What is the nature of reality? Why does the world contain so much pain and suffering, and is there any escape? How do we transcend the human condition and connect with whatever lies beyond? All religions have their own answers to these questions, but in the first few centuries A.D., Egypt was the center of a unique new blend of philosophy and mythology that attempted to provide answers to these age-old questions through a mixture of Judaism, paganism, and the new sect of Christianity. These “Gnostics” held a variety of beliefs and played an important role in shaping the future of the Christian church—and if not for a farmer in rural Egypt, we might know almost nothing about them.
Nag Hammadi today is a town in Upper Egypt of less than 50,000 people. In 1945, when the Nag Hammadi Library was discovered, it was even smaller. Two farmers digging for fertilizer came across a collection of papyrus scrolls written in the Coptic language, the language used before Arabic among the Egyptian people. Unable to read Coptic, the farmers gave the scrolls to a Coptic priest, who ultimately gave them to the Coptic Museum in Cairo. As scholars began to study the Nag Hammadi Library, they realized that its contents were valuable indeed: the scrolls in the Library are some of the only direct examples we have of Gnostic writings and interpretations of the Bible.
But why, exactly, was that important? Who were the Gnostics and how did they differ from other early Christian groups?
Who Were the Gnostics?
The term “Gnosticism” is a bit misleading, since it describes many different groups with many different ideas. Nonetheless, most Gnostics shared at least a few concepts. They believed in one god, the Monad, from Whom emanated beings called Aeons, which were a little like angels but also represented concepts such as faith and truth. The Aeon Sophia (“Wisdom”), wanted to reestablish contact with the Monad, but failed, instead creating the Demiurge, an evil, false god who created our world and seven demonic Archons to rule it. Thus, to the Gnostics, material reality was evil, because it came from the Demiurge.
But there was still hope for humanity in the Gnostic system. Each person was believed to have a divine spark—a piece of the Monad—within them. This could be freed through mystical knowledge, or gnosis. One of the most radical of the Gnostic beliefs was that Jesus did not have an actual, physical body, and brought salvation to Christians not because he died to atone for their sins, but because he possessed gnosis. Needless to say, the growing Catholic Church, which was rapidly consolidating power over the young religion, was horrified to find beliefs like those of the Gnostics becoming popular, and most Gnostic groups were stamped out early in the Common Era. Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, nearly all the information scholars had about Gnosticism was from Catholic criticism of Gnostic beliefs.
A Written Treasure Trove
Much of the above information would not have been known if it wasn’t for the Nag Hammadi Library, and one of the most striking finds in the entire collection is a set of gospels unrecognized by the Church. One of the great debates of early Christianity was which books of the Bible would be accepted as “canonical” (true) and which would be rejected as “apocryphal” (false). Many theologians advocated very different contents for the New Testament, with some of these alternate gospels appearing in the Nag Hammadi Library.
The Apocryphon of John, for instance, lays out the basics of Gnostic belief in the Monad and Demiurge in a conversation between Jesus and one of his followers. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of cryptic Gnostic sayings intended to impart lessons to believers. The Gospel of Philip also contains these sorts of sayings, but includes stories as well, including the controversial implication that Jesus was married to his follower Mary Magdalene, though the text never states as much plainly. The Holy Book of the Great and Invisible Spirit, also referred to as The Gospel of the Egyptians, blends themes from the Old Testament and Egyptian mythology. The Hypostasis of the Archons discusses the Archons, the Demiurge, and Gnostic ideas of creation in greater detail.
The Church vigorously clamped down on Gnostic ideas, with theologians such as St. Irenaeus (~130-202 A.D.) devoting much of their careers to the denunciation of Gnostic beliefs. By the third century AD, Gnosticism had largely died out as the Church increasingly defined orthodox Christian practice. Largely, but not completely. The Manichaeans, founded by the Persian religious leader Mani, combined Gnostic ideas about sparks of divinity in human beings with a concept of stark good and evil inspired by Zoroastrianism. an ancient Persian religion with a duotheistic vision of the cosmos. The medieval French Cathars, wiped out by the Albigensian Crusade in the 1300s, believed Satan was a Demiurge-like figure who created the sinful, material world.
While the early Gnostics, Cathars, and Manichaeans no longer exist, the Mandaean community of Iraq still maintains Gnostic traditions. Originating with other Gnostic groups in the first centuries AD, the Mandaeans were recognized as People of the Book (monotheistic worshipers of the Abrahamic God) by the Muslims and are mentioned in the Qu’ran as Sabians. Believing John the Baptist to be the most important prophet, the Mandaeans hold that our world was created by another World of Darkness, but a World of Light also had influences, so that while human bodies are the products of darkness, human souls can ultimately return to the World of Light.
While the Iraq War scattered the Mandaeans, creating a diaspora around the world, about 70,000 of people still identify as followers of Mandaeism—heirs to a very ancient philosophy indeed.