Basic Books for a Gnostic Library
More Advanced Reading 
Editions of Gnostic Scriptures 
Books by Stephan Hoeller  
Gnostic Reading List 
Dead Sea Scrolls Section
Return to
Gnosis Archive



Basic Books | Advanced Reading | Scriptures | Stephan HoellerSearch

Excerpt from the Introduction...

The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library
by Marvin Meyer
HarperSanFrancisco, 2005, pp 1-11


The Gnostic Discoveries, by Marvin Meyer

The Gnostic Discoveries
by Marvin Meyer

Buy the Book


Gnostic Wisdom Ancient and Modern

SINCE THE DISCOVERY of the ancient texts that comprise the Nag Hammadi library, the world of the historical Jesus, the schools of Judaism and Greco-Roman religion, and the varieties of Christianity has begun to look remarkably different than it did once upon a time.

In this book, The Gnostic Discoveries, I seek to assess the character of that world of Jesus, Judaism, Greco-Roman religion, and early Christianity in the light of the Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Book of John, the Gospel of Truth, and other texts unearthed in the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library and to suggest the extent to which a new understanding of that ancient world may impact our modern world.' Many of the texts found in the Nag Hammadi library and related collections, such as the Berlin Gnostic Codex, represent a mystical spirituality commonly called "gnosticism," a term derived from the Greek word gnosis, "knowledge."' Hence the title of this book.



Prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, "gnosticism" typically was considered to be an early and pernicious Christian heresy, and much of our knowledge of gnostic religion was gleaned from the writings of the Christian heresiologists, those authors who attempted to establish orthodoxy and expose heresy in the early church. The Christian heresiologists disagreed vehemently with Christian gnostics on matters of faith and life, and as a result they portrayed gnostic believers as vile heretics. Without a doubt the polemical intentions of the heresiologists influenced their understanding — or misunderstanding — of the gnostics. In the latter part of the second century, Irenaeus of Lyon composed a work entitled Against Heresies (Adversus haereses) in which he accuses those practicing gnostic religion of heresy and attempts to combat their "falsely so-called knowledge." In the early third century, Hippolytus of Rome wrote his Refutation of All Heresies (Refutatio omnium haeresium) to refute all those he considered to be followers of falsehood, giving special attention to gnostic heretics. Later, in the fourth century, Epiphanius of Salamis authored a particularly nasty piece, even by heresiological standards, entitled Panarion, or Medicine Chest, with an orthodox antidote for every gnostic malady.' From these and other heresiological writers, who were bristling with righteous wrath against their gnostic opponents, we can hardly expect to read a fair and balanced account of gnostic religion, and before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library this heresiological bias permeated much of the discussion of gnosis.

Nevertheless, in the writings of the heresiologists and other early Christian authors, there are presentations of gnostic ideas and citations of gnostic texts that may provide at least some understanding of who the gnostics were, and scholarly commentators on gnostic life and thought prior to the Nag Hammadi discovery relied on these presentations and citations. Although the heresiological accounts are biased and apparently distort many features of gnostic religion, a careful and critical reading of these accounts may shed light on significant gnostic figures from the first and second centuries, such as Simon Magus, Helena, Marcellina, Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcus, and the gnostic movements they represent. Upon occasion the heresiologists quote from or paraphrase gnostic sources. Hippolytus cites two sayings that come from a version of the Gospel of Thomas as well as a text often referred to as the Naassene Sermon, and he quotes long passages from a work entitled the Book of Baruch said to be written by a gnostic teacher named Justin. (Hippolytus calls the Book of Baruch the most abominable book he has read; today, as a result of our modern sensibilities, we may have quite a different evaluation of the text.) Within the apocryphal Acts of Thomas is the "Hymn of the Pearl," and within the apocryphal Acts of John is the "Round Dance of the Cross." These texts, found in the heresiologists and early Christian writers, were used, before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, to gain as much insight as possible into gnostics and gnostic religion.'

Before the Nag Hammadi texts were known, there were also a few other gnostic sources that could be examined by those who wished to explore gnostic traditions. In the codex, or ancient book, called the Askew Codex is a sprawling work titled Pistis Sophia, and in the Bruce Codex are three difficult texts, two Books of Jeu and an untitled gnostic text.' To these may be added other texts, such as Hermetic works from the Corpus Hermeticum, Mandaean texts from the Middle East, and perhaps Manichaean texts from the Mediterranean region and throughout Asia.' A few scholars have also studied magical gems with possible gnostic motifs — figures with heads of roosters or donkeys and serpents for legs and feet, accompanied by engraved names, also known from gnostic texts, such as Yao Abrasax Sabaoth Adonaios.

On the basis of these ancient sources, some biased, some obscure, some uncertain, scholars and authors studying gnostic religion before the Nag Hammadi discovery reflected upon the traditions and did their best to describe and evaluate the gnostics with what they had available. In spite of the limitations, some of the contributions have proved valuable and insightful. Of the books written about Gnostics before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, by scholars and nonscholars alike, mention may be made of The Four Zoas by William Blake, The Seven Sermons to the Dead (Septem Sermones ad Mortuos) by Carl Jung, History of Dogma by Adolf von Harnack, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity by Walter Bauer, The Gospel of John by Rudolf Bultmann, and Gnosis und spätantiker Geist and The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas.

The works of Hans Jonas have proved to be especially influential. In his scholarship on gnostic religion Jonas draws a distinction between the gnostic principle ("the spirit of late antiquity") and the gnostic movement. He maintains that gnostic religion is a religion of knowledge, with "a certain conception of the world, of man's alienness within it, and of the transmundane nature of the godhead."' This knowledge is expressed through a mythology that borrows from other religious traditions and employs an elaborate series of symbols. Jonas suggests that the result of gnostic reflection is the articulation of religious dualism, dislocation, and alienation, of "the existing rift between God and world, world and man, spirit and flesh." Some gnostics (for example, Valentinians) sought to derive this dualism from a primordial oneness; others (for example, Manichaeans) founded their system upon two ultimate principles in opposition. For Jonas, the manifestations of gnostic dualism can be interpreted in terms of modern philosophical existentialism. The gnostic drama emphasizes the self-understanding of a human being as "thrownness," Geworfenheit, that is to say, the abandonment of the self in the world. At the same time, Jonas admits, "There is no overlooking one cardinal difference between the gnostic and the existentialist dualism: Gnostic man is thrown into an antagonistic, anti-divine, and therefore anti-human nature, modern man into an indifferent one. Only the latter case represents the absolute vacuum, the really bottomless pit.' Ancient gnostics and modern existentialists may both be nihilistic, but modern people encounter the more profound abyss — the uncaring abyss. For gnostics, there is light in the darkness and hope in the abyss.

Hans Jonas wrote his books on gnostic thought just as word of the Nag Hammadi discovery was emerging. In The Gnostic Religion he was able to include a supplement to the second edition: "The Recent Discoveries in the Field of Gnosticism" (chapter 12)." We may question Jonas's preoccupation with dualism as the basic characteristic of gnostic religion, but his observations remain helpful. And although Jonas was able to include in his discussion last-minute thoughts about the texts that were becoming known, even he could hardly have imagined how these texts would revolutionize the way we now look at gnosis and the world from antiquity and late antiquity to modern times.



Since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library and related texts, the study of gnostic religion and its impact upon ancient and modern religion has been fundamentally transformed. When the Egyptian Muhammad Ali discovered the Nag Hammadi codices in late 1945, he uncovered a collection of thirteen codices with over fifty ancient texts, most of them previously unknown. A goodly number of these texts may be classified as gnostic texts — texts in the Thomas tradition, texts that are Sethian, Valentinian, Hermetic, and some texts that cannot be easily classified. Complementing the Nag Hammadi find are other discoveries of ancient texts, such as the texts in the Berlin Gnostic Codex, various documents found in a rubbish heap at ancient Oxyrhynchus, and, most recently, a newly available codex with more texts in it, including a Gospel of Judas.

The availability of so many new religious texts has attracted the enthusiastic attention of scholars and others interested in gnostic religion from antiquity and late antiquity. Three major scholarly research teams were formed to undertake the arduous task of translating the Coptic texts of the Nag Hammadi library and the Berlin Gnostic Codex: an American team, constituting the Coptic Gnostic Library Project, based at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont, California; a German team, the Berliner Arbeitskreis fin koptisch-gnostische Schriften; and a French-Canadian team, centered at Université Laval in Quebec and formed to produce the Bibliotheque copte de Nag Hammadi. In addition, individual scholars and students of ancient and late antique religions have turned their attention to these texts, and through their scholarly labors a large number of articles and books have appeared. David Scholer, a biblical scholar and professional bibliographer, has compiled two hefty volumes listing contributions in Nag Hammadi studies: Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1948-1969 and Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1970-1994. Between volumes he has published bibliographical installments annually in the periodical Novum Testamentum. In short, scholars and authors have been productive in the study of these texts from Egypt, and articles and books have been published in impressive quantities.

Of the contributions, some more scholarly, some more literary and artistic, created by those whose interest in Nag Hammadi has addressed a wider audience beyond the academy — Gnosis by Kurt Rudolph, a professor at Philipps Universität, Marburg; The American Religion by literary critic Harold Bloom; Valis by Philip K. Dick; the film Stigmata, directed by Rupert Wainwright; the Wachowski brothers' Matrix film trilogy; and so on — two authors have piqued the interest of readers in a special way: Elaine H. Pagels and Dan Brown.

Elaine Pagels is a distinguished scholar of gnostic and early Christian religion with a fine literary style and a rare ability to communicate difficult religious themes with clarity and grace. In her books The Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief, Pagels has invited readers into the exciting world of gnostic spirituality, Christianity, and ancient religions, and through her discussion of Nag Hammadi texts and other religious documents from the world of early Christianity these texts come alive. (For her efforts she was accused by one reviewer of engaging in the "greening of the gnostics" — a charge recalling the old heresiological perspective.)

In The Gnostic Gospels Pagels introduces the texts of the Nag Hammadi library by emphasizing the social and political concerns reflected in the texts. As the New Testament scholar Robert M. Grant has put it, "She has a genius for detecting social realities amid what look like the speculative fantasies of the gnostics."' Thus, when gnostic texts proclaim multiple manifestations of God as father and as mother, they affirm, Pagels observes, the authority of all people of knowledge, male and female, in opposition to the commitment of the emerging orthodox church to one God — a father in heaven — and one bishop — a male authority figure. Pagels concludes that these and similar concerns are still being addressed today:

All the old questions—the original questions, sharply debated at the beginning of Christianity—are being reopened. How is one to understand the resurrection? What about women's participation in priestly and episcopal office? Who was Christ, and how does he relate to the believer? What are the similarities between Christianity and other world religions?'

In Beyond Belief, Pagels focuses attention on the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi library. She identifies the differences between Judas Thomas, the twin brother of Jesus, in the Gospel of Thomas and doubting Thomas in the Gospel of John, and she contrasts the gospel of enlightenment proclaimed in the Gospel of Thomas with the gospel of belief in Jesus proclaimed in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John won the day in the battle for legitimacy, Pagels admits, but the good news of enlightenment as found in the Gospel of Thomas, the Secret Book of John, and other gnostic texts remains a significant form of Christian proclamation. Pagels moves the discussion of Thomas and John beyond accusations of who is right and who is wrong: "What Christians have disparagingly called gnostic and heretical sometimes turn out to be forms of Christian teaching that are merely unfamiliar to us — unfamiliar precisely because of the active and successful opposition of Christians such as John.'

More recently, the novelist Dan Brown has published The Da Vinci Code, a volume that has attracted an unprecedented number of readers internationally to a tale developed from texts in the Nag Hammadi library and the Berlin Gnostic Codex, chiefly the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip. Brown's book is a novel, and it should be read as such, I would emphasize, in spite of the occasional historical claims of Brown and the comments — and complaints — ofsome of his readers. The Da Vinci Code develops the sort of research and wild speculation found in the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail,' yet it is based upon ancient texts and authentic themes in those texts. In the novel Brown has Sir Leigh Teabing show Sophie Neveu passages from the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary, and then they discuss what is said about Mary Magdalene and Peter:

"The woman they are speaking of," Teabing explained, "is Mary Magdalene. Peter is jealous of her."

"Because Jesus preferred Mary?"

"Not only that. The stakes were far greater than mere affection. At this point in the gospels, Jesus suspects He will soon be captured and crucified. So He gives Mary Magdalene instructions on how to carry on His Church after He is gone. As a result, Peter expresses his discontent over playing second fiddle to a woman. I daresay Peter was something of a sexist."

Sophie was trying to keep up. "This is Saint Peter. The rock on which Jesus built His Church."

"The same, except for one catch. According to these unaltered gospels, it was not Peter to whom Christ gave directions with which to establish the Christian Church. It was Mary Magdalene."

The issues of the roles of Mary and Peter, although presented in a provocative fashion in The Da Vinci Code, are the issues of the Gospels of Mary and Philip and other gnostic texts. As the reception of the novel indicates, they remain powerful issues today.



The Gnostic Discoveries explores the impact of the gnostic wisdom in the Nag Hammadi library, the Berlin Gnostic Codex, and related texts. Chapter 1, "Fertilizer, Blood Vengeance, and Codices," recounts the memorable stories of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library and other texts, and notes how the archeological and codicological efforts that followed the discoveries provide a new perspective on the history of Christianity in the Nag Hammadi region, the nature of bookbinding, and the compilation of the Nag Hammadi codices. Chapter 2, "Coptic Texts from the Sands of Egypt," presents the documents from the ancient collections under consideration and evaluates their contents. Chapter 3, "They Will Not Taste Death," takes up the most famous text from the Nag Hammadi library, the Gospel of Thomas, along with other texts in the Thomas tradition, and suggests how these texts provide compelling ways of looking at Jesus of Nazareth. Chapter 4, "The Wisdom of Insight," discusses a classic among gnostic texts, the Secret Book of John, and other texts in the Sethian tradition, which proclaim salvation through insight, wisdom, and knowledge. Chapter 5, "Valentinus the Christian Mystic," discusses the Christian leader Valentinus and texts composed by him and his followers. The Valentinian texts include the Gospel of Truth, a sermon probably composed by Valentinus himself; this Christian sermon and the other Valentinian works from the Nag Hammadi library raise thought-provoking questions about the nature of Christian mysticism. Chapter 6, "Hermes, Derdekeas, Thunder, and Mary," presents figures, male and female, who aid in salvation in several additional Nag Hammadi texts. In the Appendix, "The Texts of the Nag Hammadi Library and the Berlin Gnostic Codex," all the texts in these collections are briefly described and characterized in order to provide an overview of the actual contents of all these extraordinary documents.

A goodly number of translations of Nag Hammadi texts and other works are included in this book. Unless otherwise indicated, the translations are my own. They are taken from The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospels of Mary, The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus, or a work in preparation, in collaboration with other scholars, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Most of the translations of other scholars cited in this book will also appear in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. Numerical references for Nag Hammadi texts and the texts in the Berlin Gnostic Codex refer to Coptic page numbers, except for the Gospel of Thomas, where the numbers refer to sayings. Square brackets indicate textual restorations and angle brackets indicate textual emendations. Notes and Bibliography are added to acknowledge the contributions of other scholars and to offer suggestions for further study.


Excerpt from: 

The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library
by Marvin Meyer
 HarperSanFrancisco, 2005
 Copyright © 2005 by Marvin Meyer

The Gnostic Society Bookstore
is an Associate
You get great service and the lowest prices available when ordering books from our collection.

Basic Books | Advanced Reading | Scriptures | Stephan HoellerSearch