One other major change that I have made in my textbook on the New Testament is that I have completely rewritten my description of early Christian Gnosticism.   I’ll be presenting in a few posts what the section now looks like, and will explain why I made the changes.   To make sense of the new portion, I first need to give the introductory discussion (dealing with our sources of information, including the Nag Hammadi Library), which I did not change drastically from the earlier version.  Here it is:


The Problems of Definitions, Sources, and Dating

Over the past fifty years scholars have engaged in heated debates over how to define Gnosticism. These debates are intimately related to the problems that we have with the ancient sources that describe Gnostics or were written by Gnostics. Until about a hundred years ago, our only sources for understanding Gnosticism were the writings of its most vocal opponents, the proto-orthodox church fathers of the second, third, and fourth centuries. In our discussion of the Johannine epistles, we have already seen some of the problems with reconstructing a group’s beliefs and activities on the basis of an attack by its enemies. With regard to Gnosticism the problems are even more severe. Proto-orthodox church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian saw Gnosticism as a major threat to the success and unity of Christianity and pulled out all the stops in their assaults on it. Many of their charges—for example, their claim that certain groups of Gnostics engaged in wild sexual orgies and bizarre nocturnal rituals that involved eating babies—must be scrutinized with care (see Chapter 28).

One of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century provided us with an entirely new source of information about Gnostics, a source not produced by its opponents but by Gnostic Christians themselves. In 1945, just over a year before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, some Egyptian peasants stumbled upon a jar containing thirteen ancient books. These books contained some fifty-two literary works, most of them previously unknown. When they finally made their way through antiquities dealers into the hands of competent scholars, it became clear what they were. These peasants had accidentally unearthed a collection of ancient Gnostic texts written in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language.

The books themselves were manufactured …