Now that I’ve discussed the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, I can move into the kinds of religion found among these books, popularly known as the “Gnostic Gospels.” And that will involve laying out the views found among the various Christian groups of the second and third century (principally) that scholars call Gnostic. Gnosticism is a fascinating topic, but it is also widely misunderstood, in no small part because scholarship on Gnosticism over the past twenty or thirty years ago has shown that the widely held views of earlier generations of scholars were based more on assumption than on evidence.
There have long been heated debates over even how to define Gnosticism. Until about a hundred years ago, just about the only sources scholars used for understanding Gnosticism were the writings of its most vocal opponents, the proto-orthodox church fathers of the second, third, and fourth centuries. The problem is, as we all know so well (think: American politics!) you can’t really rely on what a group’s enemies say if you want to know their actual views.
With regard to Gnosticism the problems were always particularly 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.
With the Nag Hammadi library we suddenly have an entire cache of books,