Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism and New Testament Interpretation -- By: William W. Combs

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 008:2 (Fall 1987)
Article: Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism and New Testament Interpretation
Author: William W. Combs

Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism
and New Testament Interpretation

William W. Combs

The Gnostic heresy alluded to in the NT and widely repudiated by Christian writers in the second century and after has been increasingly studied in the last forty years. The discovery in upper Egypt of an extensive collection of Gnostic writings on papyri transformed a poorly known movement in early Christianity into a well documented heresy of diverse beliefs and practices.

The relationship of Gnosticism and the NT is an issue that has not been resolved by the new documents. Attempts to explain the theology of the NT as dependent on Gnostic teachings rest on questionable hypotheses. The Gnostic redeemer-myth cannot be documented before the second century. Thus, though the Gnostic writings provide helpful insight into the heresies growing out of Christianity, it cannot be assumed that the NT grew out of Gnostic teachings.

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Students of the NT have generally been interested in the subject of Gnosticism because of its consistent appearance in discussions of the “Colossian heresy” and the interpretation of John’s first epistle. It is felt that Gnosticism supplies the background against which these and other issues should be understood. However, some who use the terms “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” lack a clear understanding of the movement itself. In fact, our knowledge of Gnosticism has suffered considerably from a lack of primary sources. Now, however, with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi (hereafter, NH) codices, this void is being filled.

The NH codices were discovered in 1945, a year before the Qumran manuscripts, but the documents from NH have received comparatively little attention from conservative scholars. Unfortunately, political problems and personal rivalries have caused numerous

delays in the publication of the NH texts. Thanks mainly to the efforts of Professor James Robinson, English translations of all thirteen codices have at last been published in a single volume.1 Photographic reproductions of the papyrus pages and leather covers are now also available.2 A complete eleven-volume critical edition of the codices entitled The Coptic Gnostic Library began to appear in 1975. The amount of literature on NH is already quite large and growing at a rapid pace.3

The manuscripts from NH have importance for a number of scholarly disciplines, including Coptic itself, since the entire library is in that language. Also, because the vast majorit...

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