A Note on My Renderings of the Gnostic Texts

Several English editions of the Gnostic texts already exist. Why, then, would I want to make another one – especially since I can’t read Coptic or Koine Greek and thus can’t produce a new set of true translations of the source material? Furthermore, with that lack of academic qualifications in mind, how could I even make my own renderings of the Gnostic texts in the first place?

The Gnostic texts are often confusing for modern readers because they were written for people in a different historical and cultural context, and assumed knowledge of the events, customs, and ideas of that context. Furthermore, they were sometimes written in an intentionally obscure style, so that only those readers whom the authors deemed worthy of understanding them would be able to understand them.[1]

Those sources of confusion are intrinsic to the Gnostic texts themselves, but there’s a third reason why some modern readers are sometimes perplexed and put off by them, one that has nothing to do with the Gnostic texts themselves: the nature of the existing translations. They’re written primarily for an academic audience in what, for the general reader, is all too often a jargon-filled, overly literal, sterile, clunky style. In other words, the academic translations don’t read like good pieces of literature in English. They turn the act of reading, which should be a pleasure, into a chore.

Compare the best English translations of the Bible to the best English translations of the Gnostic scriptures, and you’ll see what I mean. The former are not only clear, but beautiful, nuanced, and stirring; the latter are muddy, limp, and awkward by comparison.

I’m not saying any of this to unduly dunk on the existing academic translations, because they serve a valid and necessary purpose. They’ve gotten the Gnostic texts out into the English-speaking world in the first place, which is a monumental and vital achievement in its own right, and they’ve done so in a way that facilitates the further academic study of these scriptures. But for a general audience, they’re simply not up to par.

I believe that I can do a better job in this regard. Whether that statement is well-founded or mere hubris is something that I leave for you, dear reader, to decide for yourself.

Due to my inability to read ancient Mediterranean languages, my starting point has been the academic English translations rather than their Coptic (and occasionally Koine Greek) source material. I’ve taken the translations of some of the titans of the field, such as Bentley Layton and Marvin Meyer, as raw materials out of which I’ve crafted texts whose specific language bears scant resemblance to those translations, yet whose underlying meaning remains firmly based on them to ensure a sufficient degree of fidelity to the source material. I’ve consulted multiple translations for each of my own renderings so that none of my versions are exclusively dependent on any one translation.

This makes my renderings of these texts an additional step removed from their mostly Coptic source material, with all of the interpretive hazards such a project brings with it. Yet consider that most of the Gnostic texts we possess today are Coptic translations of Greek originals – and often rather poor Coptic translations at that.[2] The Coptic source material is itself one step removed from the originals, which we unfortunately don’t possess. Translations from the Coptic are already two steps removed from the originals – translations of translations of originals. My versions of these texts are effectively translations of translations of translations of originals – taking English translations of Coptic translations of Greek originals and translating them into a different English idiom.

Each additional layer of translation increases the risk of taking us further from the original text. But in lieu of being able to consult the original texts themselves, anyone and everyone who works with these texts is forced to work with an imagined text behind the text we’ve got. In that regard, the existing academic translations strike me as being too faithful to the particularities of the Coptic manuscripts. In trying to produce a more-or-less word-for-word literal translation of the Coptic translations, the academic translations miss an equally crucial but more subtle quality that the Greek originals surely had: readability. These are scriptures we’re talking about here. Scriptures tend to read as lively, human texts, because only lively, human texts are moving enough to serve as touchstones for individual and community spirituality, as the Gnostic texts did in the ancient world. The academic translations of the Gnostic texts all too often don’t render these scriptures as scriptures, but rather as, well, academic curiosities. It’s a case of losing the forest for the trees.

Thus, even though my renderings of the Gnostic texts are in one sense one step further removed from the originals, in another sense I hope that they restore a central and vital part of the originals that’s been lost in the subsequent layers of translations, and in the process create something more accessible and engaging for the modern reader.

If you find yourself skeptical of the reliability of my renderings of the Gnostic texts, then great! It’s very healthy to insist on critically analyzing such matters. If that’s you, I encourage you to compare my versions of these texts with one or more of the many academic translations available today and see how well you think they preserve the denotative meaning of the academic translations. You might be pleasantly surprised.

In the interest of making the Gnostic scriptures more intelligible and relatable to the modern reader, I’ve rendered certain Gnostic “key terms” by their modern English equivalents rather than by the more specialized names they’re often called in scholarly works on Gnosticism. So, for example, I use “Wisdom” rather than “Sophia,” “Self-Made Son” rather than “Autogenes,” “Fullness” rather than “Pleroma,” and “ruler” rather than “archon.” However, to make things as clear as possible for readers who already have some familiarity with Gnosticism, I put the “key term” in parentheses after the first mention of that phenomenon in any given text. So, for example, the first time a text mentions the rulers, I say “rulers (archons),” and the first time it mentions Wisdom, I say “Wisdom (Sophia).” When the meaning of a name is unknown and/or ambiguous, as in “Barbelo” or “Geradamas,” I leave the name as it is and don’t attempt to translate it, because any such attempted translation would be too conjectural and might do more harm than good.

When there’s a gap in the source manuscript for a text due to incomplete preservation, and that gap is too big for us today to infer what must have gone there, I put “text missing” in brackets.

Ultimately, I hope that these renderings of the Gnostic scriptures contribute to advancing the ongoing recovery of these texts by enabling modern readers to experience them in a way that’s closer to the way their ancient readers might have experienced them. Perhaps that’s setting too high a bar – I’ll leave it to you and other readers to determine whether or not these versions of the texts succeed in that regard.


[1] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. xiii.

[2] Robinson, James M. (ed.). 1990. The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume. Harper San Francisco. p. 2.