Tag Archives: Nag Hammadi

Not So Gnostic

A certain, amorphous indignation comes over those of us trained in history when we encounter abuses of the same. In my case, some thought me conservative when I argued in my first book that Asherah as Yahweh’s wife wasn’t nearly the slam dunk some scholars were making it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity, but it was a matter of the evidence being weak and not thoughtfully examined. That is to say, I sympathize—maybe even empathize—with Philip Jenkins. His book, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, is an historical dressing down of many in the New Testament scholarly community who’ve perhaps let a bit of historical rigor slip in order to understand the world of early Christianity.

You see, once upon a time, scholars took the Gospels as, well, the gospel truth. Contradictions were simply harmonized or glossed over. When newer ancient material began to be discovered, however, adjustments had to be made. Perhaps the “orthodox” story of Christian origins wasn’t the only option available. In the twentieth century some spectacular manuscript finds were made, including the “library” of Nag Hammadi—largely Gnostic—and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New understandings of early Christianity were possible when these texts were considered. Some scholars engineered sweeping theories about revolutionary ideas concerning Jesus and his buds. Jenkins laments the lack of historical precision that many of these reconstructions demonstrate, and he comes across as somewhat annoyed.

Sensationalism, as we all know, sells publications and gets presidents elected. We all like a good story. In the case of Jesus, this means that the reconstructions of scholars often challenge traditional views, and popular publications love it. Jenkins finds it distasteful. Although this book is well written, as all of Jenkins’ material tends to be, it probably doesn’t do his arguments any favor to have retained the tired trope of heresy. Heresy means nothing without a supernatural bias, something that historians must avoid. Heresy, after all, assumes that one and only one version is correct (orthodox) and the four Gospels demonstrate that such a simple dichotomy is more difficult to sustain than it might appear to be. Yes, the Gnostic texts may not be as early as the traditional Gospels, but the ideas may have been circulating from near the beginning. We know surprisingly little about Jesus, so it’s not unexpected that rumors would’ve flown, even in antiquity. A solid source of information on some of the early “other gospels,” Jenkins’ book serves as a useful reminder that history is almost never as simple as it seems it should be.

Everything but a Name

As we once again near the Ugaritic session of Ancient Near Eastern religions, I ponder the strange wonder that the city has all but completely escaped modern notice. As far as ancient city-states go, Ugarit had it all: drama, sex, violence, everything but a memorable name. Many ancient sites capture the imagination by their names alone: Nag Hammadi sounds exotic, the Dead Sea Scrolls bespeak a hidden mystery. Even Nineveh and Mari suggest hidden riches, but Ugarit? How short-sighted our ancient founders of civilization could be!

To begin with, nobody knows how to pronounce a word that begins with “u.” Vowels are notoriously amorphous, but never more so than when initiating a word. Is it “Yu-” or “Oo-”? The name then launches into the morass of uncertain syllabification. We moderns like to stress the first syllable of a word. Ancient Semitic language speakers tended to throw the emphasis back a syllable or two. How to say “Ugarit” with emphasis on the last syllable without sounding utterly pretentious and affected? Many of my colleagues pronounce the word with an emphasis on the penultimate syllable, “Harvard style.” To me this smacks of a pointy-nosed fish.

In a society that prefers the quick and superficial, stopping to think about pronunciation before barreling ahead into the substance of the matter is a decided detriment. If that ancient society provided us with our earliest complete alphabet and the nearest analog to stories from the Bible, well, it would gain some notoriety if it had a recognizable name. The Israelites forever changed the world that followed their appearance in the Levant. They borrowed concepts, characters, and ideas from their neighbors. Their associates to the north, gone by the time the first Israelite appeared, had chosen a forgettable name and have quietly fallen by the wayside until somebody unafraid of initial “u”s might come along and resurrect them.

Nag Hammadi

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.

Good News, Gnostic Style

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.