The Gnostic Gospels were discovered by peasants in 1945 near the town of Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt. The texts, written on papyrus and bound in leather, consisted of 13 separate books, known as codices. Scientific analysis of the writings indicated that they had originated around 350-400 C.E., but scholars concluded that they were copies of even earlier texts written in the first and second centuries after Christ. The texts were virtually all that remained of a body of early Christian writings from a religious movement known as Gnosticism. The texts and the movement of Gnosticism serve as good examples of the power of the written word and its influence in impacting religious ideas, practices, and understandings.
Gnosticism was one of many religious philosophies rooted in the newly formed Christian tradition that competed for respectability during the tumultuous early years of the Christian Church. When it emerged as a serious rival to orthodox Christianity, it was attacked as heretical, its texts were destroyed, and its teachers and adherents were denounced and even murdered. In Greek, gnostic means knowing. Gnostic Christians took the name because they claimed to know God in a unique, intimate, and much deeper way than ordinary Christians. Gnostic churches had little formal structure, and the only qualification for membership was an assertion of direct, personal experience of the divine. In many Gnostic groups, men and women were equally eligible for leadership positions.
By contrast, the emerging orthodox Christian church organized itself around professional, all-male clergy who gained their authority through traceable, if increasingly distant, links to the apostles who had known Jesus. The Orthodox Church was hierarchical, and its members relied on the clergy for interpretations of scripture. Unlike the Gnostic groups, which held a multiplicity of sometimes conflicting beliefs, the Orthodox Church developed an authoritative written canon that established church doctrine and provided historical support for the church's claim of sole religious authority.
The codices discovered at Nag Hammadi contained 52 separate texts, many of them written in obscure and mystical language. Some of them claim to be "secret" writings based on first-hand knowledge not available to other Christians. Many of the writings offered alternative versions of stories familiar in the Bible, and some criticized foundational Christian beliefs such as the virgin birth and the literal resurrection of Christ. Some Gnostics described the Creator as female or as a dyad consisting of feminine and masculine elements. This juxtaposition of opposing parts is found throughout Gnostic thought and reflects the classic Gnostic view that the physical world was inherently evil while the spiritual one was inherently good. This dualistic philosophy was most forcefully articulated by the second century poet Valentinus, the most influential of the Gnostic teachers.
Perhaps the best known of the Gnostic texts is the Gospel of Thomas, purported to be a collection of Jesus' sayings. This book, thought to be as old as or even older than the four gospels that appear in the New Testament, presents Jesus as a spiritual teacher who, instead of preaching God's superiority over humans, preached humans' capacity for equality with God. "He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am," reads one quote attributed to Jesus. "I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him." The notion that ordinary people were somehow themselves divine-or at least, with the enlightenment offered by Jesus, could become so-outraged orthodox Christian leaders, who countered with frequent, angry polemics charging the Gnostics with blasphemy. Scholars believe that the Orthodox Church was so consumed by its struggle against the Gnostics that its very structure and doctrines were affected by it. They point, for example, to New Testament texts such as Saint Paul's supposed letters to Timothy, which were actually written by orthodox leaders in Paul's name to discredit Gnostic ideas.
Other well-known Gnostic texts include the Gospel of Philip, the Book of James, the Secret Book of John, and the Gospel of Truth. All the texts discovered in Egypt have been translated from Coptic, and the entire collection of writings, known collectively as the Nag Hammadi Library, is now widely available. Though the Gnostic movement was effectively dead by the fifth century, the discovery of the ancient texts has rekindled contemporary interest in Gnosticism and prompted new debates about the origins of Christianity.