The collection of texts referred to as the Nag Hammadi library consists of forty-six texts (plus fragments and duplicates) copied onto the papyrus pages of thirteen codices discovered in the general vicinity of the modern city of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Although the discovery of these texts did not occur precisely at Nag Hammadi, and the collection is not a library in a conventional sense of the term, the name has stuck. Because the texts are written in Coptic, and many (though not all) of the texts represent what is often called a Gnostic perspective, the Nag Hammadi library is sometimes called a Coptic Gnostic library. Scholars assume that most if not all of the texts were originally written in Greek.
The texts found in the Nag Hammadi library include a number of the same texts found in two other collections that derive from locations not too far from Nag Hammadi, Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502 and Codex Tchacos, and thus these three collections merit being discussed together.
Among the more prominent texts preserved in the Nag Hammadi library are (in codex and tractate order):
- The Gospel of Truth
- The Treatise on Resurrection
- The Secret Book of John (or Apocryphon of John)
- The Gospel of Thomas
- The Gospel of Philip
- The Book of Thomas
- The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit (or the Egyptian Gospel)
- The Revelation of Paul (or Apocalypse of Paul)
- The First and Second Revelations of James (or First and Second Apocalypses of James)
- The Revelation of Adam (or Apocalypse of Adam)
- Thunder: Perfect Mind
- The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth
- Three Forms of First Thought (or Trimorphic Protennoia)
Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502 contains the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of John, the Wisdom of Jesus Christ (or Sophia of Jesus Christ), and the Act of Peter (the second and third of these texts are also found in the Nag Hammadi library).
Codex Tchacos has among its texts the Letter of Peter to Philip (also found in the Nag Hammadi library), James (a version of the First Revelation of James from the Nag Hammadi library), the Gospel of Judas, and a text given the provisional title Book of Allogenes. Jean-Pierre Mahé has also identified fragments deriving from a Coptic translation of Corpus Hermeticum XIII. A large portion of the latter part of Codex Tchacos currently seems to be missing.
In title and contents the texts in these three collections represent a number of different genres. Several of the texts identify themselves as gospels (the Gospels of Truth, Thomas, Philip, Mary, and Judas, as well as the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, also called the Egyptian Gospel), although these are not gospels in the New Testament sense of gospels featuring the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas and, to a lesser extent, the Secret Book of James (or Apocryphon of James), the Gospel of Philip, and the Book of Thomas, are collections of sayings, reminiscent of the Synoptic sayings source Q, in the tradition of wisdom sayings of the sages. Other texts are in the form of a dialogue of the savior (including a tractate named just that), often presented as the risen Christ, with the disciples. There is also an excerpt of a Platonic dialogue. There are acts of apostles (of the twelve apostles, and of Peter), letters or epistles (for example, the Letter of Peter to Philip), revelations or apocalypses (of Peter, Paul, James, and Adam), secret books (or apocryphons, of James and John), and treatises (for example, the text given the title On the Origin of the World, and the Second Discourse of Great Seth [previously titled the Second Treatise of the Great Seth]). The Treatise on Resurrection is called a treatise, but it is preserved in the form of a letter. Nag Hammadi Codex I opens with a prayer of Paul, and Codex VI includes a Hermetic prayer. Other texts preserve materials given as hymns and homilies, and still others make use of Gnostic midrash and textual interpretation.
Three international research teams have led the way in researching and publishing the texts of the Nag Hammadi library. The Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity of Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California, has published The Nag Hammadi Library in English (3d ed., 1988), edited by James M. Robinson, as well as a critical edition. The Berliner Arbeitskreis für koptisch-gnostische Schriften has produced preliminary studies in Theologische Literaturzeitung and a two-volume work, Nag Hammadi Deutsch (2001, 2003), edited by Hans-Martin Schenke, Hans-Gebard Bethge, and Ursula Ulrike Kaiser. The French-language team based at the Université Laval in Québec has published the Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi and a one-volume set of translations, Écrits gnostiques (2007), edited by Jean-Pierre Mahé and Paul-Hubert Poirier. These publications include translations of texts in Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502. An international edition of these texts, produced with an advisory board representing the three major research teams, has been published as The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The International Edition (2007), edited by Marvin Meyer. Codex Tchacos has appeared in a critical edition, The Gospel of Judas, Together with the Letter of Peter to Philip, James, and a Book of Allogenes, from Codex Tchacos: Critical Edition (2007), edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, Gregor Wurst, and François Gaudard. Additional fragments of Codex Tchacos have been identified and published as well.
The codices of the Nag Hammadi library are now in the possession of the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, Egypt. Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502 is housed in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. It has been indicated that Codex Tchacos is to be returned to Egypt (the additional fragments are now there). Photographs of the pages of the Nag Hammadi tractates are available in The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices.
Among the remarkable textual discoveries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library stands out for the extent and significance of the discovery. Over the years the actual story of the discovery has been disputed by scholars, and two different accounts have appeared.
The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library According to Jean Doresse.
Initially, a few years after the discovery itself, which must have taken place about the end of 1945, the French scholar Jean Doresse began to explore the circumstances of the uncovering of the Nag Hammadi library, and he sought out and interviewed people from the region who he believed might disclose information about the discovery. He reported that some of them led him to the southern portion of what was apparently a pagan cemetery near the base of the Jabal al-Tarif, a prominent cliff near the villages of Hamra Dum, al-Busa, al-Dabba, al-Qasr, and Faw Qibli, across the river from the city of Nag Hammadi. They suggested, according to Doresse, that the discovery must have taken place somewhere around this locale, where it could be noted that the ground had been disturbed and fragments of bone, cloth, and pottery had been left. Doresse said he was told that peasants from the area had been looking for manure and stumbled upon a storage jar filled with papyrus sheets bound into codices, or books—the codices of the Nag Hammadi library. The jar had been lost, he was informed, and the codices had been brought to Cairo. Doresse has published his story in The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics (1960).
The Nag Hammadi Discovery According to James M. Robinson.
Meanwhile, beginning in the early 1970s, the American scholar James M. Robinson initiated his own investigation of the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library. Robinson interviewed a substantial number of people who appeared to be linked to the discovery, and he came to the conclusion that the account of Doresse was inaccurate and incomplete. According to Robinson's version of the story of the discovery, the Nag Hammadi library was found around December of 1945 by Muhammad Ali, a member of the al-Samman clan. Muhammad Ali himself reported the circumstances of the discovery to Robinson. Muhammad Ali recalled that he and several Egyptian fellahin, including his brothers Khalifah Ali and Abu al-Magd, were riding their camels near the Jabal al-Tarif around that time. He said he remembered the date of the trip because he connected it with an act of blood vengeance that was carried out right about then. Muhammad Ali told Robinson that he and the others hobbled their camels near the base of the Jabal al-Tarif and dug around a large boulder on the talus, or slope of debris, that had accumulated against the cliff face. They were attempting to gather sabakh, or manure, but they unexpectedly happened upon a large storage jar with a bowl sealed on the mouth of the jar. Muhammad Ali said he smashed the jar with his mattock, and in doing so he freed the codices of the Nag Hammadi library that had been sealed within the jar.
In a series of articles and studies, including long pieces in Colloque international sur les text de Nag Hammadi (1981) and The Fifth Gospel (1998), Robinson has published a full version of the story of discovery, including an account of the roles of middlemen and scholars who are part of the early story of the Nag Hammadi library. Robinson's version has been accepted by many scholars as the more compelling account of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library.
The Discovery of Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502.
The story of the discovery of the papyrus book called Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502 (Papyrus Berolinensis Gnosticus 8502) remains cloaked in uncertainty. According to reports, Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502 was obtained in January 1896 by a German scholar, Carl Reinhardt, who purchased it from a dealer from Akhmim. The dealer said the codex had been found with feathers all over it in a recessed location in a wall. Carl Schmidt, the original editor of a portion of the codex, concluded it may have come from a cemetery or some such place around Akhmim, but the details of the story of the discovery are unclear.
The Discovery of Codex Tchacos.
Herb Krosney has pieced together aspects of the complex story of the discovery and disposition of Codex Tchacos in his book, The Lost Gospel (2006). Krosney writes that Codex Tchacos apparently was found by fellahin near al-Minya, in a cave that was located at the Jabal Qarara and had been used for Coptic burial. The cave is said to have contained the skeleton of a man in a shroud, more human remains, and papyrus texts, including Codex Tchacos, placed in a white limestone box. The other texts associated with the discovery of Codex Tchacos include a Coptic translation of letters of Paul, a Greek text of the book of Exodus, and a Greek mathematical treatise. Following the discovery, Krosney reports, Codex Tchacos was carried to Cairo, put on display, stolen and recovered, shown to scholars in Europe, brought to the United States, and returned to Europe. Codex Tchacos was published in 2006–2007. Since that time additional papyrus fragments of the codex have been identified and sent to Cairo.
Nag Hammadi Archaeology.
From the nineteenth century on, explorers, scholars, and archaeologists have observed the tombs and ancient sites around Nag Hammadi and have engaged in archaeological ventures in the area. Sixth-dynasty rock tombs in the face of the Jabal al-Tarif were inspected, and pharaonic reliefs and hieroglyphs found within them were published. A Roman temple in the ancient city of Hu (Diospolis Parva) was excavated, as were cemeteries nearby. Topographical surveys in the Nag Hammadi region disclosed evidence of Pachomian monasteries in the area, including a monastery and basilica at Pbow (or Pabau, modern Faw Qibli), which functioned as the administrative center of the Pachomian monastic order. In the 1950s Fernand Debono organized a preliminary archaeological excavation of the monastery and basilica at Pbow, but the results of the work were limited.
Archaeology at the Jabal al-Tarif and Pbow.
The discovery of the Nag Hammadi library increased the interest in the archaeological investigation of the area in the vicinity of the Jabal al-Tarif and the Pachomian monastery at Pbow. After Jean Doresse published his story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, James M. Robinson organized archaeological exploration of the area near the Jabal al-Tarif in 1975, in order to test Doresse's claim that a cemetery near the base of the Jabal al-Tarif was the place where the Nag Hammadi library was found. A protonmagnetometer survey was undertaken and trial trenches were laid out, but no such cemetery was located. The caves and rock tombs in the face of the Jabal al-Tarif were excavated; the walls of one cave, now often referred to as the Psalms cave, were found to preserve the opening lines of Psalms 51–93 copied in the red paint typical of monastic use.
In the subsequent archaeological seasons (1976, 1977–1978, 1979–1980, and following)—partly on account of hints in the cartonnage, or scrap papyrus lining the covers of the Nag Hammadi codices, that there may have been a connection between the Nag Hammadi library and Pachomian monks from around Pbow—the archaeological work turned to the ruins of the monastery and basilica at Pbow. Peter Grossmann of the German Archaeological Institute took over the archaeological and architectural study of the site of Pbow during the 1980s (1986, 1989). Grossmann, together with Gary Lease, concluded that the evidence pointed to three successive churches built at this Pachomian center, each with five aisles, and each larger than the preceding church. The first and earliest of the churches was most likely built during the lifetime of Pachomius himself (ca. 330–346), and the third and final church at Pbow may have been the great Pachomian basilica referred to in the literature and apparently brought to completion in 459.
The cartonnage of the Nag Hammadi codices contains names calling to mind monks and locations around Pbow, and on the basis of this evidence it has been suggested that monks from Pbow may have been involved in the copying of the Nag Hammadi texts and the assembling of the codices. It may even be possible that the Nag Hammadi library served for a time as a part of a Pachomian library used by Christian monks who could be attracted to texts like those of the Nag Hammadi library, with their mystical and ascetical contents.
Archaeological and Historical Investigation in the Nag Hammadi Region.
Further investigation of the Nag Hammadi region has highlighted the richness of the historical and archaeological remains in the area and has illumined the historical context of the Nag Hammadi library.
In 1980 two surveys of sites near Faw Qibli with possible monastic connections were carried out. An archaeological survey of al-Qasr (or Chenoboskia), the place where sources say Pachomius was converted to Christianity and established the third Pachomian monastery, brought to light portions of millstones, oil presses and mortars, a marble column, door sockets, and a block of marble (previously known) with a Greek Hadrianic inscription. A second survey, of the Wadi Shaykh Ali, a ravine that runs off the Dishna plain, disclosed an unfinished obelisk, hieroglyphs (among them a cartouche of the fourth-dynasty Pharaoh Menkaure) incised on an overhanging rock, and numerous Coptic Christian graffiti, most painted onto the rock in the red paint used by monks. Bricks at the site suggest that this location may have been used for some monastic purpose.
James M. Robinson has also pursued the story of the discovery near the modern city of Dishna of another set of manuscripts he has designated the Dishna papers (commonly referred to as the Bodmer Papyri and Chester Beatty Papyri). Robinson believes that the Dishna papers were discovered in late 1952 near the Jabal Abu Mana, off the Dishna plain. The Dishna papers contain biblical manuscripts and letters from officials in the Pachomian monastic order, as well as other texts. Robinson has concluded that the Dishna papers, like the Nag Hammadi library, illustrate Pachomian connections, and Robinson has proposed that the Dishna papers derive from the Pachomian monastic library at Pbow. After the discovery of the Dishna papers, most of the texts eventually found their way into the holdings of the Bibliothèque Bodmer, the Chester Beatty Library, and similar collections.
Texts from the Nag Hammadi Library and Related Codices.
The discoveries in Egypt of the Nag Hammadi library, Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502, and Codex Tchacos have produced a treasure trove of materials for the study of Gnostic spirituality, Jewish and Christian traditions, and developments in philosophy. The texts within these codices clearly were composed in Greek at an earlier time and typically in other places, but they have been translated into Coptic and preserved in the dry sands of Egypt. Many of the texts function as primary texts reflective of Gnostic traditions. Prior to their discovery, the main witnesses to Gnostic forms of religion were the heresiologists, heresy-hunters like Irenaeus of Lyon, Hippolytus of Rome, and Epiphanius of Salamis who did their best to discredit and denounce Gnostics and their sacred literature. Now, with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library and the other codices, the Gnostics may speak for themselves, and their place within the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Greco-Roman philosophy may be assessed in a fresh manner.
A substantial number of texts in the Nag Hammadi library, Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502, and Codex Tchacos have been classified as Gnostic or gnosticizing (that is, representative of an incipient form of Gnostic thought). The term “Gnostic” is an embattled term. In their discussions of definition and taxonomy in relation to “Gnostic” texts, Karen King (2003) and Michael Williams (1996) have urged that the term be reconsidered and perhaps abandoned altogether on account of the lack of precision that afflicts the term and the polemical baggage that accompanies it. Nonetheless, Irenaeus of Lyon admits in his work Against Heresies that some of his opponents, especially those now termed Sethians as well as the followers of the teacher Marcellina, called themselves “Gnostics.” Irenaeus also borrows a phrase from 1 Timothy 6:20 when he announces that he is writing his heresiological work against “falsely so-called knowledge,” or gnosis. Further, to the present day the Mandaeans living in the Middle East and throughout the world refer to themselves as Mandaye, “Knowers,” that is, “Gnostics.” These factors suggest to some scholars that a careful and judicious use of the term “Gnostic” may still be appropriate.
Gnostic religion emphasizes intuitive, mystical knowledge—gnosis. Within Gnostic traditions, the chief problem in human life is said to be ignorance, a lack of awareness of the light of the divine within every true human being. Ignorance leaves people oblivious to the exalted deity who is both beyond the mortal world and within the human heart. A call to awakening from above is needed to bring people out of ignorance to knowledge and enlightenment. Within Christian Gnostic texts the call is uttered by Christ.
The beginnings of Gnostic religion are shrouded in obscurity, but it is clear that Gnostics found truths to support their beliefs in a variety of sources, particularly Jewish and Greek sources, including Platonism. Christian Gnostic schools of thought developed in the context of emerging Christianity. Gnostic texts often feature creation stories, especially from Genesis, and they interpret these stories in striking and innovative ways, with a transcendent divine spirit distinguished from the creator of this world, sometimes to the point of dualism. This contrast between God's world of light and life and the material world below as a realm of darkness and death was intended to explain the origin, fall, and ultimate salvation of the divine in this world.
The main schools of Gnostic or gnosticizing thought represented in the texts of the Nag Hammadi library, Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502, and Codex Tchacos are Thomas Christianity, Sethian Gnostic thought, the Valentinian school, and Hermetic religion. Other texts cannot be easily classified; some texts in the collections are not Gnostic in any sense of the word.
Two texts in Nag Hammadi Codex (NHC) II may be said to represent Thomas Christianity: the Gospel of Thomas (NHC II, 2) and the Book of Thomas (NHC II, 7). The Dialogue of the Savior (NHC III, 5) cannot be classified as representative of Thomas Christianity without qualification, but it does employ themes and phrases found in the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas Christianity traces its place of origin to Syria, where the figure of Judas Thomas, or Judas “the Twin,” was venerated, and Judas Thomas was considered not only the brother of Jesus but his twin brother. This motif of the twin came to expression elsewhere in Syrian thought—for example, in the Hymn of the Pearl within the Acts of Thomas—and it is also shared with Mani and Manichaeism.
The Gospel of Thomas is a gospel of wisdom that consists of a collection of sayings of Jesus, conventionally numbered at 114, with little narrative action. The Gospel of Thomas differs from the New Testament gospels of the cross in that it focuses its attention not upon the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus but rather upon the sayings of Jesus. The only mention made of a cross in the Gospel of Thomas is in logion, or saying, 55, where bearing one's cross is referred to in a metaphorical manner. Further, the description of Jesus as “the living Jesus” in the prologue to the gospel seems to mean that Jesus lives through his sayings, hidden sayings, and as Jesus lives in his words so also may those who encounter these sayings, interpret them, and embrace them and come to experience life. Logion 1 states, “Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death” (Meyer, ed., The Nag Hammadi Scriptures 2007). In the next saying Jesus explains how a person comes to this enlightened understanding: “Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and will reign over all” (logion 2; here P. Oxy. 654 adds “and [having
reigned], one will rest”). Such an experience of seeking and finding, of encountering Jesus and his sayings, Jesus promises, leads to knowledge of self and of God.
Sayings of Jesus identified among the Oxyrhynchus papyri (P. Oxy. 1, 654, and 655) and cited in Hippolytus of Rome (Refutation of All Heresies 5.7.20; 5.8.32) may now be understood to represent Greek versions of the Gospel of Thomas. A number of sayings of the Gospel of Thomas resemble New Testament sayings or sayings from the sayings gospel Q; some have a more mystical, even gnosticizing character. The relationship between the Gospel of Thomas and the New Testament gospels, especially the Synoptic Gospels, has been discussed and debated among scholars, as has the date of composition.
The Book of Thomas, like the Gospel of Thomas, is devoted to Judas Thomas, the hidden sayings of Jesus, and true knowledge of self, but the Book of Thomas adopts Platonic ideas as it stresses the fire of passion and the fire of hell. The first part of the Book of Thomas is in the form of a dialogue between Jesus and Judas Thomas; the second part is a monologue delivered by Jesus. Near the opening of the text Jesus encourages Thomas to know himself, and he announces to Thomas, “Since it is said that you are my twin and true friend, examine yourself and understand who you are, how you exist, and how you will come to be” (138). Jesus goes on to discuss with Thomas what is hidden and what is visible, and what is wise and what is foolish, and in words reminiscent of the Gospel of Thomas logion 2, he pronounces a blessing upon the wise people who seek truth, find it, and rest on it forever, with no fear of those who may trouble the wise (140–141). The text concludes with Jesus preaching a fiery sermon about judgment, with woes pronounced against the wicked who hope in the prison of the flesh and blessings showered upon those who escape the temptations of the flesh and come to reign and rest with God.
The Book of Thomas was probably composed in the second or early third century, that is, some time after the Gospel of Thomas and some time before another text of Thomas Christianity, the Acts of Thomas.
The Dialogue of the Savior is a fairly fragmentary tractate with a dialogue among Jesus and his disciples, particularly Judas (most likely Judas Thomas, on account of themes in the text recalling the Gospel of Thomas), Matthew, and Mary (most likely Mary Magdalene). The tractate may have been composed in the second century; some scholars posit that materials included in the text may even be a bit older. A wide variety of topics are discussed in the Dialogue of the Savior, such as spirit, body, light, darkness, the world, the rulers of the world, fullness, deficiency, life, death, and so on—topics familiar from Gnostic documents. The pursuit of gnosis is a dominant theme. Mary receives special praise in the text, and it is maintained that she speaks “as a woman who understood everything” (139). Parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and the Dialogue of the Savior may be noted, as when Jesus says, in words like those of Thomas logion 2 (and logion 81), “And I say to you, let one [who has] power renounce [it and] repent, and let one who [knows] seek and find and rejoice” (129).
Sethian Gnostic Thought.
The Sethian school of Gnostic thought is represented by a substantial number of texts from the Nag Hammadi library, Berlin Gnostic text 8502 (BG), and Codex Tchacos: the Secret Book of John (NHC II,1; III,1: IV,1; BG,2), the Nature of the Rulers (or the Hypostasis of the Archons, NHC II,4), the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit (NHC III,2; IV,2), the Revelation of Adam (NHC V,5), the Three Steles of Seth (NHC VII,5), Zostrianos (NHC VIII,1), Melchizedek (NHC IX,1), the Thought of Norea (NHC IX,2), Marsanes (NHC X), Allogenes the Stranger (NHC XI,3), Three Forms of First Thought (NHC XIII,1), the Gospel of Judas (Tchacos 3), and a very fragmentary Book of Allogenes (Tchacos 4). The untitled text from the Bruce Codex is also considered Sethian.
The term “Sethian” is used by scholars to name texts and traditions in this Gnostic school of thought; in The Gnostic Scriptures (1987) Bentley Layton calls these texts classic Gnostic scripture. According to Irenaeus of Lyon, some of the people he opposed, whom scholars now term “Sethians,” referred to themselves as “Gnostics.” The Sethian texts typically proclaim a Hellenistic Jewish mystical spirituality (often Christianized) coupled with a Greek philosophical, Platonic interpretive twist. Seth son of Adam, whose holy seed constitutes a new beginning for humankind in Genesis, is the hero of the Sethian narrative, and Gnostics are said to be the seed or offspring of Seth in this world.
The Secret Book of John, preserved in two recensions (a shorter and a longer recension) and cited in Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies 1.29, offers a sophisticated mythological narrative and an interpretation of the creation stories of Genesis to describe how the light of the high God, the Invisible Spirit, evolves or devolves into this world, to find its place within people of gnosis. The text may be assigned a date around the second century. In the opinion of many scholars, the Secret Book of John is a Hellenistic Jewish text that has been secondarily Christianized, so that the narrative framework and the revealer figure in the current versions of the text feature the person of Jesus. The revelatory portion of the text opens with a confession of the One, or the Monad, in the language of negative theology. The text proclaims, “The One is not corporeal and it is not incorporeal. The One is not large and it is not small. It is impossible to say, How much is it? What [kind is it]? For no one can understand it” (II,1: 3). Indeed, “Its eternal realm is incorruptible, at peace, dwelling in silence, at rest, before everything” (II,1: 4). In the Secret Book of John this One extends itself, through emanations, creations, and aeons, into a fullness of divine light (the pleroma). The One, also referred to as the divine Father, acts as divine mind, and with words that recall the myth of Narcissus, the text declares that the Father sees and loves his own image, and his first thought, or Forethought (Pronoia), becomes realized in the person of Barbelo, the divine Mother or source of all. The last of the expressions of the divine, Sophia, the personified Wisdom of God who is called “the Wisdom of Insight (Epinoia),” precipitates a jolt in the godhead, a fall from grace, when she errs and produces an unfortunate child destined to be the creator or demiurge of a world of matter and mortality.
As is the case in a number of Gnostic texts, such as the Nature of the Rulers, so also in the Secret Book of John, innovative interpretations of the Genesis creation accounts dramatize the process by means of which the light of God finds its way into this world and people within this world. With the actions of the creator of the world, the chief archon or ruler (given names like Yaldabaoth, Samael, and Sakla), who is tricked into breathing breath or spirit into humankind, some of the light of God above enters human beings, with the result that the megalomaniacal creator and his lackeys oppose and persecute people of light in the world. Yet when humans come to know themselves and the light within, they may be joined with the God above once again. In the Secret Book of John, the enlightened Insight of God comes to the aid of Adam and humanity by helping “the whole creation, laboring with it, restoring it to its fullness (pleroma), teaching it about the descent of the seed, teaching it about the way of ascent, which is the way of descent” (II,1: 20). In this way the whole creation of humanity, along with Sophia, may be redeemed. Humankind is saved, and so is God, whose light detained below is restored to the realm of light above.
The Gospel of Judas is preserved in Codex Tchacos and referred to in Irenaeus of Lyon, and hence it may be dated, in some version of the text, to the middle portion of the second century. Sophia plays a central role in the Secret Book of John, but Sophia, or Wisdom, is barely mentioned in the Gospel of Judas. Her place may be taken by Judas Iscariot, the disciple who turns Jesus (or rather the mortal body of Jesus) over to be crucified but remains the one to whom Jesus imparts knowledge of salvation. The gospel depicts Jesus approaching the disciples as they are celebrating a holy meal together, and he laughs. Jesus laughs a great deal in the Gospel of Judas, as he does in other Sethian texts and Gnostic sources. While the other disciples are unable to stand before Jesus, Judas can, and he utters the appropriate Sethian confession of who Jesus is. He says, “I know who you are and where you have come from. You have come from the immortal aeon of Barbelo. And I am not worthy to utter the name of the one who has sent you” (35; Kasser, Meyer, Wurst, and Gaudard, eds., The Gospel of Judas: Critical Edition 2008).
Thereafter in the Gospel of Judas, Jesus appears to the disciples and especially Judas and provides revelatory knowledge about life in the world, the folly of sacrifice, and the origin and nature of the universe. In a long cosmological section of the text, which represents a Hellenistic Jewish mystical approach with a few Christian adaptations, Jesus explains to Judas how the universe has emerged from the creative activity of the highest God, the Great Invisible Spirit, and has come to extend down to the realm of mortality below. Still, in spite of the problems and perils associated with life in this world, there is hope. As Jesus tells Judas in the text, “God caused knowledge (gnosis) to be [given] to Adam and those with him,” so that Adam and humanity might overcome the machinations of the powers of this world and be free (54). At the end of time, Jesus announces in the gospel, all will be resolved. The archon or ruler of the world will be destroyed, “[and] then will the image of the great generation of Adam be exalted, for prior to heaven, earth, and the angels, that generation, which is from the aeons, exists” (57).
The Gospel of Judas closes with the real, spiritual person of Jesus ascending to a luminous cloud and Judas returning to Jerusalem and handing over to the authorities the mortal body that Jesus has vacated. In this understated manner, the gospel ends. No account is given of the crucifixion, which after all has no salvific value in the Gospel of Judas.
The scholarly discussion of the Gospel of Judas has been vigorous. The discussion has focused upon the questions of the positive or negative evaluation of the figure of Judas Iscariot in the text (for example, when Jesus calls Judas a daimōn, does that mean spirit or evil demon?), and the extent to which the gospel represents familiar forms of Sethian gnosis.
Several other Sethian texts deserve mention. The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, which includes selections from a Sethian baptismal liturgy, shows similarities to the Secret Book of John, and both of these texts in turn contain passages paralleled in the Gospel of Judas. The Revelation of Adam offers a Sethian account of the history of salvation, said to have been communicated from Adam to his son Seth and the seed of Seth, with few if any Christian references. The Three Steles of Seth presents liturgical hymns of praise for a ceremony of visionary ascent to the exalted One. Three Forms of First Thought represents the self-manifestation of Protennoia, First Thought, as Voice, Speech, and Word, or Logos, and the text seems to address the role of the Logos in a manner similar to that of the hymn to the Logos opening the Gospel of John (1:1–18). Some Sethian texts—Zostrianos, Allogenes the Stranger, Marsanes, and the Three Steles of Seth—use strongly Platonizing language, and Porphyry states in his Life of Plotinus (16) that revelations of Zoroaster, Zostrianos, and Allogenes were discussed and critiqued in Plotinus's Neoplatonist seminar held in Rome in the mid-third century. These Nag Hammadi texts seem to reflect the revelations referred to by Porphyry.
Bentley Layton also considers the text entitled Thunder (NHC VI,2) to be Sethian. With poetic, paradoxical lines placed on the lips of a female revealer and delivered as aretalogical self-predications (that is, “I am” statements), Thunder resembles Isis aretalogies, the Gospel of John, and other sources in the literary form of the text.
The Valentinian School of Gnostic Thought.
The tractates in the Nag Hammadi library that come from the Valentinian school of thought include the Gospel of Truth (NHC I,3; XII,2 [fragments]), the Treatise on Resurrection (I,4), the Tripartite Tractate (I,5), the Gospel of Philip (II,3), the Interpretation of Knowledge (XI,1), and Valentinian Exposition (XI,2), along with the Valentinian Liturgical Readings. Additional Valentinian texts, such as Heracleon's Commentary on the Gospel of John, Ptolemy's Letter to Flora, and the Excerpts from Theodotus, are known from other sources, namely the church fathers. Valentinian texts are named after the second-century teacher and author, Valentinus, whose work provided a point of departure for subsequent Valentinian gnosis and who may in fact have composed the Gospel of Truth (an attribution disputed by some scholars). Irenaeus of Lyon states in Against Heresies 1.11.1 that Valentinus adapted ideas from the Sethians and used them to develop his own thought, and if Irenaeus is to be believed, the Valentinian school of thought may be founded in part on the fundamental principles of the Sethian Gnostics. The Valentinian texts illustrate that Valentinian Gnostics considered themselves to be Christians, and apparently they often were members of the Christian church.
The Gospel of Truth is a mystical sermon on salvation through knowledge of God. Irenaeus of Lyon indicates that the Valentinians made use of a text entitled the Gospel of Truth, and the present text from the Nag Hammadi library opens with an incipit that mentions that very title: “The gospel of truth is joy for people who have received grace from the Father of truth, that they might know him through the power of the Word” (I,3: 16). Continuing in terms recalling the Johannine hymn to the Logos, the text observes that the Word has appeared “from the fullness (pleroma) in the Father's thought and mind.” As in the Gospel of John, the Word in the Gospel of Truth is the savior Jesus, who is called “Jesus of infinite sweetness” (24). The issue the savior has come to resolve is ignorance and forgetfulness, which have produced terror and fear. Jesus takes people out of this sorry state by offering knowledge to those in ignorance and light to those in darkness. In the words of the text, “He enlightened them and showed the way, and that way is the truth he taught them” (18). For his revelation of the hidden mystery and knowledge of God, Jesus is persecuted and crucified, but the crucifixion becomes an image of life and liberation and Jesus becomes “fruit of the knowledge (gnosis) of the Father.” Those who have eaten of the fruit of knowledge have been joined to Jesus. The Gospel of Truth exclaims, “They were joyful in this discovery, and he found them within himself and they found him within themselves.”
The Gospel of Truth enlarges upon this vision of saving knowledge of God through metaphor, parable, interpretation, and elaboration. It is said that Jesus reveals a living book, in which the thought and mind of God are disclosed. The process of coming to knowledge and enlightenment is compared to possessing jars that are empty or full, or having a nightmare and waking up, or losing and finding sheep, or sensing cold water becoming warm. Finally, those who attain knowledge find God: “The Father is in them and they are in the Father, perfect, inseparable from him who is truly good” (42). The Gospel of Truth concludes, “Children like this the Father loves” (43).
The Treatise on Resurrection is written in the form of a letter to someone, real or fictitious, named Rheginus, and the topic addressed in the letter is the nature of the resurrection from a Valentinian perspective. Like Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:54 and 2 Corinthians 5:4, the Valentinian treatise announces that the savior “swallowed death,” but resurrection in the treatise entails the liberation of spiritual life from physical existence in this world. The text claims that “the world is illusion,” and resurrection is “the disclosure of those who have arisen” (48). The Treatise on Resurrection encourages the recipient of the letter, in terms that echo the position ascribed to Hymenaeus and Philetus in 2 Timothy 2:16–18, to live the resurrected life: “If the mortal part knows itself, knows that it will die even though it has lived many years in this life, why not look at yourself and see that you already have arisen and have been received in?” (49). For Valentinians, the resurrection has already taken place.
The additional texts representing Valentinian gnosis in the Nag Hammadi library include the Gospel of Philip, which consists of an anthology of meditations on several themes, including life and death, light and darkness, Jew and gentile, the names of Jesus, Wisdom and Mary Magdalene, and Adam and Eve. Like the Treatise on Resurrection, the Gospel of Philip discusses the resurrection in Valentinian perspective. The text specifies five sacraments—baptism, chrism, Eucharist, redemption, bridal chamber (67)—and discusses at length the saving value of being united in the bridal chamber. When someone is restored in sacrament and resurrection, the gospel proclaims, such a one is mystically identified with Christ. No longer simply a Christian, that person is one with Christ, and is Christ (67).
Texts of Hermetic Religion and Other Texts.
In the Nag Hammadi library the Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth (VI,6), the Prayer of Thanksgiving (VI,7), and the Excerpt from the Perfect Discourse (VI,8, sometimes referred to as Asclepius) are texts that represent Hermetic religion. Hermetic religion harks back to the Egyptian moon god Thoth, who was linked with the Greek god Hermes, the divine messenger, and given the epithet Trismegistus, “thrice greatest,” from Egyptian lore. Hermetic religion has been known through the tractates of the Corpus Hermeticum, and the discovery of these three texts from Nag Hammadi Codex VI offers more insights into Hermetic religion. The first of these Hermetic texts from the Nag Hammadi library was previously unknown, the last two are to be found in other versions. The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth portrays the education of a student in dialogue with a teacher, called a father, through the advanced stages of enlightenment. The student, in words of spiritual bliss, exalts in having received immortal wisdom and divine power, and states, “My mind wants to sing a hymn to you every day. I am the instrument of your spirit, my mind is your plectrum, and your guidance makes music with me” (60). Here the Gnostic, Hermetic quest for wisdom and knowledge has reached a point of fulfillment in the music of the spirit.
Other texts in the Nag Hammadi library, Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502, and Codex Tchacos do not represent any recognized school of Gnostic thought, and some texts are not Gnostic in any clear sense of the term. One text that is not easily classified is the Gospel of Mary, previously known through Greek fragments from the Oxyrhynchus papyri (P. Oxy. 3525; P. Ryl. 463) and now present in a longer but still incomplete text from Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502 (BG,1). Pages 1–6 and 11–14 are missing from the papyrus manuscript, and the extant text opens (on page 7) with the savior conversing with the disciples on the nature of matter and the character of sin. The savior says, “There is no such thing as sin,” but what is called sin is improper commingling in the affairs of the world. The savior bids the disciples farewell, and stresses that they should seek and find the Child of Humanity, or the Son of Man, within themselves. Mary—Mary Magdalene, no doubt—assumes a prominent place among the disciples of Jesus, and she is described as the one whom Jesus loves most of women and of the disciples as a group. Mary, it is said, has more knowledge of Jesus and his teachings than the other disciples. She greets, addresses, and comforts the disciples, and she proclaims that the savior will protect them and make them truly human. She also recounts a vision she experienced of the ascent of the soul (the account is only partially preserved). Peter, as in other texts, likes none of this, and he opposes Mary and her message, but Levi supports her and summons the disciples to go out and teach the good news.
Scholars disagree about whether the Gospel of Mary, which was probably composed in the second century, should be considered a Gnostic gospel. Passages describing the role of Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Mary may be compared with perspectives on Mary (and Peter) in other texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Dialogue of the Savior, the Gnostic text entitled Pistis Sophia, and the Manichaean Psalm Book.
Additional texts from the Nag Hammadi library and related codices are equally difficult to classify or connect with a known Gnostic school of thought. The Secret Book of James (NHC I,2), written in the form of a letter, depicts Jesus uttering revelatory words, parables, apothegms, and other sayings with Gnostic interests while he is in conversation with James the Just and Peter. The Exegesis on the Soul (NHC II,6) recounts a Gnostic version of the myth of the soul, with proof texts from the Bible and Homer. Eugnostos the Blessed (NHC III,3; V,1) is a Gnostic account, with Hellenistic Jewish contents and Greek influences, on how the divine realms came into existence, and the Wisdom of Jesus Christ (NHC III,4; BG,3) is an expanded and Christianized version of Eugnostos. Both of these texts share features with other Gnostic texts, and there are close parallels with the Gospel of Judas. The First and Second Revelations of James (NHC V,3 and V,4; the text entitled James, the second text from Codex Tchacos, is a fuller version of the former text) discuss, from a Gnostic perspective, the meaning of martyrdom and death. The First Revelation is a dialogue between Jesus and his brother James on their impending deaths; the Second Revelation is presented in the form of a transcript of a speech concerning an appearance of the risen Christ and the martyrdom of James. The Paraphrase of Shem (NHC VII,1) is a long, complex Gnostic revelation that recites a story about the origin of the universe in graphically sexual terms. In spite of its title, the Second Discourse of Great Seth (NHC VII,2) is not to be classified as a Sethian tractate. Instead, it is a Gnostic speech put on the lips of Jesus about saving knowledge and the meaning of the crucifixion. According to this text, as well as the Revelation of Peter (or Apocalypse of Peter, NHC VII,3), a Gnostic apocalypse which follows the Second Discourse of Great Seth in the codex, the true, spiritual Christ was not harmed in the crucifixion, and he laughed at the ignorance of those trying to kill him. The Letter of Peter to Philip (NHC VIII,2; Tchacos 1) opens as a letter but is largely presented as a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples on Gnostic issues. Portions of the Letter of Peter to Philip may be compared with the hymn to the Logos in John and the first Petrine part of the Acts of the Apostles. Other texts—Authoritative Discourse (or Authoritative Teaching, NHC VI,3), the Concept of our Great Power (NHC VI,4), the Testimony of Truth (NHC IX,3), Hypsiphrone (NHC XI,4)—likewise defy easy classification.
Some of the texts in the Nag Hammadi library and the other codices cannot be considered Gnostic. One such text is the Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles (NHC VI,1), which belongs to the genre of apocryphal acts of the apostles and which tells the story of Peter and the other apostles meeting a mysterious seller of pearls. The Teachings of Silvanus (NHC VII,4) is a Christian wisdom text with no obvious Gnostic features. The Sentences of Sextus (NHC XII,1) is a Coptic translation of part of a collection of wisdom sayings known in several early editions; it is not a Gnostic text either. Nor is the Act of Peter (BG,4), which is related to the tradition of the Acts of Peter from the apocryphal acts of the apostles. An Excerpt from Plato's Republic (NHC VI,5) is included among the Nag Hammadi tractates, perhaps because the discussion of the wild beast and the human soul in the excerpt resonated well with Gnostic concerns.
The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library and Other Codices.
Given the distinct possibility that the codices of the Nag Hammadi library could have been in the possession of Pachomian monks, perhaps from the monastery at Pbow, it may well be those monks who eventually left the codices in the storage jar at the foot of the Jabal al-Tarif, to be discovered in modern times. While the circumstances for hiding the codices remain uncertain, some scholars have suggested a connection with Athanasius of Alexandria. In 367, at around the time when the Nag Hammadi codices were buried at the Jabal, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria and champion of orthodox Christianity, produced a Festal Letter that was read in the churches of Egypt. In the letter Athanasius addresses the question of canon, that is, which books should be judged authoritative and worthy of inclusion in the Bible, and he also expresses his concern about orthodoxy and heresy in Egypt. Because Athanasius condemns the heterodox and advises the faithful to beware of them and their wicked books, this letter may have been the occasion, some have guessed, for monks to hearken to the words of their bishop and hide the texts of the Nag Hammadi library, beyond the reaches of the Nile, in a jar near the Jabal al-Tarif.
These concerns about issues of orthodoxy and heresy, and about an authoritative collection of canonical books for Christian believers to read, arise in connection with the Nag Hammadi library, Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502, and Codex Tchacos, and the scholarly examination of these texts has provided the occasion for scholars to reflect anew upon such issues. The numerous texts of these collections have brought to light a considerably expanded set of Hellenistic Jewish, Greco-Roman, and early Christian documents, particularly documents with mystical and Gnostic contents, and the result has given scholars a greater awareness of the diversity of religious and philosophical texts and traditions available during the early centuries of the Common Era. Some scholars, such as Karen King, have emphasized the rhetorical and polemical motives that accompanied the debates within early Christian circles about orthodoxy, heresy, canon—and gnosis. The observations of King and others suggest that additional attention be paid to these issues, and the methods used to describe, classify, and study ancient documents, within the context of the texts of the Nag Hammadi library and related codices.
Some of the texts of these collections, most notably the Gospel of Thomas (and to a lesser extent other texts with sayings of Jesus and dialogues of Jesus with the disciples), may contribute to the study of the historical Jesus and early Jesus traditions. If the Gospel of Thomas is dated, in some form, to the early part of the second century (or even earlier), a point on which there is disagreement among scholars, it could assume a place in fairly close historical proximity to the New Testament gospels and Q. The Gospel of Thomas is commonly recognized as a text comparable to Q in genre and contents. Further, the seemingly early form of some sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas, and the previously unknown sayings and parables of Jesus discovered in Thomas, may provide additional material for the study of Jesus and his sayings. The paucity of titles attributed to Jesus in Thomas may also advance the discussion of the employment of Christological titles in early Christian traditions. The form of the Gospel of Thomas—a wisdom gospel with no interest in the crucifixion and with few Christological titles—has confirmed for some scholars that the historical Jesus may be understood to be primarily a Jewish teacher of wisdom.
The introduction of many new texts into the discussion of Judaism, Christianity, and the Greco-Roman world has already had an impact upon the understanding of the religious and philosophical history of the time. Gnostic traditions, once known chiefly through heresiological accounts, are now being examined on the basis of a large body of primary texts of gnosis. The result has been a striking advance in the understanding of gnosis and Gnostic schools of thought. Gnostic texts increasingly can be seen within the context of broader religious and theological discussions, and these Gnostic texts illustrate an engagement with the issues of the day, such as apostolic authority, community leadership, the nature of the divine, the nature and value of the crucifixion and resurrection, the character of wisdom, and the relationship of faith and knowledge. Texts from the Nag Hammadi library also contribute to the understanding and interpretation of New Testament texts, for example Johannine and Pauline literature. The Secret Book of John may be seen as a text within the scope of Johannine interests, and Three Forms of First Thought and the Tripartite Tractate, among other texts, address the nature of the Logos. The Prayer of the Apostle Paul and the Revelation of Paul add to the corpus of Pauline texts, and citations of Paul are to be found in Valentinian texts and other tractates. Gnostic texts also contain allusions to Greco-Roman mythological and philosophical concepts, and the formative influence of Platonism, in the form of Middle Platonic and Neoplatonic themes, is apparent. The presence of an excerpt from Plato in the Nag Hammadi texts is especially noteworthy. The interaction of Plotinus and other Neoplatonist philosophers with Gnostics in Rome in the third century is clarified through the Platonizing Sethian tractates in the Nag Hammadi library, and the development of Platonic thought expressed in varying terms is more fully understood.
The impact of the texts of the Nag Hammadi library, Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502, and Codex Tchacos has already been very substantial. The future will likely show even more interest in incorporating these texts into the intellectual history of antiquity and late antiquity.
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