The Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of thirteen ancient codices containing over fifty texts, was discovered in upper Egypt in 1945. This immensely important discovery includes a large number of primary Gnostic scriptures -- texts once thought to have been entirely destroyed during the early Christian struggle to define "orthodoxy" -- scriptures such as the
Gospel of Thomas, the
Gospel of Philip, and the
Gospel of Truth.
Dating the Library
N.T. Wright argues that, despite the current fashion for preferring and even privileging the Gnostic writings of Nag Hammadi as giving us access to Jesus himself, they are
- demonstrably late (late second century at the earliest), though they may contain traces of earlier material;
- demonstrably derived from the earlier, and now
canonical, material; and
- demonstrably different in theology from that earlier material.
"The first two of these points are hotly contested, but my judgment here is shared by many in the field. In particular, “Thomas” has been touted in some parts of North America — not really anywhere else so far as I know —
as a major key for getting behind the canonical gospels and in touch with the real Jesus, who it turns out (according to some writers who take this line) is a figure much more like Buddha, a teacher of a spiritual path, than one would have thought from
the canonical gospels. But there are many reasons for drawing back from this conclusion. In particular, as quite a strong index of where things stand, we note the language of the book. “Thomas” as we have it is written in Coptic, an Egyptian
language of the time. It is simply a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus; and, in the Coptic version, they are in no particular order. But if we translate the Coptic back into Syriac, the likely original language of the collection, we discover
that in Syriac the sayings of Jesus have been collected into a careful pattern, with connecting words linking the different sayings each to the next. And the Syriac in question, and the method of this linking of sayings, is closely cognate with the
language and style of writers known to us from the late second century church, not least Tatian. The strong probability is that the collection we call “Thomas” was put together nearly 200 years after the time of Jesus and not earlier."
Gnostic derivatives of New Testament writings
An analysis of the differences between the Gnostic writings and New Testament writings all indicate that it is the Nag Hammadi codices, not the canonical gospels, which have succumbed to a shift away from an early to a later viewpoint. In support of this,
Wright makes three points:
- the Nag Hammadi writings involve a massive step away from the Jewish context of Jesus’ ministry and towards some kind of Platonic viewpoint. Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom of God coming on earth as in heaven is transformed into a kingdom-teaching
which is all about a private and detached spirituality. Whereas in the canonical gospels Jesus seems at several points to be calling his fellow Jews back to a genuine following of Israel’s God and the inner meaning of the Jewish law, in the
Nag Hammadi codices Judaism, where it occurs at all, has become simply part of the problem. A particularly telling sentence in “Thomas” has Jesus declare, not that if the temple is destroyed it will be rebuilt, but that he will destroy
the temple and no-one will be able to rebuild it. The Jesus of “Thomas” is at best non-Jewish, at worst anti-Jewish. This fits very neatly with the largely non-Jewish Jesus invented by Rudolf Bultmann and his followers, and reinvented
by the now defunct “Jesus Seminar,” but not at all with any picture of Jesus which can be produced by serious and sober historical scholarship.
- the Nag Hammadi codices have taken a large step away from a narrative world and into detached aphorisms and isolated teachings. There is no attempt to tell the story of Jesus or even stories about him, or to see that story and those stories within the
context of the larger story of God and the world, of God and Israel. They show all the signs of having been abstracted from that setting, as though someone were to go through Shakespeare’s plays and extract all the great one-liners without
any attempt to show where they belong within the dramas of which they form part.
- in particular, they have seen Jesus not as the one who, climactically and decisively, died on the cross and rose again, but simply as a teacher. This is the heart of it all. They have made the message about Jesus not good news about something that has
happened, but good advice as to how one might re-order one’s life. Actually, of course, the advice is not in fact that good. What then about the place of Mary Magdalene, who, according to Dan Brown and some other writers, features strongly
in the Gnostic writings, representing a goddess-figure, the embodiment of the “sacred feminine,” the Holy Grail, the Rose, the Divine Mother? It is all pure imagination. (Well, it is at least imagination, certainly.) Mary Magdalene is
mentioned in precisely three of the Nag Hammadi scrolls (as against “the countless references to Jesus’ and Mary Magdalene’s union” (333)). The “Gospel of Mary” is the report of a vision which sets the material
world against the nonmaterial, seeing Mind as the intermediary of Soul and Spirit. This is fairly standard Platonic idealism; it is hard to see what it’s got to do with the sacred feminine, but it’s easy to see that it has nothing to
do with a first-century Jewish prophetic movement such as that of Jesus. The “
Gospel of Philip” is the one where Jesus kisses Mary — but the idea that a kiss was a key gesture of romantic attachment won’t survive two minutes when we move away from Hollywood and into the real
world of late antiquity. There is not the slightest sign, in Nag Hammadi any more than in the Dead Sea Scrolls, of Jesus being married to Mary and having a child by her. The “
Gospel of Thomas” has one saying about Mary (51:19), in which “Jesus” states that “Mary will be saved if she makes herself male, because every female who makes herself male will become fit
for the kingdom of God.” That is hardly a ringing endorsement for the sacred feminine. If it’s sacred femininity you want, you must look elsewhere, to various forms of paganism ancient and modern. These have become enormously popular
in some strands of
New Age and postmodern thinking. They have found their way into some revisionist versions of western Christianity. But they have nothing to do with Nag
Hammadi and nothing whatever to do with early Christianity.