In December 1945 an Arab peasant called Muhammad’Ali al-Sammân found a one-meter high red earthware jar in the desert near Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt. He broke it and took the content, mainly books and loose papyrus, to his home in al-Qasr. Some papyri were later burned by his mother. The manuscripts were sold on the black market through antiquity dealers in Cairo and the Egyptian authorities soon learned about it. They bought one and confiscated ten and a half of the thirteen leather-bound books called Codices, and deposited them in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. A large part of the thirteenth codex was smuggled out of Egypt and offered for sale in America. The Dutch professor Gilles Quispel persuaded the Jung Foundation in Zurich to buy the codex. As he noticed that some pages were missing, he flew to Cairo in 1955 to try to find them in the Coptic Museum. He borrowed photographs of some of the text and translated them. He soon noted that he was translating the secret “Gospel According to Thomas” of which some Greek fragments had been found in the 1890’s. Many parts can also be found in the “New Testament”, but the context is generally different. Other parts, on the opposite, are completely different from the known Christian tradition as, for instance, when it is mentioned that Jesus had a twin brother called Judas Thomas.
The “Gospel of Thomas” is only one of fifty-two documents found in Nag Hammadi. In the same book there was the “Gospel of Philip” that is very different from the “New Testament”. It states, for instance, that Jesus was married, or at least intimate, with Mary Magdalene, that he was not born of a virgin, and that he did not bodily resurrect. In the same book there was also the “Apocryphon” (or secret book) of John. Among the fifty-two texts there is also the “Gospel of Truth” condemned by Irenaeus in 180 AD), the “Gospel to the Egyptians”, the “Secret Book of James”, the “Apocalypse of Paul”, the “Letter of Peter to Philip”, and the “Apocalypse of Peter” as well as some poems, quasi-philosophic descriptions of the origin of the universe, myths, magic, and instruction for mystical practice. These documents are Coptic translations made around 350-400 AD. The originals must have been written in Greek like the “New Testament” (as shown by the fragments of the original of the “Gospel of Thomas” found fifty years before). The dating of the originals is not easy, but they must have been written not later that 120-150 AD. The “Gospel of Thomas”, for instance, is thought to have been written in 140 AD, but it is based on earlier documents from around 50-100 AD. This means that they have been written at the same time or before than the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.
These texts were buried, and remained hidden for nearly 1500 years, because they were banned by the official Christian church that tried to destroy all copies. They circulated at the beginning of the Christian era, but they were declared heretical in the middle of the second century. We know that many early Christians were condemned as heretics for reading them by the Orthodox Christians; little was known about these books, except from the point of view of the Orthodox church. Here we have the writings of one group of these heretics. The battles against heresy show that it was widely spread, but in the end the Orthodox Christian bishops won. After Constantine had made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD, possession of books classified as heretical was considered as a criminal offence, and all the copies found were burned. Luckily for us, somebody hid copies of them in Upper Egypt, and now we can study them. The authors of these documents did not consider themselves heretics but, on the contrary, related to the Jewish tradition and to the “Old Testament”. They claim that they were a minority of the Christian community known as “the Few” (now they are described as Gnostic Christians), and that their writings were condemned and destroyed by “the Many” or Christian Orthodox. The word Gnostic means Knowledge; not rational, scientific, or reflective knowledge, but knowledge through observation or experience. In other words, it means insight knowledge or, better, the intuitive process of knowing oneself. To know oneself at the deepest level is to know God; this is the secret of Gnosis. The opposite word is agnostic and describes the people who say they know nothing. Most of the books found at Nag Hammadi are Gnostic but they also deal with Jesus as does the “New Testament” with, however, some important differences. Orthodox Jews and Christians claim that Jesus is not part of the human race whereas the Gnostics believe that he is. According to them Jesus did not come to save us from sin, but to act as a guide to enlightenment and spiritual understanding. All this seems to indicate, but there is no proof, that Gnosticism had been influenced by some Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. After all, St Thomas is recorded in the tradition as the Apostle who went to India.
By definition a heretic is someone who deviates from the true faith. But who were the “true faithful” of that time? The Christian Gnostics or the Orthodox? And to-day, who are the true Christians among the Catholics, the Orthodox and the Protestants? If we admit that some of the fifty-two texts found at Nag Hammadi are early forms of Christian teaching, then we must recognise that early Christianity was very different from what it is generally thought to be. It was even more divided that Christianity is to-day when all denominations share the same basic beliefs that emerged at the end of the second century to remain practically unchanged until now. Before, the canons of scriptures, the creed, and the institutional structure were as numerous as the number of Christian communities. This lasted until around 200 AD when some order and organisation were imposed on all the Christians who were told that outside the official church there was no salvation. Those who did not accept the changes were declared to be heretics, expelled from the Church, and even punished, sometimes killed. The Official Catholic Christian Church did its best to destroy all traces of heresy, and succeeded quite well since until the discovery of the documents of Nag Hammadi very few heretic texts were found.
The documents found in Nag Hammadi were not made public for many years due to political interferences, litigation, and scholarly jealousies or “monopoly”. This looked like a repetition of what happened two thousand years ago although the reasons were different. First the discoverers and the antiquity dealers hid the manuscripts to avoid confiscation by the authorities, and to make certain that they would make money out of their sale. Finally the Egyptian government nationalised the documents in 1952 and confiscated all of them with the exception of part of Codex 1 owned by Eid, a Belgian antiquity dealer, who succeeded to export it. It was finally bought by the Yung Foundation in Zurich while the other eleven and a half codices were stored in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Lawsuits made by the owners failed, but delayed research for three more years. For the next twenty years, scholars battled between them to have the monopoly of their publication.
The first volume of the photographic edition appeared in 1972 and nine others followed until 1977, putting all the thirteen codices in the public domain. Professor James Robinson organised an international team to copy and translate most of the documents. The first complete English edition was published in 1977.
Gnosticism has already been the object of a vast amount of research. The Christian Orthodox tried to prove that they were non-Christians whose origins could, according to them, be traced in Greek philosophy, astrology, mystery religions, magic, and even to Indian sources. Some scholars regarded Gnosticism as a Christian heresy who interpreted the Christian doctrine in terms of Greek philosophy, while some others still thought that it was an independent religious movement. It was even thought that Gnosticism originated in Judaism or derived from old Iranian religion, and was influenced by Zoroastrian traditions. It seems more probable that Gnosticism was a branch of Christianity (“the few”) that, at one point, looked on the Christian Orthodox (“the many”) as heretics.
The discoveries at Nag Hammadi initiated a new epoch of research from which we can deduce that Gnosticism was a wide spread movement with various sources. Most texts found at Nag Hammadi are definitely Christian, some are of Pagan origin, and the others are in the Jewish tradition. It is also probable that Gnosticism was a reaction against the destruction of the traditional views -Jewish and christian- after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
However the fifty-two documents found at Nag Hammadi do not clarify completely the complexity of the early Christian Church. Christianity, as we see it now, is based on a few of the possible sources or Christian traditions, chosen from dozens of others that were described, after the choice was made, as heretics. Who made the selection and for what reason? What made the Gnostics so dangerous? Why was such a choice of documents made, and on which basis? It is now possible to study Gnosticism following the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts that were written by the so-called heretics themselves. Gnostic Christians’ doctrine was rejected by the Orthodox although their own creed was strange in some aspects. For instance, how can we accept that God is perfection when he created a world that includes pain, injustice and death, that he was born of a virgin mother, and that he bodily resurrected?