Grace Theological Journal 8.2 (1987) 195-212
Copyright © 1987 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
NAG HAMMADI, GNOSTICISM
AND NEW TESTAMENT
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
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.
* * *
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
The NH codices were discovered in 1945, a year before the
comparatively little attention from conservative scholars. Unfortu-
nately, political problems and personal rivalries have caused numerous
196 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
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 (
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 [
Testamentum (1971-). Over 3,000 additional items have been listed by Scholer since
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,
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
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
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.
of Codex I was taken out of
dealer. It was unsuccessfully offered for sale in
Arbor in 1949. Finally, in May 1952 it was purchased by the Jung
had found its way to the
to publish the entire codex (six volumes from 1956 to 1975), the
Coptic Museum.7 Today the entire NH library is in the Museum.
The first scholar to examine the codices was a young Frenchman,
Doresse, who had come to
monasteries.8 Because his wife had
been a student in
the Director of the
see the codices and in January of 1948 announced their discovery to
the world. The death of Mina and subsequent political upheavals in
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
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-
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.
198 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
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.
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
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 (
11 James M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi
Codices (2nd ed.;
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)
12 Robinson, Nag Hammadi Codices, 4.
13 Edwin M. Yamauchi, Pre-Christian Gnosticism (2nd ed.;
Eerdmans, 1983) 101-2.
COMBS: NAG HAMMADI AND NT INTERPRETATION 199
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
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
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.
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
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
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).
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
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.
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-
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
ed. Barbara Aland (
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.
Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983).
38 R. McL.
9. See also his presidential address to the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas in
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
For the sake of clarity it is essential to follow the distinctions
between Gnosis and Gnosticism suggested by
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
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
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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-
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
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 ). 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,
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.;
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
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
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)
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
bombshells.67 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
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 (
Varsity, 1981) 68.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: email@example.com