A common misconception regarding the Nag Hammadi Library is the difference between and the meanings of the terms “Gnostic” and “Coptic.” Coptic, as explained elsewhere in our site, is a script form of the ancient Egyptian language, however, it is also the name for the Egyptian sect of Christianity. The Coptic Church has used Coptic throughout its existence, as one would expect from the name. And while the Nag Hammadi texts are in fact written in the Coptic script, they cannot truly be considered as Coptic texts in the theological sense. In fact, the Coptic Church does not consider the texts to be canonical, same as the other Christian sects.
In the early Church, the Gnostics were strong contenders for becoming the dominant sect, however, they lost out to the Pistics. Once the Pistic Christians became dominant, they immediately set out to destroy all Gnostic literature and gospels, and quickly declared Gnosticism and the Gnostics heretical. The obvious question, then, is who are the Gnostics and why this fierce struggle between these two prominent sects?
Gnosticism is actually a difficult thing to properly identify, however, traces of Gnostic philosophy can be found in both Judaism and in Egyptian religion. Their philosophy was based upon the simple idea that those individuals who were enlightened with special knowledge would be able to create their own destiny (Mikhail 1). The advent of Christianity saw the Gnostics “re-inventing” their beliefs in order to include Jesus as a Savior. They saw the Gospel of St. Thomas as Jesus’ secret instructions that He did not share with His other followers, and that the true meaning of Christ’s messages was contained in this knowledge. This was obviously a huge difference from the other Christian churches, but the Gnostics also disagreed with orthodoxy on many other points.
First of all, the Gnostics did not believe that Jesus ever had a corporeal existence. They theorized that He existed only as an apparition of His divine nature, and that the individuals around Him perceived Him as a physical body only because of their “ignorance (Borce 3).” This placed Gnosticism in immediate conflict with Pistic, or Orthodox, Christianity, who not only believed that Christ was born, lived and died a physical existence, but that He was raised from the dead on Easter back into a bodily form. There is contention over why the Gnostics disagreed with orthodoxy on this, however, one scholar theorizes that “Jesus’ life was so largely one of humiliation that it seemed the simplest way out was to deny the reality of [H]is earthly life altogether (Borce 2).” The Gnostics also denied the belief that Christ had been born without sexual intercourse to a virgin mother, which of course was a basic tenant of Pistic beliefs.
Probably the largest fundamental difference was in the nature of the Salvation offered by Jesus. The canon of orthodox Christianity declared that Christ redeemed mankind through his death and resurrection without original sin, and that this act provided salvation for those who believed in Him. The Gnostics claimed that the important aspect of Jesus’ teaching was his actual words, and that salvation was actually being “saved from uncertainty, and to return to our origin … through the revelation of secret knowledge.” In this belief system, whether or not Christ died on the cross is of negligible concern, provided that one understands his teachings (Mikhail 2).
The differences between the two sects were enough to merit their opposition to one another, and they struggled to gain primacy in the early Church. Paradoxically, it was the persecution of the Pistic Christians by the Roman authorities that probably gave them the upper hand in succeeding the Gnostics. The Romans offered Christians forgiveness and freedom if they would denounce their beliefs and make a sacrifice to the emperor. The Gnostics, who believed that deeds were irrelevant, easily conceded, out of their respect for their own lives. The Pistics, however, refused to denounce Christ for forgiveness, as they believed in the strength of one’s deeds. Therefore, they were summarily executed by the Romans, and created a schism between the two sects. Gnostics could not understand the reasoning behind these suicides, nor could the Pistics understand how the Gnostics could renounce Christ, and began to loathe the Gnostics “for their refusal to die with them” for Christ (Borce 2).
The final straw in this struggle came out of the public response to the Christian deaths in the Roman amphitheatres. While the Gnostics focused on perfecting this secret inner knowledge of the divine, as a means of finding salvation, individuals of every station were questioning the incredible emotional strength of the Pistics. Captivated by this new religion, “the arena made converts by the droves, and it was Pistic Christians that they sought out to learn more about this powerful religion.” The Pistics grew in numbers and in strength despite persecution – or because of it – and easily outnumbered the Gnostics. The foundation of the Catholic Church settled the debate, as that declared Pistic Christianity to be the only orthodox beliefs. Gnosticism became heresy and thus grounds for excommunication, and the orthodox authorities quickly destroyed Gnostic libraries and texts. It was not truly until the discovery of the codices at Nag Hammadi that it was possible to study Gnostic writing and philosophy from first hand sources.
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