During this time of COVID-19 and social isolation, I have been going through my library and re-reading the ancient classics of mythology and religion. There are so many great things to read and think about, and the Nag Hammadi Collection should definitely be on every amateur (and professional) theologian’s or archeologist’s ‘must read’ list. The following is my very brief summary of the collection and its contents, so I am leaving out a lot to make it more accessible.
(Note: this information is taken from my old research notes using the 2007 book The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts, edited by Marvin Meyer. It is not at all meant to be taken as my own original work, and anything of value is the sole intellectual property of the various contributors).
In 1945, while digging around at the base of a cliff near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi, a farmer named Muhammed al-Samman found a large sealed jar containing 13 leather bound collections of 52 different Coptic language texts from the early Christian and Gnostic traditions. Many were only known to scholars through commentary by early Church writers in the 2nd century CE (AD), so to find these varied, mostly complete 3rd to 4th century texts was an almost unbelievable boon for archeologists, anthropologists, and the like. The collection itself contains secret teachings, poems, testimonies, and gnomologies (collections of wise sayings) that were around during and after the life of Jesus Christ himself, so it is a really wild mix of theology and mythic religious cosmology. Major finds include a Gospel of Mary, and the controversial Gospel of Judas, who is “revealed” to have been on a sacred mission as a kind of holy martyr for the greater cause, tasked to him by Jesus Christ himself. The Nag Hammadi Collection is especially valuable for what it adds to our understanding of Gnostic thought during the tome of the formation of the earliest Christian church(es).
Gnosticism (Greek: gnostikos, “to have knowledge”) is a type of religion based on an eclectic mix of Christian, Jewish, and Greek beliefs from the 1st century CE which claims that personal spiritual knowledge and revelation from the divine world is the ‘real’ truth, rather than official proclamations from religious authorities or official teachings. Many Christian Gnostic sects for example claimed that Jesus preached his Gospel to the masses, but the real teachings were given secretly to only a select disciple or two. Thus, the various Gnostic texts either explain to whom these secret teachings were given, or what their meanings were. For example, a theme that pops up in various sects is that the material world we know is highly flawed and ruled over by the Jewish supreme god YAHWEH, a malevolent deity who is actually not the Supreme God, but rather a lower deity under a greater beneficent God/essence knowable through spiritual illumination. The cosmogonies (models of the Universe) may vary from group to group, but Gnostics essentially all held that complex structures of Light, Being, and Deities were the great Truth that was hidden or obscured by the more standard scriptures of 1st century CE. Judaism and Christianity.
For example, “Sethian” Gnosticism was a syncretic mix of Jewish and Christian theology which claimed that Adam and Eve’s third son Seth was a divine figure who came back as the Messiah in the form of Jesus Christ. Seth was part of a Trinity which included The Great Invisible Spirit (the Father), “Barbelo” (a Mother), and The Self Created One (a Son, Seth), all ruling from a Divine Realm called the “Pleroma”. The Father breathed Life into Adam, the Mother manifested as Eve, and Seth was the Logos/Christ, the fundamental principle(s) of Being that manifested in humanity. In standard Greek language, logos means “the creative principle(s) governing a thing”, thus we get English words such as anthropology, “the organizing principle(s) governing humans”, or biology, “the organizing principle(s) that govern Life”.
In the 2nd century CE, the Greek bishop Irenaeus of Lyons (known for expanding Christianity into the area that would eventually become southern France) wrote a treatise called Against Heresies, which was basically an angry refutation of the Gnostic cult centered around the teachings of Valentinus, a Roman priest who started his own group after being passed over for promotion to bishop, thus beginning the sect of Valentinian Gnosticism. The basis of his belief system was as follows: people of a “spiritual nature” could receive secret knowledge that helped them return to the divine plane of existence (the ‘Pleroma’, as mentioned in Sethian Gnosticism). People with a “psychic” nature (commoners) were only capable of entering lesser states of divinity, while people of a “material nature” (the lazy, sinful, etc) went off and died. Though this is the core theme of Valentinian Gnosticism, the theology itself becomes increasingly more complex in its exegesis. Valentinus, claiming to have received his secret knowledge from Apostle Paul, explained his cosmogony in the following way:
The source of Everything is a singular ‘First Principle’ (“The Father”/ “The Depth”). He is inconceivable and indescribable, but wishes to know Himself. His self-knowledge produces a Son, who is a ‘Mind’. The Father/Son are both Two and One simultaneously, which creates the situation in which multiple beings generate: an unfolding of the self-reflective divine essence of the Father but also individual Entities as well. These spiritual entities are called “Members of The All” or Aeons, who collectively make up the spiritual essence of the Pleroma, “The Fullness”.
But there is a tension between Oneness and Plurality in the process of generation, which leads to a crisis in the last Aeon, a female divinity named Sophia. She attempts to grasp the Fullness of the Father but fails, and as a result splits in two. Her perfect spiritual half returns to the Fullness, while her imperfect half is cut off, and a Boundary is set up to keep it from returning. “Outer Sophia” becomes stale, unfulfilled, and irrational. From this state arises the Material World. Inner Sophia sees this and asks for help from her fellow Pleroma dwelling Aeons. Her repentance and piety thus produces the divine essence that makes up human souls. All the Aeons/Pleroma unite to help and produce a Saviour. As she continues in her work, her emotions produce all the types of matter in the world, thus what we know as reality is a manifestation of Sophia’s various emotional states.
As the solar system is created, each planet is ruled over by an archon, a demon beholden to a chief archon called the Demiurge (a kind of Gnostic “Satan”). He thinks he is a master but he is only a tool in the hands of Sophia/The Saviour to create the solar system. Sophia now lives with her spiritual children in a Middle Region (“The Ogdoad”) between the local cosmos and the Pleroma (Note: Sophia’s “children” are the various lesser spiritual entities she “bore” while contemplating the Saviour and his angels). The Demiurge is tasked with making humans, but Sophia secretly gives Adam spiritual essence, hidden and passed on to subsequent mankind. This “Inner man” is bullied by the demons and is in need of saving by the Saviour. Thus, the rest of Valentinian Gnosticism concerns sayings, incantations, and rites that reunite the brethren with the Saviour, Sophia and the Pleroma once again.
A Gnostic style of Christianity also arose based on the life and purported teachings of Judas Thomas aka Thomas Didymos, purported to be Jesus’ twin brother (Greek: didymos, “twin”). This branch of Gnostic themed Christianity is known as “Thomas Christianity”.
This sect began as a branch of Christianity in Syria, “Thomas” being the central figure’s nickname (Aramaic/Syrian: thomas, ”twin”). He is most notable for being the focus of an East Indian branch of Christianity that traces their “true” lineage back to him (the ‘rock’ upon which the Church was built; not Peter, similar to Coptic Christians tracing their heritage back to Jesus’ disciple Mark, their own “rock”, who legend has it was a Jew of African descent). Thomas is believed by some to have been martyred in India and thus there are still Thomas Christians today who worship in that tradition as well as make holy connections between Thomas, Jesus, and the more ancient Hindu traditions (note: the first Trinity concept(s) come out of the Vedic cosmology, arguably the oldest ‘organized’ religion in the world).
Thomas’ role as Jesus’ twin is part of a central allegory of the relationship between a physical man and his divine alter ego, when not directly used as a brotherly metaphor. Like other Gnostic-style texts, the Gospel of Thomas is the record of secret teachings that, when understood properly, mean the reader/hearer will gain immortality. The kingdom is as much within a person as it is “up in the sky” or “down in the underworld”. Since it has some similarities with Valentinian Gnosticism, some scholars believe Valentinus himself may have been influenced by some of its passages. The similarly titled Book of Thomas (The Contender Writing To The Perfect) is a dialogue between Jesus and Thomas (written down by a man named Matthias while walking with and listening to the two of them). This text especially dwells on themes found in the writings of Plato, while also discussing the fires of Hell waiting for sinners.
A Thomasene text that is not in the Nag Hammadi collection is The Acts of Thomas, which is a heroic tale about Thomas’ various adventures trying to gain converts in India. Included in the verse is a poem known as The Hymn of The Pearl, which Thomas supposedly “performed” in prison. Considered by some to be an allegory for Adam and his expulsion from the Garden and possible redemption, the poem concerns a prince who goes to Egypt to steal a pearl guarded by a snake. While in Egypt he eats some great food and soon forgets his mission. But a letter (manifested as an eagle) from his parents “wakes” him from his forgetfulness and he gets the pearl, returns home, everyone is happy, the end. The Acts of Thomas and The Gospel of Thomas were also influences on Manichaeism, a type of Persian Gnosticism that posited a holy man named Mani as the final prophet after Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Jesus. Manichaeism was the religion that the Catholic saint Augustine left to become a Christian… though he converted 5 years after Roman Emperor Theodosius the First decreed death to all Manichaean monks (382 CE) and Chrsitianity the only legitimate religion of the Empire (391 CE).
A really fascinating inclusion in the Nag Hammadi collection are texts that have similarities to Gnosticism but come from what is known as “Hermetic” religion. Gnostic religions focus on finding the ultimate origin of Being and gaining special knowledge as the core of Redemption. So too with the various Hermetic religions: sects that sprung from theology built around the Greek god Hermes (god of language and crossing the boundaries between Heaven and Earth as messenger of the gods) and/or Thoth (ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, science and art; inventor of language and hieroglyphics).
Upon contact with Egyptian culture, the Greeks identified Thoth with Hermes. In Egypt Thoth was tagged with the superlative adjective phrase “great, great, very great” which the Greeks translated as megas, megas, megistos, which was eventually abbreviated into Trismegistos, “Thrice Greatest”. Since many Greeks did not know the origin, meaning, or application of this phrase they thought of Trismegistos as a distinct being; the son of Hermes, a Being who had discovered the Supreme God was a Tripartite ‘great power’, or a third incarnation of Hermes (not unlike the various divine in-dwellings (avatars) of the Hindu gods such as Vishnu appearing on Earth as Krishna, etc). Thus, the various religions based on or around the Hermes/Thoth connection came to be known as “Hermetic” religions. Followers of Hermetic sects basically took ancient Egyptian rites and added various sacred initiation ceremonies, meals, magic words and syllables, ritual objects, texts on alchemy, etc. This “Greek-ifying” of another culture is known as interpretatio graeca, the use of Greek mythology to explain the structure(s) of other religions and philosophies.
Now that you are aware of these four general ‘schools’ of theology contained in the Nag Hammadi collection, let’s look at a few texts themselves. Since we started off looking at the Sethian branch of Gnosticism, let’s look at a Sethian text titled The Nature of The Rulers. It is essentially a Christian text, though it stems from Hellenistic (Greek influenced) Judaism i.e. Adam’s son Seth is the Jewish Messiah, manifested in Jesus as Christ and sent from the divine realm (the Pleroma, also the name of Plato’s realm of “ideal forms”).
The Nature of The Rulers concerns the chief archon of the solar system (a great demon known as the Demiurge) and his lesser archons, who are real, but defeatable when opposed by Sethian Gnsotics, the “children of the Light”. It is basically a retelling of the Biblical creation story (Genesis) from a Gnostic perspective: the Demiurge (Samael: the “blind God”) cries out that it is he who is the Most High God, and those of the Light find this utterance arrogant and blasphemous. The lesser archons, androgynous (or possibly hermaphroditic) beings with animal faces, then try to sexually violate Spiritual Eve. She turns into a tree, so they have forcible sex her remaining physical aspect, the human being version of Eve. Spiritual Eve then shows up as the Serpent and teaches Adam and Eve. Later on Physical Eve has a daughter named Norea (some translations: Orea) who wants to get on the Ark with Noah. He denies her passage and she burns down the Ark in anger, so he has to spend years building another one. The archons later try to violate Norea and she gets help from an angel to repel them. The story goes on in basically this fashion, showing that the Demiurge and the archons can be repelled if one identifies with the Light.
As we continue on through the Nag Hammadi collection, let’s look at the Gospel of Philip, a Coptic text translated from a lost Greek original. This Gospel is essentially a collection of sayings and short paragraphs on a variety of themes: truth, words and names, certain spiritual ‘forces’, Mary’s conception, etc, all from what seems to be a Valentinian perspective.
Among other things it makes the claims that Jesus “invented” bread, had two fathers, was resurrected then died, and being anointed is better than being baptised (dunked in a river). It also uses a word you may not have heard before, “chrism”, which is another name for the anointing oil mixed with balsam and myrrh that was offered to Jesus as a gift by the Three Wise Men. Though the anointing oil was sometimes called “myrrh”, myrrh itself is actually a kind of sap from a thorny tree that is mixed with the balsam in oil, and some in the ancient world would mix myrrh with wine for medicinal (or recreational) purposes thanks to its pain killing effect. Here are some samples from the actual work itself:
“Before Christ came there was no bread in the world, just as paradise, where Adam lived, had many trees for animal food but no wheat for human food, and people ate like animals. But when Christ, the perfect human, came, he brought bread from heaven, that humans might be fed with human food”.
“The master would not have said,’ My Father, who is in Heaven’ if he did not also have another father. He simply would have said, “My Father”.
“Those who say that the Master first died then arose are wrong, for he first arose and then died. If someone is not resurrected first, wouldn’t that person die? As God lives, that one would die”.
“Chrism is superior to baptism. We are called ‘Christians’ from the word “chrism,” not from the word baptism. Christ also has his name from the word “chrism”, for the Father anointed the Son, and the Son anointed the apostles, and the apostles anointed us”.
The Secret Book of John aka the “Apocryphon” of John is the most well known of the various Sethian Gnostic texts contained in the Nag Hammadi collection. It contains what is considered (post-resurrection) secret teachings from Jesus to John, the son of Zebedee. After the fall of Sophia, her ill-begotten son Yaldabaoth (the jewish god YAHWEH) and his minions create Adam by contributing a feature of their own: Goodness created a “soul of bone”, Forethought created a “soul of sinew, Kingdom created a soul of blood, and so on. The angels then create the actual parts of Adam with these ‘souls”: the angel Raphao creates his head, Abron the skull, Bissoum the left ear, Ibikan the molars, Eilo the testicles, etc. Other angels then “activate” the various parts: Bathinoth the genitals, Yammeax the neck, Aol the right ankle, etc. Another group of angels are over the senses: Oumma is over imagination, Deithanathas over perception, and so on.
Another fascinating text is The Second Discourse of The Great Seth, in which the Messiah literally moves into Jesus’ body, evicting his human soul in the process:
“I approached a bodily dwelling and evicted the previous occupant, and I went in. The whole multitude of archons was upset, and all the material stuff of the rulers and the powers born of earth began to tremble at the sight of the figure with a composite image. I was in it and I did not look like the previous occupant. He was a worldly person, but I, I am from above the heavens…”.
The basic premise of the text is that the Messiah has come down from the Heavenly realm (The Great Majesty of The Spirit) into this realm, ruled over by the chief Archon Yaldabaoth, and has “requisitioned” a human body as his “residence”. Having come down, Yaldabaoth and the lesser archons (the Gnostic equivalent of demons) are confused and upset by this strange new presence, save for Adonaios, a relatively benign archon who takes a liking to Jesus. Jesus laughs at those who think that the Crucifixion of his physical body can stop his holy mission. He also laughs at those who think water baptism is effective, since “true” baptism is the unity of Christ in the believer and the believer in the knowledge of Christ.The text itself was translated from greek into Coptic and happens to contain many peculiar and obscure words and phrases, making its translation not seem like a unified work. It bears features of both Sethian and Valentinian Gnosticism, but either way is a fascinating inclusion into the collection.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief overview of an amazing treasure trove of ancient writings. The ancient religions of the world are indeed fascinating!