The Nag Hammadi Library & “Gnosticism”: A Short Introduction

Codex VI of the Nag Hammadi Library

After finishing Living Stones, Living Hope, a five session study from USPG on Contextual Theology, our online Small Group Bible Study suggested that we have some sessions on “the Gnostic gospels”. As I had spent some time two decades ago studying with one of the leading experts on the Nag Hammadi Library, I was up for this. I created a PowerPoint Presentation, and this blog is a re-presentation of that.

Our online Small Group Bible Study meets online with Zoom every Wednesday at 7:30 PM EEST / 5:30 PM BST/ 12:30 PM EST. All are welcome to join – click this link or enter into your Zoom “Join Meeting Dialogue” Meeting ID: 850 4483 9927 Password: 010209.

Some Preliminaries

Tonight’s study group will be a bit different from the usual, in that I will make a presentation for about an hour using a PowerPoint, and then we will have some discussion afterwards. Normally we just jump in and we have a much more open discussion, but the material here is not so well known in ordinary Christian circles, and even divinity students typically have little exposure to it. Thank you to those of you who looked at The Gospel of Thomas and its first fifteen sayings as suggested in my weekly e-mail – we will talk about those sayings later and perhaps in future sessions.

I remind you that we are doing this while we wait to get paper copies of John Stroyan’s Turned by Divine Love: Starting again with God and with others. Bishop John is the Bishop of Warwick in the Diocese of Coventry, and he and Mary Stroyan are occasional visitors to St Thomas’s. The book can be downloaded to a kindle, but many of us are still using paper only, and so we will have to wait a few weeks for copies to arrive from the UK or elsewhere, and also take some time to read this book (although it is relatively short!). I expect we will get to this, at the latest, by the beginning of July.

Discussion about the Nag Hammadi Library and Gnosticism tends to be confined to corners of academia concerned with early Christian history and Biblical studies. There have been some popular works – Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels has been a best-seller since 1989, but good ones have been few and far between. Various New Age groups have emerged that claim to be newly re-constituted Gnostic Churches.

In my experience, looking into Gnosticism is really like Alice going down the rabbit’s hole – you will get lost, feel startled by all the new information, and be overwhelmed by the mass of ancient texts and all the modern writings. Unless one already has a good grasp of early Christian history, including not only the age of Jesus and the disciples described in the New Testament, but also the post-apostolic age down through the second century to the fourth, it really will feel like Wonderland. If in the past five weeks we have been doing Contextual Theology for contemporary churches in Zambia, Korea, Brazil, Ireland, and India, this is Contextual Theology for 2nd Century Egyptians – and I suspect most of us have only a very limited idea of what that might be.

It can also be deeply unsettling, both because of the content and its implications. There is a narrative out there which describes a march towards orthodoxy (“right praise”) and orthopraxis (“right conduct”) from the ministry of Jesus straight through to the councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. It describes what happened in the fourth century and thereafter, as what we know as the church, as inevitable and triumphant. It minimises the diversity of Christianity that was in existence in the first three centuries.

The fact is that there were faithful Christians who lived their lives long before the things we consider necessary to orthodox belief and church practice – a set canon of scriptures, settled understandings of who Jesus and the Trinity were according to the councils, a three-fold ordained ministry, the two major sacraments – calls into question those very things. When we actually read the texts we see similarities with things we know, while at the same time we are usually struck by the weirdness of it all. The texts of what is called “Gnosticism” are definitely Christian, but a very strange version of it.

When one goes to an amusement park there are sometimes warnings that the ride one is about to go on is “a dark ride”. Studying Gnosticism and the texts associated with that topic can be a bit like that – one heads into the unknown, and you cannot see everything. Even though you know the ride is entirely artificial and made by human hands, it’s not hard to be spooked by it all.

Well, with those caveats and warnings out of the way, I just want to also note a number of distinctions:

Scrolls versus Codex. A book can be a scroll or a codex; in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Roman times books were written on one side of a long piece of paper or vellum, and the rolled up. In a Jewish synagogue the Torah is usually chanted from a scroll by the rabbi or cantor or other individual requested to do so (such as an adolescent marking their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah). Plato and Julius Caesar would have known books to be scrolls. Starting in the 2nd century a new technology wrote on both sides of rectangular sheets of paper or vellum, and the sheets were then sewn together on one side and given leather covers. This is what today we would normally call a book, but the technical name is “codex” (plural: “codices”). A codex is much easier to use than a scroll, as one does not have to roll and unroll them but just flip the pages. The codex dominated book technology right through the inventing of printing presses, and only now is it being challenged by e-books that can be read on Kindle or one’s phone.

Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s in the Judean desert, which at that time was administered by Jordan and now is occupied by Israel. They date from before the time to Jesus to shortly thereafter, but they are not Christian, but Jewish. They are mostly in Hebrew, and contain much of what is now canonical scripture from the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh, but also various other non-canonical writings, such as the Damascus Rule and the War Scroll. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dated from around 1050 CE; the Scrolls took this back a thousand years. What was striking was how little the text of the canonical scriptures had changed over that thousand years, which speaks to the diligence of the copyists over the ages.

Some of the Nag Hammadi Library

•Nag Hammadi Library. The Nag Hammadi Library, which is the topic this evening, are not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls (as people sometimes do). The texts from Nag Hammadi are leather-bound codices, not scrolls, and as manuscripts they date from the fourth century. They are Christian in nature, and in some cases express Anti-Jewish sentiments. So, very different!

The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Texts

The Library of Nag Hammadi was discovered in 1945 in Egypt, buried in the sands near the town of Nag Hammadi, well south of Cairo but not as far as Aswan. The Muslim farmers who discovered them had no idea what they had found, and some of them said they feared they were magical incantations. Some of the pages were apparently burnt, but the rest were preserved, and in due course they made their way to the antiquities market in Alexandria. Most of them were seized by the government of Egypt and are now in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. At least one codex was purchased and secretly taken out of Egypt – that codex was presented to the psychotherapist Carl Jung, and so is known as the Jung Codex; after many years in Zurich, it was returned to Cairo in 1975.

It is known that there was an ancient Coptic monastery founded by St Pachomius in the 4th century, and there is a consensus that the Library was buried by members of of that community sometime in the late 4th century or early 5th century.

The Library consists of 52 texts in thirteen codices. As is true of all ancient texts from the Mediterranean, they are handwritten. Scholars have arbitrarily numbered the codices from I to XIII, and the last two codices are in considerable disarray. All have been damaged with holes and tears in the papyrus, but it is usually possible to figure out what is missing.

Codex II

The Beginning of the Gospel of Thomas

Codex II consists of the following treatises or texts:

•The Apocryphon of John

•The Gospel of Thomas

•The Gospel of Philip

•The Hypostasis of the Archons

•On the Origin of the World

•The Exegesis on the Soul

•The Book of Thomas the Contender

The most famous of these is undoubtedly The Gospel of Thomas for reasons that we will get to in a moment. If you have some knowledge of Greek you should be able to read part of what is presented in the picture above. In the Library the titles are put at the end of each book or treatise, so we see the end of ΚΑΤΑ ΙΩΑΝΝΗΝ Η ΑΠΟΚΡΥΦΟΝ, or The Apocryphon of John (i.e. The Secret Writing of John). However, although the rest is written in Greek letters, except for a new names you will not be able to read anything else, because it is written in Coptic. All of the Nag Hammadi Library is written in this ancient language. It is, quite literally, the ancient language that is in continuity with that spoke by the people who built the pyramids in the times of the pharaohs 4600 years ago and was inscribed in the syllabary known as hieroglyphs. It was spoken as late as the 17th century and continues to be used in the worship of the Coptic Orthodox Church, even when Egyptian Copts have all moved on to speak Arabic. From the way the letters are written and the form of the language scholars can tell within about twenty-five years as to when the manuscripts were written, and they all date to the late 4th century.

We know that these texts were translated from Greek. The Greek titles suggests as much, and we have scraps of older papyrus from other places in Egypt which are written in Hellenistic Greek, and are clearly fragments of the originals. Church Fathers such as Irenaeus of Lyon and Clement of Alexandrria also quote from the Greek originals some 200 to 100 years before some Coptic copier made the Nag Hammadi codices. We are dealing, then with translations, not the originals, except when we can refer to those few fragments in Greek.

What is “Gnosticism”? A Scholarly Consensus

One way of figuring out what something is is to look in the dictionary, and the definition in the online Merriam Webster looks pretty authoritative.

If you prefer a British source, one might look in the Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford/New York, OUP, 1993), where there is indeed a lengthy entry on “Gnosticism.” It describes the common characteristics as (and I paraphrase):

Matter vs Spirit. There is a duality, and an opposition between matter and spirit. Matter is, if not downright evil, a lesser state than the spiritual. Thus, the body is a prison from which the soul longs to escape.

God vs. Demiurge. There is a contrast between the unknown transcendent God, who is good, and the Demiurge, who is not. The Demiurge is the creator of the world, and is usually identified the God of the Hebrew Bible. The Demiurge is ignorant, so ignorant that he is unaware of the true God.

True God and Humanity. The human race is essentially a divine spark of heavenly light imprisoned in a material body, and is thus there is a continuity between the divine and humanity that is ignored because of being clothed in matter.

A Great Fall accounting for the present human predicament. This is not normally the Fall as described in Genesis, but rather it is the creation of the Demiurge and consequent imprisoning of the divine spark in matter as humanity. In one Nag Hammadi text, the Genesis story of the Fall is reinterpreted as a good thing!

Gnosis – a special knowledge – will save human beings. This is the mythology just described above. In this schema, Jesus is the bearer of this gnosis.

Before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, scholars were mainly dependent on reading the Church Fathers describing heresy:  Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165 CE), Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 CE), Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 CE), Origen (c. 185 – c. 253), Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 220 CE), Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – c. 235 CE), and Epaphanius of Salamis (c. 310/320 – 403). As well, various scraps of Greek writing on papyrus were found in Egypt, and were considered as possibly gnostic. Interestingly, none of the Church Fathers or the fragments described the “heresies” as “gnostic” – there was no ancient concept of “Gnosticism”.

The first use of the term “gnosticism” only came in 1669. However, real scholarship on this only came in the middle of the 19th century. There were two approaches, the older being an examination of origins – where did Gnosticism come from – and the more recent one starting in the 1930s looking at typologies in the ancient writings.

The origins approach was pioneered by Adolf von Harnack, who in 1885 wrote that he considered Gnosticism to be an acute Hellenization of Christianity. A different school, grounded in the comparative history of religions, instead looked to the Orient for the genesis, and found it in such religions as Mandaeism (still in existence in southern Iraq) and in the ancient Vedic scriptures of Hinduism.

Hans Jonas in 1934 published a different approach that identified types or characteristics of Gnosticism, which is called the typological approach. Among the typologies he identified were: the loss and reclaiming of gnosis; the dynamism of time, meaning that time was moving towards a particular conclusion; the mythologies involving many emanations from the unseen, unknowable God, including Sophia and the Logos; the sense that humanity is alienated from the divine, and needs to be reconciled through gnosis; and the dualism already described above.

This scholarly work, then is what gave rise to the definition in the dictionary, and the description in the Oxford Companion to the Bible. However, it has been called into question by some scholars, including Prof Karen King of Harvard University.

I had the opportunity of studying with Prof King two decades ago. She is a recognised expert on the Nag Hammadi Library, and has produced translations and commentaries on several of the texts. Since I studied with her she has been appointed the Hollis Professor of Divinity, not only the oldest endowed chair at Harvard, but also in any North American University; among other things, the position has the right to pasture a cow on Harvard Yard – something her predecessor did, but I am not aware if she has done so.

In her book What is Gnosticism? (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 18, she writes

As long as defining Gnosticism was still primarily about determining the historical identity of Christianity, its purpose remained largely the same as that of heresy. Heresy appears to be a very tidy category—its purpose is to distinguish right and wrong belief and behavior, define insider outsider boundaries, and establish clear lines of power and authority. Gnosticism has often performed these same functions. It has marked the erroneous, the heretical, the schismatic, as well as all things threatening, anomalous, esoteric, and arcane.

To a great extent, although they did not acknowledge it, the scholars of the 19th and 20th century, were essentially the same kind of heresy hunters as the Church Fathers. The result is that when people in the 1960s and 1970s began to read the Nag Hammadi texts they did so using preconceived categories. This was a bit like hammering a square peg into a round hole, and damage would be done if it was allowed to happen. Prof King suggests that perhaps we just drop the category of “gnosticism” with its taint of heresy and smoothing out of differences among the treatises of the Library, and just let the texts speak for themselves, with all of their diversity and contradictions, as well as commonalities.

These encaustic paintings (wax on wood) date from 100 BCE – 250 CE, and were used on mummies in the Greek-Egyptian community of Fayum. Some 900 of them have survived, and they show the diversity of peoples of that time and place.

The Gospel of Thomas

The title The Gospel of Thomas is found at the end of the treatise in Codex II, and the whole text follows on the Apocryphon of John, as seen above. It consists of one hundred and fourteen sayings of Jesus, and there is little or no context for them. There is no obvious plan or order in the sayings. The sayings consist of parables, proverbs, eschatological sayings, and rules for the community. There is never any explanation for a parable (unlike in the canonical gospels). Most striking is what is not present in the Gospel of Thomas: there is no passion narrative, no resurrection, no healings or exorcisms, and no birth narrative. The sayings often parallel with things said by Jesus in the canonical gospels, as well as some phrases of Paul. There are also parallels outside of the canon of scripture. Because of references to it by people like Clement of Alexandria, as well as preserved Greek fragments, we know that it circulated in Greek in Egypt before 200 CE. The dating is highly contested – some scholars date it as early as the 1st century, contemporary with Paul’s letters and the gospels; others date it to the middle of the 2nd century.

Arguments over the dating revolve around how the text may have changed over time. While all the Nag Hammadi scholars agree that there is some “gnostic” influence on the final form, some suggest that in its original Greek form it may have not had them; perhaps it entered through translation, or into Greek manuscripts through additions of phrases here and there.

The canonical gospels, most scholars would say, are the result of a three or four stage process. The first stage is that in which Jesus spoke and taught, while living his life, death, and resurrection, and training disciples. The second stage is after his death and resurrection, which remained oral, as Jesus’s disciples taught and sifted through the stories and teachings. Certainly, when Paul was writing his letters, he assumed his recipients had heard these stories and preachings. Finally, at a certain point, perhaps as that first generation was dying, people began to write down the stories and sayings. The anonymous person who wrote the Gospel according to Mark appears to have been the first (the attribution of the gospels to apostles or companions is traditional, but are not claimed by any of the texts themselves). Most biblical scholars believe that the authors of Luke and Matthew had manuscripts of Mark in front of them, because of what looks like word-for word literary dependence. In some cases, the authors of Matthew and Luke correct Mark’s grammar or references, or rewrite Mark to suit their exposition of the good news.

Scholars also believe there was another source available to Matthew and Luke, but lost to the mists of time. This was simply called “Source” in German, or “Quelle”; this is known now as “Q” or the “Q source”. This included things such as the three temptations of Jesus in the desert, which Mark does not have, as well as things such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes.

The saying above is, with the exception of one word in Luke, identical in the two gospels. This kind of absolute similarity strongly argues for a written literary dependence. While some schemas suggest that Matthew is dependent on Luke or vice-versa, those suggestions create more problems than they solve. If Matthew is dependent on Luke, why did Matthew not incorporate the Parable of the Good Samaritan, or the Parable of the Prodigal Son? If Luke is dependent on Matthew, why did Luke break up the Sermon on the Mount and relocate some of the sayings to the Sermon on the Plain? Why are their infancy narratives so different and contradictory? The simple solution is to assume a literary dependence on the lost source we now call Q, and that the arrangements of the sayings were due to the aythors of Matthew and Luke.

Now, when goes through Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and sieve out Mark and note what is common to Matthew and Luke, one gets a collection of sayings that, like The Gospel of Thomas, lacks much context. So when The Gospel of Thomas was found, while it did not appear to be Q, it certainly seemed to be in the same genre, a Sayings Gospel.

The First Fifteen Sayings

From (The headings and numbering is modern, not in the original).

Prologue These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.

Saying 1: True Meaning And he said, “Whoever discovers the meaning of these sayings won’t taste death.”

Saying 2: Seek and Find Jesus said, “Whoever seeks shouldn’t stop until they find. When they find, they’ll be disturbed. When they’re disturbed, they’ll be […] amazed, and reign over the All.”

Saying 3: Seeking Within Jesus said, “If your leaders tell you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they tell you, ‘It’s in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is within you and outside of you.
“When you know yourselves, then you’ll be known, and you’ll realize that you’re the children of the living Father. But if you don’t know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”

Saying 4: First and Last Jesus said, “The older person won’t hesitate to ask a little seven-day-old child about the place of life, and they’ll live, because many who are first will be last, and they’ll become one.”

Saying 5: Hidden and Revealed Jesus said, “Know what’s in front of your face, and what’s hidden from you will be revealed to you, because there’s nothing hidden that won’t be revealed.”

 Saying 6: Public Ritual His disciples said to him, “Do you want us to fast? And how should we pray? Should we make donations? And what food should we avoid?”
Jesus said, “Don’t lie, and don’t do what you hate, because everything is revealed in the sight of heaven; for there’s nothing hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing covered up that will stay secret.”

Saying 7: The Lion and the Human Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion that’s eaten by a human and then becomes human, but how awful for the human who’s eaten by a lion, and the lion becomes human.”

Saying 8: The Parable of the Fish He said, “The human being is like a wise fisher who cast a net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisher found a fine large fish and cast all the little fish back down into the sea, easily choosing the large fish. Anyone who has ears to hear should hear!”

Saying 9: The Parable of the Sower Jesus said, “Look, a sower went out, took a handful of seeds, and scattered them. Some fell on the roadside; the birds came and gathered them. Others fell on the rock; they didn’t take root in the soil and ears of grain didn’t rise toward heaven. Yet others fell on thorns; they choked the seeds and worms ate them. Finally, others fell on good soil; it produced fruit up toward heaven, some sixty times as much and some a hundred and twenty.”

Saying 10: Jesus and Fire (1) Jesus said, “I’ve cast fire on the world, and look, I’m watching over it until it blazes.”

Saying 11: Those Who Are Living Won’t Die (1) Jesus said, “This heaven will disappear, and the one above it will disappear too. Those who are dead aren’t alive, and those who are living won’t die. In the days when you ate what was dead, you made it alive. When you’re in the light, what will you do? On the day when you were one, you became divided. But when you become divided, what will you do?”

 Saying 12: James the Just The disciples said to Jesus, “We know you’re going to leave us. Who will lead us then?”
Jesus said to them, “Wherever you are, you’ll go to James the Just, for whom heaven and earth came into being.”

Saying 13: Thomas’ Confession Jesus said to his disciples, “If you were to compare me to someone, who would you say I’m like?”
Simon Peter said to him, “You’re like a just angel.”
Matthew said to him, “You’re like a wise philosopher.”
Thomas said to him, “Teacher, I’m completely unable to say whom you’re like.”
Jesus said, “I’m not your teacher. Because you’ve drunk, you’ve become intoxicated by the bubbling spring I’ve measured out.”
He took him aside and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked, “What did Jesus say to you?”
Thomas said to them, “If I tell you one of the things he said to me, you’ll pick up stones and cast them at me, and fire will come out of the stones and burn you up.” 

Saying 14: Public Ministry Jesus said to them, “If you fast, you’ll bring guilt upon yourselves; and if you pray, you’ll be condemned; and if you make donations, you’ll harm your spirits.
“If they welcome you when you enter any land and go around in the countryside, heal those who are sick among them and eat whatever they give you, because it’s not what goes into your mouth that will defile you. What comes out of your mouth is what will defile you.” 

Saying 15: Worship Jesus said, “When you see the one who wasn’t born of a woman, fall down on your face and worship that person. That’s your Father.”

Some Final Comments from the Group about the First 15 Sayings.

  • I find it to be a bit like a computer generated joke – it has the form of a saying of Jesus, but does not quite get there.
  • I miss the context. I struggle with what the saying might mean. Perhaps that’s because these would have been discussed in a master/disciple situation, and the full interpretation would have been given orally.
  • Gnomic, much like some of the parables in the canonical gospels.
  • It reminds me of Proverbs – only these are not proverbs!
  • Some of this is familiar – “There’s nothing hidden that won’t be revealed”; “the kingdom is within you”; “the first shall be last”.
  • Struck by the faithfulness of these early Christians who were seeking the truth.
  • I miss the narratives of the death and resurrection.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at
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