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                    NAG HAMMADI, GNOSTICISM

                         AND NEW TESTAMENT

                               INTERPRETATION

 

 

                                                WILLIAM W. COMBS


 

 

 

          The Gnostic heresy alluded to in the NT and widely repudiated

by Christian writers in the second century and after has been in-

creasingly studied in the last forty years. The discovery in upper

Egypt of an extensive collection of Gnostic writings on papyri trans-

formed a poorly known movement in early Christianity into a well

documented heresy of diverse beliefs and practices.

          The relationship of Gnosticism and the NT is an issue that has

not been resolved by the new documents. Attempts to explain the

theology of the NT as dependent on Gnostic teachings rest on ques-

tionable hypotheses. The Gnostic redeemer-myth cannot be docu-

mented before the second century: Thus, though the Gnostic writings

provide helpful insight into the heresies growing out of Christianity, it

cannot be assumed that the NT grew out of Gnostic teachings.

 

 

                                        *     *     *

 

                                    INTRODUCTION

STUDENTS of the NT have generally been interested in the subject

of Gnosticism because of its consistent appearance in discussions

of the "Colossian heresy" and the interpretation of John's first epistle.

It is felt that Gnosticism supplies the background against which these

and other issues should be understood. However, some who use the

terms "Gnostic" and "Gnosticism" lack a clear understanding of the

movement itself. In fact, our knowledge of Gnosticism has suffered

considerably from a lack of primary sources. Now, however, with the

discovery of the Nag Hammadi (hereafter, NH) codices, this void is

being filled.

          The NH codices were discovered in 1945, a year before the

Qumran manuscripts, but the documents from NH have received

comparatively little attention from conservative scholars. Unfortu-

nately, political problems and personal rivalries have caused numerous

 



 

delays in the publication of the NH texts. Thanks mainly to the

efforts of Professor James Robinson, English translations of all thir-

teen codices have at last been published in a single volume.1 Photo-

graphic reproductions of the papyus pages and leather covers are

now also available.2 A complete eleven-volume critical edition of the

codices entitled The Coptic Gnostic Library began to appear in 1975.

The amount of literature on NH is already quite large and growing at

a rapid pace.3

          The manuscripts from NH have importance for a number of

scholarly disciplines, including Coptic itself, since the entire library is

in that language. Also, because the vast majority of the library is

composed of Christian Gnostic writings, it is now possible to study

this movement from primary sources, rather than having to rely upon

the secondhand accounts given by the early Church Fathers or

"Heresiologists." Most important for Biblical studies, of course, is the

relationship between NH and the NT.

 

                              CONTENTS OF THE LIBRARY

 

          According to the best evidence, the discovery of the NH codices

took place in December 1945.4 Three brothers, Abu al-Majd,

Muhammad, and Khalifah Ali of the al-Samman clan, were digging

at the base of a cliff for soil rich in nitrates to use as fertilizer. The

cliff, Jabal al Tarif, is about ten kilometers northeast of Nag Ham-

madi, the largest town in the area. Abu al-Majd actually unearthed

the jar; but his older brother, Muhammad, quickly took control of it,

broke it open, and discovered the codices. Having wrapped the books

in his tunic, he returned to his home in the village of al-Qasr, the site

of the ancient city Chenoboskion5 where Saint Pachomius was con-

verted to Christianity in the fourth century and where one of his

 

            1 James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco:

Harper and Row, 1977).

            2 James M. Robinson, ed., The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices

(Leiden: Brill, 1972-84). For a complete list, see B. A. Pearson and J. E. Goehring,

eds., The Roots of Egyptian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986) xiii.

            3 David M. Scholer's bibliography runs to nearly 2,500 items (Nag Hammadi

Bibliography 1948-1969 [Leiden: Brill, 1971]). It is supplemented each year in Novum

Testamentum (1971-). Over 3,000 additional items have been listed by Scholer since

1971.

            4 The most up-to-date and thorough account of the discovery is by James M.

Robinson, "The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices," BA 42 (1979) 206-24. This

should be supplemented by his "The Discovering and Marketing of Coptic Manu-

scripts: The Nag Hammadi Codices and the Bodmer Papyri," in Egyptian Christianity,

2-25.

            5 Robinson believes the name should be spelled Chenoboskia.

 


COMBS: NAG HAMMADI AND NT INTERPRETATION                     197

 

monasteries was located. Muhammad Ali dumped the codices on top

of some straw that was lying by the oven to be burned. His mother

thought they were worthless and burned some of the pages in the

oven (probably Codex XII of which only a few fragmentary leaves

remain6).

          The books were eventually sold for a few piasters or given away

until their value was later realized. Most of them went through the

hands of a series of middlemen and were sold on the black market

through antiquities dealers. Having arrived by various means in Cairo,

the majority of the library was either purchased by the Coptic

Museum or confiscated by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities

when attempts were made to smuggle some codices out of the country.

Most of Codex I was taken out of Egypt by a Belgian antiquities

dealer. It was unsuccessfully offered for sale in New York and Ann

Arbor in 1949. Finally, in May 1952 it was purchased by the Jung

Institute of Zurich and named the Jung Codex. The rest of Codex I

had found its way to the Coptic Museum. In exchange for the rights

to publish the entire codex (six volumes from 1956 to 1975), the

Zurich authorities agreed to return the Jung Codex folios to the

Coptic Museum.7 Today the entire NH library is in the Museum.

          The first scholar to examine the codices was a young Frenchman,

Jean Doresse, who had come to Egypt in 1947 to study Coptic

monasteries.8 Because his wife had been a student in Paris with Togo

Mina, the Director of the Coptic Museum, Doresse was allowed to

see the codices and in January of 1948 announced their discovery to

the world. The death of Mina and subsequent political upheavals in

Egypt put a halt to plans to publish the library. Doresse attached the

ancient place name of Chenoboskion to the discovery, but it never

caught on. Later scholars have called the discovery NH, probably

because this location has served as a base camp for all who have

come to investigate the origin of the library.9

          In 1956 the new Director of the Coptic Museum, Pahor Labib,

made plans for a facsimile edition of the library, but only one volume

appeared. An English translation of The Gospel of Thomas was

published in 1959. Because Labib allowed relatively few scholars to

have access to the library, only a few parts of it were published until

1972. In 1961 under the auspices of UNESCO, an agreement was

 

            6 Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 23.

            7 For details about the intrigues of the Jung Codex, see J. M. Robinson, "The Jung

Codex: The Rise and Fall of a Monopoly," RelSRev 3 (1977) 17-30; Egyptian Chris-

tianity, 2-25.

            8 Doresse has written an account of his experiences in The Secret Books of the

Egyptian Gnostics, trans. P. Mairet (New York: Viking, 1960) 116-36.

            9 James M. Robinson, "Introduction," BA 42 (1979) 201.

 



worked out with the Egyptian government to publish a facsimile

edition of the entire library. The project was delayed until 1970 when

an International Committee for the NH Codices was formed under

the leadership of James Robinson. By 1977 the entire library was in

the public domain.

 

Description

          A list of the tractates in the NH library can be found in Table 1.

Listings of the library refer to thirteen codices; however, the eight

leaves of Codex XIII form a separate essay or tractate that was

tucked inside the cover of Codex VI in antiquity.10 Much of Codex

XII is missing, probably lost or destroyed since the discovery of the

library. The library contains a total of fifty-two tractates of which six

are duplicates. Of the forty-six remaining tractates, six are texts of

which a complete copy existed elsewhere, so there are forty tractates

that are extant only in the NH library. Fragments of three of these

were already extant, but these fragments were too small to identify

their contents until NH provided the full text.11 About ten of the

tractates are.in poor enough condition so as often to obscure the train

of thought. In terms of pages of text, Robinson estimates that out of

1,239 inscribed pages that were buried, 1,156 have survived at least in

part.12

          Each codex was originally bound in leather; the covers of Codices

I-XI have survived. These were lined with papyrus pasted into thick

cardboards (called cartonnage) in order to produce a hardback effect.

Study of this used papyrus, which consists mostly of letters and

business documents, has produced names of persons and places as

well as dates that help to date the collection of the library to the mid-

dle of the fourth century. Of course, this does not determine the date

of the origin of the individual tractates except in respect to the

terminus ad quem. Some are known to have been written as early as

the second century.13

          The language of the codices is Coptic, which simply means

"Egyptian" (the consonants CPT in "Coptic" are a variant of those in

 

            10 James M. Robinson, "Inside the Cover of Codex VI," in Essays on the Nag

Hammadi Texts in Honour of Alexander Bohling, ed. Martin Krause (Leiden: Brill,

1972) 74-87.

            11 James M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Codices (2nd ed.; Claremont, Calif.:

Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, 1977) 3-4. Greek papyri fragments discovered

at Oxyrhynchus in 1897 and 1904, called the "Logia" by B.P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt,

turn out to be the Greek text of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. See J. A. Fitzmyer,

Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament (Missoula: Scholars, 1974)

355-433.

            12 Robinson, Nag Hammadi Codices, 4.

            13 Edwin M. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1983) 101-2.

 


COMBS: NAG HAMMADI AND NT INTERPRETATION                     199

 

                              TABLE 1

                    Tractates in the NH Library

Codex          Tractate        Title

   I                    I                       The Prayer of the Apostle Paul (+ colophon)

   I                    2                      The Apocryphon of James

   I                    3                      The Gospel of Truth

   I                    4                      The Treatise on Resurrection

   I                    5                      The Tripartite Tractate

   II                   1                      The Apocryphon of John

   II                   2                      The Gospel of Thomas

   II                   3                      The Gospel of Philip

   II                   4                      The Hypostasis of the Archons

   II                   5                      On the Origin of the World

   II                   6                      The Exegesis of the Soul

   II                   7                      The Book of Thomas the Contender (+ colophon)

   III                 1                      The Apocryphon of John

   III                 2                      The Gospel of the Egyptians

   III                 3                      Eugnostos the Blessed

   III                 4                      The Sophia of Jesus Christ

   III                 5                      The Dialogue of the Savior

   IV                 1                      The Apocryphon of John

   IV                 2                      The Gospel of the Egyptians

   V                  1                      Eugnostos the Blessed

   V                  2                      The Apocalypse of Paul

   V                  3                      The First Apocalypse of James

   V                  4                      The Second Apocalypse of James

   V                  5                      The Apocalypse of Adam

   VI                 1                      The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles

   VI                 2                      The Thunder. Perfect Mind

   VI                 3                      Authoritative Teaching

   VI                 4                      The Concept of Our Great Power

   VI                 5                      Plato, Republic 588B-589B

   VI                 6                      The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth

    VI                7                      The Prayer of Thanksgiving (+ scribal note)

    VI                8                      Asclepius 21-29

   VII                1                      The Paraphrase of Shem

   VII                2                      The Second Treatise of the Great Seth

   VII                3                      Apocalypse of Peter

   VII                4                      The Teaching of Silval1us (+ colophon)

   VII                5                      The Three Steles of Seth (+ colophon)

   VIII               1                      Zostrianos

   VIII               2                      The Letter of Peter to Philip

   IX                 1                      Melchizedek

   IX                 2                      The Thought of Norea

   IX                 3                      The Testimony of Truth

   X                  1                      Marsanes

   XI                 1                      The Interpretation of Knowledge

   XI                 2                      A Valentinian Exposition

   XI                 2a                     On the Anointing

   XI                 2b                    On Baptism A

   XI                 2c                     On Baptism B

   XI                 2d                    On the Eucharist A

 


200               GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

TABLE I (continued)

Codex          Tractate        Title

   XI                 2e                     On the Eucharist B

   XI                 3                      Allogenes

   XI                 4                      Hypsiphrone

   XII                1                      The Sentences of Sextus

   XII                2                      The Gospel of Truth

   XII                3                      Fragments

   XIII               1                      Trimorphic Protennoia

   XIII               2                      On the Origin of the World

 

"Egyptian," GPT). However, two dialects are used, Sahidic for most

of the library and Subachmimic for Codices I, X, and part of XI.14

Although written in Coptic, it is almost the universal opinion of

scholars that the library is a translation of Greek originals. Almost

nothing is known about those who translated the tractates into

Coptic, those who produced the extant copies, or those who buried

them. Robinson has attempted to connect the library with the

Pachomian monastery that was located at Chenoboskion, but this

link is now questioned.15

In listings of the codices the Berlin Codex 8502, which dates

from the fifth century, is sometimes included. Its four tractates are

similar to those found at NH; in fact, two are duplicates. Although

discovered in 1896, it was not published until 1955.16

 

Subject Matter

The tractates represent a diverse background that includes non-

Gnostic, non-Christian Gnostic(?), and Christian Gnostic works. The

question of which, if any, of the tractates fall into the non-Christian

Gnostic category is widely debated (see below).

 

14 IDBSup, S.v. "Nag Hammadi,"by George W. MacRae, 613.

15 The Nag Hammadi Library in English, 13-21; The Nag Hammadi Codices, 1-2.

Robinson's view that the NH library came from a Pachomian monastery was based on

the preliminary study of the cartonnage by the late John W. B. Barns, "Greek and

Coptic Papyri from the Covers of the Nag Hammadi Codices," in Essays on the Nag

Hammadi Library, ed. M. Krause (Leiden: Brill, 1975) 9-18. Further study has cast

serious doubts about whether the monks mentioned in the cartonnage are Pachomian.

See J. C. Shelton, "Introduction," in Nag Hammadi Codices: Greek and Coptic Papyri

from the Cartonnage of the Covers, ed. J. W. Barnes, G. M. Browne, and J. C. Shelton

(Leiden: Brill, 1981) 11. Though the Pachomian origin of the NH library has also been

supported by F. C. Wisse, C. Hedrick, and J. E. Goehring, authorities on Pachomius

question it. See A. Veilleux, "Monasticism and Gnosis in Egypt," in Egyptian Christi-

anity, 278-83 and P. Rosseau, Pachomius (Berkeley: University of California, 1985) 27.

16 "Nag Hammadi,"by George W. MacRae, 615.


COMBS: NAG HAMMADI AND NT INTERPRETATION                     201

 

Since it is not feasible to discuss the contents of each tractate, it

may be helpful to present at least a preliminary classification of the

library according to the various genres represented therein.

Literary Genres

The library contains a wide variety of literary genres. Some of

these are typical of Gnostic literature, while others are imitative of the

genres in Christian and other literature. Some of the tractates are

representative of more than one genre. The following classifications

are taken from MacRae.17

Gospels. Of the four tractates that bear the title "gospel," The

Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, and

The Gospel of the Egyptians, none actually correspond to the gospel

genre of the NT. The most important of these, The Gospel of Thomas,

is a collection of 114 logia or sayings attributed to Jesus. The Greek

original was probably composed in Edessa in Syria ca. A.D. 140.18

Apocalypses. A number of tractates are titled "apocalypses":

The Apocalypse of Paul, The First Apocalypse of James, The Second

Apocalypse of James, The Apocalypse of Adam, and Apocalypse of

Peter. Also in this category would be Asclepius 21-29, The Hypostasis

of the Archons, and The Paraphrase of Shem. In one of the most

important of these, The Apocalypse of Adam, the future course of

Gnostic history is received by Adam in a revelation and transmitted

to his son Seth. This tractate is claimed to display a non-Christian

Gnosticism.19

Acts. One tractate in the Nag Hammadi library uses the name

"acts"in its title, The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles. Actually,

another work, The Letter of Peter to Philip has closer parallels to the

NT book of Acts.

Letters. Some of the tractates, such as The Treatise on Resur-

rection and Eugnostos the Blessed, have occasionally been referred to

as epistles because they are addressed to pupils from their teacher.

However, they fall more into the category of treatises. None of the

tractates are imitative of the Pauline letter form.

Dialogues. MacRae notes that "one of the most characteristic

genres of Gnostic literature is the dialogue between the risen Jesus

 

17 "Nag Hammadi," by George W. MacRae, 616-17.

18 ISBE, 1979 ed., s. v. "Apocryphal Gospels," by Edwin M. Yamauchi, 186.

19 IDBSup, S.v. "Adam, Apocalypse of," by George W. MacRae, 9-l0.

 


202               GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

and his disciples in which Gnostic teaching is revealed.”20 The Sophia

of Jesus Christ and The Dialogue of the Savior are excellent examples

of this genre in the NH library. Parts of several other tractates also

fall within this category.

Secret Books. The word "apocryphon" is used in the titles of two

works, The Apocryphon of James and The Apocryphon of John.

Strictly speaking, this category is not a separate genre since these two

works fall into the apocalyptic and revelational discourse classifications.

Speculative treatises. The most important of these is On the

Origin of the World. In addition, Eugnostos the Blessed and a few

other tractates have affinities with this genre.

Wisdom Literature. The two examples of this genre in the NH

library, The Teachings of Silvanus and The Sentences of Sextus, are

both non-Gnostic writings. The latter tractate is a Coptic translation

of a well-known ancient work which is extant in Greek, Latin, and

several other languages.21

Revelational discourses. A number of works come under this

heading in which a revealer speaks in the first person. Sometimes, as

in the case of The Thunder, Perfect Mind, and Trimorphic Pro-

tennoia, the revealer is a female.

Prayers. There are examples of Christian and non-Christian

prayers in the library. Three of these are The Prayer of the Apostle

Paul, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, and The Three Steles of Seth.

 

Types of Gnosticism

The NH library has made available a wealth of primary Gnostic

material; however, it has probably generated more questions than it

has answered. Doresse's preliminary investigations led him to con-

clude that the library was primarily a Sethian Gnostic collection.22 A

study by Wisse has now demonstrated that Doresse was premature in

his assessment of the library and, in fact, virtually none of the

tractates corroborates in detail the accounts of Sethian Gnosticism

given by the Church Fathers.23 Some scholars now question the

reliability of patristic testimony regarding Gnosticism. Evans has I

 

20 "Nag Hammadi," by George W. MacRae, 616. On the genre of dialogues, see

Pheme Perkins, The Gnostic Dialogue (New York: Paulist, 1980).

21 Frederick Wisse, "Introduction to The Sentences of Sextus," in The Nag

IHammadi Library in English, ed. James M. Robinson, 454.

22 Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics, 249-51. I

23 Frederick Wisse, "The Sethians and the Nag Hammadi Library," in Society of

Biblical Literature 1972 Proceedings, vol. 2, ed. Lane C. McGaughy (n.p.: Society of

Biblical Literature, 1972), 60 1-7.

 


COMBS: NAG HAMMADI AND NT INTERPRETATION                     203

 

observed that "liberal scholars treat the Fathers with reserve while

conservative scholars tend to see the new source material providing

some confirmation of the Fathers.”24

However, the inability to correlate every facet of Gnosticism

found in the library with the patristic testimony should not be viewed

as unusual. There was great variety in Gnostic systems. For example,

Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180) noted that the Valentinians "differ among

themselves in their treatment of the same points, and in regard to the

things they describe and the names they employ, are at variance with

one another.”25 Also, it appears that the Heresiologists, rather than

intentionally distorting Gnostic thought, seemed to have sometimes

misunderstood it.

Although it is true that some of the NH materials cannot be

identified with the well-known Gnostic systems of the second and

third centuries, a number of the tractates do show clear correspon-

dences.26 MacRae would classify all of Codex I, The Gospel of Philip,

and The Apocalypse of James as representative of the Valentinian

sect.27 The Apocryphon of John is in general agreement with the

teachings of the Barbelo-Gnostics as reported by Irenaeus.28 Other

tractates have been identified with the Sethians and other Gnostic

sects, but most of these suggestions are only tentative at this early

stage in the study of the library.

 

Non-Gnostic Material

One of the greatest surprises in the library was the presence of

non-Gnostic tractates such as Plato's Republic and The Sentences of

Sextus, a series of ethical maxims attributed to the philosopher

Sextus. Three tractates from Codex VI, The Discourse on the Eighth

and Ninth, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Asclepius 21-29, are

clear-cut examples of Hermetic literature.29 The Hermetica are tradi-

tions from Egypt that were purported to be the'revelations of Hermes

Trismegistos, the Egyptian god of wisdom.

Since most of the library is composed of Christian Gnostic

works, the question arises as to why non-Christian and even non-

Gnostic documents, such as a portion of Plato's Republic, would be

included in the library.

 

24 C. A. Evans, "Current Issues in Coptic Gnosticism for New Testament Study,"

Studia Biblica et Theologica 9 (1979) 97.

25 Against Heresies,I.II.I.

26 For information on the various Gnostic systems, see Hans Jonas, The Gnostic

Religion (Boston: Beacon, 1958).

27 "Nag Hammadi," by George W. MacRae, 617.

28 Wemer Foerster, Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts, vol. 1: Patristic Evidence,

ed. R. McL. Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 100-120.

29 IDBSup, s.v, "Hermetic Literature," by Edwin M. Yamauchi, 408.

 


204               GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

The answer is found in understanding the gnostic approach to inter-

pretation. For them, truth lies at two levels. At the literal and obvious

level truth is accessible to all, but at the deeper level one finds truth

which only the Gnostic can discern. Such an approach is assumed by

the Gospel of Thomas (II, 2): "Whoever finds the interpretation of

these sayings will not experience death." Therefore, documents which

represent a variety of traditions (Plato, Hermetica, Sextus, Silvanus)

may be interpreted at a deeper (i.e., gnostic) level.30

 

ISSUES IN NT INTERPRETATION

The NH library was discovered forty years ago, but because most

of the tractates have only been published in recent years, the inter-

pretation of the library is just beginning. Already, however, some

major issues of interpretation in relation to the NT have arisen.

 

Pre-Christian Gnosticism

Probably most of the discussion about the contents of the library

has centered around its contribution to the question of pre-Christian

Gnosticism. Until the twentieth century, the prevailing view of Gnos-

ticism was that of the Church Fathers, who held that it was a heresy

that developed out of Christianity. Early in this century this view was

challenged by the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule or History of

Religions School.31 This approach

 

represents the most thorough-going application of a naturalistic histor-

icism to the study of the Bible. It assumes that biblical religion, in both

the Old and New Testaments, passed through stages of growth and

evolution like all ancient religions, and in this evolution was heavily

influenced through interaction with its religious environment. This

method involves the consistent application of the principle of analogy

to biblical religion: the history and development of biblical religion

must be analogous to the history and development of other ancient

religions.32

 

The leading spokesmen of the History of Religions School,

Wilhelm Bousset (1865-1920) and Richard Reitzenstein (1861-1931),

argued upon the basis of Hermetic, Iranian, and Mandaean docu-

ments, all of which postdated the NT, that Gnosticism existed prior

 

30 Evans, "Current Issues in Coptic Gnosticism," 97.

31 For an excellent discussion of the History of Religions School, see George E.

Ladd, The New Testament and Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967) 195-214.

32 Ladd, New Testament and Criticism, 196.

33 Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Some Alleged Evidences for Pre-Christian Gnosticism,"

in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill

C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974) 47.

 


COMBS: NAG HAMMADI AND NT INTERPRETATION                     205

 

to Christianity.33 Rudolf Bultmann adopted the idea of pre-Christian

Gnosticism and sought to explain NT Christianity as the result of a

syncretistic process that included Gnostic ideas.34 Most German NT

scholars, because of the influence of Bultmann, have assumed a pre-

Christian Gnosticism as a basis for their interpretation of the NT. For

example, one of Bultmann's students, Walter Schmithals seems to be

able to find Gnosticism in almost every Pauline letter.35 A number of

scholars who agree with Bultmann are attempting to use the NH

library in order to verify his view of NT Christianity. MacRae has

accounted in a recent article: "It is my contention here that such

evidence as we have now in the Nag Hammadi library tends to

vindicate the position of Bultmann.”36

 

Problem of Definition

A vital consideration with regard to the question of pre-Christian

Gnosticism is the need for defining Gnosticism itself. Evans has noted

that “if Gnosticism is defined broadly then its origins are found to be

much earlier and its roots quite diverse. However, if it is defined

narrowly, Gnosticism may be viewed as an early Christian heresy and

thus subsequent to the origin of Christianity.”37 Wilson has suggested

that one solution to the problem of definition would be to distinguish

between Gnosticism and Gnosis: "By Gnosticism we me'an the

specifically Christian heresy of the second century A.D., by Gnosis, in

a broader sense, the whole complex of ideas belonging to the Gnostic

movement and related trends of thought.”38 Unfortunately, some

scholars feel that such distinctions are too confining. MacRae refuses

to abide by Wilson's guidelines, suggesting that "it is not the term-

inology that matters most.”39 Bultmann uses the term die Gnosis, but

 

 

34 Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, 2 vols., trans. Kendrick

Grobel (New York: Scribner's, 1951-55) 1.164.

35 See his Gnosticism in Corinth, trans. John E. Steely (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971)

and Paul and the Gnostics, trans. John E. Steely (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972).

36 George W. MacRae, "Nag Hammadi and the New Testament," in Gnosis:

Festschrift fur Hans Jonas, ed. Barbara Aland (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht,

1978) 146.

37 Evans, "Current Issues in Coptic Gnosticism for New Testament Study," 98. On

the issue of defining Gnosticism broadly, see K. Rudolph, "'Gnosis' and 'Gnosticism'-

the Problems of their Definition and their Relation to the Writings of the New

Testament," in The New Testament and Gnosis, ed. A. J. M. Wedderbum and A. H. B.

Logan (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1983) 21-37; see also K. Rudolph, Gnosis (San

Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983).

38 R. McL. Wilson, Gnosis and the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968)

9. See also his presidential address to the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas in

Rome in 1981, "Nag Hammadi and the New Testament," NTS 28 (1982) 292.

39 MacRae, "Nag Hammadi and the New Testament," 146.

 


206               GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

his translators render it into English by the term "Gnosticism."

German scholars prefer to use the term die Gnosis in the widest

possible sense.

For the sake of clarity it is essential to follow the distinctions

between Gnosis and Gnosticism suggested by Wilson. However, even

if the term "Gnosticism" is restricted to the second and third century

sects, it is still difficult to come up with a definition that will

incorporate the variety of developed Gnostic systems. Yamauchi

believes that the essential "element of any developed Gnosticism

would be a radical dualism between the divine and the created,

inasmuch as a fundamental Gnostic tenet is the view that the creation

of the world resulted from ignorance and error.”40 Wilson has sug-

gested a four-point summary of the second century movement:

 

(1) A distinction between the unknown and transcendent true God on

the one hand and the Demiurge or creator of this world on the other,

the latter being commonly identified with the God of the Old Tes-

tament; (2) the belief that man in his true nature is essentially akin to

the divine, a spark of the heavenly light imprisoned in a material body

and subjected in this world to the dominance of the Demiurge and his

powers; (3) a myth narrating some kind of pre-mundane fall, to account

for man's present state and his yearning for deliverance; and (4) the

means, the saving gnosis, by which that deliverance is effected and man

awakened to the consciousness of his own true nature and heavenly

origin. . . This deliverance, and the eventual return of the imprisoned

sparks of light to their heavenly abode, means in time the return of this

world to its primordial chaos, and is strenuously opposed at all points

by the hostile powers.41

 

Wilson's four basic points are probably as precise as one can be

in formulating a definition of Gnosticism that will include all the

second century sects. The question then is whether the NH library

provides any support for pre-Christian Gnosticism.

 

Nag Hammadi Evidence

The basic argument for pre-Christian Gnosticism that has

been deduced from the NH library is the presence of supposedly

non-Christian Gnostic tractates. Of the most commonly suggested

examples of non-Christian Gnostic works, three are particularly

noteworthy.

A number of scholars believe that Eugnostos the Blessed is a

non-Christian Gnostic tractate from which was created the Christian

Gnostic work, The Sophia of Jesus Christ. The Nag Hammadi Library

 

40 Yamauchi, "Some Alleged Evidences for Pre-Christian Gnosticism,"47.

41 Wilson. Gnosis and the New Testament, 4.

COMBS: NAG HAMMADI AND NT INTERPRETATION                     207

 

in English prints the texts side by side for comparison. Although

there was initially some debate about the priority of Eugnostos, the

work of Krause has convinced most scholars that Sophia is a re-

working of Eugnostos.42 However, it is not clear that Eugnostos is

wholly free from Christian influence. Wilson has compiled a list of

possible NT and Christian allusions in Eugnostos.43 Included among

them is Son of Man, Saviour, and the Church. Also, the name

Eugnostos appears in only one other tractate, The Gospel of the

Egyptians, where Eugnostos is a Christian. Yamauchi believes that

the Christian Eugnostos is the same person referred to in Eugnostos

the Blessed.44

The Apocalypse of Adam has also been hailed by some scholars

as a clear example of a non-Christian Gnostic work. This tractate

purports to be a revelation of Adam to Seth that recounts the

salvation of Noah from the Flood and the salvation of Seth's seed

from destruction by fire. The story ends with the coming of the

mighty "Illuminator." It seems clear, however, that this Illuminator-

who is punished in his flesh, does signs and marvels, is opposed by

powers, and has the Holy Spirit descend upon him-is none other

than Jesus Christ.45

Another supposedly non-Christian Gnostic document is The

Paraphrase of Shem in which a figure named Derdekeas gives a

revelation to Shem. However, a number of scholars have pointed to

parallels between Derdekeas and Christ.46 Also, the presence of a

bitter polemic against water baptism (37, 14-25) is a problem for

those who maintain the non-Christian character of the tractate.47

Even if it could be proven that any of the previously discussed

works or, for that matter, any of the NH tractates are non-Christian

Gnostic documents, that would not in itself be evidence for pre-

Christian Gnosticism. Non-Christian is not necessarily pre-Christian.

MacRae's admission is worth noting:

The NH library does nothing to resolve the classic chronological

challenge to Gnostic sources. That is to say that those who demand a

chronologically pre-Christian Gnostic document in order to accept the

 

42 Martin Krause, "Das literarische Verhaltnis des Eugnostosbriefes zur Sophia

Jesu Christi," in Mullus: Festschrift fur Theodor Klauser, ed. A. Stuiber and A.

Hermann (Munster, 1964) 215-23.

43 Wilson Gnosis and the New Testament, 114-15.

44 Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Pre-Christian Gnosticism in the Nag Hammadi Texts?"

CH 48 (1979) 138.

45 Yamauchi, "Pre-Christian Gnosticism in the Nag Hammadi Texts?" 132, and.

Pre-Christian Gnosticism, 107-15,217-19.

46 Yamauchi, "Pre-Christian Gnosticism in the Nag Hammadi Texts?" 136.

47 John Dart, The Laughing Savior (New York: Harper and Row, 1976) 100. See

also Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism, 221.


208               GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

argument that Gnosticism is older than the second century A.D. will not

be shaken by the publication of a mid-fourth-century collection of

Coptic translations. And even if we are on solid ground in some cases

in arguing the original works represented in the library are much older

than extant copies, we are still unable to postulate plausibly any pre-

Christian dates.48

 

Unfortunately, MacRae, Robinson, and a number of others either

discount or ignore the fact that their arguments for pre-Christian

Gnosticism are based upon late sources.

 

The Descending-Ascending Redeemer Myth

Bultmann and his followers have argued that the Christian con-

ception of Jesus as a descending-ascending saviour figure was derived

from the Gnostic redeemer myth. The classic description of the myth

was set forth by Bultmann in a 1925 article.49 He outlined twenty-

eight characteristics that he considered to have constituted the original

myth. Yamauchi has conveniently summarized those characteristics:

1. In the cosmic drama a heavenly 'Urmensch' or Primal Man of Light

    falls and is torn to pieces by demonic powers. These particles are

    encapsuled as the sparks of light in the 'pneumatics' of mankind.

2. The demons try to stupefy the 'pneumatics' by sleep and forgetfulness

    so they will forget their divine origin.

3. The transcendent Deity sends another Being of Light, the 'Redeemer,'

    who descends the demonic spheres, assuming the deceptive garments

    of a bodily exterior to escape the notice of the demons.

4. The Redeemer is sent to awaken the 'pneumatics' to the truth of their

    heavenly origins and gives them the necessary 'gnosis' or 'knowledge'

    to serve as passwords for their heavenly re-ascent.

5. The Redeemer himself re-ascends, defeating the demonic powers, and

    thereby makes a way for the spirits that will follow him.

6. Cosmic redemption is achieved when the souls of men are collected and

    gathered upward. In this process the Redeemer is himself redeemed,

    i.e., the Primal Man who fell in the beginning is reconstituted.50

 

Bultmann believed that the writer of the Fourth Gospel was a

Christian convert from a Gnostic baptist group, who Christianized

the descending-ascending redeemer myth in applying it to the his-

torical Jesus. This myth also became the source of the redemptive

idea in Paul's theology.

 

48 MacRae, "Nag Hammadi and the New Testament," 146-47.

49 "Die Bedeutung der neuerschlossenen mandaischen und manichaischen Que11en

ftir das Verstandnis des Johannesevangeliums," ZNW24 (1925) 100-146.

50 Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism, 29-30.

 


COMBS: NAG HAMMADI AND NT INTERPRETATION                     209

 

Bultmann's proof for the pre-Christian nature of the Gnostic

redeemer myth was based on texts that considerably postdated the

NT, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by a number of scholars.51

However, some of Bultmann's followers have suggested that the NH

library provides new evidence which demonstrates that he was essen-

tially correct. Robinson has stated:

The Apocalypse of Adam, a non-Christian Jewish Gnostic interpreta- .

tion of Genesis, presents the redeemer as coming to the world, suffering,

and triumphing. It or traditions it used may have been composed in the

Syrian-Jordan region during the First Century A.D.--much the same

time and place as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gospel of John!52

 

While it is true that The Apocalypse of Adam and several other NH

texts present a descending-ascending redeemer figure, it has not been

clearly demonstrated that any of these tractates are free from

Christian influences, as was previously discussed. Even if it could be

shown that The Apocalypse of Adam was not influenced by the NT,

there is absolutely no historical evidence that it was composed in the

first century, and thus influenced John's Gospel. Yamauchi has

demonstrated that The Apocalypse of Adam could not have been

written before the second century.53

 

The Gospel of Thomas

When it was published in 1959, this document prompted curiosity

about a "fifth gospel." Actually, it is a random series of 114 sayings

attributed to Jesus. About half of these correspond to sayings of

Jesus in the canonical Gospels, but scarcely any are completely

identical. Some sayings are similar to those known previously from

patristic literature while about forty are new sayings.54 It is possible

that genuine agrapha (sayings of Jesus not found in the canonical

Gospels) may be found in Thomas since the canonical Gospels do not

claim to be exhaustive (John 20:30). Because some of the sayings are

parallel to those in the Oxyrhynchus papyri, which can be dated to

 

51 The most devastating criticisms have come from Carsten Colpe, Die religions-

geschichtliche Schule: Darstel/ung und Kritik ihres Bildes vom gnostischen Erlosermy-

thus (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1961). Also, see Henry A. Green, "Gnosis

and Gnosticism: A Study in Methodology," Numen 24 (1977) 95-134.

52 Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Codices, 15.

53 Yamauchi, "Pre-Christian Gnosticism in the Nag Hammadi Texts?" 132-35 and

"The Apocalypse of Adam, Mithraism, and Pre-Christian Gnosticism," in Etudes

Mithriaques, Textes et Memoires, ed. Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin (Teheran-Liege:

Bibliotheque Pahlavi, 1978) 4.537-63.

54 Andrew K. Helmbold, The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Texts and the Bible (Grand

Rapids: Baker, 1967) 57-58.


210               GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

about A.D. 150, most scholars believe that the Greek original of

Thomas was written about A.D. 140.55

Robinson believes that The Gospel of Thomas provides evidence

for the literary genre of the so-called Q (from the German Quelle,

meaning "source") material, a hypothetical written document that

was the source of the material common to Matthew and Luke but not

found in Mark.56 Both Robinson and Helmut Koester believe that

Thomas is independent of the canonical Gospels and may even repre-

sent an earlier form of Jesus' sayings.57 However, the independence of

Thomas seems to be a minority opinion. Even Koester admits that

the number of scholars who oppose his view is impressive.58 Gundry's

study of the problem led him to conclude that "the much later date of

The Gospel of Thomas and the undeniable wholesale interpolation of

Gnostic ideas and sayings tip the scales in favor of Gnostic editing of

mostly canonical sources.59 Thus, if Thomas is dependent upon the

canonical Gospels, its literary genre is much later than Q. There is

also an important difference between Q and Thomas: Q would have

included narrative material, whereas Thomas has none.60

 

Prologue of the Fourth Gospel

The problem of determining the historical background of the

prologue of John's Gospel has long preoccupied a number of NT

scholars. In the past, scholars have been divided into two camps.61

One camp, represented by C. H. Dodd, held that the backdrop for

the prologue was to be found in Rabbinic and Philonic materials,

together with the Hermetica. Dodd argued "that in the Prologue a

basic Jewish (OT) theme has been interpreted in the light of the

conceptuality of Hellenistic Jewish thought.”62 The other camp,

 

55 ISBE, 1979 ed., s.v. "Agrapha," by Edwin M. Yamauchi, 1.69.

56 James M. Robinson, "LOGOI SOPHON: On the Gattung of Q," in Trajectories

through Early Christianity, with Helmut Koester (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971) 71-113.

57 Helmut Koester, "One Jesus and Four Primitive Gospels," in Trajectories

through Early Christianity, 186.

58 Helmut Koester, "GNOMAI DIAPHOROI: The Origin and Nature of Diversi-

fication in the History of Early Christianity," in Trajectories through Early Christianity,

130.

59 Robert H. Gundry, "Recent Investigations into the Literary Genre 'Gospel,'" in

New Dimensions in New Testament Study, 106.

60 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (3rd ed.; Downers Grove, Illinois:

Inter-Varsity, 1970) 152. See also the important new study by G. Quispel, "The Gospel

of Thomas Revisited," in Colloque international sur les textes de Nag Hammadi, ed. B.

Barc (Quebec: Laval University, 1981) 218-66.

61 Robert Kysar, "The Background of the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel: A

Critique of Historical Methods," CJT 16 (1970) 250-55.

62 Ibid., 252.

 


COMBS: NAG HAMMADI AND NT INTERPRETATION                     211

 

represented by Bultmann, pointed to Gnostic sources behind the

prologue. While Dodd relied heavily on the Hermetica, Bultmann

drew parallels from the Odes of Solomon, neither of which can be

dated earlier than the second century A.D. Kysar has aptly observed:

Both Dodd and Bultmann follow the practice of using later literature

as evidence of a thought-form which, in its earlier expressions, pre-

sumably influenced those responsible for the Prologue. It would seem

that such a principle, if allowed at all, opens innumerable possibilities

for claiming an influence on the New Testament for ideas found only in

post-fIrst-century literature.63

 

Robinson has again come to the rescue of Bultmann by sug-

gesting that a NH tractate, the Trimorphic Protennoia, demonstrates

that the prologue did indeed have a Gnostic background.64 Robinson

attempts to draw thirteen parallels between Protennoia and John's

prologue, but they are not convincing. Furthermore, Turner dates the

Protennoia to around A.D. 200.65 Thus, if there are any parallels

between the two texts, it seems more likely that the prologue of

John's Gospel was the source for Protennoia and not vice versa.66

 

CONCLUSION

 

The thirteen NH codices have significantly impacted the study of

early Christianity. Gnosticism is no longer known only from the

outside, from what opponents of the movement recorded. Now the

Gnostic teachings can be read firsthand in the forty tractates unique

to the NH library. And thus, the growth of Christianity and attendant

heresies are better documented and more clearly understood.

The NH library also provides helpful background to the NT.

Heresies are already being confronted in the NT, and though evidence

is lacking to identify those heresies clearly with the Gnosticism of the

second century, similarities in some of the false teachings are un-

mistakable. However, students of the NT should be careful not to

interpret NT references to concepts such as dualism and docetism,

which later became elements in the doctrine of the second century

Gnostic sects, as evidence of Gnosticism in the first century. It is true

 

63 Ibid., 254.

64 James M. Robinson, "Gnosticism and the New Testament," in Gnosis: Festschrift

fur Hans Jonas, ed. Barbara Aland (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1978)

128-31.

65 John D. Turner, "Introduction to the Trimorphic Protennoia," in The Nag

Hammadi Library in English, 461.

66 Edwin Yamauchi, "Jewish Gnosticism? The Prologue of John, Mandaean

Parallels, and the Trimorphic Protennoia," in Studies in Gnosticism and Hellenistic

Religions, ed. R. van den Broek and M. J. Vermaseren (Leiden: Brill, 1981) 467-97.

 


212               GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

 

that the roots of Gnosticism can be found in the Judaism, Christianity,

and paganism of the first century, but classical Gnosticism has not yet

been documented before the second century.

In this article it has only been possible to touch on several of the

specific areas of NT interpretation where the NH library is now being

appealed to as a source of new light. Since the interpretation of the

library is still in its infancy, students of the NT will undoubtedly be

hearing more about NH in the future. However, an important issue

for NT studies will continue to be the question of pre-Christian

Gnosticism. Now that all the tractates have been published, we can be

assured, as Yamauchi has put it, "that there are no unexploded

bombshells67 Although it is possible that a strong case may yet be

made for non-Christian Gnosticism in some of the texts, non-

Christian is not necessarily pre-Christian. Furthermore, NH has not

produced any Gnostic documents that are prior to or even con-

temporary with the birth of Christianity.

Although Bultmann's hypothesis-that the source of Pauline and

Johannine theology can be found in Gnostic literature-has been

adopted in some reference works, such as the Theological Dictionary

of the New Testament, the evidence is unconvincing. In response to

Bultmann, Guthrie's statement that Gnostic studies have "little value"

for students of NT theology is apropos.68 The distinction, then, is

between background and source. The NH library is useful to the NT

scholar as a background for the growing problem in the church with

heresy, but Gnosticism was not the source for the teachings of the

NT.

 

67 Yamauchi, "Pre-Christian Gnosticism in the Nag Hammadi Texts?" 130.

Yamauchi has not changed his mind since that statement was made in 1979. See his

"Pre-Christian Gnosticism, the New Testament and Nag Hammadi in Recent Debate,"

Themelios 10 (1984) 22-27.

68 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-

Varsity, 1981) 68.

 

 

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