Gnosticism - why it was deemed heretical by the early church fathers:
GNOSTICISM A variety of second-century AD religions whose participants believed that people could only be saved through revealed knowledge, or γνῶσις (gnōsis). Gnostics also held a negative view of the physical or material world. Early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, deemed Gnosticism heretical.
Gnosticism shared some characteristics with Judaism and Christianity, but remained markedly distinct from either. Traditionally, Gnosticism was thought to have emerged from within Christianity (Smith, No Longer Jews, 18–25). Recent scholarship, however, has acknowledged that Gnosticism may have been an existing belief that only later came into contact with Christianity (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 11; Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 44).
Origins and Definitions
Origins of the Term
The earliest example of a group being described as “gnostic” comes from the work of Irenaeus, a second-century Greek church father (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 9), who described certain groups of heretics as the gnostic heresy. Henry More coined the modern term “Gnosticism” in the 17th century to describe the heresy of the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18–29; Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 9).
Definition of the Term
The term “Gnosticism” may be an inadequate description of “the great variety of phenomena attributed to it” (Logan, The Gnostics, 1) because it elicits “misleading generalizations and unwarranted stereotypes” (Smith, No Longer Jews, 8). Williams has argued that the term reflects a “dubious category” which should be dismantled and abandoned (Williams, Rethinking “Gnosticism”). Pearson has likewise acknowledged that there is a “bewildering degree of variety” in the historical expressions of Gnosticism (Pearson, “Gnosticism as a Religion,” 89).
Pearson argues that Gnosticism is purely a historical term used to classify religious features that are “clearly distinguishable from anything that is found in Christianity, Judaism, or other religions of antiquity” (Pearson, “Gnosticism as a Religion,” 95–96). Therefore, Gnosticism should be defined as a descriptive category arising from historical observations rather than a prescriptive system of unilateral belief.
The Church Fathers and Gnosticism
The church fathers of the second century and later condemned gnostic teachers and beliefs as heretical. Church fathers who spoke against gnosticism include the following people:
• Justin Martyr’s (ca. 100–165) lost work Compendium against the Heretics (mentioned in Justin Martyr, First Apology 26) included arguments against Simon Magus and his disciple Meander, who came to be seen as proto-gnostics. In the brief discussion in his First Apology, he says that the followers of Simon Magus worshipped him as a god and that Meander persuaded his followers that they would not die (Justin Martyr, First Apology 26).
• Hegesippus (late 2nd c.) mentions as heretical a variety of gnostic groups and traces their origin back to Simon Magus; an excerpt of his work is preserved in Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 4.22). In this passage, Hegesippus does not describe the teachings of the gnostic groups in detail but says that the founder of each group introduced his own opinion and that their teachers divided the church with doctrines against God and his Christ.
• Irenaeus of Lyons’ (ca. 140–198) main work, Adversus haereses (“Against Heresies”), is dedicated to refuting Gnosticism.
• Hippolytus of Rome’s (ca. 170–235) work Refutatio omnium haeresium (“Refutation of All Heresies”) argues against 33 gnostic groups, as well as against some non-gnostic groups.
• Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260–340) devotes a chapter of his Ecclesiastical History to gnostic groups, whom he rejects as false teachers (Ecclesiastical History 4.7). For the most part, he does not describe or specifically refute their teachings in this section; however, he states that the gnostic teacher Basilides invented prophets who had never existed, and that the gnostic followers of Carpocrates required those who wanted to become full participants of their mysteries to practice various forms of wickedness in order to escape what they called the cosmic powers.
• Epiphanius of Salamis’ (ca. 310–403) work Panarion (“Medicine Chest”) contained arguments against various heresies, including gnostics.
In addition, Origen and Tertullian wrote against gnosticism; however, they themselves held some beliefs rejected by other church fathers.
Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, early Christian writings against Gnosticism were our main source of information about gnostic belief. The overall picture of Gnosticism provided by these polemical texts has been largely confirmed by the gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi.
Common Gnostic Beliefs
The second-century church fathers identified a set of common characteristics of gnostics. These characteristics differ by region or school of thought but provide a general picture of gnostic belief (Smith, No Longer Jews, 8–10). Our understanding of Gnosticism has grown exponentially through a close study of the Nag Hammadi Library of gnostic texts, discovered in 1945 (see Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library in English). Acknowledging the multiplicity of gnostic beliefs represented in the Nag Hammadi Library, the following examples are merely representative of a prominent strand of gnostic belief.
Gnostic texts often describe God as incomprehensible, unknowable, and transcendent. For example, one text describes God as: “God and father of the all, the holy, the invisible … existing as pure light into which it is not possible for any light of the eye to gaze” (Apocryphon of John, 22:17–19 [King, 4:2]). The Apocryphon of John demonstrates the gnostic view of the nature of God when it states that it is not “fitting to think of [God] as divine or as something of the sort, for [God] is superior to deity” (Apocryphon, 33–36 [Layton, 1:29]). Thus, Gnosticism holds that God cannot be observed with our senses nor easily grasped with our understanding. Gnostic texts commonly speak of God only in negative terms, such as “the unknown God,” “the unknown Father,” “ineffable,” “unspeakable”; God is even described as “nonexistent” because he is viewed by gnostics as not existing in the usual manner of being (Foerster, Gnosis, 4). Additionally, gnostic texts commonly address God as the “Ultimate Ground of Being” (Foerster, Gnosis, 4).
Dualism and Dichotomy
For gnostics, the world was divided into the physical and spiritual realms. Gnostics held that the world was not created by the “Ultimate Ground of Being” (God), but by a lesser deity resulting from the fall of the divine personification of Wisdom (Perkins, Gnosticism, 15). This lesser deity or demiurge created the material world, which is entirely isolated from the divine realm in which the “Ultimate Ground of Being” exists (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 16).
Likewise, gnostics believed that humans are split between the physical and spiritual world: “the true human self is as alien to the world as is the transcendent God” (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 13). They asserted that the true human self or soul is naturally divine, belonging to the same realm as the Ultimate Ground of Being, but is trapped and imprisoned by the material world. They viewed the physical body as a prison which malevolently trapped the “divine spark” within humanity (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 12–14). Because of this imprisonment, Gnosticism incorporates an active hatred of the physical body, similar to Docetism. This dualistic split between the body and the soul means that the divine spark of the human soul must be freed from the material constraints of the world in order to attain salvation and unity with the Ultimate Ground of Being.
Gnosis and Salvation
Gnostics advocated gnosis, or “revealed knowledge,” as the basis for salvation (Pearson, Gnosticism, Judaism, 7). Rather than being a philosophy, gnosis is a single revelation of the true nature of human and divine selves (Foerster, Gnosis, 1). The gnostics’ goal is to attain salvation from the fallen physical world in which they are trapped through obtaining the secret knowledge, or gnosis (Logan, The Gnostics, 63). Gnostics believed that gnosis frees the divine spark within humans, allowing it to return to the divine realm of light (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 13). Gnostics likewise believed that when all elect gnostics have been restored through gnosis, the physical world will be destroyed, and the chosen humans will return to their divine state (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 13–14). Salvation is thus initially brought about by gnosis, but ultimately constitutes a return of the human soul to the divine realm in which it belongs.
The gnosis which brings about salvation varies greatly within the different gnostic schools, as each group of gnostics claimed to exclusively possess the necessary knowledge (Foerster, Gnosis, 8). However, the gnosis generally took the form of a special revelation of the divine, transcendent realm to a mediatory figure who was required to spread the true knowledge of God among humanity (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 12). Thus, gnosis was both a revealed knowledge of the transcendent God as the Ultimate Ground of Being and a revealed knowledge that the human soul ultimately belongs to the divine transcendent realm. This revealed knowledge frequently took the highly complex and spiritualized form of mythopoeic revelation in which gnosis involves understanding the true nature of God and the human soul as immanently divine.
The elaborate gnostic myths function, for Gnosticism, to reveal gnosis through a complex series of cosmological, anthropological, and soteriological developments. While features of gnostic mythology vary among sects, the gnostic Apocryphon of John is typical of the elaborate mythopoeic formulation. It indicates that the divine mother, Pronoia-Barbelo (“Thought” or “Foreknowledge”), was the first of the transcendent God’s created beings (Apocryphon of John 4:26–5:6 [Layton]). From the divine mother, the self-generated Christ appeared and produced four great Lights with three pairs of Aeons who embody abstract esoteric principles—Life, Grace, and Wisdom (Sophia) (King, The Secret Revelation of John, 3; Apocryphon of John, 5:10–10:4 [Layton]). Sophia wished to create a being with her own likeness, but instead produced an evil being known as the “Chief Ruler.” According to gnostic belief, the evil “Chief Ruler” was the creator God of Genesis, whose true name was Yaldabaoth (King, The Secret Revelation of John, 3–4). Yaldabaoth then stole some of the Spirit from Sophia, which he used to create Adam. The mythological system in the Apocryphon develops further in what Pearson describes as “extended commentary” on several texts from the book of Genesis to account for sin, sexual lust, and human ignorance of their divine spirit (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 66). Finally, the “Spirit of Life” descends to earth to teach humans of the power of gnosis to save humanity through recognition of the divine spirit humans unknowingly possess (King, Secret Revelation of John, 4–6; Apocryphon of John, 27:31–28:29 [Layton]).
The New Testament and Gnosticism
According to Irenaeus, Simon Magus was the one “from whom all the heresies take their origin” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1.23.2 [Foerster]). Simon Magus, a sorcerer found in Samaria by Phillip, worked wonders among the people before Phillip converted him to Christianity (Acts 8:13). Following his conversion, Simon attempted to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit from Peter before being rebuked (Acts 8:9–24). Perhaps because the New Testament claims that Simon assumed the divine title of “the Great Power of God” (Acts 8:10, NAS), Irenaeus records that Simon actually believed himself to be God (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1.23.2 [Foerster]). In Irenaeus’ account, Simon preached himself as the god who first created “Thought, the mother of all”—his female companion (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1.23.2 [Foerster]). Irenaeus further records that Simon claimed that from thought, the angels and human beings were created, but because “the angels were governing the world badly,” Simon descended into human form “to bring things to order” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1.23.3 [Foerster]). Irenaeus goes on: Simon promised that when “order” came, his followers would be saved, and “the world will be dissolved” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1.23.3 [Foerster]). Although the account of Simon’s religious beliefs includes no reference to a saving gnosis, Irenaeus concludes that Simon gave the “falsely so-called gnosis” its beginnings (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1.23.4 [Foerster]).
Hymenaeus and Philetus (1 Tim 1:20; 6:20)
Discussion of false teachers like Hymenaeus and Philetus provide the framework for the beginning and conclusion of 1 Timothy; both Hymenaeus and Philetus have traditionally been identified as gnostic teachers. First Timothy begins with an admonition to keep “certain men” from teaching “strange doctrines” centering on “fruitless discussion” (1 Tim 4). First Timothy then warns that teachers of the strange doctrines, including “Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). First Timothy concludes with an exhortation to avoid “worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called ‘knowledge’ ” (τῆς ψευδωνύμου γνώσις, tēs pseudōnymou gnōsis; 1 Tim 6:20). Irenaeus picked up the concept of “falsely called knowledge” when he undertook his heresiology (or catalog of heresies). This work by Irenaeus, although generally known as Against Heresies, is formally titled, On the Detection and Overthrow of the Falsely Called Knowledge.
Johnson argues that the use of gnosis in 1 Timothy should be interpreted broadly, asserting, “there is no need to take [gnosis] as referring to a second century Christian elitist movement” (Johnson, First and Second Letters, 312). By contrast, Wisse argues that the author of 1 Timothy deliberately placed Hymenaeus and Philetus “in the context of the despised gnostics” (Wisse, “Prolegomena”, 143).
The Nicolaitans (Acts 6:5; Revelation 2:6, 15, 18–29)
The Nicolaitans of Rev 2 were identified as an early gnostic-like heresy. According to Irenaeus, the Nicolaitans originated from Nicolaus, the proselyte of Antioch who was given church leadership in Act 6:5 (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1.26.3). Although Irenaeus did not initially identify Nicolaus as gnostic, he later referred to the Nicolaitans as an offset of the “falsely called knowledge” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 3.11.1). However, Pearson argues that there is no explicit reason other than the testimony of Irenaeus to relate either Nicolaus or the Nicolaitans to Gnosticism (Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism, 36–37). Likewise, Fitzmyer points out that no substantial evidence has been found associating the Nicolaitans with Gnosticism since the second century AD (Fitzmyer, Acts of the Apostles, 350).
Individuals such as Smalley have examined potential gnostic-like thoughts in the Gospel and letters of John (Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 44). Although the noun gnosis is entirely absent from the Johannine literature, the verb “to know” (γινώσκειν, ginōskein) appears over 80 times. Additionally, the idea of the knowledge of God is an important motif throughout John’s works (e.g., John 17:3; 1 John 2:13; Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 44). Smalley contends, however, that this knowledge of God is markedly different than the gnosis of the gnostic sects, for it is, “not intellectual and speculative, but experimental and dynamic” (Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, 45).
Both Bultmann and Marshall have argued that the secessionist opponents of 1 John were themselves gnostics (Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, 11; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 14–18). In this reading, 1 John may be seen as a deliberate polemic against Gnosticism (or an early belief very similar to Gnosticism); 1 John would then especially be opposed to Gnosticism that appropriates its beliefs into the Christian faith. Bultmann contended that the author of 1 John used specific verbs of knowing and sense perception in order to counter the “Gnosticizing Christians against whom the letter is directed” (Bultmann, The Johannine Epistles, 11). Marshall believed that the Johannine opponents were “forerunners” of the later gnostic sects (Marshall, The Epistles of John, 15).
In recent years, however, the idea that the Johannine letters were written against any strand of Gnosticism has been largely abandoned. Thompson notes that, “While the secessionists may have held beliefs that lent themselves to Gnostic interpretation, it is doubtful that they ought to be called Gnostic” (Thompson, 1–3 John, 17; see also Perkins, “Gnostic Revelation”). This viewpoint has only emerged during scholarship of the latter half of the 20th century, as Gnosticism has begun to be understood as a belief system that exists in its own right.
This viewpoint has led scholars such as Brown to also suggest parallels between the beliefs seen in 1–3 John and early gnostic belief (Brown, The Epistles of John, 59–65), including the nature of knowledge of God and the dualism between light and darkness (e.g., 1 John 1:6–7; Brown, The Epistles of John, 60–62). However, Brown cautioned that “at most, similarity is suggested,” (Brown, The Epistles of John, 60). Likewise, commentator Yarbrough relegated discussion of any gnostic parallels in 1–3 John primarily to footnotes (Yarbrough, 1–3 John). Thus, in commentaries such as Yarbrough’s, the parallels between gnostic belief and the Johannine letters are primarily seen in terms of their unique differences, which seem to triumph over any thematic similarities.
Problems for Further Study of the New Testament and Gnosticism
A major problem with connecting the New Testament and Gnosticism is the prominent use of the word “gnosis” throughout the Gospels and the Pauline letters. Johnson maintained that the use of the word was “non-technical” and referred only to a generalized knowledge throughout the New Testament (Johnson, First and Second Letters, 311–12). Perkins, though, demonstrates that a closer correlation between the New Testament and Gnosticism is plausible—particularly in light of the absence of an early fixed canon (Perkins, Gnosticism, 29–38). Smith advocated extreme caution: “Although it must be admitted that Paul addressed issues similar to those of Gnosticism, it also must be emphasized that he came to radically different conclusions regarding them” (Smith, No Longer Jews, 157). Further study of Gnosticism must be careful to recognize both the similarities and the differences between gnostic writings and the New Testament.
For examples of texts from some of the strands of Gnosticism, see this article: Nag Hammadi Codices. For further details on the criticisms of Gnosticism by early church fathers, see this article: Irenaeus. For information on the process of canonization, see this article: Canon, New Testament.
Barnstone, Willis, and Marvin Meyer, eds. The Gnostic Bible. Boston: New Seeds Books, 2003.
Brown, Raymond E. The Epistles of John. Anchor Bible. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1982.
Burkitt, Francis C. Church and Gnosis: A Study of Christian Thought and Speculation in the Second Century. Cambridge: The University Press, 1932.
Bultmann, Rudolf. The Johannine Epistles: A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973.
Bauer, W. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. Edited by Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krodel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971.
De Conick, April D. Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and Its Growth. New York: T&T Clark, 2005.
Ferreiro, Alberto. Simon Magus in Patristic, Medieval, and Early Modern Traditions. Studies in the History of Christian Traditions 125. Leiden: Brill, 2005.
Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Acts of the Apostles. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Foerster, Werner, ed. Gnosis. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972–1974.
Grant, Robert M. Gnosticism and Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959.
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The First and Second Letters to Timothy. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Boston: Beacon, 1958.
King, Karen L. What is Gnosticism? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
———. The Secret Revelation of John. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.
Klauck, Hans-Josef. Apocryphal Gospels: An Introduction. Translated by Brian McNeil. New York: T&T Clark, 2003.
Layton, Bentley. The Rediscovery of Gnosticism. 2 vols. Leiden: Brill, 1978–81.
———. The Gnostic Scriptures. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987.
Logan, Alastair H. B. The Gnostics: Identifying an Early Christian Cult. New York: T&T Clark, 2006.
Marjanen, A., and P. Luomanen, eds. A Companion to Second-Century Christian “Heretics.” Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae. Leiden: Brill, 2005
Marshall, I. Howard. The Epistles of John. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Edited by F. F. Bruce. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.
Pearson, Birger A. Gnosticism, Judaism, and Egyptian Christianity. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.
———. “Gnosticism as a Religion.” Pages 81–101 in Was There a Gnostic Religion?. Edited by Antti Marjanen. Publications of the Finnish Exegetical Society 87. Helsinki: Finnish Exegetical Society, 2005.
———. Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
Perkins, Pheme. The Gnostic Dialogue: The Early Church and the Crisis of Gnosticism. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.
———. Gnosticism and the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.
———. “Gnostic Revelation and Johannine Sectarianism: Reading 1 John from the Perspective of Nag Hammadi.” Pages 245–76 in Theology and Christology in the Fourth Gospel: Essays by the Members of the SNTS Johannine Writings Seminar. Edited by G. Van Belle, J. G. Van Der Watt, and P. Maritz. Leuven: University Press, 2005.
Robinson, James M., ed. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. Edited and translated by Robert McL. Wilson. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.
Segal, A.F. Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic reports about Christianity and Gnosticism. Leiden: Brill, 1977.
Smalley, Stephen S. 1, 2, 3 John. Word Biblical Commentary 51. Waco, Tex.: Word, 1984.
Smith, Carl B., II. No Longer Jews: The Search for Gnostic Origins. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004.
Thompson, Marianne Meye. 1–3 John. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Edited by Grant R. Osborne. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
Williams, M. A. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Wilson, Robert McLachlan. Gnosis and the New Testament. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968.
Wisse, Frederick. “Prolegomena to the Study of the New Testament and Gnosis.” Pages 138–45 in The New Testament and Gnosis: Essays in Honour of Robert McLachlan Wilson. Edited by A. H. B. Logan and J. M. Wedderburn. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983.
Yamauchi, Edwin M. Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of the Proposed Evidences. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973.
Yarbrough, Robert W., and Robert H. Stein, eds. 1–3 John. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
ZACHARY G. SMITH
Zachary G. Smith, “Gnosticism,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
The Nag Hammadi codices:
NAG HAMMADI CODICES A collection of leather-bound codex manuscripts discovered in 1945 in rural Egypt. The collection includes 52 texts (or tractates); with duplicates taken into consideration, there are 45 unique titles. All of the texts are written in Coptic. There are 12 surviving codices, plus eight unbound leaves titled as the 13th codex. They are held in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
The Nag Hammadi Codices include many writings that had been lost or unavailable for many centuries. Of the 45 unique titles, 37 were not extant in any form prior to the Nag Hammadi discovery, and three additional ones existed only in unidentified fragments. The net result is that the Nag Hammadi discovery adds to the ancient document collection available to the world 30 relatively complete texts and ten more fragmentary texts, as well as five additional copies of previously known works.
These Nag Hammadi texts bear witness to a range of religious beliefs, many (but not all) of which emerged in the centuries following the advent of Christianity. None of the 45 Nag Hammadi titles were ever included in a canonical list or ancient Christian Bible, and they were never widely authoritative in the early church period; many were even directly named as heretical by early church fathers.
Dating, Language, and Religious Beliefs Represented
The Nag Hammadi texts have been dated to the early to late fourth century AD, but it has been proposed that many of these works (if not all) are Coptic translations of Greek originals written earlier. The texts are scribed in at least two Coptic dialects, and based on differences even among the same dialects, the works seem translated by different people. It is unknown whether some of the translated texts were translated at the same location that they were copied (and perhaps even by the same people) or whether they were translated elsewhere sometime prior to being copied. It may even be that some sort of in-between process occurred, with some texts being merely copied from known and available translations, with others being both translated and copied.
Although various religious beliefs are represented among the Nag Hammadi texts, the texts primarily provide a window into ancient Gnosticism in its various forms, including Valentinian, Sethian, and others. Many of the Nag Hammadi texts also include material that parallels or attempts to supplement canonical New Testament accounts, including mentions of well-known figures from the canonical Gospels such as Jesus, Peter, Thomas, Philip, and Mary Magdalene. Other Nag Hammadi texts are more philosophical in nature and some express Gnostic or other religious ideas apart from any particularly Christian parallels. The codices even include a modified selection from The Republic by Plato.
Gnosticism and the Early Church Fathers
Prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, Gnosticism in its various forms was known almost entirely from the early church fathers, who adamantly opposed it and its teachers as heretical (e.g., Justin Martyr, First Apology 26; Hegesippus in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 4.22; Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses; Hippolytus of Rome, Refutation of All Heresies; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.7; Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion).
In particular, early church fathers also viewed Gnostic creation myths, which are a common feature in the Nag Hammadi Codices, as heretical. Irenaeus called these myths “blasphemous and impious” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1, pref. 1) and Hippolytus refers to these types of doctrines as “numerous and devoid of reason, and full of blasphemy” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies, 7.24).
Valentinian Gnosticism was also directly opposed as heretical by many of the early church fathers, such as Hippolytus (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 6.24) and Irenaeus, who said the Valentinians “dismember and destroy the truth” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1.8.1). Irenaeus also called Valentinian beliefs “wicked, deceitful, seductive, and pernicious” and deems Valentinians “heretics who promulgate wicked opinions” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 2.19.8). Irenaeus referred to Sethian Gnosticism beliefs as a “system of falsehood” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 1.30.5); and Hippolytus said Sethians were guilty of “insinuating,” of misusing and “wickedly” perverting Scripture, and of “concealing their nefarious conduct” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.16). These two forms of Gnosticism are represented among the Nag Hammadi codices, as well as others, which are labeled as general Gnosticism in this article (although more specific labels could at times be applied, such as Simonian Gnosticism).
(As these types of Gnosticism show, “Gnosticism” represents a wide range of religious beliefs and thus is primarily a technical term of modern scholarship; the early church fathers simply referred to “gnostic” beliefs. For further details on the term “Gnosticism,” see this article: Gnosticism.)
Discovery of the Codices
Accounts about the discovery of the codices differ. The basic story told by James M. Robinson (the editor of the Nag Hammadi codices) is that two brothers, Muḥammad ‘Alī Khalīfah al-Sammān and Abū al-Majd, found them while digging guano (to be used as fertilizer) at the base of a cliff near the village of Nag Hammadi, about 550 kilometers south of Cairo in Upper Egypt. In the course of digging, Muhammad encountered an earthenware jar that had been sealed with tar, and inside were a number of leather-bound codices. The brothers, not realizing the antiquity or value of their find, took the codices home, where at least part of one (probably parts of codex XII) was used by their mother as fire fuel in their outdoor oven (Pagels, introduction to Nag Hammadi Scriptures, 2–3). Later, through complicated circumstances, the manuscripts were sold to various antiquities dealers.
It then took about a decade after the discovery for all of the surviving codices to be gathered at the Coptic Museum of Cairo under the protection of the Egyptian government. Robinson and others have related tales of intrigue and clandestine meetings involved in the acquisition process, and even today there remains some question as to whether all the codices found near Nag Hammadi have been obtained. The Nag Hammadi region is isolated, and the principals in the discovery were involved in (or at least pulled into) blood feuds that made it difficult for scholars to access the original site (Robinson, “Nag Hammadi: The First Fifty Years,” 77–110).
Alternatively, Goodacre has argued that the story of the two brothers’ discovery may be closer to myth than reality. Goodacre notes that the size of the earthenware jar is uncertain and there are no extant remains of the vessel, only the lid, creating doubt about the narrative that all the codices were in one jar (Goodacre, “Nag Hammadi Discovery,” 309). Furthermore, Goodacre suggests that the story of the discovery changes from person-to-person who told it: two of James Robinson’s colleagues who worked with the same data seriously doubted his theory and believed it to be based on Egyptian fables or simply inaccurate (Goodacre, “Nag Hammadi Discovery,” 309). One of the brothers even gave a different account on TV (Goodacre, “Nag Hammadi Discovery,” 311). The doubts concerning Robinson’s research into the actual discovery include: the honesty of the witnesses (with bribery sometimes being involved) and the fact that the data itself was often contaminated due to a lack of proper guidelines and procedures (Goodacre, “Nag Hammadi Discovery,” 313–14). The greatest doubt, though, comes from the difference between Jean Doresse and Robinson’s work. Goodacre points out, that unlike Robinson, Doresse did not ask leading questions and seems to have put forth a best effort to avoid contaminating data; he was also skeptical of the narratives told to him. Thus, Goodacre favors Doresse’s information over Robinson’s, which suggests that the brothers Muḥammad ‘Alī Khalīfah al-Sammān and Abū al-Majd, and others, were involved with grave robbing and later masked their find as an accidental discovery (Goodacre, “Nag Hammadi Discovery,” 315–13).
The Material and Makeup of the Codices
The manuscripts are in codex format (rather than scrolls) with leaves stacked, folded, and sewn on one side. The leaves were made of papyrus rather than more expensive parchment or vellum. Papyrus was a writing material readily available in the Nile region of Egypt. The codices vary in size but generally are about 11.5 × 7 inches (unopened). They are single quire, with once-folded papyrus leaves tacked together to the leather binding (with the exception of Codex 1, which has a main quire, and two additional quires).
Based on cover type and materials, the codices may be grouped into three classifications (Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library, 14–16):
• Codices 2, 6, 9, and 10 (Advanced bookbinding, cover technique, and higher aesthetic quality)
• Codices 4, 5, and 8 (Economic materials and make)
• Codices 1, 3, 7, and 11 (Do not share distinctive traits, but show a type of primitiveness, with Codex 1, 7, and 11 related in terms of scribal hands that cross codices).
(Codex 12 and the unbound leaves titled Codex 13 lack covers in their current form.)
Based upon this classification, additional scribal analysis, and other reasons, Robinson
John D. Barry and Mark S. Krause, “Nag Hammadi Codices,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
Sarah Parkhouse, “Tripartite Tractate,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
Dr. DeConick - Co-founder and executive editor of a new academic journal called Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies published by a prestigious publishing house in Europe. She founded and for years chaired the Mysticism, Esotericism and Gnosticism group in the Society of Biblical Literature and is now Chair of the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism group.
DeConick is most noted for her writing on the Gospel of Judas when she challenged sensationalism generated by the National Geographic Society that wrongly claimed Judas is a gnostic hero in this text and that his heroics would re-write our understanding of early Christianity.
Instead, her work shows that Judas remains demonic in the Gospel of Judas, just as he is in the New Testament gospels. In fact, her work on this text was so instrumental that she appeared in CNN’s documentary on the Gospel of Judas that premiered in 2015 on the TV series "Finding Jesus."
DeConick's most recent book, The Gnostic New Age, which has won a Figure Foundation award for the best book to be published by a university press in philosophy and religion.