The Gnostic Gospels
by Elaine Pagels
Vintage Books, New York: 1979
[Archive Note: The many documents mentioned by Dr. Pagels in this introduction are all in the Gnostic Society Library -- we have added links to the specific documents where they are first mentioned in the text.]
IN DECEMBER 1945 an Arab peasant made an astonishing archeological discovery in
Upper Egypt. Rumors obscured the circumstances of this find--perhaps because
the discovery was accidental, and its sale on the black market illegal. For
years even the identity of the discoverer remained unknown. One rumor held
that he was a blood avenger; another, that he had made the find near the town
of Naj 'Hammádì at the Jabal al-Tárif, a mountain
honeycombed with more than 150 caves. Originally natural, some of these
caves were cut and painted and used as grave sites as early as the sixth
dynasty, some 4,300 years ago.
Thirty years later the discoverer himself, Muhammad 'Alí
al-Sammán; told what happened. Shortly before he and his brothers
avenged their father's murder in a blood feud, they had saddled their camels
and gone out to the Jabal to dig for sabakh, a soft soil they used to
fertilize their crops. Digging around a massive boulder, they hit a red
earthenware jar, almost a meter high. Muhammad 'Alí hesitated to break
the jar, considering that a jinn, or spirit, might live inside. But
realizing that it might also contain gold, he raised his mattock, smashed the
jar, and discovered inside thirteen papyrus books, bound in leather. Returning
to his home in al-Qasr, Muhammad'All dumped the books and loose papyrus leaves
on the straw piled on the ground next to the oven. Muhammad's mother,
'Umm-Ahmad, admits that she burned much of the papyrus in the oven along with
the straw she used to kindle the fire.
A few weeks later, as Muhammad 'Alí tells it, he and his brothers
avenged their father's death by murdering Ahmed Isma'il. Their mother had
warned her sons to keep their mattocks sharp: when they learned that their
father's enemy was nearby, the brothersseized the opportunity, "hacked off his
limbs . . . ripped out his heart, and devoured it among them, as the
ultimate act of blood revenge."
Fearing that the police investigating the murder would search his house and
discover the books, Muhammad 'Alí asked the priest, al-Qummus Basiliyus
Abd al-Masih, to keep one or more for him. During the time that Muhammad
'Alí and his brothers were being interrogated for murder, Raghib, a
local history teacher, had seen one of the books, and suspected that it had
value. Having received one from al-Qummus Basiliyus, Raghib sent it to a
friend in Cairo to find out its worth.
Sold on the black market through antiquities dealers in Cairo, the manuscripts
soon attracted the attention of officials of the Egyptian government. Through
circumstances of high drama, as we shall see, they bought one and confiscated
ten and a half of the thirteen leather-bound books, called codices, and
deposited them in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. But a large part of the
thirteenth codex, containing five extraordinary texts, was smuggled out of
Egypt and offered for sale in America. Word of this codex soon reached
Professor Gilles Quispel, distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht, in
the Netherlands. Excited by the discovery, Quispel urged the Jung Foundation
in Zurich to buy the codex. But discovering, when he succeeded, that some
pages were missing, he flew to Egypt in the spring of 1955 to try to find them
in the Coptic Museum. Arriving in Cairo, he went at once to the Coptic Museum,
borrowed photographs of some of the texts, and hurried back to his hotel to
decipher them. Tracing out the first line, Quispel was startled, then
incredulous, to read: "These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke,
and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down." Quispel knew that his colleague
H.C. Puech, using notes from another French scholar, Jean Doresse, had
identified the opening lines with fragments of a Greek Gospel of Thomas discovered in the 1890's. But the discovery of the whole text raised new
questions: Did Jesus have a twin brother, as this text implies? Could the text
be an authentic record of Jesus' sayings? According to its title, it contained
the Gospel According to Thomas; yet, unlike the gospels of the New
Testament, this text identified itself as a secret gospel. Quispel also
discovered that it contained many sayings known from the New Testament; but
these sayings, placed in unfamiliar contexts, suggested other dimensions of
meaning. Other passages, Quispel found, differed entirely from any known
Christian tradition: the "living Jesus," for example, speaks in sayings as
cryptic and compelling as Zen koans:
Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will
save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring
forth will destroy you."
What Quispel held in his hand, the Gospel of Thomas, was only one of the
fifty-two texts discovered at Nag Hammadi (the usual English transliteration of
the town's name). Bound into the same volume with it is the Gospel of
Philip, which attributes to Jesus acts and sayings quite different from
those in the New Testament:
. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved]
her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth].
The rest of [the disciples were offended] . . . They said to him, "Why do
you love her more than all of us?" The Savior answered and said to them, "Why
do I not love you as (I love) her?"
Other sayings in this collection criticize common Christian beliefs, such as
the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, as naïve misunderstandings.
Bound together with these gospels is the Apocryphon (literally, "secret
book") of John , which opens with an offer to reveal "the mysteries [and
the] things hidden in silence" which Jesus taught to his disciple John.
Muhammad 'Alí later admitted that some of the texts were lost--burned up
or thrown away. But what remains is astonishing: some fifty-two texts from the
early centuries of the Christian era--including a collection of early Christian
gospels, previously unknown. Besides the Gospel of Thomas and the
Gospel of Philip, the find included the Gospel of Truth and the
Gospel to the Egyptians, which identifies itself as "the [sacred book]
of the Great Invisible [Spirit]." Another group of texts consists of writings
attributed to Jesus' followers, such as the Secret Book of James, the
Apocalypse of Paul, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the
Apocalypse of Peter.
What Muhammad 'Alí discovered at Nag Hammadi, it soon became clear, were
Coptic translations, made about 1,500 years ago, of still more ancient
manuscripts. The originals themselves had been written in Greek, the language
of the New Testament: as Doresse, Puech, and Quispel had recognized, part of
one of them had been discovered by archeologists about fifty years earlier,
when they found a few fragments of the original Greek version of the Gospel
About the dating of the manuscripts themselves there is little debate.
Examination of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings, and of
the Coptic script, place them c. A.D. 350-400. But scholars sharply disagree
about the dating of the original texts. Some of them can hardly be later than
c . A.D. 120-150, since Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyons, writing
C. 180, declares that heretics "boast that they possess more gospels than
there really are,'' and complains that in his time such writings already have
won wide circulation--from Gaul through Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor.
Quispel and his collaborators, who first published the Gospel of Thomas,
suggested the date of c. A.D. 140 for the original. Some reasoned that
since these gospels were heretical, they must have been written later than the
gospels of the New Testament, which are dated c. 60-l l0. But recently
Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University has suggested that the
collection of sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, although compiled c. 140,
may include some traditions even older than the gospels of the New
Testament, "possibly as early as the second half of the first century"
(50-100)--as early as, or earlier, than Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
Scholars investigating the Nag Hammadi find discovered that some of the texts
tell the origin of the human race in terms very different from the usual
reading of Genesis: the Testimony of Truth, for example, tells the story
of the Garden of Eden from the viewpoint of the serpent! Here the serpent,
long known to appear in Gnostic literature as the principle of divine wisdom,
convinces Adam and Eve to partake of knowledge while "the Lord" threatens them
with death, trying jealously to prevent them from attaining knowledge, and
expelling them from Paradise when they achieve it. Another text, mysteriously
entitled The Thunder, Perfect Mind, offers an extraordinary poem spoken
in the voice of a feminine divine power:
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin....
I am the barren one, and many are her sons....
I am the silence that is incomprehensible....
I am the utterance of my name.
These diverse texts range, then, from secret gospels, poems, and
quasi-philosophic descriptions of the origin of the universe, to myths, magic,
and instructions for mystical practice.
Why were these texts buried-and why have they remained virtually unknown for
nearly 2,000 years? Their suppression as banned documents, and their burial on
the cliff at Nag Hammadi, it turns out, were both part of a struggle critical
for the formation of early Christianity. The Nag Hammadi texts, and others
like them, which circulated at the beginning of the Christian era, were
denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians in the middle of the second century.
We have long known that many early followers of Christ were condemned by other
Christians as heretics, but nearly all we knew about them came from what their
opponents wrote attacking them. Bishop Irenaeus, who supervised the church in
Lyons, c. 180, wrote five volumes, entitled The Destruction and Overthrow of
Falsely So-called Knowledge, which begin with his promise to
set forth the views of those who are now teaching heresy . . . to show how
absurd and inconsistent with the truth are their statements . . . I do this
so that . . . you may urge all those with whom you are connected to avoid
such an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ.
He denounces as especially "full of blasphemy" a famous gospel called the
Gospel of Truth. Is Irenaeus referring to the same Gospel of Truth
discovered at Nag Hammadi' Quispel and his collaborators, who first
published the Gospel of Truth, argued that he is; one of their critics
maintains that the opening line (which begins "The gospel of truth") is not a
title. But Irenaeus does use the same source as at least one of the texts
discovered at Nag Hammadi--the Apocryphon (Secret Book) of
John--as ammunition for his own attack on such "heresy." Fifty years later
Hippolytus, a teacher in Rome, wrote another massive Refutation of All
Heresies to "expose and refute the wicked blasphemy of the heretics."
This campaign against heresy involved an involuntary admission of its
persuasive power; yet the bishops prevailed. By the time of the Emperor
Constantine's conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved
religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by the
police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was
made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed. But
in Upper Egypt, someone; possibly a monk from a nearby monastery of St.
Pachomius, took the banned books and hid them from destruction--in the jar
where they remained buried for almost 1,600 years.
But those who wrote and circulated these texts did not regard themselves
as "heretics. Most of the writings use Christian terminology, unmistakable
related to a Jewish heritage. Many claim to offer traditions about Jesus that
are secret, hidden from "the many" who constitute what, in the second century,
came to be called the "catholic church." These Christians are now called
gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, usually translated as "knowledge."
For as those who claim to know nothing about ultimate reality are called
agnostic (literally, "not knowing"), the person who does claim to know such
things is called gnostic ("knowing"). But gnosis is not primarily
rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or
reflective knowledge ("He knows mathematics") and knowing through observation
or experience ("He knows me"), which is gnosis. As the gnostics use the
term, we could translate it as "insight," for gnosis involves an
intuitive process of knowing oneself. And to know oneself, they claimed, is to
know human nature and human destiny. According to the gnostic teacher
Theodotus, writing in Asia Minor (c. 140-160), the gnostic is one has come to
who we were, and what we have become; where we were... whither we are
hastening; from what we are being released; what birth is, and what is
Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this
is the secret of gnosis. Another gnostic teacher, Monoimus, says:
Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of a similar
sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point. Learn who it is
within you who makes everything his own and says, "My God, my mind, my thought,
my soul, my body." Learn the sources of sorrow:, joy, love, hate . . . If
you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in
What Muhammad 'All discovered at Nag Hammadi is, apparently, a library of
writings, almost all of them gnostic. Although they claim to offer secret
teaching, many of these texts refer to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and
others to the letters of Paul and the New Testament gospels. Many of them
include the same dramatic personae as the New Testament--Jesus and his
disciples. Yet the differences are striking.
Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from Its
creator: God is wholly other. But some of the gnostics who wrote these gospels
contradict this: self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine
Second, the "living Jesus" of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment,
not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead
of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to
spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no
longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal--even
Third, orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a
unique way: he remains forever distinct from the rest of humanity whom he came
to save. Yet the gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates that as soon as
Thomas recognizes him, Jesus says to Thomas that they have both received their
being from the same source:
Jesus said, "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become
drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out.... He who will drink
from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things
that are hidden will be revealed to him."
Does not such teaching--the identity of the divine and human. the concern with
illusion and enlightenment, the founder who is presented not as Lord, but as
spiritual guide sound more Eastern than Western? Some scholars have suggested
that if the names were changed, the "living Buddha" appropriately could say
what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus. Could Hindu or
Buddhist tradition have influenced gnosticism?
The British scholar of Buddhism, Edward Conze, suggests
that it had. He points out that "Buddhists were in contact with
the Thomas Christians (that is, Christians who knew and used
such writings as the Gospel of Thomas) in South India." Trade
routes between the Greco-Roman world and the Far East were
opening up at the time when gnosticism flourished (A.D. 80-200);
for generations, Buddhist missionaries had been proselytizing in
Alexandria. We note, too, that Hippolytus, who was a Greek
speaking Christian in Rome (c. 225), knows of the Indian
Brahmins--and includes their tradition among the sources of
There is . . . among the Indians a heresy of those who
philosophize among the Brahmins, who live a self-sufficient life, abstaining
from (eating) living creatures and all cooked food . . . They say that God
is light, not like the light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them
God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but
that of knowledge (gnosis) through which the secret mysteries of nature
are perceived by the wise.
Could the title of the Gospel of Thomas--named for the disciple
who, tradition tells us, went to India--suggest the influence of
These hints indicate the possibility, yet our evidence is not
conclusive. Since parallel traditions may emerge in different
cultures at different times, such ideas could have developed in
both places independently. What we call Eastern and Western
religions, and tend to regard as separate streams, were not clearly
differentiated 2,000 years ago. Research on the Nag Hammadi
texts is only beginning: we look forward to the work of scholars
who can study these traditions comparatively to discover whether
they can, in fact, be traced to Indian sources.
Even so, ideas that we associate with Eastern religions emerged in the first
century through the gnostic movement in the West, but they were suppressed and
condemned by polemicists like Irenaeus. Yet those who called gnosticism heresy
were adopting--consciously or not--the viewpoint of that group of Christians
who called themselves orthodox Christians. A heretic may be anyone whose
outlook someone else dislikes or denounces. According to tradition, a heretic
is one who deviates from the true faith. But what defines that "true faith"?
Who calls it that, and for what reasons?
We find this problem familiar in our own experience. The term "Christianity,"
especially since the Reformation, has covered an astonishing range of groups.
Those claiming to represent "true Christianity" in the twentieth century can
range from a Catholic cardinal in the Vatican to an African Methodist Episcopal
preacher initiating revival in Detroit, a Mormon missionary in Thailand, or the
member of a village church on the coast of Greece. Yet Catholics, Protestants,
and Orthodox agree that such diversity is a recent--and
deplorable--development. According to Christian legend, the early church was
different. Christians of every persuasion look back to the primitive church to
find a simpler, purer form of Christian faith. In the apostles' time, all
members of the Christian community shared their money and property; all
believed the same teaching, and worshipped together; all revered the authority
of the apostles. It was only after that golden age that conflict, then heresy
emerged: so says the author of the Acts of the Apostles, who identifies himself
as the first historian of Christianity.
But the discoveries at Nag Hammadi have upset this picture. If we admit that
some of these fifty-two texts represents early forms of Christian teaching, we
may have to recognize that early Christianity is far more diverse than nearly
anyone expected before the Nag Hammadi discoveries.
Contemporary Christianity, diverse and complex as we find it, actually may show
more unanimity than the Christian churches of the first and second centuries.
For nearly all Christians since that time, Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox,
have shared three basic premises. First, they accept the canon of the New
Testament; second, they confess the apostolic creed; and third, they affirm
specific forms of church institution. But every one of these-the canon of
Scripture, the creed, and the institutional structure--emerged in its present
form only toward the end of the second century. Before that time, as Irenaeus
and others attest, numerous gospels circulated among various Christian groups,
ranging from those of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to such
writings as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the
Gospel of Truth, as well as many other secret teachings, myths, and
poems attributed to Jesus or his disciples. Some of these, apparently, were
discovered at Nag Hammadi; many others are lost to us. Those who identified
themselves as Christians entertained many--and radically differing-religious
beliefs and practices. And the communities scattered throughout the known
world organized themselves in ways that differed widely from one group to
Yet by A. D. 200, the situation had changed. Christianity had become an
institution headed by a three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons,
who understood themselves to be the guardians of the only "true faith." The
majority of churches, among which the church of Rome took a leading role,
rejected all other viewpoints as heresy. Deploring the diversity of the
earlier movement, Bishop Irenaeus and his followers insisted that there could
be only one church, and outside of that church, he declared, "there is no
salvation." Members of this church alone are orthodox (literally,
"straight-thinking") Christians. And, he claimed, this church must be
catholic-- that is, universal. Whoever challenged that consensus,
arguing instead for other forms of Christian teaching, was declared to be a
heretic, and expelled. When the orthodox gained military support, sometime
after the Emperor Constantine became Christian in the fourth century, the
penalty for heresy escalated.
Reproduced from: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. Published by Vintage Books. All rights reserved.
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