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The Nag Hammadi Library by James Robinson
The Nag Hammadi Library is the collection of documents that has been the cause of great controversy since being discovered in the 1940s. The body of documents is as important to the Historical roots of Christianity as the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It has been influential all the way to the modern century having inspired not only scholars, but also artists and musicians from around the world. Most notably, Current 93 and Nurse with Wound, who recorded Sister albums around the most important poetic piece of the works "Thunder Perfect Mind". Also the author Phillip K. Dick wrote his master piece "Valis"., around the belief that he was channelling a new Exegesis of thought and human history. In fact Dick dd not live to see he Nag Hammadi made available to the general public, and the detailed understanding he demonstrated in this book is uncanny, if not able to make the most true skeptic ponder the what ifs of Phillip's claims. Also notable is the 1979 novel by Harold Bloom, 'The Flight of Of Lucifer : A Gnostic Fantasy.' In any event, the Nag Hammadi has given great understanding to a period of human history that has had much shadow cast over it. And also gave a much more elaborate insight into the proto-Christian movement known as Gnosticism.
But today their importance has become astoundingly clear: These thirteen papyrus codices containing fifty-two sacred texts are representatives of the long lost "Gnostic Gospels", a last extant testament of what orthodox Christianity perceived to be its most dangerous and insidious challenge, the feared opponent that the Church Fathers had reviled under many different names, but most commonly as Gnosticism. 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.
“Gnosis” and “Gnosticism” are still rather arcane terms, though in the last two decades they have been increasingly encountered in the vocabulary of contemporary society. The word Gnosis derives from Greek and connotes "knowledge" or the "act of knowing". On first hearing, it is sometimes confused with another more common term of the same root but opposite sense: agnostic, literally "not knowing”. The Greek language differentiates between rational, propositional knowledge, and a distinct form of knowing obtained by experience or perception. It is this latter knowledge gained from interior comprehension and personal experience that constitutes gnosis."
In the first century of the Christian era the term “Gnostic” came to denote a heterodox segment of the diverse new Christian community. Among early followers of Christ it appears there were groups who delineated themselves from the greater household of the Church by claiming not simply a belief in Christ and his message, but a "special witness" or revelatory experience of the divine. It was this experience or gnosis that set the true follower of Christ apart, so they asserted. Stephan Hoeller explains that these Christians held a "conviction that direct, personal and absolute knowledge of the authentic truths of existence is accessible to human beings, and, moreover, that the attainment of such knowledge must always constitute the supreme achievement of human life."
It was on a December day in the year of 1945, near the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, that the course of Gnostic studies was radically renewed and forever changed. An Arab peasant, digging around a boulder in search of fertilizer for his fields, happened upon an old, rather large red earthenware jar. Hoping to have found a buried treasure, and with due hesitation and apprehension about the jinn who might attend such a hoard, he smashed the jar open. Inside he discovered no treasure and no genie, but instead books: more than a dozen old codices bound in golden brown leather.6 Little did he realize that he had found an extraordinary collection of ancient texts, manuscripts hidden a millennium and a half before -- probably by monks from the nearby monastery of St. Pachomius seeking to preserve them from a destruction ordered by the church as part of its violent expunging of heterodoxy and heresy.
How the Nag Hammadi manuscripts eventually passed into scholarly hands is a fascinating story too lengthy to relate here.The discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts has fundamentally revised our understanding of both Gnosticism and the early Christian church.
There are many reasons to recommend this book to anyone with an interest in a myriad of esoteric Christian and non-chrisitan concepts, let alone the translation is one of the most professionally careful ever having been done in the realm of Western theology. Well worth the energy your mind may have to expend on it. I was blown away.