Nag Hammadi Library

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The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of early Christian Gnostic texts discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.
The Nag Hammadi library (popularly known as The Gnostic Gospels) is a collection of early Christian Gnostic texts discovered near the town of Nag Hammâdi in 1945. That year, twelve leather-bound papyrus codices buried in a sealed jar were found by a local peasant named Mohammed Ali.[1][2] The writings in these codices comprised fifty-two mostly Gnostic tractates (treatises), but they also include three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum and a partial translation / alteration of Plato's Republic. In his "Introduction" to The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James Robinson suggests that these codices may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery, and were buried after Bishop Athanasius condemned the uncritical use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367 AD.

The contents of the codices were written in Coptic, though the works were probably all translations from Greek. The best-known of these works is probably the Gospel of Thomas, of which the Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete text. After the discovery it was recognized that fragments of these sayings attributed to Jesus appeared in manuscripts discovered at Oxyrhynchus in 1898, and matching quotations were recognized in other early Christian sources. Subsequently, a 1st or 2nd century date of composition circa 80 AD for the lost Greek originals of the Gospel of Thomas has been proposed, though this is disputed by many if not the majority of biblical matter researchers. The once buried manuscripts themselves date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The Nag Hammadi codices are housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt. To read about their significance to modern scholarship into early Christianity, see the Gnosticism article.

Discovery at Nag Hammadi

The story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 has been described as 'exciting as the contents of the find itself' (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 48). Q In December of that year, two Egyptian brothers found several papyri in a large earthernware vessel while digging for fertilizer around limestone caves near present-day Habra Dom in Upper Egypt. The find was not initially reported by either of the brothers, who sought to make money from the manuscripts by selling them individually at intervals. It is also reported that the brothers' mother burned several of the manuscripts, worried, apparently, that the papers might have 'dangerous effects' (Markschies, Gnosis, 48). As a result, what came to be known as the Nag Hammadi library (owing to the proximity of the find to Nag Hammadi, the nearest major settlement) appeared only gradually, and its significance went unacknowledged until some time after its initial uncovering.

In 1946, the brothers became involved in a feud, and left the manuscripts with a Coptic priest, whose brother-in-law in October that year sold a codex to the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo (this tract is today numbered Codex III in the collection). The resident Coptologist and religious historian Jean Dorese, realising the significance of the artifact, published the first reference to it in 1948. Over the years, most of the tracts were passed by the priest to a Cypriot antiques dealer in Cairo, thereafter being retained by the Department of Antiquities, for fear that they would be sold out of the country. After the revolution in 1956, these texts were handed to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and declared national property.

Meanwhile, a single codex had been sold in Cairo to a Belgian antique dealer. After an attempt was made to sell the codex in both New York and Paris, it was acquired by the Carl Gustav Jung Institute in Zurich in 1951, through the mediation of Gilles Quispel. There it was intended as a birthday present to the famous psychologist; for this reason, this codex is typically known as the Jung Codex, being Codex I in the collection.

Jung's death in 1961 caused a quarrel over the ownership of the Jung Codex, with the result that the pages were not given to the Coptic Museum in Cairo until 1975, after a first edition of the text had been published. Thus the papyri were finally brought together in Cairo: of the 1945 find, eleven complete books and fragments of two others, 'amounting to well over 1000 written pages' (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 49) are preserved there.


The first edition of a text found at Nag Hammadi was from the Jung Codex, a partial translation of which appeared in Cairo in 1956, and a single extensive facsimile edition was planned. Due to the difficult political circumstances in Egypt, individual tracts followed from the Cairo and Zurich collections only slowly.

This state of affairs changed only in 1966, with the holding of the Messina Congress in Italy. At this conference, intended to allow scholars to arrive at a group consensus concerning the definition of gnosticism, James M. Robinson, an expert on religion, assembled a group of editors and translators whose express task was to publish a bilingual edition of the Nag Hammadi codices in English, in collaboration with the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. Robinson had been elected secretary of the International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices, which had been formed in 1970 by UNESCO and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture; it was in this capacity that he oversaw the project. In the meantime, a facsimile edition in twelve volumes did appear between 1972 and 1977, with subsequent additions in 1979 and 1984 from publisher E.J. Brill in Leiden, called The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, making the whole find available for all interested parties to study in some form.

At the same time, in the former German Democratic Republic a group of scholars - including Alexander Bohlig, Martin Krause and New Testament scholars Gesine Schenke, Hans-Martin Schenke and Hans-Gebhard Bethge - were preparing the first German translation of the find. The last three scholars prepared a complete scholarly translation under the auspices of the Berlin Humboldt University, which was published in 2001.

The James M. Robinson translation was first published in 1977, with the name The Nag Hammadi Library in English, in collaboration between E.J. Brill and Harper & Row. The single-volume publication, according to Robinson, 'marked the end of one stage of Nag Hammadi scholarship and the beginning of another' (from the Preface to the third revised edition). Paperback editions followed in 1981 and 1984, from E.J. Brill and Harper respectively. A third, completely revised edition was published in 1988. This marks the final stage in the gradual dispersal of gnostic texts into the wider public arena - the full complement of codices was finally available in unadulterated form to people around the world, in a variety of languages.

A further English edition was published in 1987, by Yale scholar Bentley Layton, called The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1987). The volume unified new translations from the Nag Hammadi Library with extracts from the heresiological writers, and other gnostic material. It remains, along with The Nag Hammadi Library in English one of the more accessible volumes translating the Nag Hammadi find, with extensive historical introductions to individual gnostic groups, notes on translation, annotations to the text and the organisation of tracts into clearly defined movements.

Complete list of codices found in Nag Hammadi

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Nag Hammadi texts
The so-called "Codex XIII" is in fact not a codex, but rather the text of Trimorphic Protennoia, written on "... eight leaves removed from a thirteenth book in late antiquity and tucked inside the front cover of the sixth." (Robinson, NHLE, p.10) Only a few lines from the beginning of Origin of the World are discernible on the bottom of the eighth leaf.

References in popular culture

Interest in the Gnostic Gospels increased dramatically in 2003, with the publication of the bestselling fiction novel The Da Vinci Code. Events in the story suggest that the Gnostic Gospels had just as much validity as the accepted New Testament gospels, and that it was just an arbitrary decision by church leaders in the time of Emperor Constantine that excluded them from official status. Scholars generally agree that many of the Gnostic Gospels, by comparison, were not written until generations later, during or after the second century AD although there are a number of well-known exceptions such as the Gospel of Thomas which has been dated as early as 50 AD.

Nevertheless, the oldest manuscripts of the complete New Testament, such as Codex Sinaiticus, are from no earlier than the fourth century AD. Such a fact of course is irrelevant to the case of the antiquity and preminence given by Biblical scholars to the New Testament texts, since canonical text collections post-date actual composition. Also almost complete or proto-canons exist such as Papyrus 46, the harmony gospel Diatessaron and Marcion canon before fourth century AD. Along with the New Testament Canon's evolution being partially driven by the need to clarify traditionally accepted text from fraudulent and or Declamatio text. Text that was created in order to legitimize otherwise heretical or nontraditional teachings.[3][4]

In the song Original Sinsuality, from the album The Beekeeper, Tori Amos uses the Gnostic version of the Creation story.

Philip K. Dick relied heavily on the Gnostic Gospels in a trilogy of books whose titles are The Divine Invasion, VALIS, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. These books presume the imposition of a cage of unreality as expressed by the Gnostic notion of the material world as a creation of a malevolent being.

See also

Further reading

  • Layton, Bentley (1987). The Gnostic Scriptures. SCM Press. ISBN 0-334-02022-0.  (526 pages)
  • Markschies, Christoph (trans. John Bowden), (2000). Gnosis: An Introduction. T & T Clark. ISBN 0-567-08945-2.  (145 pages)
  • Pagels, Elaine (1979). The Gnostic Gospels. ISBN 0-679-72453-2.  (182 pages)
  • Robinson, James (1988). The Nag Hammadi Library in English. ISBN 0-06-066934-9.  (549 pages)
  • Robinson, James M., 1979 "The discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices," in Biblical Archaeology vol. 42, pp206–224.

Notes and references

1. ^ The Nag Hammadi Library: The Minor History Behind a Major Discovery
2. ^ Marvin Meyer and James M. Robinson, Nag Hammadi Scriptures, The: The International Edition. HarperOne, 2007. pp 2-3. ISBN 0060523786
3. ^ In the second century St Irenaeus wrote "But it is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the church has been scattered throughout the world, and since the "pillar and ground" of the church is the Gospel and the spirit of life, it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing incorruption on every side, and vivifying human afresh. From this fact, it is evident that the Logos, the fashioner demiourgos of all, he that sits on the cherubim and holds all things together, when he was manifested to humanity, gave us the gospel under four forms but bound together by one spirit. (Against Heresies 3.11.8)
4. ^ In the 4th century, St Cyril of Jerusalem mentioned a "Gospel of Thomas" in his Cathechesis V: "Let none read the gospel according to Thomas, for it is the work, not of one of the twelve apostles, but of one of Mani's three wicked disciples."

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Gnosticism (from Greek gnōsis, knowledge) refers to a diverse, syncretistic religious movement consisting of various belief systems generally united in the teaching that humans are divine souls trapped in a material world created by an imperfect spirit, the demiurge,
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The History of Gnosticism is subject to a great deal of debate and interpretation. The complex nature of Gnostic teaching and the fact that much of the material relating to the schools comprising Gnosticism has traditionally come from critiques by orthodox Christians make it
..... Click the link for more information.
Gnosticism (from Greek gnōsis, knowledge) refers to a diverse, syncretistic religious movement consisting of various belief systems generally united in the teaching that humans are divine souls trapped in a material world created by an imperfect spirit, the demiurge,
..... Click the link for more information.
The History of Gnosticism is subject to a great deal of debate and interpretation. The complex nature of Gnostic teaching and the fact that much of the material relating to the schools comprising Gnosticism has traditionally come from critiques by orthodox Christians make it
..... Click the link for more information.
Mandaeism or Mandaeanism is a monotheistic religion with a strongly dualistic worldview. Its adherents, the Mandaeans, revere Adam, Abel, Seth, Enosh, Noah, Shem, Aram, and especially John the Baptist.
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Manichaeism (in Modern Persian آیین مانی Āyin e Māni; Chinese: 摩尼教
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Syrian-Egyptian Gnostic Schools were ancient Gnostic sects from around the Middle East, with some Judaic influences.

Syrian-Egyptian Gnostic Schools

  • Sethians

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Sethians were a group of ancient Gnostics, that date their existence before Christianity. [1] Their influence spread throughout the Mediterranean into the later systems of the Thomasines, the Basilideans and the Valentinians.
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Valentinianism is a Gnostic movement that was founded by Valentinus in the second century CE. Valentinianism was one of the major Gnostic movements. Its influence was extremely widespread, not just within Rome, but also from Egypt through Asia Minor and Syria in the east, and
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The Basilideans were a Gnostic sect founded by Basilides of Alexandria in the 2nd century.


Basilides claimed to have been taught his doctrines by Glaucus, a disciple of St Peter.
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Bardaisan (Syriac: ܒܪܕܝܨܢ, Bardaiṣān; 154–222; also Latinized as Bardesanes) was a Syriac gnostic, founder of the Bardaisanites
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Philo (20 BC - 50 AD), known also as Philo of Alexandria and as Philo Judaeus And as Yedidia, was a Hellenized Jewish philosopher born in Alexandria, Egypt.

Philo used allegory to fuse and harmonize Greek philosophy and Judaism.
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Simon Magus, also known as Simon the Sorcerer and Simon of Gitta, is the name used by the ancient Christian Orthodoxy to refer to a person identified as a Samaritan proto-Gnostic.
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Cerinthus (c 100) was an early Christian originator of a heretical sect, a "heresiarch" in the view of the Church Fathers. Contrary to proto-orthodox Christianity, Cerinthus's school followed the Jewish law, denied that the Supreme God had made the physical world, and
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Basilides (early 2nd century) was an early Christian religious teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. He apparently wrote twenty-four books on the Gospel and promoted a dualism influenced by Zoroastrianism. His followers formed a Gnostic sect, the Basilideans.
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The Church Fathers or Fathers of the Church is a term used in Catholic and Orthodox forms of Christianity to refer to the early and influential theologians and writers in the Christian Church. The study of the Fathers is known as Patristics.
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Theudas was allegedly the name of a Christian Gnostic thinker, who was a follower of Paul of Tarsus. He went on to teach the Gnostic Valentinius. The only evidence of this connection is the testimony of Valentinius' followers.
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Valentinus (c.100 - c.160 CE ) was the best known and for a time most successful early Christian Gnostic theologian. He founded his school in Rome. Tertullian, in Adversus Valentinianos
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Marcion of Sinope (ca. 110-160), was a major 2nd century Early Christian theologian, founder of what would later be called Marcionism, and one of the first to be strongly denounced by other Christians (later the organized Church) as heretical for promoting gnostic ideology in the
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Early Gnosticism refers to a point in Gnosticism that occurred following the Fathers of Christian Gnosticism and related groups but prior to the shift to Medieval Gnosticism.
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The Ophites or Ophians (from Greek ὄφιανοι > ὄφις = snake): any of numerous Gnostic sects in Syria and Egypt about A.D. 100.
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The Cainites, or Cainians, were a Gnostic and Antinomian sect who were known to worship Cain as the first victim of the Demiurge Jehovah, the Old Testament God, who was identified by many groups of gnostics as evil.
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Carpocrates of Alexandria was the founder of an early Gnostic sect from the first half of the second century. As with many Gnostic sects we know of the Carpocratians only through the writings of the Church Fathers, in the case of Carpocrates, principally Irenaeus of Lyons and
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borborites (or barbelos, barbelites, phibionites, stratiotici, coddians etc) were a libertine Gnostic ophite sect. The word "borborite" comes from the Greek word borboros which means "mud"; thus "borborites" could be translated as "filthy ones.
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Marcionism is the dualist belief system that originates in the teachings of Marcion of Sinope at Rome around the year 144.[1] Marcion affirmed Jesus Christ as the savior sent by God and Paul as his chief apostle, but he rejected the Hebrew Bible and Yahweh.
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