This collection of texts gives a fascinating view of early Christian texts and views, particularly in light of the fact that these were not the writings that made it into the mainstream of church and biblical canonical development, but rather were influential in an underground, almost subversive way, in much of ancient and oriental Christianity -- were it not for the existence of texts such as these, indeed, we would not have the canon of the Bible which we have today (the political motivations behind deciding which books belonged in the Bible and which books didn't owe largely to texts such as those in the Nag Hammadi Library).
'This volume...marks the end of one stage of Nag Hammadi scholarship and the beginning of another. The first stage was concerned with making this library of texts available; the second stage has been characterised by the discussion and interpretation of the texts.'
This book represents an advance in both translation and analysis; this is part of the canon of the Gnostic sect, which saw more orthodox Christianity (from which Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies derive) as the ones who were heretical.
'The Nag Hammadi library also documents the fact that the rejection was mutual, in that Christians described there as 'heretical' seem to be more like what is usually thought of as 'orthodox'.'
Gnosticism was ultimately eliminated from mainstream Christianity, save the occasional resurgence of underground and spiritual movements. Of course, Gnosticism was not an exclusively Christian-oriented phenomenon: many of the texts refer to Hebrew Scriptures only, and the question of Jewish Gnosticism is discussed by Robinson.
The Dead Sea Scrolls (of which these texts are NOT a part, despite the fact that they often get cited and analysed as part of that body of documents) shed light on the pluralistic nature of first century Judaism; the idea that there was a sect primarily of Jewish gnostics which had little or no knowledge or regard of Christianity (still at this point one sect of many, particularly in cosmopolitan centres such as Alexandria) is not a strange one.
The Nag Hammadi library consists of twelve books, plus eight leaves of a thirteenth book. There are a total of fifty-two tracts. These are now kept in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and, as the name suggests, are written in Coptic, although it is clear that the texts are Coptic translations of earlier Greek works. Coptic is the Egyptian language written with the Greek alphabet; there are different dialects of Coptic, and the Nag Hammadi library shows at least two. They were found in codex form (book form rather than scroll form). They were discovered in the mid 1940s, just a few years prior to the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls (another reason for the combination of the texts in the public imagination).
Included in these texts are The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Mary and other gospel contenders (alas, in fragmentary form--the translation in this volume however is the complete Nag Hammadi text). The Gospel of Thomas has perhaps been the highest profile text from Nag Hammadi; it has been translated and commented upon extensively, particularly in modern scholarship which discusses gospel development.
'Whoever find the interpretation of these sayings will not experience death.'
This gospel does not correspond to the narrative form with which modern readers are familiar; it is a collection of sayings (one modern scholar argues that the victory of the four canonical gospels was a victory of style, rather than substance).
This gospel also helps illuminate some of the early struggles in church formation (why exactly did it go from a house-based, relatively gender-neutral organisation to a male-exclusive-hierarchical model?).
Simon Peter said to them, 'Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.' Jesus said, 'I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.'
Other writings include various Acts of apostles, pieces of wisdom literature, parables and stories, most of which have some basis in Hebrew scripture or Christian scripture traditions.
The afterword, by Richard Smith, traces the idea of gnosticism through medieval and renaissance writers, through the enlightenment up to the modern day, in philosophy, theology, culture and the arts. From Blake to Gibbons to Melville to modern motion pictures, Gnostic ideas permeate many works, even before the Nag Hammadi library was available for study and contemplation.
'A quite self-conscious incorporation of Nag Hammadi texts into a science fiction novel appeared in Harold Bloom's 1979 novel The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy. In it the reincarnated Valentinus and his companions fly to a planet called Lucifer. Quoting our gnostic texts, the heroes wage a violent battle against Saklas, the Demiurge who is worshipped in his 'Saklaseum'. Bloom, more successful as an interpreter of literature, later confessed that The Flight to Lucifer reads as though Walter Pater were writing Star Wars. But, then, so does much ancient gnostic writing.'
This is a wonderful collection, a truly fascinating view of texts that shared the religious stage with the proto-canonical Biblical texts. It gives insight into the varieties of early Christianity and Judaism. And it makes for interesting reading.