, constitution, and salvation of humanity. The diverse levels of perfection or imperfection in human moral character, including patterns of acceptance or rejection of divine revelation, are accounted for as products mirroring the earlier acts of the logos. The paradoxical tension between the incomprehensibility of the Father and the Father's desire to be known is integral to the theodicy of the myth, since the dynamics of the myth render precisely the highest values—love for and knowledge of God—as the inadvertent catalysts of evil.

The demiurgical cosmogony in the Apocryphon of John is similarly monistic in its depiction of an ineffable Monad or Spirit from whom all subsequent multiplicity has emanated, beginning with the unfolding of the realm of divine perfection. The mythic drama reveals a rather different cast of specific characters, though some of the plot is parallel. Instead of the logos, the Apocryphon of John has a similarly ambiguous character, Wisdom, whose presumptuous behavior results in the production of an imperfect image of divinity, a beastlike ruler or archon named Ialdabaoth. Unlike the rather sympathetically portrayed demiurge in the Tripartite Tractate, who serves as instrument of the logos, Ialdabaoth in the Apocryphon of John is a rebellious, foolish, and despicable figure. He creates the material cosmos with its various heavens unaware that he has done so in subconscious imitation of a higher, truly divine realm. He populates the heavens with subordinate powers who are his offspring. In his arrogance and ignorance he boasts that he is the highest God, but he is corrected by a revelation from above of the image of perfect divinity. The creation of Adam by Ialdabaoth and his powers is a failed attempt to imitate, capture, and control this image. This myth explains both beauty and imperfection in the material order, while distancing true divinity from any direct responsibility for what is evil. There is also an interest, more direct and detailed than in the Paraphrase of Shem and the Tripartite Tractate, to rewrite elements of the Genesis narrative, so that shifting the reference to Ialdabaoth removes difficulties otherwise arising from scripture's occasional anthropomorphic depictions of God (as vengeful, jealous, changeable, etc.). According to the Apocryphon of John, divine providence has seen to it that humanity carries the spiritual image of the divine, which can be awakened by revelation and restored to perfection.

Finally, one may compare the demiurgical myth in another untitled work from Nag Hammadi, often referred to today with the title On the Origin of the World. This lengthy and complex work contains many similarities to the cosmogonic myth in the Apocryphon of John, with a cast including some of the same mythic characters, such as Wisdom, Ialdabaoth, and some of the other cosmic archons. There is also an extensive rewriting of narrative episodes and elements from the early chapters of Genesis. But there are also numerous differences from the Apocryphon of John in details and in the structure of the cosmogony. Among the most interesting is that in On the Origin of the World there is a striking rupture within the ranks of the archons. One of Ialdabaoth's offspring, Sabaoth, responds positively to divine revelation, condemns his father, and is rewarded by being enthroned in a heaven superior to Ialdabaoth. This conveys a more complicated interpretation of the relation between true divinity and the creator God of more orthodox Judaism and Christianity. Not all of the demiurgical powers are completely ignorant and hostile to truth, and in this way the myth accounts for the mixture of justice and injustice in human experience, and of truth and error in religious traditions.

Prehistory and Destinies of Souls/Spirits.

The soteriology of several forms of ancient Christianity and Judaism included the theme of the restoration of a primordial condition possessed by the ancestral first humans, or the attainment of an even more perfect state. Most Christian teaching came to express this by reference to a future resurrection of the body. By contrast, the more common theme among the Nag Hammadi tractates is a return of souls or spirits to a primordial state, or to a place from whence they came, or were sown, into the world to dwell in the body. Several variations are represented, including the notion of multiple reincarnations of souls until they have a chance to accept or reject the revealed truth, as is found in the Apocryphon of John. Often these works refer to spiritual humanity as a “seed” sown into the material realm from the divine realm—for example, by the Father, or Christ, or the Spirit, or by the primordial divine Adam belonging to the immaterial realm of perfection. In the latter instances the perfect Adam, and his offspring Seth, are imagined as spiritual entities in the image of the true God, the prototype imitated by the demiurgical powers in their creation of material humanity.

It is typical of most of these texts that the salvation brought by the restoration of the spiritual seed to perfection is achieved by only a portion of humanity. Human society is frequently referred to as consisting of different categories of persons: the spiritual versus the fleshly or material, with the psychical or “soulish” sometimes mentioned as an intermediate category. Many interpreters, both ancient heresiologists and modern scholars, have viewed these as anthropologies entailing deterministic theories of salvation. This may have been true in some cases, but it is not clear that the language was intended deterministically by all or even most of these authors. In any event, the nature and mechanisms involved in the “sowing” of the spiritual seed are understood in diverse ways. For example, there are writings in which this appears to refer to a spiritual rebirth effected by rituals such as baptism or chrism. In other works, it would seem that the “seed” is viewed as a potential that is present in all humanity at birth but comes to maturation only in some individuals, depending on their response to revelation.

Notions of the preexistence of the soul, its fall into the body, and its hope for ascent are found even in some of the tractates that are not demiurgical by the definition mentioned earlier—for example, Authoritative Teaching and Exegesis on the Soul, both of which are extended treatments of the theme of the soul's descent into the material world and her eventual ascent and restoration. This kind of anthropology and soteriology would have seemed more natural than the idea of a resurrection of the body to many in the Greco-Roman world, especially among circles influenced by philosophical traditions such as Platonism.

Literary Genres and Revelation.

It is notable that most of the literary genres represented among the Nag Hammadi writings imply a claim to some special revelatory authority. There are several exceptions to this—for example, in writings such as the Tripartite Tractate and On the Origin of the World that have the more straightforward form of theological treatises or discussions. However, the majority of the Nag Hammadi tractates are in other forms: a long discourse allegedly delivered by a divine revealer or teacher (e.g., Christ, Seth); a dialogue between such a revealer and a special individual or group (e.g., Christ and John); an account of a heavenly ascent or vision experienced either by an ancient worthy (e.g., Adam, Shem, Melchizedek) or by an apostolic authority figure (e.g., Paul, James, Peter); a revelation supposed to have been written down in an earlier generation (e.g., by Adam, by Seth) to be kept secret from the unworthy; or some genre that contains more than one of the above features.

The implications of these literary genres for corresponding social history are not entirely clear. From the presence of themes of special revelation and secrecy, it might be inferred that this literature was typically the product of exclusive, intensely secretive conventicles. However, many of the secrecy motifs have to do with a truth imagined to have been secret in the past, but now revealed for anyone willing to accept it. Such genres may often be an indication less of social concealment of information than of literary strategies for legitimizing religious innovations.

Religious Innovation and Religious Movements.

The Nag Hammadi collection is made up of remnants from a lively history of multiple religious innovations in late antiquity. It is not always certain whether a given text expresses the eccentric speculations of an individual innovator, or summarizes the doctrine of a distinct social group or new religious movement. It is possible to classify portions of the Nag Hammadi collection according to common traditions. In some instances, such traditions apparently corresponded to identifiable social groups or movements, even though current evidence hardly permits reconstruction of a true social history of these groups.

The clearest case can be made that certain tractates belong to the Valentinian Christian tradition, as in the instance of the Tripartite Tractate. More than a half-dozen tractates from Nag Hammadi contain mythic themes and terminology that seem to derive from circles associated with the name of Valentinus. The precise contours of his own teaching remain rather obscure, but the mythological speculations of teachers allegedly influenced by him are elaborated by the ancient heresiologists. According to the latter, Valentinian tradition was not uniform, but rather inclined to lively innovation and variety, and the Valentinian evidence from Nag Hammadi supports that impression.

Another possible grouping within the collection involves a dozen or so writings sometimes termed “Sethian” by modern researchers. The precise label is less important than the fact that these works manifest numerous overlapping relationships in their mythic patterns, names of mythic characters, and other special terminology. For example, several, like the Apocryphon of John, portray a lower creator named Ialdabaoth. There must have been social connections and shared histories of some sort accounting for the similarities. However, there are also dramatic variations among the “Sethian” texts. While the Apocryphon of John is a heterodox Christian text in the form of a post-Resurrection dialogue between Christ and the apostle John, other writings with “Sethian” mythic themes or jargon contain no features that are clearly Christian. One such subgroup of “Sethian” texts is closely related to philosophical speculation known to have been in fashion in the third century CE among acquaintances of the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus, after the latter had moved from Egypt to Rome, and the tractate titles (e.g., Zostrianos, Allogenes) even match some of those reported by Plotinus's student and biographer Porphyry to have been the focus of debate and criticism in Plotinian circles.

Another case of texts that represent an identifiable tradition involves a group of three tractates (all in one codex) belonging to the non-Christian Hermetic tradition. But more than a third of the writings in the Nag Hammadi collection are not easily classified with any special tradition or attested sectarian movement.

Provenance.

If the Nag Hammadi manuscripts mostly date from about the mid-fourth century CE, it remains a matter of conjecture and debate who produced and owned the codices, and why they were eventually buried. Some scholars have believed that the codices bear witness to a period of pre-orthodox diversity in ascetic communities in Upper Egypt that were associated with the fourth-century monastic founder Pachomius. Wording in some of the colophons, references to monks in some of the scrap papyri from the bindings, and the prominence of ascetic themes in many tractates are among the evidence invoked in support of the hypothesis that the codices were part of the library of some sort of heterodox Christian monastic group, Pachomian or not. Several factors (multiple copies of certain tractates, paleographic and codicological evidence) indicate that the surviving collection is secondary, built out of earlier subcollections that may have been combined as new members joined a monastic commune and brought their books with them. The books may have been buried during the fourth or fifth century (or later?) to protect them from destruction during efforts to purge monastic and other libraries of heterodox materials.

Related Works.

The Coptic papyrus Codex Berolinensis 8502 (c. fifth century CE) contains copies of two works also in the Nag Hammadi collection: the Apocryphon of John and the Wisdom of Jesus Christ. These tractates are bracketed by two others, an opening revelation dialogue, the Gospel of Mary, and the Act of Peter, a tale that extols the value of virginity. The Coptic parchment Codex Askewianus (fourth or fifth century) is commonly referred to by the title Pistis Sophia (“Faith Wisdom”). Most of its content is in the form of post-Resurrection dialogues between Jesus and the disciples, and entails revelation about the fate of souls, of whom fallen and repentant Wisdom is portrayed as the Mother/prototype, and about cosmic powers. Codex Brucianus is a designation given to what seem to be the remains of at least two independent Coptic papyrus codices of uncertain date. One of these is an untitled treatise whose mythology is akin to the so-called “Sethian” mythology among the Nag Hammadi collection. The remaining leaves of Codex Brucianus are conventionally referred to as the Books of Jeu. A revelation dialogue between the resurrected Jesus and his disciples presents a complex myth, complete with diagrams, about the origin and structure of the transcendent world, and the disciples are initiated into the ritual mysteries, allowing their souls to ascend through these realms.

Though they probably represent the tastes of very small minorities, the Nag Hammadi collection and related manuscripts such as those just mentioned attest to a perduring influence and evolution of heterodox mythologies that had been part of the fabric of Egyptian Christianity since at least the early second century CE.

Bibliography

  • The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices. Published under the Auspices of the Department of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt in conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations. 12 vols. Leiden, 1972–1984. The standard facsimile edition of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts.
  • Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. Garden City, 1987. Excellent annotated translations of selected Nag Hammadi writings, and sources from Christian heresiologists.
  • Layton, Bentley, ed. The Rediscovery of Gnosticism. 2 vols. Supplements to Numen, 41. Leiden, 1980–1981. Papers from a seminal conference, including seminars focused specifically on Valentinian and “Sethian” traditions.
  • Ménard, Jacques-É., Paul-Hubert Poirier, and Michel Roberge, eds. Bibliothèque Copte de Nag Hammadi. Section “Textes”; Section “Études”; Section “Concordances. Québec and Louvain-Paris, 1977–. Appearing in this important series are editions of Nag Hammadi and many related texts, with French translation and commentary; and an invaluable Coptic concordance of the Nag Hammadi codices.
  • Pearson, Birger A. Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Minneapolis, 1990. An important collection of essays with special interest in the relevance of Nag Hammadi materials for the history of Judaism and Christianity in Egypt.
  • Pearson, Birger A., and James E. Goehring, eds. The Roots of Egyptian Christianity. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Philadelphia, 1992. Crucial reading for any study of early Egyptian Christianity and the interrelated traditions from which it developed.
  • Robinson, James M., and Richard Smith, eds. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. 3d ed. San Francisco and Leiden, 1988. A onevolume English translation of the Nag Hammadi collection, and the Gospel of Mary and the Act of Peter from Codex Berolinensis 8502.
  • Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. Translated by R. McL. Wilson. San Francisco and Edinburgh, 1983. Combines a phenomenological discussion of the nature of “Gnosis” with a historical treatment of various sectarian forms.
  • Schmidt, Carl, and Violet MacDermot eds. The Books of Jeu and the Untitled Text in the Bruce Codex. Nag Hammadi Studies 13. Leiden, 1978. Coptic text and English translation of Codex Brucianus. The major English critical editions/translations of Nag Hammadi tractates have also been appearing in the series Nag Hammadi Studies (or more recently, Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies).
  • Schmidt, Carl, and Violet MacDermot eds. Pistis Sophia. Nag Hammadi Studies 9. Leiden, 1978. Coptic text and English translation of Codex Askewianus.
  • Scholer, David M., ed. Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1948–69. Nag Hammadi Studies 1. Leiden, 1971.
  • Scholer, David M., ed. Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1970–94. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 32. Leiden, 1997. The two volumes by Scholer are the most comprehensive bibliographies on this subject area. Includes sections on “Gnosticism” in general, individual traditions, each codex in the Nag Hammadi collection, and the Berlin 8502, Askew, and Bruce codices. Continuing updates are published annually in the journal Novum Testamentum.
  • Tardieu, Michel, ed. Écrits gnostiques: Codex du Berlin. Source Gnostiques et Manichéennes 1. Paris, 1984. An important introduction, translation, and extensive commentary on the Berlin 8502 codex.
  • Tardieu, Michel, and Jean-Daniel Dubois. Introduction à la littérature gnostique I: Histoire du mot “gnostique”; Instruments de travail; Collections retrouvées avant 1945. Invitations au christianisme ancien. Paris, 1986. A valuable discussion of relevant manuscript and patristic sources available prior to the Nag Hammadi discovery.
  • Till, Walter, ed. Die gnostischen Schriften des koptischen Papyrus Berolinensis 8502. 2d ed. by Hans-Martin Schenke. Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 60. Berlin, 1972. A revised edition of the editio princeps of Codex Berolensis 8502. The principal German editions of Nag Hammadi tractates, with translations and commentary, have also been appearing in the Texte und Untersuchungen series.
  • Williams, Michael Allen. Rethinking “Gnosticism. Princeton, 1996. Argues that the category “gnosticism” has become an obstacle, because of prevalent stereotypes and misconceptions, to an adequate understanding of texts and traditions such as those evidenced by Nag Hammadi.

Michael A. Williams