Gnosticism, Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi Library

My previous post comments had drifted off topic, so I thought I’d post a new topic along those lines.

Gnosticism means “secret knowledge.”  This is not to be confused with the term Agnostic, which means “without knowledge.”  Typically, Agnostic people are without knowledge of God.  Some are atheists, but not all.  Agnostics typically are ambivalent about whether God exists or not.

Gnostics, on the other hand, date from the time of Christ.  Gnostic should probably be considered a generic term, such as Protestant.  For example, while Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc. are all considered “protestant”, they certainly don’t all believe exactly the same.  Protestant is a term to group nearly all “non-Catholic” groups together.  In essence, these groups are “protesting” against some of the beliefs of the Catholic church.

So, when one refers to Gnostics, one should realize that there are various different beliefs.  Let me illustrate with some probably poor examples, but hopefully it will help illustrate my point.  There are probably anti-jewish gnostics, non-resurrection gnostics, gentile gnostics, mystical gnostics, etc.

Your typical Sunday School class (and I’m talking Catholic, Protestant, or Mormon here), generally gives early Christian church history something like this.  Jesus ordained 12 apostles, these 12 apostles were in charge of the church.  Peter was probably the leader.  The apostles were killed.  Constantine became a Christian.  He wanted a Bible.  He commissioned the Council of Nicea.  The various denominations sprang from there.

While this characterization isn’t necessarily wrong, per se, it completely under-emphasizes the diversity of the early church.  The Bible talks about Zealots, Pharisees, Sadducees, etc, and one gets the impression that the early church organization was simple.  When one gets to the Letters of Paul, there are hints of apostacy (ie gnosticism), but one doesn’t really get a true flavor of the dissension.

Enter the Nag Hammadi Library, discovered in Egypt in 1945.  This is not to be confused with the Dead Sea Scrolls (discovered 1947-49).  Let’s talk about these for a moment about these.  The Dead Sea Scrolls probably get more publicity, because they appeal to Jews as well as Christians.  The Dead Sea Scrolls contain some of the oldest copies of the Old Testament ever found, as well as some apocolyptic writings of the Jews.  These writings date to approximately 50 years before Christ.  Perhaps I will talk more about this history in a future post.

The Nag Hammadi Library dates to about the 1st or 2nd century AD, and is strictly Christian writings.  There are some New Testament writing there, but many are considered gnostic, such as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Gospel of Thomas, and others.  These were considered heretical by the early church fathers, and were not included in the Bible.

Gnostics writings are all over the map, as far as doctrine.  Some believe that Jesus did not die on the cross.  Others believe that Jesus was not resurrected.  Some believe Jesus didn’t exist at all.  We learn in the Gospel of Judas, that Judas was really the smartest apostle, and that he did not really betray Jesus at all–Jesus asked him to turn him over to the Romans so that he could get rid of his body.  According to this line of thinking, resurrection is a bad thing.  One needs to rid oneself of the body, so that one can obtain true knowledge.  Gnostic beliefs are related in the fact that the resurrection story is not the important part of Jesus story, but rather, the teachings (or knowledge) of Jesus are what is important.  (So, even dating to the time of Christ, there were problems with “intellectualism.”)  🙂

So, you can see why Paul had a problem with some of these teachings.  Also, we see that the Orthodox and Catholic churches had some major problems with Gnostic beliefs.

The interesting thing about Constantine establishing Christianity as the official state religion, was that he essential chose one brand of Christianity (the Orthodox church, which later split into the Catholic and Orthodox churches), and started persecuting all the other Christians who we now call Gnostic Christians.

After Jesus died, essentially there was a succession crisis, just as there was a crisis when Joseph Smith died.  Neither Jesus or Joseph left clear instructions on what was to happen after they died.  Now the Catholic and LDS churches don’t like to hear that, but it is really true.  Many early Christian historians say that it really wasn’t Peter in charge of the early church, but rather Jesus brother James, who was the first bishop of Jerusalem.

Wilfred Griggs recently made some interesting insights into early christian (especially Egyptian Christian) beliefs.  He said gnostics did temple worship, and made some comparisons to mormon temple worship.  Now while that is nice to hear in a fireside, he did leave out some beliefs of the gnostics, such as the unimportance of the resurrection.  Nonetheless, it does appear to show that temple worship was part of the early Christian heritage, contrary to Catholic and Protestant beliefs, and could show that Joseph may have brought back some early Christian beliefs.

Incidentally, the only remaining group alive today that can trace part of it’s history to gnostic beliefs is the Coptic Church in Egypt.  They are really a break off of the Orthodox Church from the first millennium AD, and are somewhat of a hybrid between gnosticism and the Orthodox church.

This all reminds me of what Joseph Smith said regarding the Apocrypha (gnostic writings are considered apocryphal writings, though obviously they were discovered 100 years after Joseph’s death.)  He said basically that there are some good things and some bad things in the Apocryphya.  Frankly, I find this analysis right on the money.


28 comments on “Gnosticism, Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi Library

  1. That is some good information. Thanks!

    You won’t believe this, but last night right before I went to bed, you won’t guess what was on the history channel. “Banned from the Bible” It talked about some of the gnostic texts, including the book of Judas. I found the timing of that show impeccable.

  2. “He said basically that there are some good things and some bad things in the Apocryphya.”

    That can be said about probably anything, including the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, D&C, PoGP, Journal of Discourses, The Qur’an, The Creed of Buddha, the Tripitaka, The Vedas, the Enuma Elish, the Avesta, the Pahlavi, the Kojiki, the Confucian Canon, Jaina Sutras, the Kitab-I-Aqdas You get the point.

    I am fascinated by the different world religions out there and how they all have their own set of sacred texts. It makes me wonder how different the Book of Mormon is to any of these other books.

  3. Zelph,

    You are killing me with your true/false, bad/good, black/white. You apply it to everything. There is no gray area to you. It seems you want to throw the Bible in with the Book of Mormon and dump it all.

    I understand you were brought up in this dichotomous world. But I am asking you to allow for some gray interpretations into your life. Add some color!

    I know you are stuck there, but I’m telling you the world is truly more complex than black/white. In your desire to be intellectual, it seems you still want things in simple terms of black and white. But the intellectual world does not classify everything so simply.

    Yes, as Einstein said, E=MC2, but you have no idea how complex the calculus is behind that formula. I am asking you to deliberately put aside this black/white view of the world, and allow for some other colors into your thinking.

    Listening to your upbringing has caused me to think about mine. My dad is a convert, mom a descendant of pioneers. I was raised pretty typical of most LDS, I suppose. Sometimes we had FHE, sometimes not. My parents were by no means liberal in their beliefs. We went to church all the time. I served a mission, etc, etc.

    When I bring up these type of topics, my parents, family, and wife all grow silent, and basically don’t want to hear it. So, I feel that my growing up is fairly similar to yours. I certainly wasn’t raised as a liberal theologian, and I meet resistance when I talk about “meaty topics” of the gospel.

    So is it upbringing that caused me (or you) to be this way, or is it individual? Certainly Laman, Lemuel, Nephi, and Sam had the same parents, and same upbringing, yet there was 1 rebel, 2 indifferent ones (Lemuel, Sam) who chose opposite sides, and a prophet from the same 2 parents. Individual plays a significant part.

    I think you need to quit blaming this on your upbringing, and blame your disillusionment on yourself. (And I don’t mean “blame” in a negative way, but rather take responsibility.) After all, Laman and Lemuel blamed Nephi, but who was the better person? I think when you can become more complex in your thinking, much of the bitterness you currently have will become much sweeter.

    BTW, I just downloaded “Who wrote the Bible” from Amazon, and will try to watch it this week. I’ll look to see if “Banned from the Bible” is also available for download. (I don’t have cable.)

    One other thing. What is TBM? (You mentioned it in another comment.)

  4. TBM is an online acronym for True Believing Mormon that is used very frequently. It refers to people that have very orthodox views of Mormonism.

    Regarding some of the apocrypha, I have heard that the apocrypha books that are in the catholic Bible were included in the original 1611 King James Bible and were later removed. I find that interesting, and whenever I ask someone about it, I can never get a strait answer as to why it was removed or if it should be viewed as ‘scripture’.

  5. As I understand it, Martin Luther took great issue with some of the books of the Bible. One example is the Book of Esther. While it is a great story, did you know that the name of God is never directly mentioned in the story? Some historians argue that the story is a romance, and myth, while others argue that it is a true story, and refer to Ahasuerus as “Artaxerxes” in Greek as one of the proofs of the books historicity. (Hmmm, sound like the BM?)

    Luther was one who argued against inclusion, but it was added. However, many of the other books he argued against are not part of the Apocrypha. I do not believe that Luther actually used a different bible than the catholic church, but certainly his opinions were weighed heavily when the protestants decided to throw out the Apocrypha.

    So, in reality, the Catholic Bible has many more books than Protestant Bibles (such as King James version.) If you are accurate about the 1611 version containing the Apocrypha, I would guess that it must have something to do with King Henry the 8th. Of course, Henry was extremely Catholic, pronouncing himself “Defender of the Faith.” But of course, when he couldn’t get a divorce from the pope, he started the Church of England (known and the Episcopal Church here in America). Hence, that might have been a reason to dissociate the church of England from the Catholic Bible.

    Please realize I am speculating on this point, so don’t take my complete word on this, but I think it makes sense.

    I recently purchased a Catholic Bible, but haven’t had time to read the Apocryphal books just yet. I have heard that Maccabees 1 and 2 contain some pretty wild tales. But, I do want to mention that there is some really good history in them as well. Maccabees covers some of the time between Malachi (400 BC) and Christ.

    Often, in the church, we say, “I wonder why nothing was said between the end of Malachi and the New Testament.” Well, that isn’t exactly true. I learned in the Covenant Seminary, that Judas Maccabeus helped free the Jews from Greek captivity. So, there was a period of about 70 years where the Jews had independence. By reading Protestant Bibles, we are unaware of this fact. Maccabees 1 and 2 (named after Judas) covers some of this history. Hannakuh is actually a celebration of this independence. Interestingly also, Judas never claimed to be a prophet, but was more of an inspired soldier–probably along the lines of a George Washington or something. I think that had something to do with the protestants excluding the books as well.

    (Of course, the apostle Judas was named after this Judas, who was quite a war hero. Judas was quite a popular name at the time of Christ, and it helps explain the restlessness of the Jews, and there desire for independence from the Romans.)

    Interestingly, the Romans came in and took over Jerusalem, and used Herod (yes, the one who tried to kill Jesus as a baby), to take over the Holy Land. When Herod succeeded, Rome put him in charge. That is another reason he was so hated by the Jews. He was a half-Jew, and a traitor to jews.

    So, the Apocrypha contains some very important historical information. I’m not sure why Luther didn’t like it–I’ve heard there are some miracles in there that are not entirely credible, but I haven’t read it so I’m not sure exactly what it is referring to. Anyway, to me it sounds like it contains both truth and untruth. For the reason of Hanukkah alone, I think it is worth studying, and it fills in a major gap in the Bible between the Old and New Testaments. The Catholics still have it in their Bible, while the Protestants keep it out. (Does that make Mormons Protestant?)

    To me, this is history repeating itself. Constantine wanted a bible, so they threw out the gnostic stuff. The Protestants wanted a different bible than the catholics, so they threw out the “catholic” stuff, or info they felt was unreliable. Are you doing the same with the Book of Mormon? Are you repeating history?

  6. I think that history is being repeated. I believe that it has to do with changes in society that force religions to change with it. I think it has more to do with the evolution of religion more than anything.

    Have you read Stan Larson’s Quest for the Gold Plates? It is a biography of Thomas Stuart Ferguson. If you are unfamiliar with him, I think you would find his story very interesting.

    He believed that Christianity was a positive evolution and improvement from Judaism, that protestantism evolved from Catholicism, and that Mormonism was simply another product of evolution from protestantism.

    Ferguson believed that Mormonism was the best church around, but he believed that the Book of Mormon was fiction. He was the first one to see the translation of the Book of Breathings text and that is what led to his disaffection, even though he still hosted firesides on BoM archaeological evidences, when privately he did not believe there was any. I think that his views were probably somewhere between yours and mine.

    I think history will repeat itself and I believe that Mormonism will become more broad based like Christianity.

    I believe that the internet will have a similar effect on Mormonism that the printing press had on Catholicism. I think it draws a good parallel because it demonstrates the impact that technological advance in information and communication have on religion.

    The printing press was a big blow to Catholicism because this enabled mass printing of the Bible and thanks to heretics like Martin Luther, the Bible was translated from Latin to German so that people could read it for themselves. Catholic leadership no longer had a monopoly on information, and instead of relying on their Catholic priest, people could read the Bible for themselves.

    I believe that the internet is very similar as many Mormons become more aware of their own history, I see one of 2 things happening. People will either revert to fundamentalism or open up to a more liberal view of Mormonism. I believe this will cause divisions and ultimately major break-off groups. Perhaps one of these groups will be the next best thing for religion.

  7. Zelph, you make some excellent points, and the internet very well could be analogous to the printing press.

    I’ll have to put Stan Larsen’s book on my “to do” reading list (which seems to be getting longer and longer.) It sounds very interesting.

    You asked a question, “if [the Apocrypha] should be viewed as ‘scripture’?” I would answer, if you’re catholic, yes, if protestant, no.

    How would you answer that question at this point?

  8. From my view, I simply don’t see why the apocrypha should be considered any more or less valid than any of the other scriptures. Although, in full disclosure, I have never actually read any of the apocrypha or the gnostic gospels, which as you point out follow under the apocrypha umbrella. So I can’t really give an honest opinion since I don’t know very much about them. I have not read the entire old testament either.

    What I don’t understand is why out of the thousands of Greek texts that existed only a relatively few were selected to be put into the canon, and we consider this to be ‘the Bible’.

    One other thing that has bugged me recently is why the church is so insistent on maintaining the 17th century King James version. Is it really necessary for scripture to be in late middle English for it to be true ‘scripture’? I understand uniformity for convenience, but why can’t we update our Bibles to the NIV or something? O.K. the tangent police just knocked on my door, so I better stop now.

  9. Brother, I can’t stand the King James Bible. I’d love to dump it for something easier to read. Isaiah is practically indecipherable in KJV. When I was teaching Old Testament gospel doctrine class, I chose an easier version to understand, and got called into the Bishop’s office.

    I asked, “if Nephi said we’re supposed to study the words of Isaiah, don’t we first have to understand the words of Isaiah? I can have a person read a scripture, then say, ‘what does it mean?’, and they answer, ‘I don’t know.'”

    Still, he told me not to use other bibles anymore……

    Here’s one more interesting tidbit. Did you know that the Jews never had an official canon until the Christians did?

    Tangent Police don’t come here often….

  10. MH- One thing you can do is point out that we believe the bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly and that the King James version is hardly the best translation that we have today. You can also point out that in foreign languages we do not use the king James version, because it would make absolutely no sense to take a Greek translation, translate it into English, then translate that into Spanish. Of course the Spanish Bibles in the LDS church are not based on the King James translation, because it would make absolutely no sense. It is hard for members of the church to grasp the idea that the King James version is just one of many translations and that it is not in any way the most correct translation. It troubles me that many members of the church assume that if it is not officially published by the church that it is a heretical translation. To me it demonstrates a kind of ignorance to what the Bible is, which is a little frustrating. I think that a lot of members of the church feel that for something to be ‘scripture’ it needs to be written in late middle English.

  11. Zelph,

    Once again you’re right on the money, but TBM’s just don’t care. If the Bishop’s Handbook says to only use KJV, by golly, they’re going to follow it even if it is a poor translation. Reason and common sense need not be considered…. (If the prophet has spoken, end of discussion.)

    And if it was good enough for Joseph Smith, by golly, it’s good enough for TBM’s. (Never mind that I have actual quotes from Joseph referencing other translations.)

  12. Zelph, I just downloaded “Who wrote the Bible” parts 1 and 2. It was pretty interesting, and only cost $4 from Amazon Unbox. Unfortunately, “Banned from the Bible isn’t available for download yet.

  13. what does the Catholic or Orthadox Church teach about the dead sea scrolls

  14. I don’t think they have an official position. I know a Lutheran minister who says that one can support any position, good or bad, with the dead sea scrolls.

  15. I find it interesting that you have a bit of a debate going on here about the “scripture or not” Apocrypha when neither one of you have read the books. Are we speculating on them because of Joseph’s comments and assumption other religions take on them without knowing? It is not difficult to find out. with a little tiny bit of research. Debating over assumptions makes no sense to me unless you just like to read your own writings.
    I have read the Apocrypha. The study of Gnosticism is apassion of mine. It has many beautiful truths contained within it.
    The “deep” study, and practice of other religions, actually brought me back to the Church with a stronger testimony of the Gospel, and a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.
    I think Jesus is quite sad about some of the beliefs we have as doctrine. I think we have done the same thing throughout our Church History, as other religions. Is the total Gospel of Jesus Christ really still in the Church or have we, as men and women also perverted His truths?

  16. Yes, it is still on my reading list–I have at least read some apocryphal books, like the Gospel of Judas, which is much shorter…. 🙂

    Is the total Gospel of Jesus Christ really still in the Church or have we, as men and women also perverted His truths?

    I’d have to answer that it seems that Joseph was continually receiving revelation, so I don’t think the church ever had the “total gospel.” Is the church backing away from (perverting) some of the truths taught? I’d say yes, but I’m not sure that is such a bad thing. Some of the things, like polygamy, I must say I am glad we have backed away from. Theosis, is one thing I wish we would go farther on.

  17. […] 7.    gnosticism dead sea scrolls nag hammadi library […]

  18. […] The discovery is very interesting, and the ancient document was written in an ancient form of Egyptian, called Coptic.  (Is this “reformed Egyptian”?)  The Coptic Christian Church still exists today, and dates from this early time period.  The copy discovered isn’t quite as old at Ireneaus, but dates to about the 1600 years ago.  It’s not quite as old as Ireneaus, but it certainly is ancient, and might be the same gospel he was referring to.  Ireneaus was talking about a Greek text, but he Gospel of Judas is probably a Coptic translation of the original Greek text.  (You may want to learn more about Gnosticism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi Library from my previous post on this.) […]

  19. […] At the death of Christ, there was a large movement known as Gnosticism.  This dates right to the time of Christ.  Christian gnostics believed that Christ was not actually human, that he was not born, and that he came supernaturally to the earth.  They don’t believe in Mary, Joseph, the star, and all that is associated in the Biblical story.  The Gospel of Thomas is a gnostic gospel.  It is not a narrative, like the 4 gospels are, but rather just a group of sayings of Jesus.  Gnostics valued intellectual/spiritual knowledge above all.  One could say they were the first group to espouse “intellectualism.”  Gnosticism is kind of an umbrella term, like Protestantism.  Just as not all Protestants believe exactly the same things, there are different flavors of Gnosticism.  Gnostic groups rivaled Orthodox Christianity in size until about the 7th or 8th centuries.  Constantine persecuted the Gnostics in favor of Orthodox Christianity.  I did another post discussing the varying beliefs of Gnostics. […]

  20. While I agree that there are many bizarre references in the Christian Apocrypha, how does one account for the many verses which corroborate present-day LDS Temple ordinances?

  21. You have a very interesting link–I recommend it to others! But I don’t really understand your question. Can you clarify?

  22. is there any support for the claims below or is it mere coincidence
    The Dead Sea Scrolls & Book of Mormon – Parallels

  23. @KC

    Most of the similarities in this link are either completely false, or too general to indicate a legitimate parallel between the Mormons and the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls (scholars aren’t even sure if it was the Essenes, or multiple groups who authored the scrolls). More importantly, the differences between these groups are blatantly ignored in this link.

    If similarities as general as keeping a written record of your activities, being led by men, and being oppressed for your beliefs are indicative of a theological association, then we could postulate a connection between any two groups we choose. A more interesting comparison with the Mormons is to the early Gnostics who buried the codices at Nag Hammadi. I’ll post more on this below.

  24. I’m not Mormon, but many of my good friends and a few family member are – I grew up in Utah. I just came across your blog today, very cool to see Mormons discussing these issues with an open mind. I’ve recently been reading the codices found at Nag Hammadi and I noticed a few interesting parallels with Mormonism, I found your blog when I was looking for online discussions of this topic. If you or anyone else reading this has any information about LDS positions, official comments, or even discussion amongst Mormons about these similarities, could you please reply with links?

    Primarily, I see the importance of temple worship that is emphasized in the Nag Hammadi texts as a striking similarity to Mormonism. The temple is described as a holy building, within which were several rooms, each with different purposes, where sacred rituals were performed. This isn’t in itself unique among religions, but in the Nag Hammadi text of Phillip, it is mentioned that a new name and garments are given in the temple, and that a ritual washing and annointing are performed. Sounds a lot like the descriptions I’ve heard of the Mormon temple rituals? Also, although the exact purpose and ritual of the bridal chamber is not fully known, it is mentioned several times in the Nag Hammadi texts. It is described as the room within the temple that is the ‘holiest of holies’, and in some cases in context with what sounds like eternal marriage. In the gospel of Phillip from Nag Hammadi: “Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation and unite them. But the woman is united to her husband in the bridal chamber. Indeed those who have united in the bridal chamber will no longer be separated…”.

    – Although not exact, their is a similarity between Seth hiding the religious texts ‘in a mountain’ until the end of time, and Moroni hiding the gold plates ‘in a hill’ until the end of time.

    – The notion that we can become like god, or A god, through knowing him is a component of both Mormonism and the book of James in the Nag Hammadi texts.

    – The notion of a ‘Veil’ that is placed over our mind upon receiving a physical body in Mormonism, a veil which causes us to forget our pre-existence. The Apocryphon of John from the Nag Hammadi text says: “This is the tomb of the newly-formed body with which the robbers had clothed the man, the bond of forgetfulness; and he became a mortal man” and also, “…she lifted the veil which lay over his mind. And he became sober from the drunkenness of darkness.”

    I haven’t finished reading them yet, but I keep coming across things that remind me of LDS practices and teachings. I am also aware of the distinct differences as well, but I thought the similarities specific enough to peak my interest. I’m also not a scholar when it comes to Mormonism, so I may have also missed some similarities or misunderstood some of those I mentioned above. Thoughts?

  25. Shauni, welcome! I think your parallels are quite interesting, and I think your impressions are right on the money. I need to get into the Nag Hammadi texts more, but my reading list is already way too long!

    This idea of becoming like God is not unique to Mormons, or Gnostics. I did a post on the Orthodox Christian idea of theosis. Some of the ancient Christian fathers had very “Mormon” sounding ideas. For example, Athanasius said, ‘God became man, that man might become God.’ Personally, I think it is a shame that most Western Christians have pulled away from this idea, though I’m impressed that Orthodox Christians still actively support this idea.

  26. Mattie, That is usually the case here.

  27. Mattie is a spammer, so I deleted his comment. It’s a common technique for spammers to say “nice post” without mentioning anything of substance.

  28. […] out my posts on Marcionism and Gnosticism to learn more about these movements.  Here’s another post on Gnosticism and another on […]

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