Year after year, the Bible in all its multitudinous versions remains the number one best-seller in the world. The various “Bibles” we have available today, however, contain only the books of the traditional “canon” – those that have at one point or another been approved for inclusion by church authorities. The truth remains that we do not have an original manuscript of even a single word of the Bible.
The many Bibles we now have are copies, which are therefore prone to inaccuracies, oversight, or translations, which by their nature are also always interpretations that bear the telltale marks of the eras in which they were created and are not free of the theological biases of those that recorded them. But what if we did have handy a perfectly preserved original manuscript of the Bible? Would such a document have misled the devout into thinking that believing its every word is what “faith” is all about?
This is, of course, exactly the reigning sentiment fundamentalists uphold. However, since what we have is not “the Bible”, but interpretations, and explications of interpretations, Marvin W. Meyer, through his book, The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library, forces us to look beyond four widely recognized Gospels in the New Testament Canon and examine the array of “non-canonical” gospels that have captured the attentions of the faithful worldwide in recent times.
With a keen eye and years of deliberate investigation, Meyer traces long periods of history when the Bible itself has been made out to be an object of a static, intransigent caricature of “faith”; so he seeks to retake the Bible from its narrow orthodoxies and make it once again a genuine support of faith through a narrative that challenges the politics and rhetoric of orthodox Christian doctrines – he does so by providing a background into the discovery, codicology, and classification of the Nag Hammadi libraries while attempting to redefine the power inherent in the Nag Hammadi collections for our time.
The first couple of chapters of Meyer’s work outline the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, evaluate their taxonomic classifications, and note both, the diversity and unity of the Nag Hammadi codices and the Berlin Gnostic Texts. Chapter 1, “Fertilizer, Blood Vengeance, and Codices,” traces the events that led to the discovery of the collection unearthed at Nag Hammadi among other texts, and provides an extensive account of the various archeological and codicological research by scholars in the years thereafter that have essentially made it possible to challenge the supremacy of the canonical gospels as the only “true doctrines of Christ”.
Chapter 2, “Coptic Texts from the Sands of Egypt,” documents Meyer scrutinizing definitions of the terms “Coptic”, “Gnostic”, and “library” and addresses if these can be applied to the Nag Hammadi collections. Research has suggested that the collection of texts of the Nag Hammadi library were originally composed in Greek, but have all been translated into Coptic sometime around or before the fourth century; Meyer, therefore, argues that the collection qualifies as a Coptic library.
However, in refraining from terming the collection of Nag Hammadi texts as a “gnostic library”, the author quotes Michael A. Williams’ and Karen L. King’s works which state that definitions of “Gnosticism” are not only ambiguous and flawed, but also limiting and subjective (38-42). Meyer believes, at best, these collections could be thought of as having a distinct “gnosticizing vantage point” that could, in contemporary times, enrich our appreciation of the wider range of approaches early Christianity accepted as means to acquiring “gnosis” or knowledge (43).
In noting that the variations in the texts collected at Nag Hammadi extend from the “covers, the scribal hands, and the Coptic dialects” represented in them, the author surmises that these codices may have been put together as smaller libraries and so, it may be appropriate in terming them as the “Nag Hammadi libraries”.
Among the many gnosticizing perspectives on offer in the Nag Hammadi codices and the Berlin Gnostic Texts, there are five distinguishable groups of texts – the texts in the Thomas tradition, the Sethian texts, the Valentinian texts, the Hermetic texts, and the fifth group of gnostic texts “that defy classification” (Meyer 52). Meyer’s extensive and detailed introduction to the Nag Hammadi libraries and the Berlin Gnostic Codex breathes new life into findings once dismissed as being little more than heretical and allow the disillusioned to break away from the shackles of religious orthodoxy.
Reopening fundamental questions, these discoveries implore us to reconsider the viewpoints that dominate orthodox sentiments of what it means to be “authentically” faithful. Hinting at the extent to which politics and religion may have coincided with the origins of Christianity, Meyer alludes to perceiving the gnostic codices as some devout (very likely) did in Christianity’s infancy – as powerful alternatives to orthodox persuasions.
In an age where we are surrounded by dangerously reckless rhetoric and discriminatory policies articulated by politicians battling over the moral heart of the peoples, Meyer is outspoken in reclaiming the context and the meaning of the lost Gospels in the remainder of the book, revealing how history has been able to eliminate the thoroughly spiritual core of the lost Gospels. Chapters 3 to 6 interpret these lost texts in a way that makes Jesus of Nazareth even more universally available and his teachings especially pertinent in the chaos of our times.
Chapter 3, “They Will Not Taste Death,” suggests how manuscripts from the Thomas tradition provide radical, but careful and accessible reconsideration of Jesus Christ. In referring to both, the sayings gospel Q and the Gospel of Thomas as gospels of “wisdom”, Meyer suggests that both texts indicate that Jesus was the epitome of wisdom, neither confirming, nor denying his divinity (60-61).
Without ever using titles associated with divinity to refer to Jesus and omitting mention of widely believed notions of his virgin birth, crucifixion, resurrection, and the final judgment, the author insists that “Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas performs no physical miracles, reveals no fulfillment of prophecy, announces no apocalyptic kingdom about to disrupt the world order, and dies for no one’s sins” (61-62).
Widely regarded to have been written independently of the canonical Gospels, The Gospel of Thomas, Meyer claims, postulates other dimensions of meaning (distinct from those the canonical gospels preach) in hoping that the devout will find their own responses to and interpretations of Jesus’ words.
In discovering the wisdom of Jesus’s sayings as noted in the Gospel of Thomas and the Thomas tradition, the author proclaims, “insight is realized, and life is found” (73). Drawing further the significance of the “spiritual” experience is Chapter 4, “The Wisdom of Insight,” which delves into the Secret Book of John, and other texts in the Sethian tradition.
Meyer provides an overview of the Sethian texts and their call for self-recognition and contemplation, and Sophia, or Wisdom, we learn, is a divine feminine figure in the Gnostic mythological scheme with an empowering message that divine wholeness can never be restored within one through misguided acts of piety dedicated to false gods, but by our own gnosis – our awareness, insight, and knowledge – of the inherent divinity we have all been bestowed with (83-115). Chapter 5, “Valentinus the Christian Mystic,” discusses the Christian leader Valentinus and texts composed by him and his followers.
Widely attributed to be the author of the Gospel of Truth, Valentinus was a second century Christian mystic and poet believed to be “gnostic” given the significance of gnosis in his writings, who (much like the Sethians) discusses the pivotal role of knowledge and self-reflection as means to salvation (117). The Gospel of Philip, Meyer states, contains gnostic theological collections which refer to ideas of “mystical” marriage and, perhaps, has gathered infamy for insinuating that Mary Magdalene was Christ’s companion (or spouse) (129).
Valentinian texts draw a sharp distinction between the human Jesus and the divine Jesus and many of these sources repeatedly use sexual symbolism to describe God. Chapter 6, “Hermes, Derdekeas, Thunder, and Mary,” is remarkable for the varied collection of texts that refer to God, the father, as a dyad which represents both, masculinity and femininity. Thunder, it may be noted, is poetic revelation of a female figure (Meyer 155). The emphasis of the acquisition of gnosis of the one transcendent God and mystical spirituality in the Hermetic texts cannot be understated (143-147).
The accounts of Derdekeas also employ sexual symbolism, where these references are merged with themes of ancient philosophy and biology (Meyer 151). The Gospel of Mary documents powerful revelations (by Jesus) on themes such the nature of matter and sin, and is regarded as being more “Stoic” than it is “gnostic” (159). Meyer maintains this work depicts Jesus demonstrating a preference for Mary (Magdalene) over his male disciples, where Mary is favored with visions and insights (161-163).
The uniting theme in these four chapters is that the messages of these seemingly disparate texts are not to propound any specific ideologies or religious trains of thought, but gently unwrap one’s own self as a dynamic agent of divine providence. Varied as they may be, their legacy is simple, direct and yet sublime – helping the faithful to a clearer understanding of themselves as the light and the awareness in which they may acquire true gnosis. But why allow these relatively newfound narratives to make any claim on our spiritual or moral allegiance at all?
The only answer to these questions, Meyer proposes with astute subtlety, is to use one’s imagination, to place oneself in the context within which these new Gospels were recorded, and then allow them to speak for themselves. It is essential to know something about these non-canonical Gospels: they are, despite unceasing disputes over their antiquity and authenticity, a fascinating record of how people, through the annals of time, have wrestled with the same issues humanity faces today – the meaning of life and love, suffering, betrayal, and death.
The Gnostic Discoveries is never polemical, but certainly makes no pretense at being even-handed. Through much of the book, readers are met with the author’s unmistakable approval of mysticism. Yet as he touches on several hot-button issues in both the church and in popular culture, Meyer’s writing challenges the monolithic schools of thought of a repressive early Catholic Church and is both, compelling and provocative, as it may be controversial.
One need not agree with all his assertions to be drawn thrillingly close by him to the lesser known authors of the Gospels. Meyer’s significant accomplishment lies in taking the most recent, reliable scholarly research on the Gospels and interpret it for a non-scholar. As a drawback, it may be noted that the book is not the easiest of reads for those uninitiated into the Christian doctrines and assumes as much prior study of the early Christian period as it does of orthodoxies.
Meyer’s work is, nonetheless, thorough and offers a personal, distinctly mystical religious perspective that suit modern sensibilities. He urges his readers to simply dive into the Bible the way they might into a compelling novel or a good film. Most powerful is Meyer’s message that the Nag Hammadi libraries and the Berlin Gnostic Codices can help us gain a new perspective of faith in their offer an alternative spirituality – a compelling point of access to countless disenchanted twenty-first-century people.