The Nag Hammadi Codices and Gnostic Christianity

How the Nag Hammadi texts discovered in Egypt reintroduced the world to Gnostic Christianity

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in March 2011. It has been updated.—Ed.


 

The Nag Hammadi texts were contained in 13 leather-bound volumes discovered by Egyptian farmers in 1945. Dated papyrus scraps used to strengthen the bindings of the books helped date the volumes to the mid-fourth century A.D. Photo: Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont, CA.

Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945, the Gnostic view of early Christianity had largely been forgotten. The teachings of Gnostic Christianity—vilified especially since they were declared heretic by orthodox Christianity in the fourth century—had been virtually erased from history by the early church fathers, their gospels banned and even burned to make room for the view of Christian theology outlined in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

But when two peasants discovered the Nag Hammadi texts, a 13-volume library of Coptic texts hidden beneath a large boulder near the town of Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt, the world was reintroduced to this long-forgotten and much-maligned branch of early Christian thought, Gnostic Christianity, from the Greek word gnosis, “knowledge.” The Nag Hammadi codices are 13 leather-bound volumes dated to the mid-fourth century that contain an unprecedented collection of more than 50 texts, including some that had been composed as early as the second century.
 


 
Learn about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
 

 

The Nag Hammadi codices, detail Photo: Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont, CA.

Once the Nag Hammadi codices had been translated and published by a team of scholars led by Claremont Graduate University’s James M. Robinson, the documents showed that Gnostic Christianity was not the depraved cult described by orthodox Christian writers but rather a legitimate religious movement that offered an alternate testament to Jesus’ life and teachings.

The Nag Hammadi texts, which represent a range of attitudes and beliefs in Gnostic Christianity and include everything from competing gospels to apocalyptic revelations, all assert the primacy of spiritual and intellectual knowledge over physical action and material well-being. The Apocryphon of John, for example, is the most important tractate of classic Sethian Gnosticism. In it the risen Jesus reveals to John, son of Zebedee, the truth of creation.

The Nag Hammadi codices contain more than 50 early Christian texts, including the Gospel of Thomas. The forgotten gospel preserves sayings of Jesus that were not included in the canonical Gospels. Photo: Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont, CA.

According to this Gnostic myth, the God of the Hebrew Bible is actually a corrupted lower deity. Only through the intervention of Sophia (Wisdom) can gnosis be revealed and salvation attained. Thus, while adherents of Gnostic Christianity certainly acknowledged the role of Jesus in their faith, their theology placed greater significance on the intellectual revelation of his message than on his crucifixion and resurrection.

Also among the Nag Hammadi texts was the fully preserved Gospel of Thomas, which does not follow the canonical Gospels in telling the story of Jesus’ birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection, but rather presents the reader with an early collection of Jesus’ sayings. Although this mystical text was originally believed to one of the early texts of Gnosticism, it now seems to reveal yet another strand of early Christianity.

From a historical perspective, the Nag Hammadi codices provide a clearer picture of the diverse theological and philosophical currents that found expression through early Christianity. Indeed, Gnosticism and its classically inspired philosophical ideals permeated not just early Christian thought but also the Jewish and pagan traditions from which Christianity arose. The Nag Hammadi codices, widely regarded as one of the most significant finds of the 20th century, revealed this complex religious milieu and offered an unparalleled glimpse into alternative visions of early Christianity.

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Based on “Issue 200: Ten Top Discoveries,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August September/October 2009.
 

 
The apocryphal Acts of John describe the dance of Jesus and the apostles. How widespread was the ritual of dance in Christian worship? Read “Jesus as Lord of the Dance: From early Christianity to medieval Nubia” in Bible History Daily.
 

 

Posted in Artifacts and the Bible, Biblical Artifacts, Post-Biblical Period.

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9 Responses

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  1. Bill says

    Thax and bless u

  2. Michael says

    There were 12 books in the jar, not 13. The so-called “Codex XIII” is a single tractate torn from a codex before the jar was packed, and placed inside Codex VI. Unfortunately, because it was decided to call this single text a codex, even those who know better sometimes don’t bother to correct this inaccuracy. Those who packed the jar would probably be appalled, since they evidently went to some pains to insure that the jar contained the goodly number of 12 books.

  3. George says

    A partial article in favor of Gnostic Christianity. How can some people consider more authentic t codices have been written <> and <> than books of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John an the other books of New Testament? The book of Mathew has been written 50 A.D.,
    the book of Mark has been written around 45 A.D,
    the book of Luke has been written 63 A.D., and
    John’s has been written around 85-90 A.D..

    From where in the Holy Bible did author’s article conclude that Christianity arose from <>? In the contrary Gnostic Christianity has influenced from pagan’s philosophy. This is so pure as much as crystal.

  4. colette says

    Thank you.

  5. Johnny says

    Biased article seemingly advancing moral relativism. “not the depraved cult described by orthodox Christian writers but rather a legitimate religious movement that offered an alternate testament to Jesus’ life and teachings.” Completely neglecting the historical context of the time.

  6. John says

    Regarding Gnosticism’s “classically inspired philosophical ideals,” the canonical position clearly warns against such syncretism. “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8 ESV).

    Regarding this article’s claim to Christianity rising in part out of paganism, read Dr. Bruce Metzger’s refutation of the pagan parallels theory as well as Dr. James White’s video blog treating the same subject in a more contemporary manifestation of it.

    http://capthk.com/2011/11/17/metzger-on-pagan-parallels-with-christianity/

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Nag Hammadi Codices | Biblical Archeology linked to this post on March 18, 2012

    [...] See the full article at: Nag Hammadi Codices [...]

  2. Some notes on the bindings of ancient codices at Roger Pearse linked to this post on January 2, 2014

    [...] in 1946 gave us a clear idea of what the ancient books of the early 4th century looked like (via here).  These were still single quire papyrus codices. The Nag Hammadi [...]

  3. Bible Secrets Revealed, Episode 3: “The Forbidden Scriptures” | When Was Jesus Born? New information is shocking! linked to this post on February 4, 2014

    [...] Antioch: Mapping Political and Trade Networks with Google Earth. Read more … » article “The Nag Hammadi Codices and Gnostic Christianity.” “The Forbidden Scriptures” Act 3: The Figure of Mary MagdaleneIn Act 3, the documentary [...]


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