The Nag Hammadi codices

The Nag Hammadi Library is a collection of early Christian scriptures (and a few other miscellaneous texts) discovered in the Egyptian desert in the middle of the twentieth century that has forced us to reconsider much of what we thought we knew about early Christianity, especially the type of early Christianity known as “Gnosticism.”

The books in the Nag Hammadi Library include the Secret Book of John, the Reality of the Archons, and On the Origin of the World, which recount elaborate myths about how the world was created by an ignorant, malevolent being who is inferior to the true God, and how a divine spark became trapped within the world;[1][2][3] the Gospel of Thomas, a “sayings gospel” that gives over a hundred sayings attributed to Jesus and portrays salvation as a matter of achieving mystical identification with Christ rather than merely believing in him;[4] the Gospel of Philip, which similarly proclaims that whoever obtains the rare spiritual insight of gnosis is “no longer a Christian, but a Christ;”[5] Three Forms of First Thought, a hymn written from the perspective of a female divine power who says that she “put on Jesus” like a garment and “bore him from the cursed wood;”[6] the Gospel of Truth, a grand, poetically sensitive homily that likens Jesus hanging on the cross to fruit hanging on a tree, giving life to those who eat of it;[7] and many, many more.

The Nag Hammadi Library consists of thirteen codices (singular “codex” – an ancient, hand-printed book) with papyrus pages and leather covers.[8] These thirteen codices together contain no less than fifty-two individual texts (or “tractates,” as they’re sometimes called). Six of these texts are duplicates, so there are forty-six unique texts. Five of these were known from previous smaller discoveries before the Nag Hammadi Library was unearthed, but forty-one were first-time discoveries. Unfortunately, ten of those forty-one texts are badly damaged and therefore fragmentary, so it might be more fitting to say that thirty-one rather than forty-one texts have been added to our sources of information on Gnosticism and early Christianity more broadly.[9] Still, that’s more texts than are contained in the entire New Testament (twenty-seven), which underscores the magnitude of this find.

The genres of literature represented in the Nag Hammadi Library are predominantly the same as those found in the New Testament: gospels, personal letters, apocalypses/revelations, and “acts.” The Library also contains prayers, hymns, and sermons. A few non-Christian pieces are there as well – Hermetic writings and a fragment of Plato’s Republic.[10]

The great majority of the texts in the Nag Hammadi Library were originally written in the second and third centuries AD.[11] The earliest (except for the fragment of the Republic) were therefore written around the same time as the latest of the books that would eventually come to be included in the New Testament. Like the New Testament texts, the Nag Hammadi texts were all originally written in Greek,[12] but the versions in the Nag Hammadi Library are translations into Coptic, a form of the ancient Egyptian language written in a variant of the Greek alphabet rather than the more traditional hieroglyphs.[13]

Who Buried the Nag Hammadi Library, and Why?

Nag Hammadi in Egypt

From dates on some of the materials in the codices, we know that the texts of the Nag Hammadi Library were probably copied onto the pages of the codices around the middle of the fourth century AD.[14] Unfortunately, however, we have no way of knowing who copied these texts.[15]

Sometime in the fourth or fifth century, the codices were placed in a large clay jar and buried under a cliff in the desert of Middle Egypt near what is today the town of Nag Hammadi,[16] where they lay until they were discovered more than a millennium and a half later by a peasant digging for fertilizer.[17] While we can’t know for sure who buried these scriptures or why, history and archaeology have provided us with some compelling clues.

During the fourth and fifth centuries, there was a Pachomian monastery (that is, a monastery that followed the model for monastic life established by the Egyptian Christian ascetic Pachomius) close to the cliff where the Nag Hammadi Library was buried.[18] Caves in the same cliff were decorated in such a way that makes it clear that they were once used by the monks for spiritual retreats.[19]

In the Eastern Mediterranean region during that time period, hiding books in jars was a common way of preserving them when others sought to destroy them.[20] When one wanted to destroy a book, one typically burned it, or at least flung it into water.[21]

It therefore seems likely that the Nag Hammadi Library was buried where it was for safekeeping by one or more of the monks who went to those caves to commune with God.[22]

In the context of the time, such a burial would probably imply that someone had threatened to destroy the books. Who might that have been, and what might their motivations have been?

The most likely answer can be found in an Easter letter penned by Athanasius, the archbishop of Alexandria, in 367. Athanasius’s letter listed the books that he deemed to provide proper theological and spiritual guidance for right-thinking (“orthodox”) Christians. As it so happens, this list is the earliest extant list of the entire body of twenty-seven texts that eventually came to comprise the New Testament. Athanasius exhorted the Egyptian monasteries to look only to those texts, and to purge their libraries of all other pieces of early Christian literature – “illegitimate and secret books”[23] that should be considered “heretical” and therefore not only useless, but actively harmful.[24]

It’s probable that the codices were buried either directly as a result of Athanasius’s letter and its implementation, or as a result of the broader process of the consolidation of “orthodoxy” and the power of the “orthodox” clergy that the letter instantiates.[25]

But if this explanation is correct, a number of additional – and unfortunately unanswerable – questions immediately present themselves. In Karen L. King’s words,

Who collected and buried [the codices]? Was it a renegade monk acting alone to save texts that the monastery had condemned? Or were the texts considered to be of great value and worth preserving? Why were they never recovered? Was their burial place forgotten? What does the possession of these codices say about the theological character of early Pachomian monasticism? How did the monks interpret these works (assuming they even read them)? How [if at all] were these books used in the life of the community?[26]

Frederik Wisse has proposed that the monks appreciated these texts at least in part due to their emphasis on asceticism as a means of deepening and purifying spirituality, which surely would have resonated powerfully with the monastic lifestyle.[27] I would add that the same can be said of the texts’ emphasis on the primacy of inner mystical experience in bringing about salvation. But ultimately we can’t know for sure, and plausible conjectures like that are the best we can offer.

Other Key Discoveries of Gnostic Texts

The first page of the Gospel of Judas

While the Nag Hammadi Library is by far the largest and the most important find of Gnostic scriptures, it’s not the only one. Four others, all of which come from Egypt and feature works in Coptic translation, deserve a mention here.

One is the so-called Berlin Codex, a fifth-century papyrus book discovered near Achmim in the 1890s. It contains the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of John, the Wisdom of Jesus Christ, and the (non-Gnostic) Acts of Peter. Because of various inopportune circumstances in international affairs and in the personal lives of the scholars who were working on the codex, these texts weren’t published until 1955.[28]

Another is the Askew Codex, which was discovered in 1773. Its contents are the Pistis Sophia and two fragmentary untitled writings.[29]

The third is the Bruce Codex. Its name is something of a misnomer, since it’s actually a collection of two codices that include the First Book of Jeu, the Second Book of Jeu, and a few miscellaneous untitled works. It came to light in 1769.[30]

Finally, there’s the Codex Tchacos, found near al-Minya in the 1970s. Within its pages are the Letter of Peter to Philip, the First Apocalypse of James (here titled simply James), the Book of Allogenes, and the Gospel of Judas. The first two of those texts were already known from Nag Hammadi, but the second two are only preserved in this codex. Lamentably, the book was handled very ineptly after its discovery, and it’s badly damaged. The Gospel of Judas – or what could be pieced together from the surviving fragments of the manuscript – was finally published in 2006.[31]

The Gnostic Texts as Sources on Gnosticism

With these discoveries of Gnostic scriptures, the “heretics” finally get to speak for themselves. Before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library in particular, we mostly had to rely on the writings of “orthodox” Christians who denounced the Gnostics if we wanted to know anything about the Gnostics at all. As you’d expect, the “orthodox” anti-Gnostic writings are more concerned with portraying the Gnostics in a negative light than portraying them accurately, which creates a distorted picture of who the Gnostics were and what they believed and practiced.[32]

However, the Gnostic texts present their own hazards for those who want to understand Gnosticism. For one thing, the quality of some of the Coptic translations is poor.[33] There’s also the issue of scribal errors. Perhaps the most serious issue with the form in which the manuscripts have come down to us is the considerable amount of damaged and/or missing text in many of them.[34]

The form of a text could vary greatly across time and space. This is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the fact that of the four copies of the Secret Book of John we have today, no two are identical. Some of the variations are small, but others are large and consequential for our understanding of the messages and themes of the text. Of course, this is a “problem” with ancient, hand-printed books as a whole, including those in the Bible. The Gospel of Mark, for example, originally came to an end at verse 16:8, where the women flee Jesus’s empty tomb and the risen Jesus hasn’t yet made an appearance.[35] The “canonical” version of Mark with which we today are familiar extends the chapter by an additional twelve verses.

More fundamentally, how do we connect particular texts to particular ancient groups of people? None of the texts explicitly say who wrote them (who actually wrote them, that is – the apostles to whom some of the texts are attributed were long dead when these works were composed, just as is the case with most of the New Testament writings attributed to apostles), who used them, in what ways, or for what reasons. We’re left to infer all of that from the texts and the other sources we have on early Christianity.

Such ambiguity leaves ample room for competing interpretations. Some scholars, such as Michael A. Williams[36] and Karen L. King,[37] have even argued – largely based on the Nag Hammadi Library – that what we today call “Gnosticism” never existed in antiquity, and that the Nag Hammadi texts that are now considered “Gnostic” are the works of many different religious groups that didn’t necessarily have much in common other than eventually being declared heretical.

Other scholars, such as Birger A. Pearson, Christoph Markschies, and Marvin Meyer, have seen these texts as representing different groups that did have much in common – enough that they all belonged to a single typological category, which we today call “Gnosticism” for the sake of convenience.[38][39]

Still other scholars argue that the “Gnostics” were a single, distinct school of thought in antiquity. Those who hold this view sometimes use the term “classic Gnostics” to refer to this particular group in order to distinguish them from the other groups that people today often call “Gnostic.” In this view, only some of the texts mentioned in this article should be attributed to the classic Gnostics; the rest are the works of related but ultimately non-Gnostic early Christian groups such as the Valentinians. David Brakke[40] is the foremost current exponent of this view. But even for those who accept Brakke’s relatively precise categories, there are still the difficulties of determining which texts should be attributed to the classic Gnostics and which shouldn’t be, what the relationship between text and religious practice was, and so forth.

(To eliminate a potential source of confusion, the way I frame the material on this site is something of a compromise between the second and third of those perspectives: the classic Gnostics and the Valentinians were closely related enough that both deserve to be categorized as “Gnostic” in a broad sense, but no other groups – especially non-Christian ones – should be given that label. The rationale behind this choice can be found here and here.)

Despite these vexing problems, however, the Nag Hammadi Library and the other unearthed collections of Gnostic (or at least potentially Gnostic) texts obviously place us in a far better position to understand Gnosticism than we would be otherwise. The current popular interest in Gnosticism, too, is virtually inconceivable without them.

List of Nag Hammadi Tractates by Codex[41]

Codex I (The “Jung Codex”):
1. The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
2. The Secret Book of James
3. The Gospel of Truth
4. The Treatise on the Resurrection
5. The Tripartite Tractate

Codex II:
1. The Secret Book of John
2. The Gospel of Thomas
3. The Gospel of Philip
4. The Reality of the Archons
5. On the Origin of the World
6. The Exegesis on the Soul
7. The Book of Thomas the Contender

Codex III:
1. The Secret Book of John
2. The Gospel of the Egyptians
3. Eugnostos the Blessed
4. The Wisdom of Jesus Christ
5. The Dialogue of the Savior

Codex IV:
1. The Secret Book of John
2. The Gospel of the Egyptians

Codex V:
1. Eugnostos the Blessed
2. The Revelation of Paul
3. The First Revelation of James
4. The Second Revelation of James
5. The Revelation of Adam

Codex VI:
1. The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles
2. Thunder: Perfect Mind
3. The Authoritative Teaching
4. The Concept of Our Great Power
5. The Republic by Plato (588a-589b)
6. The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth
7. The Prayer of Thanksgiving
7a. Scribal note
8. Asclepius 21-29

Codex VII:
1. The Paraphrase of Shem
2. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth
3. The Revelation of Peter
4. The Teachings of Silvanus
5. The Three Steles of Seth

Codex VIII:
1. Zostrianos
2. The Letter of Peter to Philip

Codex IX:
1. Melchizedek
2. The Thought of Norea
3. The Testimony of Truth

Codex X:
1. Marsanes

Codex XI:
1. The Interpretation of Knowledge
2. A Valentinian Exposition
2a. On the Anointing
2b. On Baptism A
2c. On Baptism B
2d. On the Eucharist A
2e. On the Eucharist B
3. Allogenes
4. Hypsiphrone

Codex XII (mostly destroyed):
1. The Sentences of Sextus
2. The Gospel of Truth
3. Fragments

Codex XIII:
1. Three Forms of First Thought
2. On the Origin of the World

References:

[1] Turner, John D., and Marvin Meyer. 2008. “The Secret Book of John.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. P. 103-132.

[2] Meyer, Marvin. 2008. “The Nature of the Rulers.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. P. 187-198.

[3] Meyer, Marvin. 2008. “On the Origin of the World.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. P. 199-222.

[4] Meyer, Marvin. 2008. “The Gospel of Thomas with the Greek Gospel of Thomas.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. P. 133-156.

[5] Thomassen, Einar. 2008. The Spiritual Seed: The Church of the “Valentinians.” Brill. p. 343.

[6] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 199.

[7] Pagels, Elaine. 1989. The Gnostic Gospels. Vintage Books. p. 94-95.

[8] Robinson, James M. (ed.). 1990. The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume. Harper San Francisco. p. 10-14.

[9] Robinson, James M. 2008. “Preface.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. xi.

[10] Markschies, Christoph. 2003. Gnosis: An Introduction. Translated by John Bowden. T & T Clark. p. 51-58.

[11] Robinson, James M. 2008. “Preface.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. xi.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Robinson, James M. (ed.). 1990. The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume. Harper San Francisco. p. 13.

[14] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 9.

[15] Ibid. p. 8-9.

[16] Meyer, Marvin, and Elaine Pagels. 2008. “Introduction.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 7.

[17] King, Karen L. 2006. The Secret Revelation of John. Harvard University Press. p. 20.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Robinson, James M. (ed.). 1990. The Nag Hammadi Library: The Definitive Translation of the Gnostic Scriptures Complete in One Volume. Harper San Francisco. p. 22.

[20] Ibid. p. 20.

[21] Ibid. p. 21.

[22] Ibid. p. 22.

[23] Meyer, Marvin, and Elaine Pagels. 2008. “Introduction.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 6.

[24] Robinson, James M. 2008. “Preface.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. xi.

[25] Ibid. p. xi-xii.

[26] King, Karen L. 2006. The Secret Revelation of John. Harvard University Press. p. 20.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid. p. 7-9.

[29] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 8.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Meyer, Marvin, and Elaine Pagels. 2008. “Introduction.” In The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Edited by Marvin Meyer. HarperOne. p. 4.

[32] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 14-15.

[33] 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.

[34] Ibid. p. 2-3.

[35] Ehrman, Bart. 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press. p. 78-79.

[36] Williams, Michael Allen. 1996. Rethinking “Gnosticism:” An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton University Press.

[37] King, Karen L. 2005. What Is Gnosticism? The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

[38] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 31.

[39] Ibid. p. 46.

[40] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press.

[41] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. xxii-xxiv.