ELAINE PAGE, author
on the GOSPEL OF THOMAS
AND THE NAJ HAMMADI FIND
In December 1945 an Arab peasant made an astonishing archeological
discovery in Upper Egypt. Rumors obscured the circumstances of this find--perhaps because the discovery was accidental, and
its sale on the black market illegal. For years even the identity of the discoverer remained unknown. One rumor held that
he was a blood avenger; another, that he had made the find near the town of Naj 'Hammádě at the Jabal al-Tárif, a mountain
honeycombed with more than 150 caves. Originally natural, some of these caves were cut and painted and used as grave
sites as early as the sixth dynasty, some 4,300 years ago.
Thirty years later the discoverer himself, Muhammad 'Alí al-Sammán; told what
happened. Shortly before he and his brothers avenged their father's murder in a blood feud, they had saddled their camels
and gone out to the Jabal to dig for sabakh, a soft soil they used to fertilize their crops. Digging around a massive
boulder, they hit a red earthenware jar, almost a meter high. Muhammad 'Alí hesitated to break the jar, considering that a
jinn, or spirit, might live inside. But realizing that it might also contain gold, he raised his mattock, smashed the
jar, and discovered inside thirteen papyrus books, bound in leather. Returning to his home in al-Qasr, Muhammad 'All dumped
the books and loose papyrus leaves on the straw piled on the ground next to the oven. Muhammad's mother, 'Umm-Ahmad, admits
that she burned much of the papyrus in the oven along with the straw she used to kindle the fire.
A few weeks later, as Muhammad 'Alí tells it, he and his brothers avenged
their father's death by murdering Ahmed Isma'il. Their mother had warned her sons to keep their mattocks sharp: when they
learned that their father's enemy was nearby, the brothers seized the opportunity, "hacked off his limbs . . . ripped out
his heart, and devoured it among them, as the ultimate act of blood revenge."
Fearing that the police investigating the murder would search his house and
discover the books, Muhammad 'Alí asked the priest, al-Qummus Basiliyus Abd al-Masih, to keep one or more for him. During
the time that Muhammad 'Alí and his brothers were being interrogated for murder, Raghib, a local history teacher, had seen
one of the books, and suspected that it had value. Having received one from al-Qummus Basiliyus, Raghib sent it to a friend
in Cairo to find out its worth.
Sold on the black market through antiquities dealers in Cairo, the manuscripts
soon attracted the attention of officials of the Egyptian government. Through circumstances of high drama, as we shall see,
they bought one and confiscated ten and a half of the thirteen leather-bound books, called codices, and deposited them in
the Coptic Museum in Cairo. But a large part of the thirteenth codex, containing five extraordinary texts, was smuggled out
of Egypt and offered for sale in America. Word of this codex soon reached Professor Gilles Quispel, distinguished historian
of religion at Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Excited by the discovery, Quispel urged the Jung Foundation in Zurich to buy the
codex. But discovering, when he succeeded, that some pages were missing, he flew to Egypt in the spring of 1955 to try to
find them in the Coptic Museum. Arriving in Cairo, he went at once to the Coptic Museum, borrowed photographs of some of the
texts, and hurried back to his hotel to decipher them. Tracing out the first line, Quispel was startled, then incredulous,
to read: "These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down." Quispel
knew that his colleague H.C. Puech, using notes from another French scholar, Jean Doresse, had identified the opening lines
with fragments of a Greek Gospel of Thomas discovered in the 1890's. But the discovery of the whole text raised new
questions: Did Jesus have a twin brother, as this text implies? Could the text be an authentic record of Jesus' sayings? According
to its title, it contained the Gospel According to Thomas; yet, unlike the gospels of the New Testament, this text
identified itself as a secret gospel. Quispel also discovered that it contained many sayings known from the New Testament;
but these sayings, placed in unfamiliar contexts, suggested other dimensions of meaning. Other passages, Quispel found, differed
entirely from any known Christian tradition: the "living Jesus," for example, speaks in sayings as cryptic and compelling
as Zen koans:
Jesus said, "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will
save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
What Quispel held in his hand, the Gospel of Thomas, was only one of
the fifty-two texts discovered at Nag Hammadi (the usual English transliteration of the town's name). Bound into the same
volume with it is the Gospel of Philip, which attributes to Jesus acts and sayings quite different from those in the
. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved]
her more than [all] the disciples, and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disciples were offended]
. . . They said to him, "Why do you love her more than all of us?" The Savior answered and said to them, "Why do I not love
you as (I love) her?"
Other sayings in this collection criticize common Christian beliefs, such
as the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection, as naďve misunderstandings. Bound together with these gospels is the Apocryphon
(literally, "secret book") of John, which opens with an offer to reveal "the mysteries [and the] things hidden
in silence" which Jesus taught to his disciple John.
Muhammad 'Alí later admitted that some of the texts were lost--burned up or
thrown away. But what remains is astonishing: some fifty-two texts from the early centuries of the Christian era--including
a collection of early Christian gospels, previously unknown. Besides the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip,
the find included the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel to the Egyptians, which identifies itself as "the [sacred
book] of the Great Invisible [Spirit]." Another group of texts consists of writings attributed to Jesus' followers, such as
the Secret Book of James, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse
What Muhammad 'Alí discovered at Nag Hammadi, it soon became clear, were Coptic
translations, made about 1,500 years ago, of still more ancient manuscripts. The originals themselves had been written in
Greek, the language of the New Testament: as Doresse, Puech, and Quispel had recognized, part of one of them had been discovered
by archeologists about fifty years earlier, when they found a few fragments of the original Greek version of the Gospel
About the dating of the manuscripts themselves there is little debate. Examination
of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings, and of the Coptic script, place them c. A.D. 350-400. But scholars
sharply disagree about the dating of the original texts. Some of them can hardly be later than c. A.D. 120-150, since
Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyons, writing C. 180, declares that heretics "boast that they possess more gospels than
there really are,'' and complains that in his time such writings already have won wide circulation--from Gaul through Rome,
Greece, and Asia Minor.
Quispel and his collaborators, who first published the Gospel of Thomas,
suggested the date of c. A.D. 140 for the original. Some reasoned that since these gospels were heretical, they must have
been written later than the gospels of the New Testament, which are dated c. 60-l l0. But recently Professor Helmut Koester
of Harvard University has suggested that the collection of sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, although compiled c. 140,
may include some traditions even older than the gospels of the New Testament, "possibly as early as the second half
of the first century" (50-100)--as early as, or earlier, than Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
Scholars investigating the Nag Hammadi find discovered that some of the texts
tell the origin of the human race in terms very different from the usual reading of Genesis: the Testimony of Truth, for
example, tells the story of the Garden of Eden from the viewpoint of the serpent! Here the serpent, long known to appear in
Gnostic literature as the principle of divine wisdom, convinces Adam and Eve to partake of knowledge while "the Lord" threatens
them with death, trying jealously to prevent them from attaining knowledge, and expelling them from Paradise when they achieve
it. Another text, mysteriously entitled The Thunder, Perfect Mind, offers an extraordinary poem spoken in the voice
of a feminine divine power:
For I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one.
the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin....
I am the barren one, and many are her sons....
am the silence that is incomprehensible....
I am the utterance of my name.
These diverse texts range, then, from secret gospels, poems, and quasi-philosophic
descriptions of the origin of the universe, to myths, magic, and instructions for mystical practice. [There is a continuity between these and the other Gnostic texts of that period with many of the sacred
works of the Hebrews as preserved by the Essenes. This is the principle reason
that I argue that the Gnostics were the first Christians: http://jeromekahn123.tripod.com/newtestament/id4.html .] . . . .
Numerous gospels circulated among various Christian groups, ranging from those
of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to such writings as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip,
and the Gospel of Truth, as well as many other secret teachings, myths, and poems attributed to Jesus or his disciples.
Some of these, apparently, were discovered at Nag Hammadi; many others are lost to us. Those who identified themselves as
Christians entertained many--and radically differing-religious beliefs and practices. And the communities scattered throughout
the known world organized themselves in ways that differed widely from one group to another.
Yet by A. D. 200, the situation had changed. Christianity had become an institution
headed by a three-rank hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons, who understood themselves to be the guardians of the only
"true faith." The majority of churches, among which the church of Rome took a leading role, rejected all other viewpoints
as heresy. Deploring the diversity of the earlier movement, Bishop Irenaeus and his followers insisted that there could be
only one church, and outside of that church, he declared, "there is no salvation." Members of this church alone are orthodox
(literally, "straight-thinking") Christians. And, he claimed, this church must be catholic-- that is, universal. Whoever
challenged that consensus, arguing instead for other forms of Christian teaching, was declared to be a heretic, and expelled.
When the orthodox gained military support, sometime after the Emperor Constantine became Christian in the fourth century,
the penalty for heresy escalated.
From The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. Published by Vintage Books.
Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights reserved. Abridged by JK.