The Nag Hammadi Codices and Gnostic Christianity

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

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.
 


 
Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.
 


 

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.
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in March 2011.
 


 

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  • Lin says

    Christian Jews/Johanine Community-split when politics of the synagogue gave way to egotistical debauchery and control freaks. I am a Gnostic Christian and an Ordained Minister. We have lost our way people…perhaps Love is answer?

  • Lin says

    Jewish Law is quite profound. It also Ancient. The teachings given to Jesus were of a pure Gnosis that has never been tampered with such as the New Testament. In Jewish Law a male must be married by the time he is 18-20 or is considered cursed. Jesus elevated women to Priests, Decons etc…because Jewish Law sent them out to teach. There is written Law and there is Oral Law in Judaism. The New Testament is so doctored and tampered with do we really KNOW as opposed to the Torah which has NEVER and NEVER will be tampered with. When the Orthodox Church ( Paul ) came into effect Paul saw to it that all women were downgraded from their roles and were made to where veils in church, were told to shut up and were told their role now was to have children. Yet, if we see Judges 4:4 we KNOW that God told Deborah to rule Israel and Barak was of lesser courage complaining to Deborah that he would only go to war if she followed and went to war with him. All thru the Old Testament we read scripture of women being elevated until Paul, a misogynist, put a screeching halt to it all. The Gnostics were perfect in their teachings and lived it. The Holy Kabbalah is what taught Jesus Christ and in effect it is the 10 sephoroth, ( angels ) within the Holy Kabbalah that truly sets human kind free. It is why the Jews tremble at the power of its teachings and their stedfast knowledge of how the world works and their commitment to God and Gnosis of God’s love. Read Elaine Paigles “The Gnostic Gospels” a Harrington, Paynes, Spears Professor at Princeton University her books remained on the NY Times best seller list for months and gives a clear and concise understanding of the Codices found in the once monastery in upper Egypt at Nag Hammadi. God Bless us all in this God forsaken world we are made to live in. Prayer is powerful people!!!

  • Michael says

    The persecution of Gnostic Christianity became a priority as the “Church Fathers” accepted Constantine’s invitation to become a secular power and key supporter of the civil power structure rather than a spiritual movement. This was, in effect, the destruction of Yeshua’s Christianity in favor of mindless adherence to hierarchies and the material priorities of those claiming God’s authority.

    Simply put, it is the difference between spiritual enlightenment and subordination to worldly power.

  • STEVEN says

    “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.”

    Any document that denies Jesus as Lord and God as the creator of the universe is a cult. You don’t need Jesus + something else, in this case “Wisdom”. Jesus is more than just someone your acknowledge…

    • Michael says

      “I speak for God because I say I speak for God” convinces no one with a brain. The overriding problem, as with any other religion, is that when you strip away the supernatural, all you are left with is men’s interpretations of two-thousand-year-old hearsay.

      Until you can say to that mountain, “Begone!”, your divine Christianity is as empty and false as any other myth

  • Jim says

    Not their philosophy or rigidity but hope inspires more of us.

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