The story of the Gnostics and the Lost Gospels: a stunning discovery from the Egyptian desert

Despite all of the historical errors and problems, Da Vinci Code was one of the major reasons why I decided to embark on this professional journey. Before I saw the movies and read the book, my interest was (as is the case with most of the history students) primarily in the history of the 20th century, especially political theories (Nazism, Communism, etc.). But Brown’s mystery novel caught my attention right away! I was particularly fascinated with the other (“lost”) Gospels and the diversity of the Christian world during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. As some of you probably know, already in the 2nd century there were different streams of Christianity with conflicting ideas and views about Jesus, God, creation, and the nature of human beings. One of those was the so-called “proto-orthodox” Church. It is a stream that eventually developed into an organized Church with councils, decrees, and monepiscopacy. It developed in the middle of the polemical struggles with other forms of communities who also called themselves “Christians”, but had radically different views on the basic theological concepts. Proto-orthodox authors naturally labeled them as “heretics” (those who have wrong beliefs) while being sure that they themselves are “orthodox” Christians (those who have the right beliefs). Needless to say, to label someone as a heretic means to put your own subjective value judgment. No one truly thinks he is a heretic: it’s always the other guy! One of those labeled as “heretics” were different groups smashed together in one concept scholars call “Gnosticism”. They are called in that way because of a fundamental notion that gnosis (knowledge) was necessary for salvation. Over the past seventy years, scholars have engaged in serious debates over how to define Gnosticism. Why? Well, the problem is in the sources we have. Until relatively recent times, our only sources for understanding Gnosticism were the writings of its most vocal opponents; the authors from the “proto-orthodox” Church such as Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. They saw Gnosticism as a major threat to the success and unity of Christianity. Consequently, they did everything they could do to marginalize such a phenomenon including some of the most serious charges. For example, they claim that certain groups of Gnostics engaged in wild sexual orgies and bizarre rituals that involved eating babies. The irony is obvious to everyone familiar with the history of early Christianity: similar charges were made by Roman authors regarding the “proto-orthodox” Church of Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. Then, it happened: one of the most significant archeological discoveries of the 20th century which provided us with an entirely new source of information about Gnostics. A source not produced by its opponents, but by Gnostics themselves. In what follows, I’ll briefly sketch the history of this discovery and its significance for studying the early Christian world. In the next post, I’ll explain basic streams of Gnosticism and their theological views that set them apart from the “proto-orthodox” Church.

In 1945 several Egyptian peasants stumbled upon a jar containing thirteen ancient books. These books contained fifty-two literary works, most of them previously unknown to historians. When they finally made their way through antiquities dealers into the hand of scholars, it became clear what they were. These lucky peasants accidentally discover a collection of ancient Gnostic texts written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. The story behind this discovery is a story of serendipity, ineptitude, secrecy, ignorance, and even murder and blood revenge. Still, details are elusive and scholars are trying to put pieces together. We do know that the discovery occurred around December 1945 where several people were working near a cliff called Jabal al-Tarif along the Nile in Upper Egypt. The leader of the group, the one responsible for the find once it was made, who later divulged the details of the discovery, was named, Muhammed Ali (not related to the famous American boxer!). Ali explained the discovery with the following words:

  • I was digging for fertilizer, with my pick-axe and carrying it back to the fields on the camel. Then I came across this big earthenware pot which was buried in the sand. I had a feeling that there might be something inside… so, I came back later the same day and I smashed the pot open. I broke it open exactly where I found it. I thought there might be an evil spirit inside, a jinni. I had never seen anything like it before. I smashed the pot on my own and inside I found these old books. Then I brought the other over to see. They said, ‘We don’t want anything to do with these books. They belong to the Christians, to Copts’. It was all just rubbish to us. Yes, my mother did burn some in the bread oven… One of the people from the village of Hamra Dum killed my father so it was decided that I should kill his murderer, in revenge. I did kill him and with my knife I cut out his heart and ate it. I was in jail because of the killing and when I got out of jail I found that my mother had burned a lot of those old papers. Later on I sold one book. All the other had gone. I got eleven Egyptian pounds for it.

Once the scholars got their hands on these books they immediately recognized the spectacular significance of the discovery. The books themselves were manufactured in the 4th century, but they contain documents that were produced much earlier, many of them during the 2nd  century. Also, scholars established beyond any doubt that the books were originally written in Greek. In some aspects, these documents have revolutionized our understanding of early Christian history by providing a library of text evidently of some importance to a community of Gnostic believers. These texts are in some ways similar to those in the corpus of the New Testament, but they are essentially different when it comes to the basic theological and philosophical concepts and beliefs. They are similar in the sense that they also contain Gospels and other writings allegedly written by apostles. However, they are different in that their perspectives on Jesus, God, human beings, and the universe itself are quite at odds with those that made it into the canon. Eventually, that was one of the major reasons why the “proto-orthodox” Church rejected these documents. Among the most interesting texts discovered in 1945 are the other Gospels about Jesus such as the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, and the Gospel of Thomas. Since these writings were discovered near the village of Nag Hammadi, they have become known as the “Nag Hammadi library”. For us scholars of early Christianity, these texts provided unparalleled opportunity to study different Gnostic communities relying not just on the polemical works written by their opponents. We could finally hear the voice of the underdog, the voice of those who were labeled as heretics. Furthermore, we could compare the accounts of the Church authors with the information from the Gnostic texts themselves. A lot of scholars love to talk about the revolution in early Christian studies, about the Truth we finally manage to grasp because of these texts discovered in the dust of Egypt. Unlike them, my own point of view (which I explicated in my Ph.D. dissertation) is much more moderate. I do not think that these texts gave us the opportunity to turn our knowledge about early Christianity upside down. It only gave us a more detailed account of the different views among the Gnostics themselves while confirming the gist of the things that “proto-orthodox” informed us about. Even before this discovery, no serious scholar really believed in their claims about alleged cannibalism or incest among the Gnostic groups. These texts enrich our understanding of the diversity of Christianity during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but in no way require radical paradigm shifts.

Finally, they also contain several internal problems that create a considerable conundrum for historians. For one thing, they do not share a consistent point of view, and we have no assurance that all of these texts were even seen as authoritative by any Gnostic community in the way the texts of the New Testament came to be for the “proto-orthodox” Church (I personally doubt they were!). Despite all of these problems we can deduce the basic beliefs and features of different Gnostic groups – a topic I’ll come back to in the following post.

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