27 January, 2008
In December of 1945 the world’s nations were reforming themselves. Empires had fallen, tens of millions of people had died. The old order had changed and a new one was beginning. At this time a most remarkable discovery was made in upper Egypt near the town of Nag Hammadi. Two brothers were digging around the base of a fallen boulder in a cave near the town. They were digging for nitrates to fertilize their crops, and it was here that they came across a jar. One of the brothers feared to break the jar, worried that it might contain a djinn. Upon reflection that it might contain gold however, he smashed it open with his mattock. Inside were thirteen ancient codices the had been locked away for over a millennium and a half. The brother Ali took the books back to his house, and there they stayed for a while.
About a month later, a man called Ahmad happened to be nearby Ali’s house. Ali’s father had been murdered about half a year earlier as part of a blood feud, and now Ali was told that this Ahmad was the one who had killed his father. Ali and his brothers gathered their sharpened mattocks and rushed to confront the murderer. They fell upon him, hacking him to pieces and even, according to Ali, eating their victim’s heart. It was a scene straight out of myth – the Titans falling upon Zeus, Set and his minions ripping apart Osiris – and yet this real event would lead to new knowledge coming to light. Ahmad was the son of the sheriff, and as people came asking questions and searching houses, Ali decided that the codices he had left would be safer out of his house. His mother had already been using them for kindling, indeed an entire codex had already been burned by this stage. Others had been given away in barter. Thinking they were Christian documents Ali gave them to a local priest to find out if they were valuable. The priest’s brother-in-law took one of the books to Cairo where its true value was realised, and after that the hunt was on for the other books.
It took another twenty five years before all the remaining books were in a position to be copied, and then translated. Some had already been looked at as the various books made their way through different collectors. But in the 1970’s the true nature of the Nag Hammadi library was realised. These were books that had been stored by a group of Monks, preserved around the time that an edict went out from Bishop Athanasius demanding that all non-canonical scripture be destroyed. These religious writings of early Christianity gave us a first hand look at the books that had been denounced. Until Nag Hammadi we only had a few snippets from these books, where the Church Fathers would quote their opponents in order to argue against them. Now the full writings of several ancient books were available and the diverse voices of early Christianity could speak for themselves.
Many of the writings of the library of Nag Hammadi are gnostic, but not all are. One story that they indirectly tell is that the history of early Christianity is not quite what the 4th or 5th century church would have us believe. The common wisdom was that Jesus had an earthly ministry, left details of how his church was to be run, and then it spread in the apostolic age. After this, people inevitably fell from the true teachings and heresy sprouted up everywhere. But it appears now that as far back as we can look in the history of Christianity there were a multitude of ideas and debates. Gnostics grew alongside orthodoxy, in fact orthodoxy was a much later development that tried to retrofit itself back into history. The writers of the gospels could hardly be called orthodox since they disagree with each other over a number of matters. The change from “any idea goes” which vexed people like Ireneaus to the one Universal church was a slow one, and it was one which happened late – it wasn’t a return to a primitive ideal church of the mid first century. Indeed the complex theology of the Church by then points to later developments in reaction to the varieties of Christian belief.
The Nag Hammadi library has given us not only many texts interesting in their own right, but a new lens with which to look at early Christianity. It’s a messier picture than before, but the victors of the early church debates literally wrote the history books. Now that we have some of the losers books, heresy is once again in the eye of the beholder. To Ali, this is perhaps not worth as much as gold would have been. To others who cling to the official histories of the church the knowledge is perhaps as evil as the djinn. But the djinn is out of the bottle now, and there is no putting it back.