Friday, July 27, 2007

(1) Why Nag Hammadi texts aren't as interesting to scholars of early Christianity as the Dead Sea Scrolls

Jim West has made an interesting observation in a recent post. He has noticed that more scholars of Christianity show interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls than in Nag Hammadi. Why? he asks.

I have thought about this for a long time. It is one of the reasons why I started this blog - to raise awareness about the Nag Hammadi writings and to focus attention on why they are so vital for us to study as biblical scholars. I'm also trying to get an exhibit of Nag Hammadi manuscripts to accompany the Codex Judas Congress, but this will depend on whether or not the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities will allow them to leave the Coptic Museum. Let us hope!

I think that scholars of early Christianity are more interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls for these simple reasons:

1. The Nag Hammadi documents got labeled pejoratively "Gnostic" from the beginning. Doresse when he looked at the first codex and read a few lines made the announcement that these books were Gnostic writings. In the 1940s and 1950s this was not a positive spin (and frankly it still isn't). In fact, many early commentators talk about these texts as "perverting" scripture and the "real" Christian faith. Since our field is so dominated by this theological perspective, the study of "perverted" literature was not considered important. Many scholars (even yet today) wonder why any "real" biblical scholar would want to waste his or her time studying perverted Christianity. I know this because scholars have said this directly to me, calling the literature "crazy" and "a waste of time."

The Dead Sea Scrolls never had this labeling problem. My understanding of the spin originally put on the scrolls is that it was not one of a perversion of "real" Judaism, but of a disgruntled sect of Judaism (the Essenes), a sect that might tell us something about Jesus and early Christianity. For scholars of Christianity at the time, this was a positive thing because it helped them explain the formation of Christianity which was for them like the Essene movement, a critique or revolt against Judaism. From what I can tell, this was part of the anti-Semitic explanation of Christian Origins common at the time. The other explanation was to erase its Jewish roots by demonstrating the victory of Hellenistic thought and practices. So Christianity was understood to be a Gentile religion that superceded and erased the Jewish one.

2. Because the Nag Hammadi materials are in Coptic, they are difficult for the majority of scholars to assess in the original language. This is not the case with the Dead Sea Scrolls whose original language is much easier for scholars of the bible to handle.

3. The Nag Hammadi materials, for the most part, are from the second and third centuries. Most biblical scholars don't even study the ante-Nicene fathers let alone the Nag Hammadi documents because they perceive the time period to be later than the NT, so therefore inconsequential to biblical studies. This is not so for the Dead Sea Scrolls which predate the NT writings.

4. Gnosticism is a word with a lot of baggage, most of it completely inaccurate. One of these inaccuracies is the belief that Gnosticism is a religion in antiquity that is separate from Judaism and Christianity, that is is a revolt against Judaism and Christianity. So scholars who understand Gnosticism as a religion separate from/revolting against Judaism and Christianity, do not see that the study of Gnosticism has anything to contribute to the study of the bible or early Christianity.

In future posts, I will address why each of these assumptions needs to be reassessed by all of us studying early Christianity.


Jared Calaway said...

One might also note that the entire first generation of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship was Christian, excepting Yigael Yadin, who excavated Masada and first published the Temple Scroll.

I think another issue with the NHC, although secondary to the issues you raised, are the standard translations use rather obscure language that we in the field may understand but others do not. Part of this has to do with differences in technical vocabulary, but most translations transliterate a term in Coptic that is translated in canonized literature, which tends to smooth out the ancient terminology: gnosis, pleroma, sophia, aeon, etc. If we actually translated these technical terms, perhaps the texts would be more accessible and the language more attractive for those approaching them for the first time. What if, in my work on Hebrews, I did not translate the technical terms, but only transliterated them? The text would become inscrutable!

Frank McCoy said...

The biggest problem is that almost all scholars accept Mark's statement that Jesus had been a tekton, despite both Matthew and Luke rejecting Mark's statement and despite there being no evidence for this in John or Thomas. This problem is compounded by the wide-spread acceptance of Quelle, for this product of modern scholarly imaginations can be used to re-inforce opinions that Jesus was a Galilean peasant. If Jesus was a Galilean peasant, then it is reasonable to think that he might have at least been aware of the Essenes and influenced by them--hence, it is probably worthwhile for a NT scholar to become familiar with the DDS. However, it is unreasonable to think that a Galiean peasant could have had any of the Hellenistic philosophical ideas found in many of the Nag Hammadi texts--hence, it is probably a waste of fime for a NT scholar to become familiar with these texts. The proof that this is the biggest problem is that the most comprehensive corpus of Jewish literature written during the lifetime of Jesus, which was written by Philo, is even more neglected by scholars than the Nag Hammadi texts. Yet, Philo's works are not labelled gnostic (except by a few), they are in Greek and they are contemporaneous with Jesus. So, the SOLE reason why the works of Philo are more ignored than even the Nag Hammadi texts is that, almost all scholars have concluded, since Jesus was a simple Galilean peasant tekton, these works by a sophisticated and urbane Jewish Hellenistic philosopher can't possibly shed any light on his teaching and, hence, are a waste of time to read. Until the time comes when scholars can go beyond this mythological portrait of Jesus as a Galilean peasant tekton, IMO, there will be little utilization of the Nag Hammadi texts by them.

Jim said...

Thanks April, I for one look forward to your 'unpacking' of these 4 reasons.

Judy Redman said...

I know that when I was studying theology, the DSS were "marketed" as being important because they contained copies of Scripture. In fact, it was quite some time before I realised that they also contained texts which, from the perspective of the conservative Christian scholar, were of more dubious content. The Nag Hammadi library only contains texts that make many scholars uneasy. If you say you're studying them, everyone knows that you're studying material that's been labelled heresy. If you say you're studying DSS, you could be looking at orthodox material. said...

Frank, Judas was regarded as a tekton too (War 2.8.1).

Well the DSS were found in Judea's own back yard. That just about says it all. Scholars were ever likely to be jumpy about their significance. From the start, they had Essenes at Qumran as a minor sect. This initially calmed an uncomfortable situation for Jewish and Christian scholars alike. And they reassured everyone that the DSS were earlier than the Christian documents.

What must surely make many Jewish and Christian scholars uneasy about the DSS is that they are quite possibly documents of the mainstream priests. If they are, then the scholars still have the problem of the Essenes? Who were they? One may well expect Essenes to have had some practices and beliefs as described in the DSS. But there are a number of good reasons to believe that Essenes were not the residents of the Qumran complex.

And talking about Philo, he doesn't mention Pharisees or Sadducees, but he has plenty to say about Essenes, and that their legislator was Moses. I take that to mean that Moses began the movement of the Essenes, i.e. they were the prophets - one of the two 'sects' or orders of Jewish rule that had existed for a long time, as, no doubt, was originally described by Josephus - the other order being the priests.

The DSS are critical to the understanding of Jewish thought at the beginning of the first century, and thus are critical to our understanding of the earliest 'Christianity'. said...

But then I read a fragment attributed to Epiphanius possibly writing about Ebionites:

'They say the he [Christ] was not begotten of God the Father, but created as one of the archangels...that he rules over the angels and all the creatures of the Almighty, and that he came and declared, as their Gospel, which is called ???, reports: "I am come to do away with sacrifices, and if ye cease not from sacrificing, the wrath of God will not cease from you." '

Such later testimony tells me that some Jewish Christians thought that the message of the 'Christ' was at least about the abolition of animal sacrifices. There are a number of rumblings about that in the writings attributed to Josephus.

No doubt the 'Christ' was in reality a prophet, probably a vegetarian, who disapproved of animal sacrifices.

Thus I can see the usefulness of early 'Christian' documents documents if one wishes to discover what was the earliest 'Christianity'.

Leon said...

While scholars may display opposite attitudes towards the Dead Sea Scrolls and towards the Nag Hammadi documents, I think both come from the same impulse and actually reinforce each other. Generally put, it is a hostility to alternative voices from the past. Some voice or voices have to be silenced in order to maintain tradition.

In the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the problem actually started a century earlier. Many 19th century scholars asserted that Jesus was outside history and therefore untouched by anything Jewish (a position also taken by Albert Schweitzer). A few realized that this was not a very good way to study history. Unfortunately, they decided that Jesus came from the Essenes (who may or may not be identical with the Qumran community) because they (arbitrarily) asserted that the Essenes, though Jewish, were really a pre-Christian group. Jesus completed and fulfilled their nascent Christianity.

With the Dead Sea Scrolls, this process of Christianizing Jewish history proceeded apace. Famously, for the first 25 years or so, a Jew-free team was appointed to study them. If I recall, a couple of them were Catholic scholars and they saw in the Qumran community a kind of Catholic monastery. So here, it was primarily the Jewish voice from the past (i.e., Jesus' Jewishness, his affinity with Pharisaic/rabbinic Judaism) that had to be silenced.

The Nag Hammadi doucments also represent that problem with listening to the voices from the past, so for very much the same underlying problem, scholars have taken the opposite tack. Let's just shove them out of the way altogether. They can try to Christianize (i.e., bring into the fold of traditional Christianity) the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but that is harder to do with later Christian movements which cannot be so easily traditionalized.

While I know that most scholars who are interested in the Nag Hammadi texts are not interested in the historical Jesus, I think that here too there is a latent fear that something about the Jewish Jesus may yet be discovered. And apart from concerns about Jewishness, there is this: So many people want Jesus to remain a mystery who can be made to serve many purposes. Discovering a very real historical Jesus who was a specific person in a specific place and time might threaten that mystery. I think the fear is unwarranted but it's real nonetheless and has an effect on how anyone approaches any of these historical doucments.

Leon Zitzer

Wayne said...

I believe the hammadi texts are interesting to some scholars and lay people such as myself.There is a mindset that the accepted canon is all that there is when it comes to scripture.Some of the nag hammadi texts such as the gospel of thomas are more esoteric in nature,not being understood by the orthodox is my opinion that some of these writings are deeper spiritual knowledge not given to the masses.Some of the verses in gospel of thomas can be found almost word for word sprinkled throughout the new testament,but without the storyline that traditionally goes along with it.Some scripture requires a deeper understanding of spirituality and esoteric knowledge to be understood.About 98% of the population is not even interested in deeper truth,it takes to mucht time and work.The gospel of Thomas says 2 in 10,000 maybe.We know scripture said Jesus had two messages,one for the general masses of people and another for the inner circle or smaller group interested in the true divine message of inner change. What was true then is true now,Not many interested

Unknown said...

First let me say I was raised in church and used to listen and still do to Billy Graham now that said I discovered the nag hammadi a couple years ago , have read several of the texts several times , I think for me it takes more than one reading to begian to understand , to me its complex , I believe it speaks the truth , it speaks of the archons non biological beings from out around saturn , along with many other things not explained in the KJV , also always had a problem not having all available information to make a educated determination of its validity , im am convienced the nag hammadi is more important than the dead sea scrolls.The nag hammadi talks about things that make sense to me and are not mentioned in the KJV , the council of naceeia has always bothered me who are they to tell me what to believe doesnt make sense to me , also the gnostics library was burned to the ground in alexandria , and they were hunted down and wiped off the face of the earth they must have scared somebody powerful,im glad they are available to study.