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.