The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James M. Robinson (Harper & Row, 1977, 493 pp., $16.95), is reviewed by Edwin Yamanchi, professor of history, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

James M. Robinson, his team of thirty-one translators, and the publishers are all to be heartily congratulated at the completion of a monumental task—the translation into English, and in one volume, of all the tractates (excluding duplicates) of the invaluable codices found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, which provide for the first time extensive primary evidences of Gnosticism.

Gnosticism designates a variety of religious movements that stressed salvation through a secret gnosis or knowledge of man’s origins. These movements were most clearly attested in the writings of the church fathers of the second century, who viewed them as heretical perversions.

Gnostic movements were inspired by a radical dualism, which opposed spirit against matter. The creation of the world is often attributed to a foolish creator, who is a caricature of the Old Testament Jehovah. The divine spark of the Gnostic, which is imprisoned in his body, can be released by the knowledge that is revealed to him by the Saviour.

Since most of our knowledge depended upon the polemical descriptions of the church fathers, we were unsure about the nature of early Gnosticism in particular. German scholars, such as Rudolf Bultmann, confidently used later Gnostic texts of the Mandaeans to reconstruct a pre-Christian Gnosticism that served as the basis for their interpretation of the New Testament. Other scholars protested the retrojection of such late materials to the New Testament era.

Then in December, 1945 (almost the same time as the discovery of the better known Dead Sea Scrolls), a farmer in southern Egypt near the east-west bend of the Nile found a jar in which were a dozen leather-bound codices (a codex is a book), which have become known as the Nag Hammadi Library. The name is somewhat of a misnomer as Nag Hammadi, the largest city nearby, lies on the other side of the river six miles from the discovery site. Dated letters and receipts and other factors indicate that the collection was copied and deposited around A.D. 400. There are three theories as to the formation of the collection.

Jean Doresse (The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, Viking, 1960), one of the earliest investigators, had suggested that the collection was the library of a Sethian Gnostic sect who lived in the area. Seth, the son of Adam, was highly regarded as the ancestor of the race of enlightened Gnostics and is mentioned prominently in some Nag Hammadi texts.

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James Robinson suggests that the texts were copied by Christian Gnostic monks before the time when they were considered as heretics and were expelled (pp. 16–18).

A third view, which has been advocated by T. Säve-Söderbergh, holds that orthodox monks had copied such works as references for their apologetic refutations. I would favor this last view in light of the extraordinary diversity of the treatises. There are not only non-Christian and non-Gnostic works, but also a variety of Gnostic materials including both docetic and antidocetic works (docetics denied the incarnation of Christ; cf. 1 John 4:3).

The Purchase And Publication Of The Nag Hammadi Texts

The history of what happened to the Nag Hammadi texts prior to their publication is both edifying and dismaying. Codex I was secured by a Belgian antiquities dealer in Egypt, Albert Eid, who managed to carry this priceless document out of the country. It was offered for sale to the University of Michigan in December, 1946, but the administration felt that the asking price of $20,000 was too high. After the death of Eid in Cairo, the codex was purchased in 1952 by Gilles Quispel on behalf of the Jung Institute in Zurich for $8,000. After the publication of the tractates in what has become known as the Jung Codex, the volume was returned to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, which has managed to purchase the remainder of the codices.

The director of the Coptic Museum, Togo Mina, had entrusted the publication of the Jung Codex to a committee headed by the French scholar, Henri Puech. Robinson has published some correspondence that reveals the chauvinisms and personal jealousies among scholars, which resulted in delays in publication and a monopoly that denied other scholars access to the materials (J. M. Robinson, “The Jung Codex: The Rise and Fall of a Monopoly,” Religious Studies Review, 3, 1977, 17–30).

After Mina’s death in 1949, his successor, Pahor Labib, turned to German scholars for the publication of the remaining texts. Such scholars as Martin Krause, Alexander Böhlig, and others have been prompt in publishing the texts and also more open in granting access to the materials to other scholars.

American scholar James Robinson, when granted the opportunity by Krause to see some of the texts in 1966, spent several days and nights excitedly copying the materials. As a student and an interpreter of Rudolf Bultmann, Robinson has had a special interest in the subject of Gnosticism. He deserves the greatest credit for organizing an international committee to supervise the publication of the facsimiles of the codices, and another committee to translate the codices into English. The first project comprises ten volumes of facsimiles, published by E. J. Brill, (1972–77, 1,935 guilders for the set). A companion volume of scholarly essays is to appear in 1978. The second project was completed late in 1977 with the appearance of The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Only a scholar of great acumen, infinite patience and perseverance, and extraordinary executive ability as James Robinson could have accomplished so much in a decade.

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All told there are fifty-two tractates or separate works in the collection, six of which are duplicates. These texts may be divided into four broad categories for the sake of discussion: Non-Christian, Non-Gnostic; Christian, Non-Gnostic; Christian, Gnostic; and Non-Christian, Gnostic.

Non-Christian, Non-Gnostic Texts

In this category one finds a poorly translated section of Plato’s Republic. In Codex VI we have four Hermetic works: Authoritative Teaching, The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, and The Apocalypse From Asclepius.

The Hermetic literature includes a variety of writings ascribed to Hermes Trismegistos (“Thrice-Great”), the Greek title of Thoth, the Egyptian god of wisdom. The Hermetica lack the radical dualism of Gnosticism. Creation is not regarded in itself as evil, and the creator is not a rebel but the son of the supreme God.

Christian, Non-Gnostic Texts

1. The Sentences of Sextus. These maxims, which were well known before the Nag Hammadi discovery, are similar to proverbial statements found in Greco-Roman philosophical writings. A Christian editor collected these to inspire believers in the pursuit of moral perfection.

2. The Teachings of Silvanus. This is an early Christian wisdom composition, which assumes a Christology that is not docetic. It has affinities with a philosophy known as Middle Platonism.

3. The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles. Like other apocryphal Acts, this has a marked ascetic orientation. Peter and the other disciples travel on a ship. When a storm casts them ashore, they encounter a mysterious person named Lithargoel (actually Christ), who offers to sell them “the pearl.”

Christian, Gnostic Texts

1. The Gospel of Thomas. One of the most important and one of the most publicized treatises, The Gospel of Thomas, was translated as early as 1959. It contains 114 logia or sayings attributed to Jesus, about half of which were hitherto unknown. See my article on this and other apocryphal gospels in the January 13, 1978, issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, page 19.

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There is disagreement as to how independent and how authentic the traditions preserved by Thomas are. H. Koester has argued that the collection may go back to the end of the first century. Koester and Robinson believe that Thomas may be close to the hypothetical source Q (Quelle), which is represented by materials found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark (J. M. Robinson and H. Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity, Fortress, 1971, pp. 71–113).

On the other hand, Joachim Jeremias in his important study of the agrapha, sayings of Jesus not found in the authentic text of the canonical Gospels, accepts only two logia from the Gospel of Thomas as probably authentic (J. Jeremias, Unknown Sayings of Jesus, SPCK, 2nd ed., 1964, pp. 88 ff.).

2. The Book of Thomas the Contender. This is a later expression of the ascetic Thomas traditions similar to the apocryphal Acts of Thomas. The work inculcates a stringent asceticism by warning against the dangers of sexual passion.

3. The Apocalypses of James. These two works contain revelations made by the risen Christ to his brother James. The first stresses the period before his death, and the second describes his martyrdom. Both apocalypses portray a docetic Christ. In the first the risen Christ reassures James: “Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed” (p. 245).

4. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth; The Apocalypse of Peter. Two Nag Hammadi treatises offer striking confirmation of the description by Irenaeus of the teachings of Basilides, an early Gnostic teacher who flourished in the early second century. Basilides held that Jesus was not crucified but that Simon of Cyrene took his place on the cross.

In The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, we read the following passage: “It was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. It was another upon whom they placed the crown of thorns.… And I was laughing at their ignorance” (p. 332). The Apocalypse of Peter distinguishes between a substitute who was crucified and the living Jesus: “The Savior said to me, ‘He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness’ ” (p. 344).

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5. Valentinian Tractates. There are about a dozen tractates in the Nag Hammadi collection that we can associate with the teachings or followers of Valentinus, a famous Gnostic leader who came from Egypt to Rome in the middle of the second century, for example, The Gospel of Truth, The Treatise on Resurrection, The Tripartite Tractate, The Gospel of Philip, and The Exegesis on the Soul.

The Gospel of Truth is a meditation on ignorance as the cause of man’s lost condition, and on revealed knowledge as the means of his salvation. The Treatise on Resurrection describes the resurrection as a nonphysical phenomenon that has already taken place (cf. 2 Timothy 2:18). The Gospel of Philip includes surprising references to Gnostic sacraments—baptism, chrism, “redemption,” and an enigmatic “bridal chamber.”

6. Melchizedek. This tractate features the glorious figure of Melchizedek to whom Jesus is compared in Hebrews 7. What is most remarkable about the description of Christ in this Gnostic document is its antidocetic character: “[They] will come in his name, and they will say of him that he is unbegotten though he has been begotten, (that) he does not eat even though he eats, (that) he does not drink even though he drinks, (that) he is uncircumcised though he has been circumcised, (that) he is unfleshly though he has come in flesh, (that) he did not come to suffering though he came to suffering, (that) he did not rise from the dead though he arose from [the] dead” (p. 400).

7. The Gospel of the Egyptians. This text ascribes the creation of the world to the foolish Sakla, who is a caricature of the Old Testament Jehovah. The Gnostics are represented by the seed of Seth, the godly son of Adam. The Great Invisible Spirit sends Seth to save his seed. To accomplish his mission Seth puts on the living Jesus as a garment and brings “baptism” as a rite for rebirth.

8. The Apocryphon of John. There are three versions of this work in the Nag Hammadi Library. It relates a cosmogony that is similar to that ascribed to the Sethians and the Ophites by the church fathers. (The Ophites perversely venerated the serpent.) The creator is the evil archon Ialdabaoth.

Pre-Christian Gnosticism?

The most important, and the most controversial issue in Gnostic studies is the age of Gnosticism. Was it basically a post-Christian heresy? Was it roughly contemporaneous with the rise of Christianity? Its twin, as someone has called it? Or was it a fully developed movement preceding Christianity and influencing it, as Bultmann assumed?

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James Robinson believes that the latter is the correct analysis and hails the Nag Hammadi texts as providing vindication for Bultmann’s hypothesis: “Rudolf Bultmann then reinterpreted the New Testament in terms of an interaction with Gnosticism involving appropriation as well as confrontation.… One cannot fail to be impressed by the clairvoyance, the constructive power, the learned intuitions of scholars who, from limited and secondary sources, were able to produce working hypotheses that in fact worked so well” (pp. 24–25).

In 1973 I wrote a book, Pre-Christian Gnosticism (Eerdmans), which sought to analyze the Patristic, Hermetic, Iranian, Syriac, Coptic (Nag Hammadi), Mandaic, and Jewish evidences that have been used to support the thesis of a developed Gnosticism prior to Christianity. I concluded that there were basically two types of evidences that had been used or abused: clearly Gnostic but late materials; and pre-Christian but not clearly Gnostic materials.

There was, of course, a serious reservation about my conclusions, which I myself explicitly recognized, and which many of the reviewers who were disposed to consider favorably my arguments also expressed (cf. CHRISTIANITY TODAY, May 10, 1974, issue, p. 46). In view of the fact that at the time only a portion of the Nag Hammadi texts had been translated into English, French, and German, there was doubt as to whether my analysis had been premature.

Now that the entire corpus has been translated, we can be assured that there are no unexploded bombshells. Or to change the metaphor, there are no hidden aces up James Robinson’s sleeves. That is, the vast majority of the Nag Hammadi texts are Christian or Christian Gnostic compositions that date to the second or the third centuries. The case for maintaining the thesis of a pre-Christian Gnosticism can be argued from only the limited number of non-Christian Gnostic tractates known before.

Non-Christian, Gnostic Texts

1. Eugnostos. In the case of Eugnostos, which has been classified as a non-Christian text, we also have The Sophia of Jesus Christ, which is a Christianized version of the former. One may still ask whether Eugnostos is wholly free from Christian influence. R. McL. Wilson was able to compile a list of possible allusions to the New Testament and to Christianity in Eugnostos (Gnosis and the New Testament, Fortress, 1968, p. 117).

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There are no compelling reasons to date Eugnostos to the first rather than to the second century, much less to the pre-Christian era. H.-M. Schenke considers Eugnostos to be a late product of Valentinianism and therefore not to be dated before the late second century.

Eugnostos is cast in philosophical rather than mythological terms. It is quite apparent that the treatise has been influenced by the Middle Platonists whose view that the Divine Mind is indescribable also profoundly influenced such Christian theologians as Clement of Alexandria.

2. The Apocalypse of Adam. The Apocalypse of Adam is a revelation of Adam to Seth that recounts the salvation of Noah from the Flood and the salvation of Seth’s seed from a destruction by fire. Toward the end of the apocalypse is a long passage describing the origin of the Illuminator through thirteen kingdoms and a final “generation without a king.”

Of this apocalypse and The Paraphrase of Shem, James Robinson asserts: “They insert into the story a gnostic redeemer who cannot be explained as borrowed from Christianity. More nearly the reverse is true. These texts demonstrate the mythological wealth that off-beat Judaism made available to nascent Christianity for expressing the grandeur of Jesus” (p. 7). It should be noted that in spite of the impression left by Robinson, there is no unanimous agreement about the purely non-Christian nature of the document. G. W. MacRae concedes that other scholars have been able to discern Christian elements in the apocalypse.

Indeed, unless one has strong reasons for believing in an independent redeemer myth the traits of the Illuminator would seem clearly to point to Christ: the working of signs and marvels; the opposition of powers who will not see the Illuminator; the punishment of the flesh of the Illuminator; and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Illuminator.

Robinson believes that The Apocalypse of Adam was written in the first century and embodies pre-Christian traditions that could have influenced the Gospel of John written at the end of the first century (p. 13). M. Krause and G. W. MacRae date the composition to the first or second century.

A. Böhlig, the original editor, cited numerous Mandaean and Manichaean parallels, which would seem to point to a later rather than an earlier date. MacRae has recently speculated about relations with the baptist group out of which Mani came—the Elchasaites who flourished in the second century. An apparent reference to the tradition of Mithras’ rock birth would also require a second century date (cf. E. Yamauchi, “The Apocalypse of Adam, Mithraism, and Pre-Christian Gnosticism,” Iranica Antiqua, forthcoming). W. Beltz and H.-M. Schenke would date the work even later to the third century (cf. also P. Perkins, “The Genre and Function of the Apocalypse of Adam,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 39, 1977, 382–95).

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3. The Paraphrase of Shem. F. Wisse, the translator, states: “The tractate proclaims a redeemer whose features agree with those features of New Testament Christology which may very well be pre-Christian in origin” (p. 308).

The savior is a figure called Derdekeas, whom Wisse believes is a non-Christian and a pre-Christian redeemer. Other scholars, however, would discern the figure of Christ. The passage that describes the baptism of Derdekeas seems certainly to be based upon the baptism of Jesus: “Then I shall come from the demon down to the water. And whirlpools of water and flames of fire will rise up against me. Then I shall come up from the water, having put on the light of Faith and unquenchable fire, in order that through my help the power of the Spirit may cross, she who has been cast in the world by the winds and the demons and the stars” (p. 322).

One of the most striking passages in The Paraphrase of Shem is a harsh attack against baptism. But against whom is the polemic directed? Wisse interprets this as an attack against the baptism of some pre-Christian sect. Others suggest that what is being opposed is the baptism of John the Baptist. Plausible is J.-M. Sevrin’s view that the baptism of the Elchasaites is involved. My own suggestion is that it is an attack against the baptism of a worldly church in view of the evils criticized in the passage that follows. The passage is similar to the Gnostic Heracleon’s polemic against the Church’s baptism, which he regarded as merely a “somatic” act performed on the body.

4. The Thunder. This is a unique document in which the High God (or Sophia?) expresses Itself in all kinds of paradoxes and contradictions.

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 mother and the daughter.

G. Quispel has recently hailed The Thunder as evidence of pre-Christian Gnosticism (cf. “Jewish Gnosis and Mandaean Gnosticism,” in Les Textes de Nag Hammadi, ed. J.-E. Menard, E. J. Brill, 1975, pp. 82–122). His arguments are based on far flung parallels between the goddess-prostitute Ishtar and fallen Sophia (Wisdom). But he builds too grandiose an edifice on the narrow foundation of the one phrase, “I am the whore and the holy one.” The significance of the passage does not lie in any isolated phrase but in the overall concept of antinomy.

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Other scholars have seen in the various paradoxes the expression of antinomianism, the view that the Gnostic is superior to all traditional norms and values. If this is correct, this would be the only antinomian text in an otherwise ascetic collection. A further suggestion by B. Pearson to associate this with the antinomianism of Simon Magus is speculative inasmuch as the patristic accounts of Simon are held suspect by most scholars.

As to whether The Thunder is a witness of pre-Christian Gnosticism or a late philosophical abstraction, the latter analysis is deemed the correct one by the Berlin scholars who have translated the work (cf. Berliner Arbeitskreis für koptischgnostische Schriften, Gnosis und Neues Testament, ed. K.-W. Tröger, Evangelische Verlagsanstalt. 1973, p. 47).

5. The Three Steles of Seth. This is a Sethian liturgical text “without a clearly Christian overlay on the Jewish point of departure” (p. 8). On the one hand, there is a reference to Barbelo, a Gnostic figure, and on the other hand, there is no opposition between the supreme God and a creator.

Robinson wishes to use this text to argue that there was an independent Sethian Gnostic tradition that may presumably have been prior to Christianity as The Three Steles of Seth betray no influence of Christianity.

But the affinities of this text with the Neoplatonism developed by Plotinus (A.D. 205–270) make it quite plain that it must date to the third century A.D. In other words, this merely demonstrates that a text may be non-Christian in character and yet be post-Christian in date.

Journalistic Misrepresentation And Wishful Thinking

The Nag Hammadi texts are indeed a sensational discovery. At the same time there is a danger that their implications may be sensationalized beyond bounds. Let me give an example. John Dart, an able journalist, has interviewed many of the scholars working on the texts. He presents a fascinating account of their work in his book, which is, however, one-sided and which leaves some misleading impressions. Speaking of The Testimony of Truth, he quotes Birger Pearson as saying: “ ‘It is a gnostic midrash utilizing Jewish traditions. At the same time it is very simple and undeveloped, evidently a piece of “primitive” Gnosticism.’ As to its date and place of composition, Pearson ventured a guess; the first century B.C. in Palestine or Syria” (The Laughing Savior, Harper & Row, 1976, p. 64). One is left with the impression that here is a Nag Hammadi document that gives us evidence of pre-Christian Gnosticism.

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Imagine the reader’s surprise when he turns to read the introduction to the tractate by B. Pearson in The Nag Hammadi Library: “The Testimony of Truth is a Christian Gnostic tractate with homiletical and polemical characteristics.… While no definite conclusion can be drawn concerning authorship, two possibilities have been tentatively suggested: Julius Cassianus (about 190 C.E. [Common Era, i.e. A.D.] and Hierakas of Leontopolis [about 300 C.E.])” (p. 406). In other words, The Testimony of Truth is quite clearly a post-Christian document. What Pearson meant and what Dart did not understand was that he believed that there was a pre-Christian Jewish Gnostic document underlying the present text.

But what makes Pearson believe that such a document existed at such an early date? Numerous parallels to Jewish Haggadic traditions, he replies. But almost all of these rabbinic comments or midrashim that he cites are patently from the second century A.D. and later. To hold that these go back to the pre-Christian era must be proved and not assumed.

On what ultimate basis does Pearson then establish his dating? It is a “guess.”

Although we must respect the scholarship and the opinions of men like Birger Pearson and James Robinson, we must not simply adopt their judgments without examining the Nag Hammadi texts themselves and without giving a hearing to other scholars who may differ with them. After analyzing all of the major texts which have been adduced to prove a pre-Christian Gnosticism, I remain unconvinced.

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