One December day in 1945, far up the Nile Valley, two Egyptian peasants were looking for a local variety of crumbly nitrate rock used as fertilizer. Amid the scree at the foot of the cliff bordering the valley, they came across a large jar, about a meter tall, hidden by a boulder. Inside they found a collection of ancient leather-bound books or codices. The spot where the books were found is within a few miles of the site of an early monastery, established by the founder of Christian monasticism in Egypt, Pachomius. Nag Hammadi, a nearby village , has given this remarkable collection its name.
Mohammed Ali, one of the finders, wrapped the books in a tunic and carried them home on his camel. He was involved in a blood feud between clans; his father, a night watchman, had earlier killed an intruder in the fields he was guarding, and a kinsman of the dead man had killed Ali's father. And Mohammed Ali, with his brothers, had in turn hacked to death the murderer of their father, and had eaten his heart.
Their victim's father was the local sheriff. He was an outsider in the neighborhood and unpopular among the local peasants, who refused to testify against the killers of his son. At the time of his literary find, however, Mohammed Ali was being closely watched by the police and his house was frequently searched for weapons. He decided the ancient books he had just uncovered would be safer with the local Coptic priest, whose brother-in-law, an itinerant teacher, took one book to Cairo and showed it to the authorities dealing with antiquities.
For the next quarter of a century, the collection was scattered in various ways. The finders' mother used part of one codex as kindling for her cooking fire. Most books fell into the hands of opportunistic dealers. One important codex reached psychologist Carl Jung in Switzerland. The Egyptian government eventually gathered them all under one roof, in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Rivalries among scholars of different nationalities, the French-British-Israeli invasion of Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Nasser's determination to get rid of foreign cultural influences -- all combined to delay a cooperative approach to reproduction and translation of the codices. At last an international effort was organized under the auspices of UNESCO and Egypt and under the leadership of an American scholar, James Robinson. The team made facsimile copies of the texts generally available to scholars. Translations into modern languages began to appear. It was a find more important, for students of the New Testament, than the much better known ones at Qumran in Palestine, the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Nag Hammadi Library consists of fifty-two texts or "tractates" written in Coptic on papyrus and gathered in thirteen volumes, twelve of which have separate leather bindings. Forty of the texts had previously been unknown to modern scholars. Most of the writings are of a Gnostic character. Scraps of paper found in the binding of eight codices bear dates indicating that the books were made in the mid-fourth century, and at least one of these clearly appears to have come from a monastery. Efforts to date the books more precisely continue. In general, it can be said the collection dates from about the middle of the fourth century. The Coptic texts could be many years earlier and the originals (probably written in Greek or Aramaic) from which the Coptic translations were made could have been still earlier.
The origin of the collection remains to some extent speculative, but the general setting can be reconstructed with considerable confidence. Theodosius, the Roman emperor in Constantinople late in the fourth century, was determined to stamp out paganism and Christian groups thaat were held by the bishops then dominant to be heretical. Christians, long the victims of persecution, were now at the other end of the stick. It was now the policy of the churches enjoying imperial protection to destroy writings not consistent with their own views.
Toward the end of the century, Alexandria became a particular target of heresy-hunters' zeal. (Their main concern at the time was the Arian heresy, which held that Jesus, although divine, was not equal with the Father). About the year 391 Roman soldiers destroyed the temple of Serapis in Alexandria. They pillaged and burned, once more, the famous Alexandrian library. In the year 367 the Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, in his annual Easter letter to his churches, condemned heretics and their "apocryphal books to which they attribute antiquity and give the name of saints." He listed the books that would form the New Testament canon: "In these books alone the teaching of piety is proclaimed. Let no one add or subtract from them." The head of the Pachomian monasteries had the letter translated into Coptic.
This was the century when Epiphanius said he had driven eighty libertine Gnostics out of Alexandria. And in the same or following century, an Egyptian Christian named Shenute warned against an apocryphal gospel: "There are some who want to confound you, changing the gospel of Christ . . . . He who says 'I know' because he reads apocryphal books, is greatly ignorant."
We can suppose that monks of a Gnostic bent, far up the Nile, would take steps to save their own libraries from heresy-hunters. In any event, some group hid an impressive collection of books, mainly Gnostic in character, in a large jar and placed it in a cave in a cliffside -- probably a pharaoh's tomb that had been looted long before. There it reposed for sixteen centuries until discovered by the Ali brothers. Some students of these matters, assuming that Pachomian monasteries were steadfastly orthodox, suggest that monks were getting rid of heretical works by burying them. Leather-bound codices, however, were rare and precious at the time these were hidden and destruction by burning or other means, not preservation by concealment, was the usual way of dealing with writings deemed unacceptable. To bury was to save.
Up to the time of the find at Nag Hammadi most of what was known about the various Gnostic sects had come from their enemies, from early church fathers who wanted to stamp out what they regarded as dangerous and threatening aberrations from their views of what constituted true Christianity. Most writings of the Gnostics themselves had been destroyed or lost. Now and then a fragment would surface, but for the most part scholars trying to reconstruct Gnostic beliefs and texts had to rely on accounts given by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Epiphanius, and other early church fathers hostile to the Gnostic systems that they were describing.
The Nag Hammadi library marks a dramatic change. It brings a a relatively huge addition to the "fragments of a faith forgotten," as the sparse Gnostic materials earlier available have been called. The collection will provide grist for scholarly mills for generations to come. Within a few decades of the discovery a large body of scholarly literature emerged, and it grows apace.
Much of the specialized study of Gnosticism has been concerned with trying to find the movement's origins, with emphasis on the interrelationships of texts that seem to tie the movement to various trends and known writings, or genres of writings, in Judaism, Hellenistic philosophy, mystery religions, early Christianity, Greco-Egyptian religious movements, the religions of India, and Persian Zoroastrianism.
Some scholars find roots of Gnosticism earlier than the time of Christ, some think the movement arose in the first century A.D., some later. All can agree that the peak period of its Christian variety came in the second and third centuries.
The Gospel of Thomas (to which I have referred only glancingly earlier in these pages) is one of the most striking of the documents found at Nag Hammadi. Many scholars date its origins to about the middle of the second century; others would date it much earlier, perhaps to the middle or late first century. (We will want, later, to explore this difference.) The book is not, in the familiar sense of biblical gospel, a narrative of the life and passion of Jesus as well as a record of his teachings. Rather, it is a collection of logia or sayings -- aphorisms, words of wisdom, proverbs, parables -- purportedly recorded by his closest disciple and confidant, Thomas. In many cases they are close to the sayings attributed to him in the canonical gospels, but often tantalizingly different in wording and nuance from them. Many are entirely different from anything found in the canon.
The only connection among the Sayings, at first glance, is that one often has a catch word found in the preceding one. (For example, the term "little children" may be repeated from one Saying to the next.) Perhaps this chain was used as an aid to memory, just as in ordinary conversation one topic leads to another ("That reminds me . . ."). If the Gospel is read as a Christian Gnostic document, Gnostic motifs and themes will be readily recognized.
About half of the sayings, as already noted, have no parallels in the New Testament, and several of these are at the heart of the mystical element in the Thomas literature. Scholars' classifications vary. Hans Jonas identified about 35 Sayings of the 114 as having no counterpart in the New Testament, and about 25 others as only "faint echoes" of canonical sayings. Twenty or more are almost identical, and about 30 loosely parallel, to New Testament material.
The Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas is apparently a translation from the Greek; some fragments of a version in that language, dating to about A.D. 200, were discovered in Egypt early in the twentieth century. Some scholars think that these Sayings were originally written in Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic that was the language of Jesus and his followers. The fascinating possibility thus arises that the Sayings are closer to the words originally ascribed to him than those, translated into Greek, that are found in the canonical New Testament gospels.
In other words, they may be even older than, or at least as old as, the source of Jesus-sayings known to scholars as "Q" ( for Quelle , or Source, in German), on which Matthew and Luke are believed to have drawn to supplement those found in Mark . And some of the Sayings have parallels in John , whose author did not draw on Q. (Q has never been found as a separate corpus of written sayings. Scholars have deduced its existence and contents, as a supposed collection of Jesus-sayings preserved in early oral tradition, from the available texts of the synoptic gospels -- Mark, Matthew , and Luke .)
The Gospel of Thomas and the later Acts of Judas Thomas came out of the same Syriac milieu. A few passages are clearly interdependent. In both the Acts and the Gospel , for example, there is the scene of Jesus taking Thomas aside and telling him three secret things of momentous importance.
The Gospel of Thomas opens with these words: "These are the secret sayings which the Living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down." The prologue continues with an assurance to the reader that whoever can comprehend the sayings "will not taste death." As we have seen, most Gnostics held that the teaching of Jesus during his lifetime was intended for "psychics," in the sense of people who were rational but not spiritual, and that only when he had "put off the body," when he appeared as pure spirit and breathed the spirit on his close followers, was he ready to impart, and his listener ready to receive, his true teaching. The Gospel' s opening reference to the "Living Jesus," then, may seem inappropriate, but the intended Gnostic meaning is more evident if the translation is rendered as "Jesus the Living," the continuing spiritual force, the living God, not a corporeal Jesus.
An element that sets the Gospel of Thomas most sharply apart from the Jesus-sayings in the canon is the repeated message that one's goal should be a reuniting of opposites, an end to the differentness of things that is a mark of this world, a grasping of oneness -- in short, the experience of unity. And here an echo is found in the later Acts of Judas Thomas . At one point in her conversations with Thomas, Mygdonia speaks of her wish to depart from this life, that she may go more quickly to see "that beautiful one who gives life to those who believe in him, where there is neither day and night, nor light and darkness, nor good and evil, nor poor and rich, male and female, no free and slave, no proud that subdues the humble."
This goes considerably beyond a simple adaptation of the words of Paul about the unity within the church of those baptized in Christ: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Gnostics would have read the words put in Mygdonia's mouth as referring to an non-logical, paradoxical truth that transcends the world of opposites, found in more striking form in the Gospel of Thomas .
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The Gnostic Apostle Thomas (c) 1997 Herbert Christian Merillat.