Written and Compiled by John Lash
A Reading Plan
All the material in the Coptic Gnostic writings is difficult, but there may be a way to make the onerous task of reading the NHC a little easier. The purpose of teading these texts cannot be comprehensive understanding of any kind by which I mean on overview of how it all hangs together. It doesn't. There is no unitary and synthetic way to view the Coptic writings attributed to Gnostics. It might be compared to a scrap pile of outmobile carcasses, different makes and models. And parts of the original vehicles are missing. You cannot rebuild any single automobile from this heap of twisted metal. The best you can do is make a car-like mobile out of the scrap.
The NHC are chaotic and contradictory, muddled and fragmentary in content. But there is a way of reading that can be productive of outstanding insights—bursts of discovery, as I will call them. To this end, I propose a reading plan consisting of a sequence of texts in three categories, with commentaries that highlight the outstanding points in each text. Caveat lector: reader, be advised that the system I propose is biased toward a non-Judeo-Christian interpretation of the NHC, putting emphasis on elements of the material which has been largely ignored and/or discounted by known scholars. There is plenty of objectionable content for such an approach, so I feel on solid ground in my choice to select and highlight the essential elements of Pagan, pre-Christian Gnosis.
At the very least, here is an optional way to read the NHC, a departure from the standard approach to be found in hundreds of other books.
Access to all texts treated so far (July 2016)
The tactical reading program I propose begins with a banal feat of organization: listing the texts in The Nag Hammadi Library in English (hereafter NHLE) in alphabetic order. No edition of these texts presents such a list. Rather, the 52 documents in the collection are listed sequentially by Codex (Roman numeral), and document (number) : V, 5, The Apocalypse of Adam. The NHLE presents a Table of Contents arranged in this manner, running through thirteen Codices. The problem is, if you riffle the book and catch sight of a passage that engages you in, say, The Apocalypse of Peter, you have refer again to the Table of Contents to go back to that text. This is an onerous process that requires perusing the contents until you locate it: VII, 3, about halfway down the list. Going through the Table of Contents time and time again is a tedious and exasperating exercise. On the other hand, if you just riffle the book without going intentionally to a particular text that engages you, you will find that the NHLE is exhaustingly long and complicated. Even though it consists of only 52 documents, it seems to go on forever! And it contains no small amount of gibberish in damaged and undamaged passages alike:
Given the state of the materials, it is totally useless to read the NHLE from page one, straight through to the end. In the first place, you will never get through it, you will get buried, bogged down in the material. And anyway, there is no particular advantage in reading straight through the book because there is no sequential sense in the Codices. In fact, it is much better to read them non-sequentially. With the reading plan it is possible both to develop a comprehensive overview of the texts, and to appreciate each single text according to its specific character. With the three-level breakdown, reading is easier and more productive.
Now what about those "bursts of discovery?"
Granted, it is handy to be able to designate the exact location of a line in the NHLE, but this system does not help with overall orientation to the material. Detecting the "bursts" will orient the reading process, because each burst is like a flare marking one section of a continuous path through the entire corpus. The vivid, outstanding sentences or passages confer a kind of coherence on hopelessly incoherent material. In continued reading, what you get from the NHLE comes through sudden flashes of this kind rather than through intensive, line-by-line comprehension—which is, in any case, impossible. Not even a veteran scholar would claim to have it.
To keep track of the flashes, and build comprehension based on these sporadic insights, you have to be able to return to the text where the flash happens. This is how the alphabetic list is helpful.
I have made an alphabetic list of texts for the NHLE 1991, the edition most widely used outside scholarly circles. This is the paperback edition most people own. The list can be printed out, folded to a column, and kept in the book, used as a bookmark. Keep this list handy for immediate access to any text.
Now for the breakdown, that is, the order of reading. I propose three stages of reading with texts listed alphabetically at each level. From the total of 52 documents, I have compiled three lists. I ignore minor and neglibable texts, thus reducing the list to 32 documents in three modules or reading levels. It so happens that the alphabetic order, which appears arbitrary, provides a helpful sequence for working through the materials. How this is so will become evident as we explore the levels.
This recondite material requires special reading tactics. It helps hugely to know what you're getting into before you start reading, what type or genre of text you're tackling, and how long it is. All the material in the NHC is difficult, but the difficulty diminishes as we learn from one text how to approach the succeeding one. This is the tactical advantage afforded by the three-stage, alphabetic order.
"The Mysteries and the Master"
"The Sense of Cosmic Order"
These tables list the selected 32 documents in the reading plan, with page numbers in the NHLE, and conventional abbreviations of titles. Each of the commentaries opens with standard information: title, Codex book(Roman numeral) and text number, location in NHLE, length of text, state of the text (damaged, intact, etc), type or genre, and CORE or outstanding themes of the text. For example, text 9 in the second module:
9. The (First) Apocalypse of James: NHC V, 3. NHLE p 260. Six pages, somewhat damaged. Revelation discourse with dialogue. CORE: facing the Archons, commission to secret knowledge.
a half pages to about forty. It is helpful to know how long the document
is before you get into it. Next comes the genre. There are six types:
revelation discourse, dialogue, homily, sayings, apocalypse, and cosmological
I use CORE to indicate the radical (i.e.,
Pagan, pre-Christian) elements in a text, especially elements that reflect
the Mystery Schools.
Reading in Depth
To reiterate: this three-stage reading plan showcases the heretical message of Gnosticism by highlighting "bursts," the vivid and outstanding
elements in each text. Fine, but
it could be argued that these are my bursts, and other readers
will have different responses, resulting in different highlights. Granted,
this is certainly true, and I do not claim that my bursts are superior
or overriding in importance. I do claim, however, that my bursts may be in some manner definitive because
they have recurred hundreds of times in my readings of these
texts. The themes and elements I emphasize are those I have found to be sharply delineated by successive reading. Thus they may serve as teaching
points have been rigorously test-driven. They are not the only highlights
in the Gnostic corpus, but they are the key recurrent highlights in my reading experience that define
the essential non-salvationist message of Gnosis.
Any lay reader who delves into the Gnostic corpus has the right to know about scholarly oversight and bias. I emphasize one extraordinary fact: namely, no scholar has indicated how the two main components of Gnostic heresy, the critique of salvationism and the Sophia Mythos, are interlocked. Let's call these the critical component and the imaginative component of the Gnostic refutation of salvationist faith. The imaginal component presents the scenario of Sophia's plunge from the Pleroma, the cosmic center. By a side-effect of her action, an inorganic species of locust-like cyborgs comes to inhabit the solar system, apart from the sun, moon, and earth. Such is the the "sci-fi theology" of Gnosticism. You can take it or leave it, but it is not going to disappear any time soon.
Mystery School teaching on deviation comprises (I estimate) about one sixth or one fifth of all the material in the corpus. Some texts such as On the Origin of the World (II, 5) are preponderantly concerned with the threat posed by the "extraterrestrial" Archons. Make no bones about it, these astonishing writings make it eminently clear that the alien mind parasites are psychic intruders ("They take away souls by theft." V, 3 : 33.10) who use the false ideology of salvationism to enslave humanity to an alien agenda ("It is enslavement that we should die with Christ." VII, 2 : 49.20-30).
As for the critical component, this appies to the Gnostic refutation of salvationist dogma and the redeemer complex' in other words, the critique of Judeo-Christian theodicy. The Gnostic view makes the Archons instrumental in implanting and spreading the redeemer pathology: it relies on the imaginative element, the story of Sophia, to support a radical critique of the "divine plan." The Archons are intrapsychic cross-species agents of error whose main expression is salvationist ideology framed in totalitarian religion. The entities, alien cousins to humanity, are deeply implicated in what we believe about ourselves, about human potential, God and the Gods. They use HAL or simulation to skew the workings of the luminous epinoia, the power of imagination endowed in humanity for the express purpose of detecting and resisting those deviant influences.
"What is that Talent which it is a curse to hide?" William Blake asked. Heretical Gnosticism teaches that the talent of imagination is central to the divine birthright of the human species, and must be owned, lest it be lost—or worse, co-opted and deviated toward non-human designs. Moreover, imagination is integral to the human bond with Sophia and even plays a role in her transhuman process of "correction," i.e., realignment to the galactic center, the Pleroma.
This is THE core message of Gnostic heresy, but you will not even find it acknowledged as such in scholarly expositions of the Coptic writings. It is as if scholars were reading a will and quibbling over legalese, debating statutes and general laws that apply to hereditary succession, and so forth, but ignoring the actual bequest stated in the testamentary language.
So far, no orthodox scholar has been willing to
take the Gnostic exposition of the Archon threat on face value. But I would
argue that to understand the true
message of Gnostic heresy
and approach first-hand experience of Gnosis, we must be willing to consider—that
is, provisionally adopt and think through—the primary noetic principle: Not all that operates in the human mind originates there.
The essential message of Gnostic heresy is non-Christian in rejecting both the incarnation of a superhuman savior god and universal atonement by the suffering of the savior. Yet some passages in the NHLE explicitly affirm both of these propositions! It may seem utterly perverse to select only those elements that support a non-Christian argument and use them to develop a "radical Gnostic message," but at least I do so in an honest and transparent way. All scholars use the Lego method, but they do not build anything coherent out of the Lego pieces. They merely select similar Lego pieces and place them in boxes which they label Valentinian, Christian Gnostic, mythological Gnosticism, anti-Jewish polemic, Alexandrian School, Platonizing Sethian, Christian Apocalypse, Wisdom literature. Scholars label the elements of the Coptic writings in this way because that is how they can control the impressions made on them by the diversity of the materials. These labels cannot be applied to a single text, only to certain elements in a text.
The Coptic writings in the NHLE are said to be translations of "Greek originals, which have not been found (except for slight fragments). What were these alleged originals? I say they were likely to have been
rough class notes on oral teachings given in Egypt and the Levant in
the first centuries
Christian Era, but including citations of written works as well. In short, they were student material with some passages of verbatim instruction
from telestai, Gnostic teachers in the Mysteries. When verbatim
instruction dominates a text, scholars designate it as a "revelation
dialogue." It is more than likely that the scribes who translated
the originals from Greek into Coptic understood little of the meaning
these second- or third-hand documents. Moreover, the conditions of translation
must have been stressful. The execution of some texts is hurried,
the lettering slurred by speed. Scholars note that the several scribes
who did the translations spoke a dialect of Coptic, Sub-Akhmimic, but
they translated in another dialect, Sahidic, to conform to religious
convention. Hold on, it gets worse.
I maintain that Coptic is not a language at all, but a kind of stenographic shorthand. About one in every five Coptic words is a loan from Greek. Some proper Coptic words show Egyptian derivation and some are just wild cards. Coptic is heavily compounded with the definite article, the Greek letter PI, attached to the word it indicates: PIEIOT, "the father." EIOT is pronounced yot. Pie-yot, "the father." This is the paltry term used for the supreme being in the NHLE. Many Coptic words have weird-looking vowel clusters: OYOEIN, "light," pronounced woyn. (Here scholars are guessing: no one really knows how these bizarre-looking words were pronounced.) Many words are heavily compounded. ROME (ro-may) means "a human being." Stick MNT in front and it becomes MNTROME, "humanity." Add the negative indicator AT and it becomes MNTATROME, "inhumanity." Bear in mind that the grammatical constructions of Coptic do not lend themselves to fine and sophisticated phrasing of abstract ideas. Add to the Kafkaesque grammar the masses of orthographic errors and variations found through the corpus and you have the happy horror that is the Coptic Gnostic Library.
Not all the news about the Gnostic Coptic writings is bad news, however. Even in their deplorable state, the Nag Hammadi books preserve vital clues to the Gnostics' alternative to the salvationist program they refuted: the redemption story of the planetary goddess, Sophia Dreaming.
In short, getting
through the NHLE English translations of garbled Coptic translations of lost Greek originals (hurried class notes) is an obstacle course that would try the Terminator—and then you fetch up in the content. Take The Prayer of the Apostle
Paul, NHC I,1, written on the flyleaf of Codex I, called the
Jung Codex because it was acquired (illegally) by C. G. Jung. It consists
of forty-six lines.
At first glance this snippet of Coptic writing appears to present clear
textual evidence that the Apostle Paul, the zealous preacher of the New
Elaine Pagels has made a strong case for the Gnostic Paul.
But neither the Pauline Acts or letters, nor the Gnostic treatises, are
in any instance
by the presumed author. Some works are traditionally attributed to Saint Paul, that's
all. Attributions to a "Paul" occur in the NHLE, too, but ancient theologians were
known for attributing writings to all kinds of people, real and imaginary.
The Prayer is not proof, either that a Gnostic Paul existed
did exist, was identical
to the presumed historical Paul of the New Testament. Inference is not
evidence, but most of the evidence in the NHLE is pure (and poor) inference.
Needless to say, the claim made by Gnostics that Christian doctrines are an insinuation of the Archontic species, a "foreign installation" in our minds, was the most daring, explosive, and heretical message to come out of the Mysteries. And still is. To read the NHLE and miss this message is a huge blunder. The failure of the experts to highlight this message is scandalous and shameful. Today, going on 65 years after the discovery is Nag Hamadi, and Gnostic scholarsip is stalled in a deplorate state of denial.
To read the NHLE with discernment we must realize that almost nothing is straightword in these materials, yet the Gnostic message of heresy is clear and explicit when it comes up. The genuine teachings of the Mysteries can be extracted from this pitiful mess of scribal pottage. The three-stage reading plan is designed to build the skills for discernment, text by text. At the end of the day, the reader gets out of the Gnostic corpus whatever the "bursts" call forth in the reader's mind. Here is Dick's "plasmate" in action: the disinhibiting power of Gnosis. As I wrote in another piece (Approaching Gnosticism) on metahistory.org, when all is said and done, approaching Gnosticism involves an act of faith, indicated by Gnostics as Pistis Sophia, “confidence in the indwelling wisdom.”
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.