NAG HAMMADI CODICES


NAG HAMMADI CODICES, a collection of Coptic papyrus manuscripts discovered in 1945 in the Egyptian desert near the base of the Gebel et-Tarif in the vicinity of Nag Hammadi. The manuscripts, 13 in all, date from the fourth century and comprise a "library" of 52 tractates (not all of which are fully preserved). Presumably all of these writings are translations from Greek originals. Most, but not all, of the documents are gnostic in character, and therefore shed considerable light on the history and character of the gnostic religion of late antiquity, since before the discovery of this library of original texts, most of our knowledge of Gnosticism was dependent upon the writings of opponents, especially the Church Fathers.

These documents contain massive evidence concerning the Jewish elements in the development of Gnosticism, and refute once and for all the old opinion that Gnosticism originated as a Christian heresy. What follows is but a small sampling of this literature.

The Apocalypse of Adam (Codex V, tractate 5) is especially important, since it appears to be devoid of Christian influences, and it, or perhaps rather its Grundschrift, may even be a pre-Christian work. The incipit indicates at once the literary genre of the work: "The relevation which Adam taught his son Seth in the seven-hundredth year, saying …" The document is in direct continuity with the pseudepigraphic Adam literature of the Second Temple period (e.g., the Book of the Life of *Adam and Eve) and with well-known legends concerning Adam and Seth (cf., Jos., Ant. 1:67–71). In form it is an example of the "testament" literature (cf. e.g., the Testaments of the Twelve *Patriarchs and Gen. 49), Adam in this document giving his dying speech to his son Seth. (The "seven-hundredth year" is reckoned from Seth's birth, and according to the chronology of Gen. 5:3, the Septuagint, Pseudo-Philo, Liber Anti-quitatum Biblicarum 1:2, and Jos., Ant. 1:68, is the year of Adam's death.) Adam's speech deals with the experience of himself and Eve after creation, alluding to the Genesis accounts and to well-known Jewish aggadot (e.g., the "glory" of Adam before his fall). But the thrust is typically gnostic. The Creator, called "Saclas" (Aramaic for "fool"), holds Adamic man in fear and bondage. A revelation from the higher realm is necessary to effect salvation for gnostic man, the "Sethians." Adam recounts to Seth and his seed a revelation he has received from three angelic figures (cf. Gen. 18:2) prophesying the coming destruction by flood, by fire (cf. Sodom and Gomorrah), and the end of the world. The coming of a savior-figure, the "Illuminator," is also prophesied, in terms reminiscent of Iranian traditions, but also of Jewish messianic traditions. The Jewish elements in the Apocalypse of Adam are central, yet mutated in a heretical direction.

This is the case, too, with very many of the other Nag Hammadi documents. An "Ophite" version of the Paradise story is recounted in On the Origin of the World (II, 5), The Hypostasis of the Archons (II, 4), and, probably in its earliest form, in a Midrash imbedded in The Testimony of Truth (IX, 3), wherein the serpent and Eve are the revealers of knowledge, and the Creator is an envious villain. In addition to the Genesis story itself, aggadic traditions known from the Jewish Midrashim, including Aramaic word-plays ("serpent" חויא / "Eve" חוה / "instruct" חוא, cf. Gen. R. 20:27) are utilized in the text, but are, of course, retold in a gnostic, heretical direction.

The Apocryphon of John (II, 1; III, 1; IV, 1) is a document which is attributed, in an obviously secondary redactional framework, to *Jesus as a revelation to his disciple John. However, the basic revelation consists of a cosmogonic myth, with a Midrash on the first six chapters of Genesis, in which the figure of Jesus is altogether extraneous. At least a part of this myth was known also to Irenaeus (Adversus haereses 1:29). The myth contains speculations concerning the Highest God and the divine world (ma'aseh merkabah) and on the creation of the cosmos (ma'aseh bereshit). Speculation in, and study of, both these subjects was severely limited if not actually condemned by the rabbis of the tannaitic period (cf. Hag. 2:1 and see *Merkabah Mysticism). In accordance with a trend in post-biblical Jewish theology (cf. Jos., Apion, 2.167: "uncreated … immutable … unknowable"), the Highest God is described in negative terms which stress his utter transcendence. From him emanate other divine beings, including four angelic "light-bearers" that serve as attendants (cf. the four ḥayyot of Ezek. 1:5). However, what marks this document as heretical is that the Transcendent God is not also the Creator. Creation results from the "fall" of Sophia ("Wisdom," cf. the role of ḥokhmah in Prov. 8:22ff.; and sophia in Wisd. 7:22ff.), whose product is Ialdabaoth (also called "Saklas" and "Samael"). "Ialdabaoth" is the biblical Creator, and he, together with his fellow "archons," creates the world and the corporeal part of man. In his "ignorance" he claims to be the only God (he quotes Ex. 20:5 and Isa. 45:5). This myth is found not only in the Apocryphon of John, but in numerous other gnostic writings as well.

The creation of man in the Apocryphon of John is not only a retelling of the Genesis story, but is based on Jewish traditions of interpretation of key biblical texts. For example, the account of the fashioning of man's lower nature by Ialdabaoth and his fellow-archons is based on the Alexandrian-Jewish interpretation of Genesis 1:26f. and 2:7, that God relegated the creation of man's mortal nature to the angels (cf. Fug. 68–70: Justin, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 62). The duality of man's soul, i.e., a lower psyche and a higher pneuma ("spirit"), is based on the Hellenistic Jewish (probably Alexandrian) interpretation of the Septuagint of Genesis 2:7 (cf. Spec. 4.123; Det. 84). The detail that Adam was inert and lifeless until he received the heavenly "inbreathing" is developed from the Palestinian interpretation of Genesis 2:7 that depicts Adam as a *golem (cf. Gen. R. 8:1; 14:8; Sanh. 38b).

An interesting example of continuity between the *Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi documents is the tractate Melchizedek (IX, 1), wherein the figure of *Melchizedek is presented as a redeemer-holy-war figure, just as in the fragmentary scroll discovered in cave 11 at Qumran (11 Q Melch.). Other features of Melchizedek's role as presented in the Nag Hammadi tractate are reminiscent of Jewish traditions found in the Enoch literature, esp. 2 (Slavonic) Enoch.

Study of the Nag Hammadi documents provides a clearer picture of some of the gnostic groups described by the Church Fathers, especially the Valentinians and the so-called "Sethians." The following Nag Hammadi tractates are related to the Sethian form of Gnosticism: The Apocryphon of John (II, 1; III, 1; IV, 1), The Hypostasis of the Archons (II, 4), The Gospel of the Egyptians (III, 2; IV, 2), The Apocalypse of Adam (V, 5), The Three Steles of Seth (VII, 5), Zostrianos (VIII, 1), Melchizedek (IX, 1), The Thought of Norea (IX, 2), Marsanes (X, 1), Allogenes (XI, 3), and The Trimorphic Protennoia (XIII, 1). While some of these documents (but not all) are Christian in their present form, it is now clear that Sethian Gnosticism, in its earliest stages, developed independently of, and possibly even prior to, Christianity. The Jewish components of Sethian Gnosticism are central and constitutive.

In short, a wide variety of Jewish traditions may be found in the Nag Hammadi documents, biblical and extra-biblical, "main-line" and "sectarian," from Palestine and from the Diaspora, to the extent that the Jewish element in Gnosticism must be seen as primary and not secondary. Paradoxically, the hermeneutical thrust in the use of these materials is outspokenly heretical, even "anti-Jewish." These documents, therefore, present an exceedingly interesting area of study for scholars working in the fields of religious history, sociology, and psychology.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

J.M. Robinson et al. (ed.), The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices (11 vols., 1972–79); idem (ed.), The Nag Hammadi Library in English (1977); idem (ed.), The Coptic Gnostic Library (Coptic-English critical edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, 11 vols., 1974– ); J.É. Ménard (Éditeur-en-chef), Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi, Section "Textes" (Coptic-French critical edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, 1977– ); K. Rudolph, Die Gnosis: Wesen und Geschichte einer spätantiken Religion (1977); B. Pearson, "Jewish Haggadic Traditions in The Testimony of Truth from Nag Hammadi (CG IX, 3)," in: J. Bergman et al. (ed.), Ex Orbe Religionum: Studia Geo Widengren (1972), 457–470; ibid., "Biblical Exegesis in Gnostic Literature," in: M. Stone (ed.), Armenian and Biblical Studies (1976), 70–80; ibid., "The Figure of Seth in Gnostic Literature," in: B. Layton (ed.), The Rediscovery of Gnosticism (1979); H.-M. Schenke, "Das Sethianische System nach Nag Hammadi-Handschriften," in: P. Nagel (ed.), Studia Coptica (1974), 165–172; D. Scholer, Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1948–1969 (1971), supplemented annually in Novum Testamentum: E. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (1979).

[Birger A. Pearson]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.