August 9, 2013

The Gnostics and the discovery at Nag Hammadi

The Gnostics and the discovery at Nag Hammadi
The development of Christianity in Alexandria is cloaked in obscurity; its diffusion throughout the Nile valley is even more so. Christian thought, however, was greatly influenced by the scholarly environment of Alexandria. The first unified translation of the Old Testament into Greek was made there around 250 BC, in the reign of Ptolemy II (when Manetho compiled The Table of Kings (page 8)), and it was in Alexandria that the first and earliest attempt was made to provide a rational basis for faith: to explain the mysteries of revealed truth in the light of intellectual scrutiny. In other words, to explain Christianity in intellectual and philosophic terms.

The Gnostics (from the Greek ‘knowledge’), both Christian and non-Christian, drew on a broad spectrum of heritages. They embraced Greek philosophical concepts, pagan literature and mystery cults of the Graeco-Roman world, local Egyptian scripts and folklore, and the Old and New Testaments. They were branded as heretics in the second century, and when the Romans, in the name of orthodoxy, later destroyed the Gnostic settlements - which had by that time spread to Upper Egypt - they destroyed as much of their literature as they could find. As a result, a great gap was left in our knowledge of the early development of Christianity, especially the first two centuries. It is fortunate, therefore, that some of their literature has survived and has been recovered in recent years.

A remarkable discovery was made in 1947. According to one account a huge boulder had fallen onto the slope of the Gebel el- Tarif, a range of hills east of Nag Hammadi, and beneath it peasant farmers found a jar. Inside were codices, or books, that have become known as the Nag Hammadi Library (now conserved in the Coptic Museum in Cairo). The texts, originally written in Greek and later translated into the Egyptian language, were written on papyrus scrolls that were cut into sheets, folded and then bound in leather.

There are twelve books, each containing collections of essays that vary widely and present divergent viewpoints. They range from a ‘secret book’ of St John, to the Gospel of Thomas. The former seeks to explain the presence of evil in the world. It describes a cosmology in which there are endless emanations from the ultimate power, which is beyond comprehension and can only be explained by a series of negations. The universe, however, was created, not by this unapproachable, ultimate power, but by a misguided, malevolent and ignorant god.

The Gnostics
The Gospel of Thomas is a compilation of sayings attributed to Jesus. In the opening passage is the claim that the words were spoken by the Living (post-resurrection) Jesus to Thomas Didymus Judas, who wrote them down.

The discovery at Nag Hammadi will undoubtedly accelerate the interpretation of early Christianity especially when it is studied in relation to another recent discovery of relevant texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls. More important, the texts will show the Gnostic vision as presented, not by orthodox Christianity, but by the Gnostics themselves.

The difference between the Gnostics and the Christians may be explained as follows: the Gnostics saw a contaminated world that they regarded as the creation of an evil power. They sought spiritual clarity in an esoteric experience. The Christians, on the other hand, saw the same evil world and offered to the despairing people hope of a personal salvation and its promised rewards in the next world. Gnosticism was a religion of escape for an elite minority. Christianity was a religion of hope.


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