THE NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY: IN ENGLISH Translated by Members of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, James M. Robinson, Director and General Editor. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977. Pp. xvi + 493. Reviewed by Robert A. Kraft and Janet A. Timbie.
An earlier form of this material appeared originally in RELIGIOUS STUDIES REVIEW 8.1 (January 1982) 32-52.
SUMMARY & CONTENTS (by section headings)
This review article uses the appearance of the English translation of the Coptic Nag Hammadi treatises as an occasion for introducing these materials in greater detail to the general scholarly public, specialist and non-specialist alike. General information about the Nag Hammadi discoveries is followed by an examination of the materials from various perspectives: connections with "Gnosticism" and with other Coptic literature, classification of the treatises in terms of form and content, relation to other early Christian and non-Christian outlooks (including non-Gnostic), treatments of creation, references to Jesus and his immediate followers, to rituals, to Jewish and Christian scripture, and to competing groups. Finally, the quality of the English translations and the usefulness of the volume's index are assessed.
For three decades [1947-77], tantalizing bits and pieces, rumors and reports, snippets and editions relating to various portions of the "new Gnostic discoveries" at Nag Hammadi (or Chenoboskion) in Egypt have whetted the appetites of students of early Christianity and late antiquity. Relevant publications are competently and conveniently chronicled in D. Scholer's bibliographies. Now , for the first time in any language, a complete corpus of provisional translations are available thanks to the considerable efforts of James M. Robinson and the Coptic Gnostic Library Project team of more than 30 scholars working through the Claremont (California) Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in cooperation with UNESCO and the Arab Republic of Egypt. This volume (NHL) dramatically marks the presence of a new era of research into early Christianity and its world(s), providing as it does access through translation to a wealth of new materials hitherto not even fully available to specialists in Coptic. This volume also celebrates completion of publication of the Facsimile Edition of the codices (NHC l972-79), and will be followed by major editions (with appropriately full introductions, translations, notes, indices, etc.) of the various tractates, to be published in the "Nag Hammadi Studies" (NHS) series under the sub-title The Coptic Gnostic Library (CGS: six volumes were in print by the end of 1980; see Pearson's review of NHS 11). Whatever criticisms are leveled against the volume under review -- and it is extremely vulnerable by its very design as the "provisional" results of the loosely coordinated efforts of a large number of scholars -- they should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the appearance of NHL is a momentous accomplishment in any number of ways, from the sheer quantity of new texts it provides to the surprisingly reasonable price for which it can be obtained.
The task of mediating this scholarly "event" and its various ramifications to the various readerships of RSR is formidable, if not staggering. It is difficult simply to summarize in a helpful manner the contents of this ancient anthology of fairly diverse and often frustratingly obscure materials, even for readers who are moderately knowledgeable about early Christian literature and its environments (not to mention the relatively uninitiated!). To go beyond summarizing and attempt to place it all in the larger perspectives of its significance for persons interested in the history of Christianity, ancient philosophies and religions, sociology of (or, and) religion, psychology of religion, etc., is not only a gigantic and frustrating task, but a frightening one as well. We will make no attempt to do it all, but will tend to focus on the things with which we feel relatively more confident, namely, early Christian literature and history (treated here especially by Kraft) and in particular, early Coptic Christianity (especially by Timbie). Observations about the broader context of discussion will be included when they seem appropriate. Fortunately, the interested beginner can now obain a great deal of reliable and attractively presented additional information (verbal and visual) by consulting or obtaining Robinson's 1977 general introduction and the 1979 Biblical Archaeologist fascicle devoted to Nag Hammadi.
At approximately the same time (1945/46) as a youthful bedouin in then Jordanian Palestine was throwing the pebbles that shattered a concealed jar and launched the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) near the site of Khirbet Qumran, Egyptian fellahin searching for fertilizer at the base of a rocky cliff near Nag Hammadi on the river Nile north of ancient Thebes uncovered the jar containing the thirteen papyrus books now known as the Nag Hammadi Codices (NHC). Together, the DSS and NHC already have directly or indirectly revolutionized knowledge of and attitudes toward Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman world -- and will continue to do so as they continue to be studied. In each instance the new discoveries provided actual writings produced by long extinct groups about which historians had only secondhand knowledge through reports by outsiders -- and especially in the case of (at least part of) the NHC, by vociferous opponents. Whether with reference to Judaism at the time of Jesus and Paul (prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ce and the rising ascendancy of "Rabbinic Judaism") or Christianity at the time of Aqiba and Jehuda ha-Nasi (the especially formative second century), we have learned to take quite seriously the increasingly evident fact that no satisfactory understanding of the development of these respective religious traditions is possible without careful attention to inner diversity of thought and practice. In this context, a resurgence of historical analysis based on the study of the polemical expressions of persons and communities in conflict has flourished -- dare we call it "Gegnergeschichte," or perhaps "Auseinandersetzungsgeschichte"? Sometimes in radical shifts, but more often ever so subtly, reconstructions of the development of Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman period are undergoing and will continue to undergo significant revision. The picture does not look exactly as it once did. Some things have come into better focus, others have become more blurred. Entirely new details are perceptible at some points. Overall, we now have more pieces to the puzzle although it still remains a largely uncompleted puzzle. Nevertheless, at times, with reference to specific scenes, one can almost feel oneself to be in close touch with particular parts of the gigantic panorama. Perhaps that was always possible. It is possible on a larger scale today.
Despite the -- mostly obvious -- similarities between the DSS and NHC discoveries, there are important differences as well (see also Robinson 1977b, II-III, for a somewhat overly dramatic comparison). The DSS were not all found together in one place, at the same time, are not all written in the same language (Hebrew predominates, but Aramaic and even Greek occur), and include a much larger range of materials (biblical and "pseudepigraphic" alike, as well as some "new" texts) in much larger quantities -- and often much more fragmentary condition -- than the NHC. In terms of physical format, the DSS are written mostly on leather rolls or individual sheets -- they predate the period in which the modern book format ("codex") was developed on a wide scale -- while the NHC are early examples of papyri codices all written at approximately the same time (350-400 ce) in the Coptic (mostly Sahidic) form of the Egyptian language. Probably all of the 40 or so writings collected in the NHC were translated from Greek, while most of the works in the DSS originated in the same language in which they have been preserved (primarily Hebrew). In the nearly 35 years since the respective discoveries, a flood of publications has appeared, including transcriptions and facsimiles of many of the extensively preserved texts (for DSS bibliography, see Burchard, LaSor, and Fitzmyer). Various English translations of the best preserved texts from the DSS are available (Burrows, Gaster, Vermes, Dupont-Sommer), although it will still take years for all of the DSS materials to reach English readers. Despite getting a "later start" in terms of public accessibility, the relatively more restricted, physically more integrated collection of NHC has now outstripped the DSS in this connection.
The story of the Nag Hammadi discovery has been told many times, with whatever fragments of information and conjecture happened to be available. But it is best heard, in terms of accuracy and completeness, from James Robinson who, through tenacious detective work during the past decade, has uncovered and pieced together most of the relevant details presently available (it is not yet a completed story -- a certain amount of updating can still be expected). Robinson's highly condensed account in NHL 21-25 ("Introduction: The Discovery," apparently abridged from Robinson l977b) may prove cryptic to the general reader. His more recent and more detailed narratives in the edition of Biblical Archaeologist devoted to the Nag Hammadi discoveries (l979) are preferable.
The plot and sub-plots are fascinatingly complicated, whether one focuses on the discovery of the jar and its l3 codices in December of l945 and the subsequent perils, problems and intrigues which brought the bulk of the material into the hands of antiquarians and scholars (Robinson l977a), or whether one concentrates on the fate of the NHC once they came under the control of modern scholarship (see especially Robinson l977a, for the saga of the "Jung Codex," and l977b in general). From fear of the jinn, who may inhabit secret places (a factor as well in the DSS discovery), through the vengeful irrationality of a modern Egyptian blood-feud and the finality of a papyrus-fueled fire, to the unpredictable conditions imposed by changing political events and the regrettable results of scholarly selfinterest and rivalry, the story of the NHC progresses. Its conclusion is, for the most part, a happy one. The preserved contents of the codices have reached the public domain, not only for the small but growing number of persons able to work with Coptic texts, but the strictly English reader as well.
The goals of NHL are relatively modest. As stated by Marvin W. Meyer, Managing Editor of the project, in his excellent preface to the volume: "The NHL in English seeks to provide within the scope of a single volume, English translations of the Nag Hammadi tractates. To these English tractates have been added very brief introductions, so that the readers may become aware of the main features and issues to be noted within each tractate" (p. X). Technical sigla for indicating damaged portions of text, etc., have been simplified and kept to a minimum. Only one index is provided, listing proper names. Identification of biblical allusions and parallels within the respective translations is sporadic and infrequent. Where more than one copy of a particular writing has been preserved in the NHC, only the "best" copy is translated -- so for Gospel of Truth (2 copies), Apocryphon of John (4 copies including the Berlin Codex), On the Origin of the World (2 copies), Gospel of the Egyptians (2 copies), Eugnostos the Blessed (2 copies), Sophia of Jesus Christ (2 copies, including the Berlin Codex). Rigorous standardization of "English style and translational policy" has not been imposed (p. XI). On the other hand, careful attention is given to providing a precise means of identifying individual writings and passages which does not depend on the page numbers of this particular edition. Thus NHL can be used as a scholarly tool in conjunction with the NHC Facsimile Edition, the NHS/CGL editions and other relevant publications since it clearly designates the Coptic page and line for any given passage, as well as the location within the NHC for any given writing -- e.g., a quotation from Homer occurs near the end of "The Exegesis on the Soul" (codex II, item 6, page l36 of the codex, lines 27 ff of the page in the codex); hopefully, scholars will resist noting that this appears on p. l86 of the NHL, but instead will follow the lead of the NHL index and list "II/6.l36.27 ff" or something similar (Robinson prefers II, 6:l36, 27 ff). Standard abbreviations for the names of the various writings are provided by MacRae in his excellent l976 IDB Supplement article on "Nag Hammadi" -- it would have been helpful had these abbreviations been reproduced also in NHL XIII-XV ("Table of Tractates").
In his 25 page introduction to NHL, James Robinson deals briefly with three general topics: (1) "The Stance of the Texts," (2) the actual manuscripts, from their contents to their copyists, and (3) the history of the discovery (see above). The report on the manuscripts is extremely well presented (pp. 10-21). Robinson argues convincingly that the jar's "library" is probably not a library at all, at least in the sense of all the NHC being commissioned and copied as a unified effort. The twelve codices (plus 8 leaves, but no covers, from a 13th), containing a total of 52 writings (46 different writings, since 4 are duplicates and one is in triplicate; see below and the general list above), are not uniform in externals (e.g., covers) nor were they copied by the same scribes:
The two groups of covers [codd IV-V-VIII and II-VI-IX-X] plus four miscellaneous covers [III, VII, IX, XII], and the one group of scribal hands [I-VII-XI] plus miscellaneous scribes, may indicate that the Nag Hammadi library is a secondary merging of what was originally a series of smaller libraries or isolated books. This would seem to be confirmed by the distribution of the duplicates [I.3 = XII.2, II.1 = III.1 = IV.1, II.5 = XIII.2, III.2 = IV.2, III.3 = V.1]. No one codex contains two copies of the same work, nor did any one scribe copy the same work twice, nor is there a duplicate tractate among the books of one group of covers. ...Thus one may conjecture that the present library derives from at least three smaller collections. (p. 15)
The leather cover of codex VII was stiffened with discarded materials (letters, etc.) dating from the mid-fourth century, and other such material from the covers seems to associate the manufacture of the codices with the Pachomian monastery that existed in the fourth century not far from the site of the find. The significance of this fact for reconstructing the history of early Egyptian (Pachomian) monasticism is still under discussion and is directly related to the question of "the stance of the texts," to use Robinson's phrase.
The evidence from the external form/format of the codices, then, warns against applying the designation "library" in some highly restrictive sense, as though we were dealing with a corpus of works carefully selected and organized by a single person or close-knit group functioning according to modern principles of consistency and rational organization. Robinson's introduction clearly states at the outset that the evidence from the contents of the various treatises raises a similar warning regarding the origins of the writings (p. l):
The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of religious texts that vary widely from each other as to when, where, and by whom they were written. Even the points of view diverge to such an extent that the texts are not to be thought of as coming from one group or movement.
The point at which the word "library" seems to have relevance for describing the materials is neither in terms of origins of particular writings nor in terms of the scribal activity that produced the preserved manuscripts, but only with reference to whatever was responsible for depositing and burying this collection of texts in the jar in which it was found. Unfortunately, it is easy to lose sight of this fact and to impose a false homogeneity upon the NHC which may distort not only the attempt to understand the original meaning of particular passages and writings preserved therein, but may also produce a highly misleading reconstruction of 4th-5th century Egyptian Christian history in particular, and of the tensions between Christian "orthodoxy" and "heresy" in general.
One of the major temptations -- and major potential pitfalls -- in working with these new materials is to accept as one of the relatively fixed points of research a picture of orthodox/heretical theological developments drawn from the major Greek and Latin authors who were involved in such discussions and whose pertinent writings have been preserved in the "orthodox" trajectory that ultimately produced western medieval Christianity and its eastern byzantine counterpart. This presupposes that the heresiologists such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Epiphanius and Jerome are sufficiently representative of Christian opinion throughout the areas into which Christianity had reached by the late 4th century to be useful as approximate guides, and that the same sorts of issues that concerned them were also of concern to their Christian contemporaries. With such assumptions, one considers it enigmatic to find apparently overtly "gnostic" materials receiving sympathetic use by anyone other than "gnostics" or related "heretical/heterodox" groups or individuals. In many instances this sort of assumption may indeed prove correct. But it deserves to be tested in each instance with as much care as possible if we hope to derive maximal benefit from the new discoveries.
Fortunately, Robinson's careful work with the NHC helps present this problem in bold relief -- the covers of at least some of the codices are associated with monks, and it is clear that Pachomian monastic communities, which traditionally have been considered "orthodox," existed in the Nag Hammadi area in the mid-fourth century.\1/ But the contents of many of the treatises in the NHC are far from "orthodox" by traditional standards. What is the explanation? After discussing as unpersuasive other possible solutions (the NHC were written to record and thus combat heresy; blank books with covers were manufactured and sold by a monastery and later used by heretics), Robinson suggests (p. l8):
Perhaps the common presentation of the monastic movement of the fourth century C.E. as solidly orthodox is an anachronism, and more nearly reflects the situation of the later monasticism that recorded the legends about the earlier period.
\1/ Robinson's NHL presentation (p. 16) reflects the preliminary judgment of the late J.W.B.Barnes (1975) that some of the material used to stiffen the leather covers "came from the Pachomian monasteries." Subsequent study of these materials by J.C.Shelton, however, suggests that more caution is necessary regarding a specifically Pachomian connection; see Barnes 1981, pp. 5-11 (especially note 11).
Robinson goes on to argue that there may have been a certain looseness of (theological) control in the Pachomian monastic situation which permitted a great deal of diversity of outlook among the monk-hermits. Athanasius' Easter letter of 367, which was issued in slightly different forms in Coptic as well as in Greek (whether Athanasius himself was bilingual and was himself responsible for both forms is worth further consideration; or were the Coptic users responsible for the translation, and for its variations from the Greek?), and the violent opposition of Shenoute to his "pagan" opponents several decades later, may be understood as attempts to bring the situation under more firm control. Thus the NHC may have been "buried in the jar for safekeeping, perhaps for posterity" (p. 20) by a hermit (or group) who cherished these writings and feared their confiscation and ultimate destruction.
Robinson's presentation makes considerable progress in the direction of a satisfactory understanding of the Christian world from which the NHC derive, but still fails to be sufficiently critical of the assumptions we inherit or sufficiently inductive and circumspect about what the available evidence from Coptic (monastic) Egypt seems to suggest. On the one hand, there is little in the preserved traditions about the origins and early development of Coptic Egyptian monasticism (Antony, Pachomius, even Shenoute) to suggest that philosophical-theological concerns were the touchstone of community acceptance. "Orthodoxy" in that sense seems not to be a major issue in and of itself, although it may become an aspect of a more widely based conflict situation (especially with Shenoute). Much more in focus as watersheds of "orthodoxy" (or is it "orthopraxy"?) for the emerging monastic communities were matters of loyalty to God's human authorities -- the archbishop, the local leadership ("holy man") -- and perseverance in wrestling with the antagonistic demonic world. By the beginning of the fifth century, a militant monasticism had developed under Shenoute in the Nag Hammadi area which attempted to take social control of the area as well by suppressing or eliminating serious rivals ("pagans"). There is little evidence of theological selfconsciousness even here, except as part of the larger context concerning authority and conflict. When literature is mentioned in relevant late 4th and early 5th century stories, letters, etc., it tends to be biblical/canonical. But our sources of information are relatively few and limited in representation. All of this would tend to confirm the possibility that a "Pachomian" monastic (or group of monastics) could have "owned" the NHC, but it is not clear that the "burial" of the NHC need be used as evidence of a direct or indirect conflict over theological matters. The jar might have found its place in the soil beneath the boulder near the caves for theologically and sociologically innocent reasons (e.g. hidden by a thief). That also needs to be said.
In and of itself the question of why and how the NHC came to be buried is a relatively minor matter hardly worth the space we have devoted to it. But it grows considerably in importance when one begins to recognize the extent to which the presumed "gnostic" connection insinuates itself into and tends to dominate discussions of the NHC. This is, unfortunately, even true at the level of the choice of a series title for scholarly publication of the material: "The Coptic Gnostic Library." Why use "gnostic" here? As Pearson points out in his review of the most recent volume in the series (NHS ll, l979, p.252):
The tractates included in this volume represent a great variety of religious milieux. Some of them are clearly Christian-Gnostic works.... Some of them are certainly Christian not necessarily Gnostic.... Some of them are Gnostic and probably not Christian.... Three of them are of Hermetic origin.... I have already referred to the text from Plato's Republic. Thus we have in this fine volume a significant amount of primary source material for the study of Christianity, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Greek philosophy in late antiquity, and particularly the phenomenon of late-ancient syncretism.
Why call this "gnostic"? Presumably because at one period in the history of scholarly discussion about the NHC, the word "library" suggested enough homogeneity that everything in NHC, plus some related materials, could be painted with the same "gnostic" brush. But now that "library" is seen to be a very weak designation, if not entirely inappropriate, and to refer only to the monk-hermit (presumably) who for some reason collected the diverse codices, how is it "gnostic"? Although Robinson and his staff seem to know better, users of the NHS/CGL materials will be forced to fight this "gnostic" ghost (not to mention the "library" ghost) in this overt form as a series title as well as in innumerable more subtle ways.
Indeed, Robinson himself has scarcely been successful on this front, despite his careful attention to the diversity of materials (content) and of format in the NHC. While he acknowledges that the texts do not come "from one group or movement" (p. l, see above), he postulates that "these diversified materials must have had something in common which caused them to be chosen by those who collected them" (p. l, italics ours). He then explains, quite arbitrarily (p. l):
The focus that brought the collection together is an estrangement from the mass of humanity, an affinity to an ideal order that completely transcends life as we know it, and a life- style radically other than common practice. This life-style involved giving up all the goods that people usually desire and longing for an ultimate liberation. It is not an aggressive revolution that is intended, but rather a withdrawal from involvement in the contamination that destroys clarity of vision.
The assumption, from the outset, would seem to be that there is at least a hermit-monastic ideal behind the materials. Given the probability, as Robinson argues later (pp. l7f.), that at least some of the codices were produced in close connection with the Pachomian monastery, presumably by monastics, we would expect the writings to be in some way useful to the owner-copyists. The NHC could be transmitted, somehow, with integrity, within a Pachomian ascetic-monastic setting.
But suddenly, without warning, Robinson transforms this probable context of ascetic estrangement into a vague "gnostic" environment on p. 2:
The point of the Nag Hammadi library [sic!] has been battered and fragmented by the historical process through which it has finally come to light.... The ancient world's religious and philosophical traditions and mythology were all that was available to express what was in fact a quite untraditional stance. Yet the stance was too radical to establish itself within the organized religions or philosophical schools of the day, and hence was hardly able to take advantage of the culture's educational institutions to develop and clarify its implications. Gnostic schools [sic!] began to emerge within Christianity and Neoplatonism, until both agreed in excluding them as the "heresy" of Gnosticism. Thus meaningful and eloquent myths and philosopical formulations of that radical stance became in their turn garbled traditions, reused by later and lesser authors whose watered-down, not to say muddied, version may be most of what has survived.
If we have read this presentations correctly, Robinson begins by denying any clear sociological homogeneity (in terms of groups/movements) to the texts in the NHL, argues that the (presumably 4th century Pachomian monastic) collectors found some focus in the texts, then proceeds to talk as though the NHL actually derived from some original unity ("stance") that was somehow associated with "gnostic schools" and came to be badly garbled and diffused in the process of transmission. The ghost of a "Gnostic Library" seems to haunt this rhetoric in a mystifying manner!
Robinson continues, in a more homiletic fashion (p. 3, italics ours):
The reader should not be misled . . . into thinking that the stance inherent in these essays is unworthy of serious consideration. Rather, we have to do here with an understanding of existence, an answer to the human dilemma, an attitude toward society, that is worthy of being taken quite seriously by anyone able and willing to grapple with such ultimate issues. This basic stance has until now been known almost exclusively through the myopic view of heresy- hunters, who often quote only to refute or ridicule. Thus the coming to light of the Nag Hammadi library gives unexpected access to the Gnostic stance as Gnostics themselves presented it. It provides new roots for the uprooted.
This is very confusing. The "something in common" attributed to the NHL on p. l as the reason why the codices were collected by their most recent users in antiquity -- a "focus" which has "much in common with primitive Christianity, with eastern religions, and with holy men of all times" (p. 1) -- has now become "the Gnostic stance." In the context of the heterogeneity of the collection and its rather artificial characterization as a "library," this discussion can only be described as premature, arbitrary, and potentially misleading. We have materials that presumably appealed to an ascetic Christian "stance" and were copied in that framework. What the original "stance" of each text may have been, and how each particular text came to be transmitted and preserved in this specific form, and came into relationship with the other texts in its codex, requires more careful detailed analysis and should not be prejudged by means of the "gnostic library" generalization.
Much of the subsequent discussion in Robinson's treatment of "the stance of the texts" has less to do with the texts as a whole and more to do with Robinson's own theological-historical interests, and includes an extremely provocative thumbnail sketch of Christian history (pp. 3-6):
Primitive Christianity was itself a radical movement. Jesus called for a full reversal of values, announcing the end of the world as we have known it and its replacement by a quite new, utopian kind of life in which the ideal would be the real. . . . His followers reaffirmed his stand -- for them he came to personify the ultimate goal. . . . The circle [of his followers] gradually became an estabished organization. . . . Those who cherished the radical dream, the ultimate hope, would tend to throw it up as an invidious comparison to what was achieved, and thus seem to be disloyal, and to pose a serious threat to the organization.
. . . The world of thought from which Jesus and his first followers had come was the popular piety of the Jewish synagogue, focussed in terms of John the Baptist's apocalyptic rite of transition from the old regime to the new ideal world. . . . The evil that pervades history is a blight, ultimately alien to the world as such. But increasingly for some the outlook on life darkened; the very origin of the world was attributed to a terrible fault, and evil was given status as the ultimate ruler of the world, not just a usurpation of authority. Hence the only hope seemed to reside in escape. . . . Humans . . . by their very nature belong to the ultimate. . . .
Christian Gnosticism emerged as a reaffirmation, though in somewhat different terms, of the original stance of transcendence central to the very beginnings of Christianity. Such Gnostic Christians surely considered themselves the faithful continuation . . . of that original stance which made Christians Christians. . . . Other Christians surely considered Gnosticism a betrayal of the original Christian position. This was the conviction not just of those who had accommodated themselves to the status quo, but no doubt also of some who retained the full force of the original protest and ultimate hope. . . .
Gnostics came to be excluded from the Church as heretics. . . .
But the Nag Hammadi library also documents the fact that the rejection was mutual, in that Christians described [in NHL] as "heretical" seem to be more like what is usually thought of as "orthodox." . . .
. . . Gnosticism was ultimately eradicated from Christendom, except for occasional underground movements, affinities in medieval mysticism, and an occasional tamed echo that stays just within the limits of propriety. . . .
Robinson then briefly states the case for the existence of "forms of Gnosticism" in late antiquity "outside of Christianity" including "Jewish" and "Samaritan" forms and even argues that "it is not inconceivable that such a Christian Gnostic movement as the Sethians may simply be a Christian outgrowth of a Jewish Gnostic group" (pp. 6-7). He does not seem to notice that if one takes seriously the possibility that some Christian gnostic groups developed directly from existing pre-Christian Jewish gnosis, one need not postulate that early Christianity went the route of non-gnostic Jewish apocalyptic which then was gradually transformed in a gnostic direction. Indeed, one could even recreate the historical Jesus as a Jewish gnostic (rather than a "synagogue" apocalyptic) and see non-gnostic Christianity as an attempt to bring Jesus and his movement into a more conventional (as things worked out) Jewish trajectory.
But to return to our immediate problem -- the homogenization of the tractates preserved in the NHC into a concrete "library" which has a "gnostic stance" -- listen again to the subtle progress in Robinson's presentation. By page 9, he no longer hesitates about questions of unity/diversity or of relationship to groups/movements, but states rather directly: "The Nag Hammadi library seems to have been collected in terms of Christian Gnosticism." It all sounds very straightforward, very concrete, until the reader finally learns (pp. 9-10) that for Robinson, "Gnosticism" really is not necessarily to be understood as a group or movement in the normal sense:
Gnosticism seems not to have been in its essence just an alternate form of Christianity. Rather it was a radical trend of release from the dominion of evil or of inner transcendence that swept through late antiquity and emerged within Christianity, Judaism, Neoplatonism, the mystery religions, and the like. As a new religion it was syncretistic, drawing upon various religious heritages. But it was held together by a very decided stance, which is where the unity amid the wide diversity is to be sought.
It is no doubt this stance, rather than the myths and doctrines of the texts themselves, that explains the association of the Nag Hammadi library with Christian monasticism, where the withdrawal from the world into a commune [sic!] in which utopia could be anticipated was strikingly similar to the to the Gnostic way of life. . . .
Interesting -- and confusing. The presentation has come full cycle from the "focus" of "estrangement" in a heterogeneous collection of texts through a discussion of the "gnostic stance" in all its variety as an authentic variation on the "original stance" of Jesus and his earliest followers to a firm connection between the "gnostic stance" and Christian monastic perspectives. Only then does Robinson reveal that the "library" is not really a library in any demonstrable sense (see above), but preserves "at least three smaller collections" (p. 15). Would it not have been more helpful to begin with the ascetic-monastic connection and work backwards through such stages as the grouping of the codices, contents of each codex, transmission and translation of each text in Coptic, pre-Coptic form(s) of each text, and finally the derivation and composition of the originals? Then the entire endeavor would not be forced to find ways in which its presumed "gnostic" pedigree could be explained. The collection(s) might not even need to have an identifiable "stance," in general. And we could get on with the task of being fully open to what the new materials may be able to tell us about various aspects of the development of Christianity in its various environments.
From this perspective the designation "gnostic" loses its usefulness -- the hint of homogeneity it suggests needs to be laid aside in favor of close attention to the varieties of perspective, tradition and approach that clearly existed even within overtly "gnostic" circles, not to mention less clearly defined "dualistic" and/or "ascetic" groups. For discussions about the origin of the individual writings, nothing should be presupposed about unity or homogeneity among these works. Indeed, there is probably less homogeneity in NHL than in other similarly artificial collections of writings from early Christianity such as "The New Testament" (grouped by the ancients) or "The Apostolic Fathers" (a more modern grouping), or "The Apocryphal New Testament" (also modern).
The most immediately and directly relevant context in which the texts of the NHC deserve discussion is early Coptic literature. Very little is known with any confidence about the conditions under which Coptic speaking Christianity developed, and the directions it took in its early development. Because of its commitment to the "gnostic" connection, NHL actually takes an extra step towards providing a wider basis for discussing early Coptic Christianity by including two Coptic treatises not attested in NHC -- a Gospel of Mary and an Act of Peter (NHL 471-77). The justification for this is that these additional texts are preserved in Berlin "Gnostic" papyrus codex 8502 (from the 5th century) along with copies of two other treatises found also in the NHC -- Apocryphon of John and Sophia of Jesus Christ. The partial duplication of NHL texts in "BG 8502" thus provides a somewhat arbitrary and "formal" catalyst for expanding the coverage in NHL in the direction of a fuller collection of non-canonical (by traditional standards), non-patristic early Christian Coptic literature (5th century and earlier). For detailed bibliographical information about texts and manuscripts mentioned below, see especially Kammerer.
Following along these lines, a fitting companion volume to NHL might include translations at least of
Other similar "early" materials which circulated at one time or another in Coptic include (for details, see also Charlesworth, Hennecke-Schneemelcher, Quasten):
It is within the wider context of writings that presumably were used among Coptic speaking/reading Christians prior to the fifth century that the NHL deserves to be analyzed to determine just what sort of information its texts can provide regarding (l) its most recent ancient owners/users; (2) the history of transmission of its materials and the history of their transmitters, in Coptic, (3) the circumstances of its translation into Coptic, and (4) the ultimate origin and pre-Coptic histories of the texts.
It could not be expected that Robinson and his team would address this task in detail in NHL. But until such an approach is attempted with rigor -- i.e. a history of early Coptic literature -- it will be difficult to obtain the perspectives necessary for a careful, controlled assessment of the significance of the NHL materials in the world from which they most immediately derived. Indeed, the sooner the NHL treatises are reorganized into appropriate subgroupings so that each may be conveniently compared with other similar writings, the more efficiently will scholarship be able to use this valuable set of keys to help unlock various mysteries of early (Egyptian) history and literature. At present, we simply do not know what criteria will be most useful in attempting to identify the motivations of fourth century Coptic Christians, or their predecessors, in copying and collecting the texts in their possession. Until we are more aware of such matters, general discussions of the "stance" of the "library" will be premature.
The emergence within fourth century Coptic Christianity of skillfully produced codices each of which contains a variety of writings is itself noteworthy. When the codex (modern booklike) format became increasingly popular as an alternative to the well- established roll/scroll in the second and third centuries, codices tended to be relatively limited in content, containing the work of a single author much as had been true of the roll. But it was found that the codex format could hold much more material than the typical roll, especially if several mini- codices (quires or "gatherings") were bound together. This technological advance magnified the possibility of the development of codices in which a number of different works, whether by the same author or by various authors, could be included, although even with "single quire" codices, a mixture of heterogeneous materials could also be produced (see Turner 55-71 on these matters).
Because of the fragmentary nature of many of the oldest writings (especially papyri) preserved from antiquity it is not always possible to know whether the extant remnants of a particular text were once part of a larger codex in which other writings also were included. But in those instances in which the evidence is clear, Christian -- and especially Coptic Christian -- codices seem to provide most of the examples of heterogeneous collections. With the development of the concept of the unity of canonical biblical writings in Judaism and Christianity, a model emerged in which matters of heterogeneity/homogeneity became blurred. "Biblical" writings were perhaps viewed, consciously or unconsciously, as from the same source. Thus it is perhaps not very surprising to find the following early Greek papyrus codices each containing more than one "biblical" writing:
From the fourth century onward, more luxurious parchment and vellum (leather) codices were produced in which a full corpus of Jewish and Christian scriptures were collected -- e.g. Sinaiticus (S or Aleph), Vaticanus (B), Alexandrinus (A), Beza (D), to mention only the earliest and most famous.
Mixture of what came to be fixed in Christian tradition as "biblical" with non-biblical writings in early Greek manuscripts is relatively infrequent -- the presence of Barnabas in Sinaiticus and of 1-2 Clement in Alexandrinus may reflect ambiguities in the extent of the contents of "canon." The juxtaposition of I Enoch and Melito On Passover in Chester Beatty papyrus codex XII, from the 4th century, is more problematic. An even "stranger" mixture takes place in the Bodmer papyri originally designated V-X-XI-VII-XIII-XII-XX-IX-VIII (in six different handwritings), which seem to come from one or two codices and contain the following sequence of texts, from around the 3rd-4th century (Turner 79-80) and probably discovered in the area near Nag Hammadi (so Robinson l980):
A new element is introduced in another Greek Bodmer papyrus from the 4th century where we find Susanna, an unidentified apocryphon, Daniel, and then Thucydides book VI. An unusual juxtaposition of Greek and Coptic occurs in a Hamburg codex from around 300 ce:
Thus "mixed" codices are found in 3rd-4th century Greek materials. But early Coptic manuscripts seem to be even more tantalizing in this respect, at least at this relatively early stage of detailed modern study of early codices. In addition to the Coptic materials already listed above (e.g. Berlin 8502, Paris l35), we find:
The NHC seem to fit very well into the spirit of Coptic bookmaking techniques as they were developing in the 4th century. When this is recognized, another reason is added for taking great care in defining the sense in which the designation "library" may appropriately be applied to the NHC, or to sub-groups within the "NHL." The question of why various writings have been gathered together in a single codex requires closer attention.
The sequence in which the translated materials are presented in NHL follows the flow of the various tractates within the thirteen NHC, in the order in which the tractates are now officially numbered (e.g. the "Jung Codex" = NHC 1). NHL provides a summary of this sequence on pp. XIII-XV. What it does not supply is any consistent attempt to classify the treatises either according to respective forms (insofar as that can be determined with the fragmentary works) or their contents and perspectives. This is especially unfortunate insofar as the only index in NHL contains only a listing of proper names -- there is no subject index. Granted, a subject index would have added somewhat to the size and cost of the volume, but it would also have increased the usefulness of NHL many times.
In the absence of such a ready means of making general connections between the individual writings in the heterogeneous collection in NHL, we present the following attempt at classifying the tractates with respect to their formal characteristics. We have used categories ranging from straightforward narrative (stories of events) on the one side through reports of deeds or, more frequently, of words and conversations, to material in "letter" form (addressed to a specific person or group), to straightforward monologue or dialogue presentations. Inevitably, different sorts of material will be intermixed in a given writing, and various subdivisions based on form, tone or content suggest themselves. In one way or another, "monologue" material predominates, followed by "dialogue." What this may mean in any given instance remains to be investigated. (The abbreviated titles are basically those suggested by MacRae in his IDBS article, compared also with those of Menard in BCNH 1.)
Narrative of events, except as part of someone's speech, are rare in NHL. The best examples are:
Significant bits of sequential narrative employed to connect dialogue or monologue reports also appear in:
In addition, a few writings supply third person narrative information only in the opening and/or closing lines:
Reports. -- Otherwise, whatever narration occurs in the NHL is found within other types of material such as first person reports or recorded discourses. What we have chosen to classify as "reports" take the following forms (see also above, 2/l ApocrJn, 3/4 SJC, 5/2 ApclPaul, 5/3 1ApclJas, 6/1 AcPetTwAp, 7/3 ApclPet):
Dialogues without a Specified Context. -- Similar to the two reports of dialogues listed above (2/7 ThCont and 3/5 DialSav) are three other works which present running dialogues without any introductory framework (see especially 3/5 DialSav above):
Letters (see also 8/2 PetPhil, above) and Treatises Addressed to Specific Recipients (see also above, 5/5 Adam to Seth, and 11/3 Allogenes to Messos). --
Monologues without clear Contexts. -- The remaining materials in NHL are various sorts of "monologues" which are classified below with reference to the apparent thrust of the material. To the category of prayer-praise-invocation, which we have already encountered above in 6/7 (PrThank) and 7/5 (3StSeth) should be added 1/1 Prayer of the Apostle Paul (PrPaul; first lines missing). Similar materials are sometimes included within some of the other tractates.
We also find self-affirmations in paradoxical poetic form in
Finally, there are a large number of treatises that could perhaps best be described as meditations or didactic essays of various sorts. Several of them deal in one way or another with how the world came into existence and why it requires redemption (see also above 2/1 ApocrJn, 3/2 GEgypt, 3/5 DialSav, 7/1 ParaShem, 13/1 TriProt):
Two other treatises focus on the origins, nature and fate of the soul (see also 6/8 Ascl, towards the end) --
while 11/1 Interpretation of Knowledge (InterpKn; BCNH, InterpGn[osis]) is a homiletic discourse on humility. General exhortation-instruction- meditation is found in:
Finally, two treatises which recount revelatory encounters and a very short, particularly enigmatic piece dealing with Norea round out the picture:
This rapid survey of the NHL materials shows that the explicitly "Christian" ingredient varies considerably among the various writings. A significant number of tractates claim to speak about Jesus and his immediate companions, although seldom by means of extended narrative reports. The person familiar with "New Testament Apocrypha" collections (most notably those edited by M. R. James or by Hennecke-Schneemelcher-Wilson or by J. K. Elliott) will recognize that NHL provides several new candidates for inclusion in such modern anthologies of ancient Christian literature cast in forms similar to the canonical gospels, acts, letters/homilies and apocalypse. Indeed, the most recent editions already have begun this task of incorporation.
GOSPELS. -- The title "gospel" actually occurs in five writings published in The Nag Hammadi Library: 1/3 Gospel of Truth, 2/2 Gospel of Thomas, 2/3 Gospel of Philip, 3/2 Gospel of the Egyptians, and BG 8502/1 Gospel of Mary. Possibly other NHL tractates of which the titles and/or subscriptions have not been preserved also bore this designation. But the four aforementioned "gospels" differ significantly from each other as well as from their canonical namesakes, and only GTh and GMary highlight traditions in which Jesus has a central role as an active participant (GTruth is a meditation on the message concerning Jesus, GPh juxtaposes various anonymously reported teachings; GEgypt deals mainly with the origins of the heavenly and earthly worlds). None of the NHL treatises supply explicit narratives about Jesus' activities prior to his suffering-death-vindication, but several (including GMary and GTh) present "the living" Jesus as instructing one or more of his followers, often in the context of his suffering and/or victory:
These ten writings seem to qualify for inclusion as a sub-category of "apocryphal gospel" materials, and are very similar in some ways to the so-called Epistle of the Apostles that has been preserved especially in Ethiopic translation and also depicts the resurrected Jesus teaching his associates. Other fragmentary "gospel" materials of possibly "gnostic" cast include Gospel of the Egyptians (from quotations; not the NHL Coptic text), Traditions of Matthias (from quotations), and the 11th chapter of Ascension of Isaiah.
ACTS. -- The canonical gospels (especially the synoptics) are, basically, acts of Jesus -- a sort of acts not represented in the NHL. But the NHL does include a few writings in which one of the revered early Christians receives central emphasis either in terms of deeds ("acts" proper) or discourse (like the "gospel" sub-category discussed above). Actually, the line is difficult to draw between "discourse-gospel" material and acts or "discourse-acts" materials in some instances, since the former are often presented as reports by specific followers of Jesus who also play active roles in the report -- e.g. GMary deals both with Jesus' discourse and with the discussion that continues after his departure, and PetPh focuses on Peter as well as on the revealed Jesus. Similarly, 1ApclJas deals to some extent with James and his fate, and finds its sequel in 2ApclJas (5/4), in which James seems to be the primary figure but he also reports discourses given by the resurrected Jesus. Similarly, AcPetTwAp (6/1) is mainly a narrative about the twelve (eleven?) disciples but includes an appearance and exhortations by the risen Jesus. The only unambiguous "acts" document in NHL, from this viewpoint, is BG 8502/4 AcPet, which is unique in not reporting a revelation-discourse of Jesus!
LETTERS/EPISTLES and Similar "Apostolic" Compositions. -- The NHL collection adds little to the otherwise already relatively sparse existing collection of epistles and related documents in the "Apocryphal New Testament" anthologies. On the one hand, NHL has a few treatises in the form of letters -- the ApocrJas (1/2) begins as a letter but records a "gospel-discourse," OnRes (1/4) and Eug (3/3) both have letter form -- but only the opening section of PetPhil (8/2), and perhaps of ApocrJas, seem to qualify as allegedly apostolic letters (in each instance, letters attached to other materials). There are, of course, numerous writings identified in one way or another with "apostolic" names, but most of them fit better into other categories. An exception, perhaps, is PrPaul (1/1), which by default (it is not gospel, or acts, or an apocalypse) might be included here.
APOCALYPSES. -- In one sense, the revelatory gospel-discourses listed above often also qualify as "apocalypses" -- e.g. ApclPet (7/3). But Jesus is not the only revealer of clearly Christian association in the NHL collection. In 2ApclJas (5/4), Jacob/James plays a central role as agent of revelation. More classic in form is ApclPaul (5/2), in which Paul recounts his journey through the heavens. At this point, again, "New Testament Apocrypha" collections will be expanded by the material in NHL.
It is clear that the NHC preserve numerous documents that have explicitly Christian connections in their present form, whatever their origins and transmission history. There is no reason to doubt, and good reasons to affirm, that Christians copied and transmitted the contents, at least in the latest stages. What is not so clear is the extent to which originally pre- and/or non- Christian materials have found their way into the collection (see NHL 8-9). The sections from Plato's Republic (6/5) and from the Hermetic Prayer of Thanksgiving (6/7), Asclepius (6/8), and the Discourse on 8th and 9th (6/6) are obvious illustrations of the breadth represented in the direction of non- Jewish and non-Christian materials. Whether and to what extent such texts as ParaShem, ApclAdam, 3StSeth, Zost, Allog, Mar, and Nor relate to or derive from Jewish, perhaps even pre-Christian Jewish, circles requires careful attention. The relation of SSext (12/1) to Judaism and Christianity, and also to "gnosticism," is equally problematic. Similarly, the tractate Thund (6/2), even in its preserved form, contains nothing distinctively Christian or Jewish -- or for that matter, nothing characteristically "gnostic"--although a shorter, somewhat variant form of its opening self-affirmation is ascribed to "Eve the first virgin" in OrgWld (2/5):
|OrgWld (2/5) 114.8-15||Thund (6/2) 13.1 - 14.15|
|. . . I am the first|
|and the last.|
|I am the portion of my mother,||I am the honored one|
|and I am the mother.||and the scorned one.|
|I am the whore|
|and the holy one.|
|I am the woman,||I am the wife|
|and I am the virgin.||and the virgin.|
|I am the pregnant one.||I am (the mother)|
|and the daughter.|
|I am the members|
|of my mother.|
|I am the barren one. . . .|
|I am the physician.|
|I am the midwife.||I am the midwife|
|and she who does not bear.|
|I am the solace|
|of my labor pains.|
|I am the bride|
|and the bridegroom,|
|My husband is the one||and it is my husband|
|who begot me,||who begot me.|
|and I am his mother,||I am the mother of my father|
|and he is my father||and the sister of my husband.|
|and my lord.||and he is my offspring.|
|He is my potency.||I am the slave|
|of him who prepared me.|
|I am the ruler|
|of my offspring. . . .|
|That which he desires||He is my offspring . . .|
|he speaks with reason.||and my power is from him.|
|I am (still) in a||. . . Whatever he wills|
|nascent state,||happens to me. . . .|
|but I have borne||I am the utterance|
|a lordly man.||of my name.|
To suggest that SSext or Thund may be "non-gnostic" in origin is, of course, to presume a relatively tight definition of "gnostic." Nor does it say anything about how the text came to be read and used in the course of transmission. For present purposes, those texts which do not seem to require that the material world be considered basically and ultimately inferior to and in important ways opposed to the "unseen" spiritual/immaterial world would not qualify as mainstream "gnostic." Thus when the God who is to be worshipped is described as creating or maintaining the physical world, or the savior/redeemer is depicted as somehow actually being physical or physically raised from the dead, the "gnostic" label seems to some extent inappropriate. Especially in "ethical" literature, of course, the line between a "gnostic" perspective that the world is inherently inferior/evil and a view that the originally good or neutral world has become "sinful"/"fallen" and thus in need of redemption may be very thin indeed. Adjustments in interpreting a text/passage may also be required when the scholarly conceit of thinking to know what the words originally were intended to mean is considered (this is especially a problem with intentionally cryptic texts or parodies). With these considerations in mind, however, the following overtly Christian texts in NHL for one reason or another seem less likely to be of "gnostic" origin: Silv, AcPetTwAp, ActPet. A number of other texts in NHL do not demand an overtly "gnostic" interpretation, although ambiguous enough to allow such, notably PrPaul, GTh, ThCont, AuthTeach, GrPow, InterpKn, ExSoul, ApocrJas, ApclPaul, and ApclPeter. Of the not overtly Christian texts, Ascl and SSext seem especially problematic from a "gnostic" perspective, while Thund and PrThank are mildly questionable.
Probably the single most pervasive general theme found among the NHL writings is the derivation of the world (cosmogony). In one way or another this is a central focus of more than a dozen tractates. Indeed, several writings show such close similarities that arrangement of certain passages in parallel columns would be very helpful for studying this material. In order to test the value of the index in NHL as a tool for study, we attempted to trace the story of the four angels/lights already known from the Bruce Codex "Sethian" tractate's cosmogony -- (H)armozel, Or(o)iel, Daveithai, Eleleth. By working backwards and forwards from the NHL Index of Names, which provided a cross-reference between the separate entries for Armozel and Harmozel, we were able to isolate the following group of cosmogonic texts with similar traditions: ApocrJn, Zost, GEgypt, TriProt, Melch, HypArch. The composite picture of the four angels/lights derived therefrom is especially helpful in attempting to understand each of the separate texts as well as their points of contact, and led to other names to be traced in a sort of onomastic chain reaction which added the following similarly cosmogonic texts to the growing list: OrgWld, TriTrac, GrSeth, ApclAdam, 3StSeth, DialSav, ParaShem, ValExp, Mar, Allog. Various sub-groupings within this larger collection emerge on closer analysis -- for example, aspects of the biblical Genesis creation tradition appear in many, but not all (e.g. TriProt) of the writings.
It is interesting to note that several of the aforementioned works seem to claim a special scripture-like authority for themselves (compare also ApclAdam): e.g.
See also Zost 130.1f "I wrote three tablets and left them . . . for those who come after me, the living elect."
The Index of Names will not give the reader much assistance in attempting to locate information about the Jesus traditions in NHL, beyond undifferentiated lists referring to Christ, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Mary, etc. This is unfortunate since NHL contains numerous references to the two poles of Jesus' earthly story -- birth and infancy (see Appendix 2 below), death and resurrection (see Appendix 1 below)-- plus a few other matters (e.g. his baptism). Since this is an area of much popular concern, literature like Dart's The Laughing Savior and Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels will doubtless abound in the next few years.
Jesus as teacher/revealer is especially focal in the NHL, as we have already noticed above. While GTh has spurred on research concerning the origin and development of sayings collections (the old "Q hypothesis" with much wider ramifications), the significance of various aspects of the discourse material for discussions of the Fourth Gospel and the New Testament Apocalypse (especially chapters 1 - 3) as well as early Christian prophecy and apocalyptic perspectives will have a more far-reaching impact in the study of early Christianity.
Of special interest in the NH texts is the focus on certain early disciples -- Judas Thomas, Jacob/James (the brother of Jesus), Peter, Paul, Philip, Mathias, Matthew -- and not the least on "the seven women" (SJC beginning, 1ApclJas 38.16f), with particular attention to one or more named Mary/Mariam/Mariamme and occasional references to Martha, Salome, Arsinoe. The Index of Names is, of course, useful here. On the whole, however, the disciples serve mostly as the foil for the Redeemer's discoursing, and only occasionally do we learn anything about their independent activities.
From the materials in the NHL comes interesting information about various aspects of Christian life and practice as it was known to the various authors and groups represented in this collection of texts. Only occasionally are church officials mentioned -- e.g. "the priest" in GPhil 77.2, the antagonistic "bishop and deacons" in ApclPet 79.25. Indeed, "the church" is itself a term rarely encountered (see NHL Index, TripTract 57.34 - 59.10 -- preexistent church; GPhil 53.32; ValExp 29.29 - 31.37 -- preexistent Sophia). Virtually nothing is said in the NHL texts about calendric observations -- Sunday receives passing notice in OrgWld 118.1-2. A number of prayers, however, are referred to or are actually recorded in the texts (e.g. PrPaul), along with mysterious "nonsense" formulas including sequences of vowels resembling passages found elsewhere in magical literature (see GEgypt 44.2, 66.8, 67.14; On8th9th 56.17ff, 61.10ff).
Of specific rituals, fasting plays no significant role but baptism is mentioned in various connections, including the reference in OrgWld 122.14f to "three baptisms: . . . spiritual, . . . a fire . . . , water." In GPhil 67.28-30 baptism is the first of five interrelated ritual aspects of "a mystery" performed by the Lord -- "a baptism and a chrism" ("superior to baptism" in 74.12f; leads to resurrection in 73.18f) and a eucharist (see 75.1, bread-cup-oil; also 75.14f, 77.2ff) and a redemption and a bridal chamber (see also 64.32 on the "mystery of marriage," 69.22ff on baptism, redemption and bridal chamber). Other texts sometimes mention members of this series besides baptism -- e.g. TriTrac 127.26 - 128.34 where baptism is called the "garment" which those who have received redemption wear; also "confirmation," "silence," "bridal chamber," "light," "eternal life," and "the totalities"; ValExp 40-44 which mentions anointing, baptism, eucharist; DialSav 138.19 on the bridal chamber. A ritual kiss on the mouth also is discussed in GPhil 59.3-4 (cf 63.35f, 2ApclJas 56.14).
Various attitudes to what have become the "scriptures" of Judaism and of Christianity, and to other revered writings, are displayed by the NHL texts. On the one hand, ValExp 28.29ff tells its readers of the necessity to search the scriptures, and in certain tractates we find a wide positive use of "scriptural" quotation and/or allusion -- ExSoul is the most obvious example (including quotes from "the poet" Homer at 136.17 - 137.2), but TestimTr and Silv also contain such quotations. On the other hand, the words of Moses are at best ambivalent for ApocrJn (see 13.20, 22.22, 23.2, 29.6 "not as Moses said"), while the heroes and the God of Jewish scriptural tradition are ridiculed in 2TrSeth 62-65, and the traditional story of the fall (Genesis 1-3) is turned on its head in TestimTr 45-48. Elsewhere, various non-biblical titles are mentioned as somehow worthy of attention -- book of Zoroaster (ApocrJn 19.10), Archangelike of Moses and various other "holy books" (OrgWld 102, 107, 112, 122), book the great Seth wrote (GEgypt 68.1f) -- and certain of the NHL texts themselves make claims to be authoritative writings -- GEgypt, ApclAdam, On8th9th, Zost, Allog, TrimProt (see above on creation accounts).
A few passages in the NHL materials offer explicit information about inner Christian conflicts. Most intriguing is TestimTr, which criticizes "the foolish" who claim to be "Christians" but are actually ignorant and fit the pattern of "Pharisees and scribes" by exhibiting the "errant desire of the angels and the demons and the stars" (see 29.12ff, 31.22ff, 41.2ff). Later, in a very poorly preserved section, criticism is voiced against Valentinus and his disciples (56), and Basilides and his son Isidore (57), among others. The author also is critical of portions of Jewish scriptures, which are quoted or alluded to several times (see the preceding paragraph), of certain attitudes to Christian baptism as a "seal" of salvation -- indeed, "the baptism of truth" is found "by renunciation of the world" (67.7-31) -- and of certain positive attitudes to future resurrection which are corrected with the words "this is the perfect life, that one knows himself by means of the All" (34.26 - 36.28).
Evaluating the English translations of the Coptic texts that comprise this volume is a formidable task. The reviewer is faced with 47 separate texts edited or translated by 31 different scholars working independently or in collaborative groups of two or three on one or more texts. The quality of the translations varies widely -- some are very good, others barely adequate (see below). As the individual tractates are published in the NHS series (with text, translation, and commentary) reviewers will be able to deal with each tractate in detail. Here, we can only summarize the translation problems and caution users against uncritical use of this volume.
Obviously, different readers will use these translations in different ways. Those who read Coptic will not be seriously inconvenienced by errors and incoherencies in the translation since they will be able, at least theoretically, to check specific passages in the Coptic original, but may be distressed at other features (see below). Those who do not read Coptic, however, are at the mercy of the translators and should be warned against using this volume as a firmly established Nag Hammadi "bible" to be quoted with confidence. Some of the translations are still quite "provisional" and must be used with great caution.
Variation in translational style is to be expected in a collection of this type, to which so many scholars have contributed, and the editor's introduction prepares the reader for this (XI). But in the treatment of technical terms and especially of borrowed Greek words this variety seriously reduces the book's usefulness. Contrary to common practice, the translations do not mark the presence of Greek words in the Coptic original, possibly due to considerations of space and economy. Many of the Greek words are technical terms which often refer to personified concepts (Nous, Logos, etc.). The translators handle these personifications in various ways: some transiterate (Nous), others translate and capitalize (Mind). If the translator decides that no personification is intended, the Greek word is simply translated (mind). This inconsistency between tractates, and occasionally within the same tractate, can create significant problems for the reader. If we find "Sophia" in some texts (see Index, which lists more than 50 occurrences) and "Wisdom" in others (about 15 listed in the Index), can we infer any common ground between them? We could at least consider possible connections if it were clear that the same Greek word <gk>sophia appears in all the Coptic passages listed. Especially confusing is GPhil where we find both Sophia (59.30f) and Wisdom (60.11-15) side by side in personified forms. Elsewhere, Greek and English words are awkwardly mixed in a series of personifications, perhaps to alert the reader to the presence of a particular Greek word in the Coptic: "perfection, peace, and Sophia" (ApocrJn 9.19f -- why are not all three "aeons" capitalized in English?), and "Nous and Word and Division and Envy and Fire" (GrSeth 68.19).
The same impulse introduces transliterated Greek into inappropriate contexts, such as GrSeth 66.6-8: " . . . the undefiled wedding was consummated through the Mesotes of Jesus." Is it likely that a personified abstraction is intended here, rather than the simple statement, "through the mediation of Jesus"? In ApocrJn, the Greek term <gk>pronoia is sometimes transliterated (6.5-30, 30.12) and sometimes translated "foreknowledge" (23.24-29, 28.2, 29.2), while another term, <gk>prognosis, also is translated "foreknowledge" (5.13 - 6.6). The translator may be correct in his judgment that one usage is a personification and another is not, but the basis for this judgment is not immediately apparent and the English reader may not recognize what is happening. Indeed, the well-intended cross-references in the Index may add to the confusion since (personified) Foreknowledge is listed without cross-references while Forethought refers us to Pronoia, Providence, and Thought. Under "Thought," we are then referred to Ennoia and Epinoia as well as Protennoia (but not to Forethought). There is no Index entry for Prognosis.
The same problem of variation in treatment of technical terms within and between the treatises also affects Coptic (non-Greek) technical terms such as <cp>pterf (the All) but not to the same degree because such Coptic terms are always translated, never transliterated. But the failure consistently to indicate Greek terms forces the scrupulous reader to consult the Coptic text very frequently, thus to some extent undermining the value of a compact translation for that sort of user.
Mistranslation of individual words, misinterpretation of Coptic grammar, and errors in editing occur in several tractates. In GPhil 61.14 <cp>mou is translated "dissolve" instead of "set" or "become fixed," which would certainly be better suited to the metaphor of dyes that are permanent (Crum l59a). Similarly, in GrPow 46.2 <gk>stigme is translated "moment" though "mark" suits the context and is attested in Greek of the period (Crum 562a), perhaps through confusion with <gk>stigma. In Ascl 75.29 <cp>kooh should be translated "mountain" or "summit" rather than corner. The intended emphasis or contrast is lost in GrSeth 59.26f when <gk>ereuporei is mistranslated "advancing the name of Christ." The point seems to be that they "think that they are rich in the name of Christ, but they are unknowingly empty" (see Crum 83a). The awkwardness of a sentence such as "I proclaim to you to tell you these (words) that I shall speak" (2ApclJas 52.13-15) is the result of mistranslation of the Coptic <cp>shmnoufe (= <gk>euaggelion). With this correction, and a slight grammatical adjustment, the sentence reads "I give you good news, telling you these (words) that I shall speak."
Confusion is sometimes due to misinterpretation of Coptic tenses. In GrSeth 55.7 the translator reads <cp>nef as the prefix of negative third future ("the plan will certainly not materialize"), yet this section repeatedly uses the prefixes <cp>nei, <cp>neu, etc., for the imperfect. The sentence, as an imperfect, should read, "the plan is coming into being," which makes better sense in connection with the following sentence: "For Adonaios knows me because of hope." Earlier, in 53.5 a second perfect tense is incorrectly translated as a circumstantial, producing an incomplete sentence. With a second perfect, the passage begins "but it was because of contact with ignorance that they received the name. . . ." In some passages, the grammatical elements are interpreted in a way that is possible, but highly unlikely: no question mark is necessary in On8th9th 58.23; a sentence division inappropriately follows the Greek particle <gk>gar in GPhil 52.18 (it should be divided, " . . . and this one is in danger of dying. For he is alive ever since Christ came. The world . . ."); not a nominal sentence, but simple apposition ("I, Jesus Christ . . .") appears in GrSeth 69.21. In GrSeth 66.6 the use of the passive verb "was consummated" is unjustified, and may be the result of the earlier omission of an indirect object which provides the antecedent to the subject of the verb, thus:
|NHL version at 7/2.66.1ff||Improved version|
|. . .||. . .|
|when they had taken counsel||having taken counsel|
|about a spiritual wedding||about a spiritual marriage|
|which is in union,||which is in union --|
|and thus he||and thus it [the marriage]|
|was perfected||was completed for them|
|in the ineffable places||in the ineffable places|
|by a living word,||through a living word --|
|the undefiled wedding||they consummated this|
|was consummated||undefiled marriage|
|through the Mesotes||through the mediation|
|of Jesus. . . .||of Jesus. . . .
Over-literal translation, insufficient sentence division, and a choice of words that strike the wrong note also make for difficult reading, occasionally to the point of unintelligibility. Sometimes there is an attempt to translate every Coptic word: "Show us the pearl before our eyes" (AcPet 12.24; see also ApocrJas 15.6). Desire for quantitative equivalence also produces technically accurate but idiomatically awkward expressions such as "finding your houses unceiled" (ApocrJas 9.5-6; Coptic <cp>emnmelot). A sentence such as is found in ApclPet 71.22ff -- running for seven printed lines -- may follow the Coptic closely yet be confusing in English due to the accumulation of relative clauses and the strange use of the dash. This should be divided into two or three sentences if a useful English translation is desired. We also question the use of old English thee, thou, etc., in prayers contained in GEgypt 66-67, DialSav 121 (see also "ye . . . you" in 133.14), On8th9th 52-63, PrThank, ParaShem (passim), 3StSeth 118-127, Silv 112.28ff, and ValExp 40-44. It is especially confusing to come across this style in the middle of a tractate when the opening prayer tractate of the collection does not use it; the reader who is unfamiliar with Coptic may think that there is a basis for these differentiations in Coptic (a polite second person), although there is none.
Some of the translations are a clear improvement over previously published attempts. The better translations are characterized by skillful editing and reconstruction of the text, effective sentence division, and avoidance of overliteral translation. The reconstruction of gaps in the text of the PrPaul (Dieter Mueller, translator) is particularly effective. In the case of the AuthTeach (Douglas Parrott, editor; George MacRae, translator) the restraint, compared to earlier editions, shown in restoration of the opening portion of the text is commendable. Many examples of effective sentence division and non-literal, yet accurate, translation could be selected from the TriTrac (Harold Attridge and D. Mueller, translators) -- e.g. 63.15ff "He, however, is as he is, the incomparable one. In order that he might receive honor from each one, the Father reveals himself, and yet in his ineffability wonders at himself." The use of punctuation here is very skillful and makes a difficult passage reasonably clear.
Because of the extremely uneven quality of the translations the reader must use them with varying degrees of caution. We cannot, however, rate the relative merits of each and every translation in this review and will thus simply cite those we have found to be positively or negatively noteworthy, for one reason or another. Those who read Coptic can safely use all the translations for quick thematic review, followed by a comparison of some individual passages with the Coptic original. Other readers must be wary of identifying all but the broadest outlines of thought in GrSeth and be moderately cautious in their use of the translations of the ApocrJn, AcPetTwAp, GrPow, On8th9th, and Ascl. These tractates are relatively more marked by inconsistency in translational technique and/or by mistranslation. Those who do not read Coptic can place relatively more confidence in the TriTrac and the GPhil (Wesley Isenberg, translator), which are idiomatic, yet accurate, translations. The remainder of the translations seem to be literal (at times over literal) and sufficiently accurate for general purposes.
All users of this volume should benefit from the publication of separate editions of the tractates in the CGL series. These separate publications will doubtless be able to correct some problems that have been noted in earlier drafts and/or in NHL, and each can itself be reviewed in detail. For the present, we have tried to provide a general impression of the main strengths and weaknesses of the translations, with the non- Coptic user especially in mind.
For a work in which there is so much room for typographical error, this volume is amazingly free of such blemishes. Those of us who have watched James Robinson meticulously working his way through the proofs even during "free time" at busy professional meetings can perhaps begin to appreciate the type of effort expended in this regard. A few problems remain to be noted here:
The proofreaders and editors failed more frequently in noting inconsistencies in use of capitalization even within the same tractate as well as between tractates -- e.g.
The Index of Proper Names requires further attention, and has already received some comment in the preceding section. In many ways it epitomizes the weakness of NHL as well as the tantalizing potential. The index is well intentioned and extremely useful; it is also flawed and sometimes very frustrating. It is flawed partly because it must try to present in as consistent and ordered fashion as possible materials which to some extent are inconsistently presented or are inherently ambiguous in the various translations. We have noted some of this above -- when does a term qualify as a "proper name" in this literature so full of personified "concepts and abstractions"? As the introduction to the Index notes, "it remains for future research to make a definitive distinction between cases where each term is a proper name and case where it is a common noun or an adjective. In these case the selection provided here is only preliminary, and in some case the quantity of occurrences has led to a selection even within those that might be considered proper names." The reader is then referred to the indices to the volumes of CGL "for complete lists of proper names and personified concepts" (p. 478).
Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder whether it might not have been worth delaying publication for a few extra weeks in order to use the process of indexing to bring more homogeneity to the edited translations, or at least to constructy a more rationalized and comprehensive index, including key concepts and events of Christian tradition (e.g. baptism, law, faith, crucifixion, resurrection). Admittedly, there will always be room for progress in such matters, and the tedious process of editing such a heterogeneous collection with so many contributors could go on almost indefinitely. It is understandable that the process be arrested at some point, that the volume appear. We are elated to have it. But the user should also be alerted to what might be expected but is not fully realized in the volume, even, or especially, in the Index. Thus the following somewhat random comments.
The index is sometimes deceptive or confusing in its inclusion or omission of cross-references, as has been noted above with reference to the related entries for Forthought, Pronoia, Providence, Thought (First Thought), Protennoia, Ennoia, Epinoia. The user who knows no Greek, not to mention Coptic, may not realize what is happening here, and as has been pointed out above, reference to the individual translated passages may not help since Greek transliterations in the Coptic are not noted where an English equivalent appears. From NHL alone, it is impossible to tell whether "Thought" represents <gk>ennoia, <gk>epinoia, or perhaps a non-Greek Coptic word, or whether "Forethought" represents only <gk>pronoia or also <gk>protennoia (apparently usually "First Thought," for which there is no entry under "First" but only under "Thought"). It would not have been difficult to clarify such matters in the Index, if not in the translations themselves. And the users would have been well served by such effort. As things now stand, the Index makes us wonder whether "Underworld" represents Abyss, Hades, Tartaros, or none of those terms to which the Index makes cross-references; is there no connection between Existent One, Preexistent One, and First-Existing One (none of which are cross- referenced to each other) as there seems to be between Existent One and He Who Is, One Who Is and That Which Is?; should not Judas refer also to Thomas?; Mary to Mariam and Mariamme?; from Archon one is referred to Ruler, but not vice versa; Messiah refers to Christ, but not vice versa; Father has no cross- reference to Mother-Father; does Eros have any relationship to Love (perhaps not)?; do Form, Eidea and Idea have anything in common?; what of Life and Living One?; Devil and Satan?
At a variety of other points the Index fails to fulfill its intended function. There are no entries for (the) All, Apostles (although Apostle = Paul appears) or Disciples (even "the Twelve"), Archangelike (see Moses), Eighth = Ogdoad, Evangelist, First-Thought (see Thought), Harvest (see Place of), Hebdomad, Heli (see Seth), Imperishable Ones, Invisible Spirit (see Spirit), Invisible Child, Joy (mountain of; see Place of Harvest), Just One (see James), Luminaries, Machar (see Seth), Mirotheos/Mirothea (see Meiro), Plutonius (see Zeus), Rabbi (for Jesus), Rest-Repose (as a place), Sambathas (see Pronoia), Self- Father (see Father), Telmael (see Seth), Thrice-Male, Totalities, Triple-Male, Triple-Powerful Invisible Spirit, Virgin Spirit, Vitality. Many of these appear elsewhere in the Index, it is true, but the user deserves at least a cross-referenced entry in alphabetical order.
In terms of accuracy for what it does include, the Index gets high grades. Misprints and omissions seem minimal: "church" does not appear in 2/3.55.19 as reported; "Eve" is in 9/3.46 (the 3 is omitted); "Self-begotten One" occurs also in 8/l.25.11 (plural) and 25.15 (singular); "Word" possibly is personified also in 7/1.29.6, and almost certainly in 37.7 (see above under typographical inconsistencies). Undoubtedly other users will spot other such problems, but for the most part the high degree of editorial excellence is also maintained here.
We hope the reader of this review will not be impatient with our attempt to cover a wide variety of perspectives in assessing NHL, or be confused about our overall evaluation. It is a volume that any serious student of early Christianity or of Egyptian religion in late antiquity must consult frequently, and it is priced low enough for individuals to purchase. There are flaws -- some more serious than others, some affecting one type of readership (or usership) more than another. But the final word is one of deep and lasting appreciation to James Robinson, his team and his institution, and to the publishers for making this material accessible so quickly, conveniently, and inexpensively. Thank you all -- and keep up the good work of making these materials progressively more available!