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The Nag Hammadi Scrolls: A Surprising Mix of Early Christianity with Buddhism, Manichaeism and Gnosticism

Bart D. Ehrman...Lost Christianities

"No form of lost Christianity has so intrigued modern readers and befuddled modern scholars as early Christian Gnosticism. The intrigue is easy to understand, especially in view of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library.... When that group of field hands headed by Mohammed Ali uncovered this cache of books in Upper Egypt, the world was suddenly presented with hard evidence of other Christian groups in the ancient world that stood in sharp contrast with any kind of Christianity familiar to us today. There was no Jesus of the stained glass window here, nor a Jesus of the creeds--not even a Jesus of the New Testament. These books were fundamentally different from anything in our experience, and almost nothing could have prepared us for them"

Desert Pilgrimage, The Lost Gospels of the Desert Fathers ,Chapter James Wellard

"But even while admitting their profound influence on the faith we still nominally profess today, we must recognize that these primitive Christians are immeasurably remote from us not only in space and time, but in their basic beliefs. There are two significant reasons for this. First they took Christ's doctrine and precepts literally and deliberately set out to practise what he preached; and secondly, the sources of their knowledge--their scriptures--were often different from ours, since they learnt about Jesus not only from the canonical gospels, but from the gospels which are now lost altogether, or, if they survived in fragmentary form, are considered of no value from the orthodox point of view. On the other hand, it was these gospels, later suppressed by the Western Church, which were (a) responsible for some of the strange beliefs of the Desert Fathers and the early Church; and (b) a contributing factor to the great schism which split the universal Church first into two and then into a formidable number of rival sects.

"There were at least a dozen of these forbidden gospels which were once freely read by Christians in the deserts of Egypt as well as the churches of Rome and which were gradually discredited by the more authoritative of the Catholic Fathers. In addition there were a great many other scriptures called Acts, Epistles, Teachings, Travels, Histories, Apocalypses, and Books which were damned in aeternum in a sixth-century decree emanating from the Vatican; but it so happened that many of these writings were the favourite story books of the Eastern Christians, while a number of them were greatly revered by devout and quite orthodox ecclesiasts. The publication of the so-called Gelasian Decree listing the "heretical" gospels and scriptures led first to some very acrimonious arguments; then to charges of heresy; next to anathemas against a score of Eastern patriarchs and their flock; next to outright censorship; and finally to forbidden books."

The Gnostic Elaine Pagels

Scholars investigating the Nag Hamadi 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 the 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.
     I am the wife and the virgin...
     I am the whore and the holy one,
            and many are her sons...
     I 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 origins of the universe, to myths, magic, and instructions for mystical practices.

The Nag Hammadi texts, and others like them, which circulated at the beginning of the Christian era, were denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians in the middle of the second century.

This campaign against heresy involved an involuntary admission of its persuasive power; yet the bishops prevailed. By the time of the Emperor Constantine's conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed. But in Upper Egypt, someone, possibly a monk from a nearby monastery of St. Pachomius, took the banned books and hid them from destruction--in a jar where they remained buried for almost 1,600 years...

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