Want to create some excitement in the middle of a gaggle of scholars of ancient history? Just throw some newly discovered ancient text in their midst and sit back to watch the fun. This scenario has been (metaphorically) repeated many times in the last century and a half. New texts come to light and revolutionize what we know of ancient religions. The Nag Hammadi library represents one such flair up of excitement and intrigue. Discovered in 1945, this cache of mostly Gnostic texts has forced a new paradigm upon early Christianity. It has become clear that several flavors of early Christianity existed side-by-side until one group, claiming divine support, became the “true Christianity” (orthodox) while the others were just plain wrong. The Gnostic field of study received a shot in the arm with the publicity fair surrounding the Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic text not found at Nag Hammadi, early in the new millennium.
Discovery can be a dangerous luxury. When new evidence surfaces it can’t be ignored. When the religions of the ancient world reached their imperial stages it had already become too late to admit that mistakes may have had been made way back in ancient times. You can’t conquer a country and then just take it back. We now know that it is far more appropriate to refer to Early Christianities and Early Judaisms than to utilize their singular (if more prevalent) forms.
Nag Hammadi, a mid-size town in Egypt, has been back in the news since Coptic Christmas (just a couple of days ago) saw the death of six Copts when a Muslim extremist gunned them down on their way out of church. In turn, the Coptic community has been running riot in the town, destroying ambulances and shattering shop windows and driving Muslims off the streets. Those who hold their religions to be unchanging have the most to lose when new discoveries surface. It seems unlikely that exploration will cease; more ancient interpretations will emerge. When they do it also seems unlikely that they will find parent religions mature enough to accept their long-lost children. We could still use a little bit of secret knowledge, it seems, even today.