by John Lash
May 2005 Flanders-Andalucia
revised October 10, 2010 Andalucia
from MetaHistory Website
On the first approach to these arcane texts, even the most dedicated reader may easily be repelled. Attempting to go deeper, s/he is likely to become overwhelmed.
is to be done?
The question is, How to get to it?
All the material in the Coptic Gnostic writings is difficult, but there may be a way to make the onerous task of reading the NHC a little easier. The purpose of reading these texts cannot be comprehensive understanding of any kind by which I mean on overview of how it all hangs together. It doesn't.
There is no unitary and synthetic way to view the Coptic writings attributed to Gnostics. It might be compared to a scrap pile of automobile carcasses, different makes and models. And parts of the original vehicles are missing. You cannot rebuild any single automobile from this heap of twisted metal. The best you can do is make a car-like mobile out of the scrap.
The NHC are chaotic and contradictory, muddled and fragmentary in content.
But there is a way of reading that can be productive of outstanding insights - bursts of discovery, as I will call them. To this end, I propose a reading plan consisting of a sequence of texts in three categories, with commentaries that highlight the outstanding points in each text.
Caveat lector: reader, be advised that the system I propose is biased toward a non-Judeo-Christian interpretation of the NHC, putting emphasis on elements of the material which has been largely ignored and/or discounted by known scholars. There is plenty of objectionable content for such an approach, so I feel on solid ground in my choice to select and highlight the essential elements of Pagan, pre-Christian Gnosis.
At the very least, here is an optional
way to read the NHC, a departure from the standard approach to be
found in hundreds of other books.
The tactical reading program I propose begins with a banal feat of organization: listing the texts in The Nag Hammadi Library in English (hereafter NHLE) in alphabetic order.
No edition of these texts presents such a list. Rather, the 52 documents in the collection are listed sequentially by Codex (Roman numeral), and document (number) : V, 5, The Apocalypse of Adam.
The NHLE presents a Table of Contents arranged in this manner, running through thirteen Codices. The problem is, if you riffle the book and catch sight of a passage that engages you in, say, The Apocalypse of Peter, you have refer again to the Table of Contents to go back to that text.
This is an onerous process that requires perusing the contents until you locate it: VII, 3, about halfway down the list.
Going through the Table of Contents time and time again is a tedious and exasperating exercise. On the other hand, if you just riffle the book without going intentionally to a particular text that engages you, you will find that the NHLE is exhaustingly long and complicated.
Even though it consists of only 52 documents, it seems to go on forever! And it contains no small amount of gibberish in damaged and undamaged passages alike:
Given the state of the materials, it is totally useless to read the NHLE from page one, straight through to the end. In the first place, you will never get through it, you will get buried, bogged down in the material.
And anyway, there is no particular advantage in reading straight through the book because there is no sequential sense in the Codices. In fact, it is much better to read them non-sequentially. With the reading plan it is possible both to develop a comprehensive overview of the texts, and to appreciate each single text according to its specific character.
With the three-level breakdown, reading is easier and more productive.
Now what about those "bursts of
Sometimes one sentence will stand out from an otherwise baffling barrage of words, like a flash of lightning in fog. Or a vivid snatch of Gnostic myth will capture the imagination. For instance, the line "Spiritual love is wine and fragrance.
All those who anoint themselves in it take pleasure in it." stands out in the Gospel of Philip. The textual location is II, 3 : 77.35: Codex II, document 3, page 77 (in that codex or bound volume), line 35. Every single line in the NHLE can be located in this way.
Granted, it is handy to be able to designate the exact location of a line in the NHLE, but this system does not help with overall orientation to the material. Detecting the "bursts" will orient the reading process, because each burst is like a flare marking one section of a continuous path through the entire corpus. The vivid, outstanding sentences or passages confer a kind of coherence on hopelessly incoherent material.
In continued reading, what you get from the NHLE comes through sudden flashes of this kind rather than through intensive, line-by-line comprehension - which is, in any case, impossible. Not even a veteran scholar would claim to have it.
To keep track of the flashes, and build comprehension based on these sporadic insights, you have to be able to return to the text where the flash happens. This is how the alphabetic list is helpful.
I have made an alphabetic list of texts for the NHLE 1991, the edition most widely used outside scholarly circles.
This is the paperback edition most people own. The list can be printed out, folded to a column, and kept in the book, used as a bookmark. Keep this list handy for immediate access to any text.
Now for the breakdown, that is, the order of reading. I propose three stages of reading with texts listed alphabetically at each level.
From the total of 52 documents, I have compiled three lists. I ignore minor and negligible texts, thus reducing the list to 32 documents in three modules or reading levels. It so happens that the alphabetic order, which appears arbitrary, provides a helpful sequence for working through the materials. How this is so will become evident as we explore the levels.
This recondite material requires special reading tactics. It helps hugely to know what you're getting into before you start reading, what type or genre of text you're tackling, and how long it is.
All the material in the NHC is difficult, but the difficulty diminishes as we learn from one text how to approach the succeeding one.
This is the tactical advantage afforded by the three-stage, alphabetic order.
"The Mysteries and the Master"
"The Sense of Cosmic Order"
These tables list the selected 32 documents in the reading plan, with page numbers in the NHLE, and conventional abbreviations of titles.
Each of the commentaries opens with standard information: title, Codex book (Roman numeral) and text number, location in NHLE, length of text, state of the text (damaged, intact, etc), type or genre, and CORE or outstanding themes of the text.
For example, text 9 in the second module:
Reading in Depth
Like the master collection with full-page photographic plates of each page of the thirteen Codices, the five-volume CGL presents the Coptic text on the left with line-by-line translation on the right-hand page, plus long commentaries, glossaries in Greek and Coptic, etc.
In many places the translations of the CGL differ from the popular NHLE.
To reiterate: this three-stage reading plan showcases the heretical message of Gnosticism by highlighting "bursts," the vivid and outstanding elements in each text. Fine, but it could be argued that these are my bursts, and other readers will have different responses, resulting in different highlights. Granted, this is certainly true, and I do not claim that my bursts are superior or overriding in importance.
I do claim, however, that my bursts may be in some manner definitive because they have recurred hundreds of times in my readings of these texts. The themes and elements I emphasize are those I have found to be sharply delineated by successive reading.
Thus they may serve as
teaching points have been rigorously test-driven. They are not the
only highlights a reader will encounter in the Gnostic corpus, but
they are the key recurrent highlights in my reading experience that
define the essential non-salvationist message of Gnosis.
But if Gnosticism reveals anything at all historically speaking, it shows that Christian doctrines of salvation and divine paternalism were squarely met and refuted at the moment of their emergence. The experts ignore the Gnostic message as such, apart from its use to explain and legitimate Christianity and to delineate the historical origins of the belief-system that prevailed over Pagan illuminism.
More notably, experts do not treat the Sophia Mythos as a genuine visionary scenario in its own right, distinct from the Judeo-Christian creation myth, nor do they regard the bizarre subject of the Archons to be worthy of serious scholarly consideration.
Any lay reader who delves into the Gnostic corpus has the right to know about scholarly oversight and bias. I emphasize one extraordinary fact: namely, no scholar has indicated how the two main components of Gnostic heresy, the critique of salvationism and the Sophia Mythos, are interlocked.
Let's call these the critical component and the imaginative component of the Gnostic refutation of salvationist faith.
The imaginal component presents the scenario of Sophia's plunge from the Pleroma, the cosmic center. By a side-effect of her action, an inorganic species of locust-like cyborgs comes to inhabit the solar system, apart from the sun, moon, and earth.
Such is the the "sci-fi theology" of Gnosticism. You can take it or leave it, but it is not going to disappear any time soon.
Mystery School teaching on deviation comprises (I estimate) about one sixth or one fifth of all the material in the corpus.
Some texts such as On the Origin of the World (II, 5) are preponderantly concerned with the threat posed by the "extraterrestrial" Archons.
Make no bones about it, these astonishing writings make it eminently clear that the alien mind parasites are psychic intruders ("They take away souls by theft." V, 3 : 33.10) who use the false ideology of salvationism to enslave humanity to an alien agenda ("It is enslavement that we should die with Christ." VII, 2 : 49.20-30).
As for the critical component, this appies to the Gnostic refutation of salvationist dogma and the redeemer complex' in other words, the critique of Judeo-Christian theodicy.
The Gnostic view makes the Archons instrumental in implanting and spreading the redeemer pathology: it relies on the imaginative element, the story of Sophia, to support a radical critique of the "divine plan."
The Archons are intrapsychic cross-species agents of error whose main expression is salvationist ideology framed in totalitarian religion. The entities, alien cousins to humanity, are deeply implicated in what we believe about ourselves, about human potential, God and the Gods.
They use HAL or simulation to skew the workings of the luminous epinoia, the power of imagination endowed in humanity for the express purpose of detecting and resisting those deviant influences.
Heretical Gnosticism teaches that the talent of imagination is central to the divine birthright of the human species, and must be owned, lest it be lost - or worse, co-opted and deviated toward non-human designs.
Moreover, imagination is integral to the human bond with Sophia and even plays a role in her transhuman process of "correction," i.e., realignment to the galactic center, the Pleroma.
This is THE core message of Gnostic heresy, but you will not even find it acknowledged as such in scholarly expositions of the Coptic writings.
It is as if scholars were reading a will and quibbling over legalese, debating statutes and general laws that apply to hereditary succession, and so forth, but ignoring the actual bequest stated in the testamentary language.
So far, no orthodox scholar has been willing to take the Gnostic exposition of the Archon threat on face value.
But I would argue that to understand the true message of Gnostic heresy and approach first-hand experience of Gnosis, we must be willing to consider - that is, provisionally adopt and think through - the primary noetic principle:
Whoever cannot face this proposition will not get much satisfaction
from reading the NHLE in the kind of depth afforded by this
The essential message of Gnostic heresy is non-Christian in rejecting both the incarnation of a superhuman savior god and universal atonement by the suffering of the savior.
Yet some passages in the NHLE explicitly affirm both of these propositions! It may seem utterly perverse to select only those elements that support a non-Christian argument and use them to develop a "radical Gnostic message," but at least I do so in an honest and transparent way.
All scholars use the Lego method, but they do not build anything coherent out of the Lego pieces.
They merely select similar Lego pieces and place them in boxes which they label,
Scholars label the elements of the Coptic writings in this way because that is how they can control the impressions made on them by the diversity of the materials.
These labels cannot be applied to a single text, only to certain elements in a text.
The Coptic writings in the NHLE are said to be translations of "Greek originals," which have not been found (except for slight fragments). What were these alleged originals? I say they were likely to have been rough class notes on oral teachings given in Egypt and the Levant in the first centuries of the Christian Era, but including citations of written works as well.
In short, they were student material with some passages of verbatim instruction from telestai, Gnostic teachers in the Mysteries. When verbatim instruction dominates a text, scholars designate it as a "revelation dialogue."
It is more than likely that
the scribes who translated the originals from Greek into Coptic
understood little of the meaning of these second- or third-hand
documents. Moreover, the conditions of translation must have been
stressful. The execution of some texts is hurried, the lettering
slurred by speed. Scholars note that the several scribes who did the
translations spoke a dialect of Coptic, Sub-Akhmimic, but they
translated in another dialect, Sahidic, to conform to religious
convention. Hold on, it gets worse.
Coptic is a dog's breakfast, vomited up, re-seasoned, and hastily scarfed down again. It was invented in the 2nd century CE to transcribe Egyptian hieroglyphs found on amulets and in magical texts. In its earliest form it used various letters from the Demotic alphabet (an older Egyptian device to translate hieroglyphs), but eventually only six of these were retained. These were merged with the Greek alphabet, with all characters written in capital letters.
The Coptic of the NHC consists of 24 Greek letters and six Demotic letters:
I maintain that Coptic is not a language at all, but a kind of stenographic shorthand.
About one in every five Coptic words is a loan from Greek. Some proper Coptic words show Egyptian derivation and some are just wild cards. Coptic is heavily compounded with the definite article, the Greek letter PI, attached to the word it indicates: PIEIOT, "the father." EIOT is pronounced yot. Pie-yot, "the father."
This is the paltry term used for the supreme being in the NHLE. Many Coptic words have weird-looking vowel clusters: OYOEIN, "light," pronounced woyn. (Here scholars are guessing: no one really knows how these bizarre-looking words were pronounced.) Many words are heavily compounded. ROME (ro-may) means "a human being."
Stick MNT in front and it becomes MNTROME, "humanity." Add the negative indicator AT and it becomes MNTATROME, "inhumanity."
Bear in mind that the grammatical constructions of Coptic do not lend themselves to fine and sophisticated phrasing of abstract ideas. Add to the Kafkaesque grammar the masses of orthographic errors and variations found through the corpus and you have the happy horror that is the Coptic Gnostic Library.
Not all the news about the Gnostic Coptic writings is bad news, however.
Even in their deplorable state, the Nag Hammadi books preserve vital clues to the Gnostics' alternative to the salvationist program they refuted:
In short, getting through the NHLE English translations of garbled Coptic translations of lost Greek originals (hurried class notes) is an obstacle course that would try the Terminator - and then you fetch up in the content.
Take The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, NHC I,1, written on the flyleaf of Codex I, called the Jung Codex because it was acquired (illegally) by C. G. Jung. It consists of forty-six lines. At first glance this snippet of Coptic writing appears to present clear textual evidence that the Apostle Paul, the zealous preacher of the New Testament, was a Gnostic.
Elaine Pagels has made a strong case for the Gnostic Paul. But neither the Pauline Acts or letters, nor the Gnostic treatises, are in any instance signed by the presumed author.
Some works are traditionally attributed to
Saint Paul, that's all. Attributions to a "Paul" occur in the NHLE,
too, but ancient theologians were known for attributing writings to
all kinds of people, real and imaginary. The Prayer is not
proof, either that a Gnostic Paul existed historically, or that such
an individual, if he did exist, was identical to the presumed
historical Paul of the New Testament. Inference is not evidence, but
most of the evidence in the NHLE is pure (and poor) inference.
But “Jesus” and “Christ,” in Gnostic texts cannot be assumed to denote either the historical Jesus or a divine person, “The Christ.”
Radical Gnostic heresy rejects the incarnation
of Divinity in human form, and warns that
the Archons, through their
powers of “simulation” (HAL in Coptic) insinuate a false image of
divinity into our minds. The great challenge of the Coptic Gnostic
materials is to read beyond the inferences to the essence of the
Gnostic message as such.
The “prayer” contains trace elements of a purely Gnostic nature, for instance:
This lines refers to surveillance by the Archons or Watchers known from the Book of Enoch, an arcane text that presents some parallels to Gnostic material. That humanity is being observed and manipulated by a non-human species, is one of the secret teachings of the Mysteries, and by no account an accepted premise of Christian doctrine.
Needless to say, the claim made by Gnostics that Christian doctrines are an insinuation of the Archontic species, a "foreign installation" in our minds, was the most daring, explosive, and heretical message to come out of the Mysteries. And still is.
To read the NHLE and miss this message is a huge blunder. The failure of the experts to highlight this message is scandalous and shameful. Today, going on 65 years after the discovery is Nag Hamadi, and Gnostic scholarship is stalled in a deplorable state of denial.
To read the NHLE with discernment we must realize that almost nothing is straight-word in these materials, yet the Gnostic message of heresy is clear and explicit when it comes up. The genuine teachings of the Mysteries can be extracted from this pitiful mess of scribal pottage.
The three-stage reading plan is designed to build the skills for discernment, text by text.
At the end of the day, the reader gets out of the Gnostic corpus whatever the "bursts" call forth in the reader's mind. Here is Dick's "plasmate" in action: the disinhibiting power of Gnosis.
As I wrote in another piece (Approaching Gnosticism), when all is said and done, approaching Gnosticism involves an act of faith, indicated by Gnostics as Pistis Sophia, “confidence in the indwelling wisdom.”