Electronic Reserve Text: Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, New York: Vintage, 1978.
IN DECEMBER 1945 an Arab peasant made an astonishing archeological discovery in Upper Egypt. Rumors obscured the circumstances of this find-perhaps because the discovery was accidental, and its sale on the black market illegal. For years even the identity of the discoverer remained unknown. One rumor held that he was a blood avenger; another, that he had made the find near the town of Naj '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. Shortly before he and his brothers avenged their father's murder in a blood feud, they had saddled their camels and gone out to the Jabal to dig for sabakh, a soft soil they used to fertilize their crops. Digging around a massive boulder, they hit a red earthenware jar, almost a meter high. Muhammad 'Alihesitated to break the jar, considering that a jinn, or spirit, might live inside. But realizing that it might also contain gold, he raised his mattock, smashed the jar, and discovered inside thirteen papyrus books, bound in leather. Returning 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 MuQammad 'Ali tells it, he and his brothers avenged their father's death by murdering Ahmed Isma'il. Their mother had warned her sons to keep their mattocks sharp: when they learned that their father's enemy was nearby, the brothers seized the opportunity, "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, MuQammad 'Ali asked the priest, al-Qummus Basiliyus Abd al-Masih, to keep one or more for him. During the time that MuQammad 'Ali and his brothers were being interrogated for murder, Raghib, a local history teacher, had seen one of the books, and suspected that it had value. Having received one from al-Qummus Baslliyiis, Raghib sent it to a friend in Cairo to find out its worth.
Sold on the black market through antiquities dealers in Cairo, the manuscripts soon attracted the attention of officials of the Egyptian government. Through circumstances of high drama, as we shall see, they bought one and confiscated ten and a half of the thirteen leather-bound books, called codices, and deposited them in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. But a large part of the thirteenth codex, containing five extraordinary texts, was smuggled out of Egypt and offered for sale in America. Word of this codex soon reached Professor Gilles Quispel, distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Excited by the discovery, Quispel urged the Jung Foundation in Zurich to buy the codex. But discovering, when he succeeded, that some pages were missing, he flew to Egypt in the spring of 1955 to try to find them in the Coptic Museum. Arriving in Cairo, he went at once to the Coptic Museum, borrowed photographs of some of the texts, and hurried back to his hotel to decipher them. Tracing out the first line, Quispel was startled, then in-
[ xv ]
credulous, to read: "These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down."(3) Quispel knew that his colleague H.-C. Puech, using notes from another French scholar, Jean Doresse, had identified the opening lines with fragments of a Greek Gospel of Thomas discovered in the 1890's. 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' sayings? 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 discovered that it contained many sayings known from the New Testament; but these sayings, placed in unfamiliar contexts, suggested other dimensions of meaning. Other passages, Quispel found, differed entirely from any known Christian tradition: the "living Jesus," for example, speaks in sayings as cryptic and compelling 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."(4)
What Quispel held in his hand, the Gospel of Thomas, was only one of the fifty-two texts discovered at Nag Hammadi (the usual English transliteration of the town's name). 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:
Other sayings in this collection criticize common Christian beliefs, such as the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, as
naive misunderstandings. Bound together with these gospels is the Apocryphon (literally, "secret book") of John, which opens with an offer to reveal "the mysteries [and the] things hidden in silence" which Jesus taught to his disciple John.(6)
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]."(7) 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 about 1,500 years ago, of still more ancient manuscripts. The originals
themselves had been written in Greek, the language of the New Testament:
as Doresse, Puech, and Quispel had recognized, part of one of them had
been discovered by archeologists about fifty years earlier, when they
found a few fragments of the original
About the dating of the manuscripts themselves there is little debate. Examination of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings, and of the Coptic script, place them c. A.D. 350-400.(9) But scholars sharply disagree about the dating of the original texts. Some of them can hardly be later than c. A.D. 120-150, since Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyons, writing c. 180, declares that heretics "boast that they possess more gospels than there really are,"(10) and complains that in his time such writings already have won wide circulation-from Gaul through Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor.
Quispel and his collaborators, who first published the Gospel of Thomas, suggested the date of c. A.D. 140 for the origina1(1l) Some reasoned that since these gospels were heretical, they must
written later than
the gospels of the New Testament, which are dated c. 60-110. But recently
Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University has suggested that the
collection of sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, although 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-l00)-as early as, or earlier, than Mark, Matthew,
Luke, and John.(12)
Scholars investigating the Nag Hammadi find discovered that some of the texts tell the origin of the human race in terms very different from the usual reading of Genesis: the Testimony of Truth, for example, tells the story of the Garden of Eden from the viewpoint of the serpent! Here the serpent, long known to appear in gnostic literature as the principle of divine wisdom, 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.(13) Another text, mysteriously entitled the Thunder, Perfect iUind, offers an extraordinary poem spoken in the voice of a feminine divine power:
pression as banned documents, and their burial on the cliff at 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 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. Bishop Irenaeus, who supervised the church in Lyons, c. 180, wrote five volumes, entitled The Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-called Knowledge, which begin 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. (15)
He denounces as especially "full of blasphemy" a famous gospel called the Gospel of Truth.(16) Is Irenaeus referring to the same 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.(17) But Irenaeus does use the same source as at least one of the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi--the Apocryphon (Secret Book) of John--as ammunition for his own attack on such "heresy."
Fifty years later
Hippolytus, a teacher in Rome, wrote another massive Refutation of All
Heresies to "expose and refute the wicked blasphemy of the heretics."(18)
This campaign against heresy involved an involuntary admission of its persuasive power; yet the bishops prevailed. By the time of the Emperor Constantine's conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical
was made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed. But in Upper Egypt, someone, possibly a monk from a nearby monastery of SL Pachomius,(19) took the banned books and hid 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 offer traditions about Jesus that are secret, hidden from "the many" who constitute what, in the second century, came to be called the "catholic church." These Christians are now 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.(20)
, my soul, my body." Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate. ..If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.(21)
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: selfknowledge 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 will be revealed to him."(22)
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 had. 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."(23) Trade routes between the Greco-Roman world and the Far East were opening up at the time when gnosticism flourished (A.D. 80-200); for generations, Buddhist missionaries had been proselytizing in Alexandria. We note, too, that Hippolytus, who was a Greekspeaking Christian in Rome ( c. 225), knows of the Indian Brahmins-and includes their tradition among the sources of heresy:
There is ...among the Indians a heresy of those who philosophize among the Brahmins, who live a self-sufficient life, abstaining from (eating) living creatures and all cooked food. ..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.(24)
Could the title of the Gospel of Thomas--named for the disciple who, tradition tells us, went to India--suggest the influence of Indian tradition?
These hints indicate 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.(25) 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. According to tradition, a heretic is one who deviates from the true faith. But what defines that "true faith"? Who calls it that, and for what reasons?
We find this problem
familiar in our own experience. 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 Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox 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, all members of the Christian community
shared their money and property; all believed the same teaching, and
worshiped together; all revered the authority of the apostles. It
was only after that 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 represent 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.(26)
Contemporary Christianity, diverse and complex as we find it, actually may show more unanimity than the Christian churches of the first and second centuries. For nearly all Chris-
tians 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 affirm specific forms of church
institution. 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 century. 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-and radically differing-religious
beliefs and practices. And the communities scattered throughout the
known world organized themselves in ways that differed widely from one
group to another.
Yet by A.D. 200, the situation had changed. 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." The majority of churches, among which the church of Rome took a leading role, rejecte'd 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 of that church, he declared, "there is no salvation."(27) 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 escalated.
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 alternative forms of early Christianity came from the massive 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. The first emerged in 1769, when a Scottish tourist named James Bruce bought a Coptic manuscript near Thebes (modern Luxor) in Upper Egypt.(28) Published only in 1892, it claims to record conversations of Jesus with his disciples-a group that here includes both men and women. In 1773 a collector found in a London bookshop an ancient text, also in Coptic, that contained a dialogue on "mysteries" between Jesus and his disciples.(29) In 1896 a German Egyptologist, alerted by the previous publications, bought in Cairo a manuscript that, to his amazement, contained the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) and three other texts. Three copies of one of them, the Apocryphon (Secret Book) of John were also included among the gnostic library discovered at Nag Hammadi fifty years later .(30)
But why is this astonishing discovery at Nag Hammadi only now becoming known for the first time? 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, the eminent authority on gnosticism, 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).(31)
Access to the texts was deliberately suppressed not only in ancient times but, for very different reasons, in the more than thirty years since the discovery.(32) In the first place, villagers
Upper Egypt and
the antiquities dealers who were trying to get rich from the manuscripts
hid them to avoid confiscation by government authorities. Their value
became clear when the French Egyptologist Jean Doresse saw the first
of the recovered manuscripts in 1947 at the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
When the museum's director, Togo Mina, asked him to examine it, Doresse
identified the manuscript and announced that this discovery would mark
an 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. Following this meeting, Mina went
to see Eid to tell him that he would never allow the manuscript to leave
Egypt-it must be sold, for a nominal price, to the museum.
But still the majority of the find remained hidden. Bahij 'Ali, a one-eyed outlaw from al-Qasr, had acquired possession of many of the codices 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 to see if he could find more. While Doresse worked in Cairo through the air raids and bombings of 1948 to publish the manuscript of Codex III, the Minister of Public Education negotiated to buy Tano's collection for the museum. Tano worked fast to prevent the government from interfering, by saying that they belonged to a private party, a woman named Dattari, an Italian collector living in Cairo. But on June 10, 1949, Miss Dattari was unsettled to read the following report in Cairo's French newspaper:
When the government nationalized the collection in 1952, government officials claimed the codices, packed in a sealed suitcase. They paid Miss Dattari nothing--although her asking
price had been about £ 100,000. When she retaliated with a lawsuit, she succeeded only in delaying research for three years by gaining a court injunction against it; she lost the case.
But the government failed to confiscate Eid's part of Codex I. In 1949 Albert Eid, worried about government intervention, flew from Caito to America. By including the manuscript in a large collection of export items, he succeeded in smuggling it out of Egypt. He offered it to buyers for as much as $22,000, but since at least one prospective buyer refused, fearing that the Egyptian government would resent the sale, he returned disappointed to Belgium, where he placed it in a safe deposit box protected by a secret password.
The Egyptian government indicted Eid for smuggling antiquities, but by the time of his conviction, the antiquities dealer had died. The court imposed a fine of £ 6,000 on his estate. Meanwhile Eid's widow secretly negotiated to sell the codex, perhaps even to competing bidders. Professor Gilles Quispel, who urged the Jung Foundation in Ziirich to buy it, says he did not know that the export and sale were illegal when he made the arrangements. He enjoys telling the dramatic story of his coup:
Once ownership of the manuscripts was established by 1952--twelve and a half codices in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and most of the thirteenth in a safe-deposit box in Zurich-the texts became, for the next twenty years, the focus of intense personal rivalries among the international group of scholars competing for access to them.
Dr. Pahor Labib, who took over directorship of the Coptic Museum in 1952, decided to keep strict control over publication rights. Publishing the definitive first edition of anyone of these extraordinary, original texts-let alone the whole collectionwould establish a scholar's reputation internationally. 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, alerted to the discovery by French scholars, urged publication of the whole find and proposed setting up an international committee to arrange it.(35) The Scandinavian archeologist Torgny Save-Soderberg wrote to UNESCO, speaking for himself and other scholars, urging UNESCO to intervene, and to prepare a complete edition of photographs of all the manuscripts in order to place the whole of the discovery at the disposal of the many scholars throughout the world who were impatient to see them.
Ten years later, in 1972, the first volume of the photographic edition finally appeared. Nine other volumes followed between 1972 and 1977, thus putting all thirteen codices in the public domain. Since undertaking such a major technical project in Egypt involved many delays, Professor James Robinson, director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, the only American member of the UNESCO committee, had organized an international team to copy and translate most of the material. Robinson and his team privately circulated this material to scholars throughout the world, thus involving many people in the research, effectively breaking the monopoly that had controlled the discovery.
I first learned of the Nag Hammadi discoveries in 1965, when I entered the graduate program at Harvard University to study the history of Christianity. I was fascinated to hear of the find, and delighted in 1968 when Professor George MacRae of Harvard received the mimeographed transcriptions from Robinson's team. Because the official publications had not yet appeared, each page was stamped with a warning:
MacRae and his colleague Professor Helmut Koester encouraged their students to learn Coptic in order to begin research on this extraordinary find. Convinced that the discovery would revolutionize the traditional understanding of the origins of Christianity, I wrote my dissertation at Harvard and Oxford on the controversy between gnostic and orthodox Christianity. After receiving the Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970 and accepting a faculty position at Barnard College, Columbia University, I worked almost exclusively on early Christian gnosticism. After publishing two technical books on this research,(36) I received grants in 1975 (from the American Council of Learned Societies and the American Philosophical Society) so that I could study the manuscripts at the Cairo Museum and attend the First International Conference on Coptic Studies in Cairo. There, like other scholars, I was initiated to the Coptic Museum, amazed to find the library that houses the manuscripts to be a single, small room of the Coptic Museum. Every day, while children played in the library and cleaning women washed the floor around me, I worked at the table, transcribing the papyri. Having seen only black-and-white photographs, I found the originals surprisingly beautiful--each mounted in plexiglass, inscribed in black ink on golden brown leaves. At the First International Conference, held in Cairo while I was there, I delivered a paper on one of the manuscripts (the Dialogue of the Savior) ,(37) and even met one
of the middlemen
from al-Qa~r who sold the texts illegally in Cairo.
Having joined the team of scholars, I participated in preparing the first complete edition in English, published in the United States by Harper & Row in 1977. Only with that publication, and with the completion of the photographic edition expected by 1980, have we finally overcome the obstacles to public knowledge caused by what Professor Gerard Garitte of Louvain called "personal rivalries and. ..pretensions to monopolize documents that belong only to science, that is to say, to all."(38)
By the time I learned of the discovery, however, gnosticism had already had become the focus of a remarkable amount of research. 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! "(39) By the end of the nineteenth century, when the few original gnostic sources noted above were discovered, they inspired new research among scholars. The great German historian Adolf von Harnack, basing his research primarily on the church fathers, regarded gnosticism as a Christian heresy. Writing in 1894, Harnack explained that the gnostics, interpreting Christian doctrine in terms of Greek philosophy, became, in one sense, the "first Christian theologians."(40) But in the process, he contended, they distorted the Christian message, and propagated false, hybrid forms of Christian teaching--what
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.(43)
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(44) Others, including Professor M. Friedlander, maintained that gnosticism originated in Judaism: the heretics whom the rabbis attacked in the first and second centuries, said Friedlander, were Jewish Gnostics(45)
In I934--more than ten years before the Nag Hammadi discoveries--two important new books appeared. Professor Hans Jonas, turning from the question of the historical sources of gnosticism, asked where it originated existentially. Jonas suggested that gnosticism emerged in a certain "attitude toward existence." He pointed out that the political apathy and culturaJ 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' analysis, many people at the time felt profoundly alienated from the world in which they lived, and longed for a miraculous salvation as an escape from the constraints of political and social existence. Using the few sources available to him with penetrating insight, Jonas reconstructed a gnostic world view-a philosophy of pessimism about the world combined with an attempt at self-transcendence.(46) A nontechnical version of his book, translated into English, remains,
even today, the classic introduction.(47) 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."(48)
Another scholar, Walter Bauer, published a very different view of gnosticism in 1934. Bauer recognized that the early Christian movement was itself far more diverse than orthodox sources chose to indicate. So, Bauer wrote, 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.(49)
notably the British scholars H. E. W. T urner5o and C. H. Roberts,51
have criticized him for oversimplifying the situation and for overlooking
evidence that did not fit his theory. Certainly Bauer's suggestion that,
in certain Christian groups, those later called "heretics"
formed the majority, 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.
The discoveries at Nag Hammadi in 1945 initiated, as Doresse had foreseen, a whole new epoch of research. The first and most important task was to preserve, edit, and publish the texts themselves. An international team of scholars, including Professors A. Guillaumont and H.-Ch. Puech from France, G. Quispel from the Netherlands, W. Till from Germany, and Y. 'Abd al MaslQ from Egypt, collaborated in publishing the Gospel of Thomas in 1959.52 Many of the same scholars worked with Professors M. Malinine of France, R. Kasser of Germany, J. Zandee of the Netherlands, and R. McL. Wilson of Scotland
What could this wealth of new material tell us about gnosticism? 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. A few of the texts describe the multiple heavens, with magic passwords for each one, that the church fathers who had criticized gnosticism led scholars to expect; but many others, surprisingly, contain 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 derive primarily from pagan sources (and may not be "gnostic" at all); others make extensive use of Jewish traditions. For this reason, the German scholar C. Colpe has challenged the historians' search for the "origins of gnosticism."(54) This method, Colpe insists, leads to a potentially infinite regress of ever remoter "origins" without contributing much to our understanding of what gnosticism actually is.
Recently several scholars have sought the impetus for the development of gnosticism not in terms of it cultural origins, but in specific events or experiences. Professor R. M. Grant has suggested that gnosticism emerged as a reaction to the shattering
of traditional religious views-Jewish and Christian-after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70.(55) Quispel proposed that gnosticism originated in a potentially universal "experience of the self" projected into religious mythology. (56) Jonas has offered a typological scheme describing gnosticism as a specific kind of philosophical world view.(57) The British scholar E. R. Dodds characterized gnosticism as a movement whose writings derived from mystical experience. (58) Gershom Scholem, the eminent Professor of Jewish Mysticism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, agrees with Dodds that gnosticism involves mystical speculation and practice. Tracing esoteric currents in rabbinic circles that were contemporary with the development of gnosticism, Scholem calls them forms of "Jewish gnosticism."(59)
Today, those investigating the Nag Hammadi texts are less concerned about constructing comprehensive theories than analyzing in detail the sources unearthed at Nag Hammadi. There are several different types of research, each investigating primarily those specific groups of texts appropriate to the purposes of the inquiry. One type of research, concerned with the relationship of gnosticism to Hellenistic philosophy, focuses primarily on those Nag Hammadi texts that exemplify this relationship. Contributors to this aspect of research include, for example (besides Hans Jonas), the British scholars A. D. Nock(60) and A. H. Armstrong,(61) and such American scholars as Professors Bentley Layton (62) of Yale University and Harold Attridge of Southern Methodist University.(63) Professor Morton Smith of Columbia University, on the other hand, whose current research concerns the history of magic, investigates the sources that evince magical practice.(64)
A second direction of research investigates gnostic texts from a literary and form-critical point of view. Much of this work was initiated by J. M. Robinson and H. Koester in their book Trajectories Through Early Christianity.(65) Others have explored the rich symbolism of gnostic texts. The French scholar M. Tardieu, for example, has analyzed gnostic myths;(66) Professor L. Schottroff has investigated gnostic accounts of the
powers of evil.(67) Many of their American colleagues, too, have contributed to the literary analysis of gnostic sources. Professor P. Perkins has investigated both genre (68) and imagery;(69) professor George MacRae has contributed to our understandings of Gnostic metaphors,(70) myth,(71) and literary form;(72) he and others, including Quispel and Professor B. A. Pearson, have shown how certain gnostic myths drew upon material traditional in Judaism(73)
A third direction of research (which often overlaps with the second) explores the relation of gnosticism to its contemporary religious environment. While Scholem, MacRae, Quispel, Pearson (to name a few) have demonstrated that some gnostic sources refer extensively to Jewish tradition, others are examining the question: What do the gnostic texts tell us about the origins of Christianity? The many scholars who have shared in this research, besides those mentioned above, include Professors R. M. Grant and E. Yamauchi in the United States; R. McL. Wilson in Scotland; G. C. Stead and H. Chadwick in England; W. C. van Unnik in the Netherlands; H.-Ch. Puech and Dr. S. Petrement in France; A. Orbe in Spain; S. Arai in Japan; J. Menard and F. Wisse in Canada; and, in Germany, besides the members of the Berliner Arbeitskreis, A. Bohlig and Dr. K. Koschorke. Because my own research falls into this category (i.e., gnosticism and early Christianity), I have selected primarily the gnostic Christian sources as the basis for this book. Rather than considering the question of the origins of gnosticism, I intend here to show how gnostic forms of Christianity interact with orthodoxy-and what this tells us about the origins of Christianity itself.
Given the enormous amount of current research in the field, this sketch is necessarily brief and incomplete. Whoever wants to follow the research in detail will find invaluable help in the Nag Hammadi Bibliography, published by Professor D. M. Scholer.(74) Kept up to date by regular supplements published in the journal Novum Testamentum, Scholer's bibliography currently lists nearly 4,000 books, editions, articles, and reviews
published in the last thirty years concerning research on theNag Hammadi texts.
Yet 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? Now, for the first time, we have the opportunity to find out about the earliest Christian heresy; for the first time, the heretics can speak for themselves.
Gnostic Christians undoubtedly expressed ideas that the orthodox abhorred. For example, some of these gnostic texts 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 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 themselves as heretics, who, although they "do not understand mystery. ..boast that the mystery of truth belongs to them alone."(75) 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 of us today might find even stranger. The creed requires, for example, that Christians confess that God is perfectly good, and still, he created a world that includes pain, injustice, and death; that Jesus of Nazareth was born of 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 astonishing views but establish
them as the only true form of Christian doctrine? Traditionally, historians
have told us that the orthodox objected to gnostic views for religious
and philosophic reasons. Certainly they did; yet investigation of the
newly discovered gnostic sources suggests another dimension of the controversy.
It suggests that these religious debates--questions of the nature of
God, or of Christ-simultaneously bear social and political implications
that are crucial to the development of Christianity as an institutional
religion. In simplest terms, ideas which bear implications contrary
to that development come to be labeled as "heresy"; ideas
which implicitly support it be
the texts from Nag Hammadi, together with sources known for well over
a thousand years from orthodox tradition, we can see how politics and
I. J. M. Robinson,
Introduction, in The Nag Hammadi Library (New York, 1977), 21-22.
Hereafter cited as NHL.
43. W. Bousset,
Kyrios Christos (1St ed., Gottingen, 1913; znd ed.,
63. See, for example,
H. Attridge, "Exegetical Problems in the