The year 1945 witnessed an amazing discovery at Nag Hammadi, about 300 miles south of Cairo in the Nile River region of Egypt. In the month of December, an Arab peasant accidently discovered 13 papyrus codices bound in leather. Though remaining obscure for years due to several bizarre occurrences, including murder, black market sales and the destruction of some of the findings, along with the normal amount of secrecy, 52 separate writings from those codices still exist today. Known as the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts, these writings have grown increasingly important, especially since the appearance of the first English translation of the entire set of texts in 1977.^1
There is general agreement that these Coptic translations are to be dated from about AD 350–400, based on the type of script and papyrus utilized. However, this is almost where the scholarly consensus on important conclusions ends. For example, it is also realized that the originals of these texts are to be dated much earlier, but how much so is a matter of sharp dispute. Further, some scholars assert that the Nag Hammadi texts contain almost nothing of significance for New Testament studies, while others think that the relevance is nothing short of colossal.
In this chapter, it will be necessary to be selective in the subtopics that will be addressed. Accordingly, we will state and evaluate several of the stronger claims on behalf of these Gnostic texts, since these are the ones that purport to most directly affect New Testament teachings about Jesus. Although there are many other areas we could investigate,^2 our criteria for discussion will be to center on assertions which challenge the orthodox understanding of the historicity of Jesus.
Challenges from the Gnostic Texts
One of the favorite theses advanced by some of those who make claims on behalf of the authority of the Gnostic texts is that, in some sense, these writings should be viewed on an equal footing with the canonical New Testament books. Perhaps the classical modern expression of such a contention was promoted by Walter Baur in his 1934 volume, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.^3
Baur argued that second century Christendom witnessed a wide variety of theological viewpoints. Gnosticism existed in this milieu as an alternative to what was later recognized as the orthodox position. In fact, in some areas, Gnostic tendencies may have been the chief expressions of Christianity. However, out of this multiplicity, orthodoxy still emerged, but not necessarily because it was the original position of Jesus and his disciples.^4
1 James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library. ^2 2 Nonetheless, a number of these areas will be noted as we proceed. ^3 3 This work was originally published in German. An English translation, ed. by Robert
Kraft and Gerhard Krodel, was issued by Fortress Press (Philadelphia) in 1971. ^4 4 Ibid., p. xxii, for example.
Such a theme reappears, in one form or another, in current discussions of this subject, as well. Frederik Wisse is one of the most recent scholars to revive a contention quite similar to Baur’s. He also insists that orthodoxy surfaced from the second century amalgam of views by asserting itself over the other positions involved in the conflict.^5