Introduction: What is Christian Gnosticism and Who Were the Christian Gnostics?

What is Christian Gnosticism and who were the Christian Gnostics?

"No form of lost Christianity has so intrigued modern readers and befuddled modern scholars as early Christian Gnosticism. The intrigue is easy to understand, especially in view of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library.... When that group of field hands headed by Mohammed Ali uncovered this cache of books in Upper Egypt, the world was suddenly presented with hard evidence of other Christian groups in the ancient world that stood in sharp contrast with any kind of Christianity familiar to us today. There was no Jesus of the stained glass window here, nor a Jesus of the creeds--not even a Jesus of the New Testament. These books were fundamentally different from anything in our experience, and almost nothing could have prepared us for them" Bart D. Ehrman...Lost Christianities

A collection of codices discovered sealed in a large jar in a cave near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi (aka Chenoboskion in ancient times) in 1945 has forever changed our ideas about early Christianity. These documents, now known as the Nag Hammadi Library, were made famous by Elaine Pagels in her best-selling book called Gnostic Gospels.

The origin of these more than 1,500-year-old documents is still a mystery, but they are thought to have been hidden by Egyptian desert monks from the nearby Pachomian monastery to save them from destruction by officials of the early Christian church in Alexandria, Egypt.

During the third and fourth centuries of the common era, the Christian church was busy defining and enforcing the concept and definition of "orthodox Christianity" and "true believers". In 312 AD, Constantine made the new Christian religion legal throughout the empire. The Church gained power and Constantine hoped to hold together his troubled empire.

Chairing the first ecumenical council of Christian bishops in Nicaea in 325 AD, Constantine hoped this universal Christian religion would bring his people together. Imagine his disappointment when he probably realized too late that any discussion concerning the Divine and the divine realm would be fraught with serious divisions and disagreements. He probably gave it his best shot, but it was not to be that easy.

Early Christianity before and even for a while after the Council of Nicaea was a rich tapestry of ideas and concepts, in many different gospels about the nature of the Divine and divine realm. However, subsequent ecumenical councils worked to define and set in stone exactly what constituted a true orthodox Christian. The Church carefully selected only gospels that reflected those chosen true beliefs and discarded all the rest.

Then in a festal letter of 367 AD, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, condemned outright the use of non-canonical books, including books in the libraries of the monasteries and personal libraries of the desert monks living outside Alexandria. Then all books not authorized by the bishop were ordered destroyed.

This might well have been followed by a time of gathering forbidden books and making plans to hide them. At least one or more monks likely rebelled at the order. It is thought the collection of codices discovered at Nag Hammadi were writings and gospels hidden by some of those early monks from nearby Pachomian Monastery. Planning and carrying out such a deed would have been difficult and fraught with dangers.

By the time Theodosius I declared Christianity to be the only religion allowed in the empire in 381 AD, it might have been too late for saving more gospels. Intolerance and persecutions immediately followed causing many of the early Christian sects, including the Gnostics, to go underground, meeting in secrecy. Even the old pagan religions were outlawed. Anyone caught worshiping any religion other than orthodox Christianity was punished by death.

Why this Bibliography/Blog?

I have always believed that the existence of the Great Library at Alexandria, striving to collect all written works of the known world, was a remarkably noble aspect of the ancient world. It existed for about 800 years as a cultural and educational resource. Never again has that kind of effort been duplicated during human history.

My interest in the subject of early Christianity began with the arrival of the twenty-first century. Initially I wanted to write a novel about a librarian working in the great library of Alexandria during these unsettling times -- the rise of early Christianity. A rough draft of that story is my blog, Alexandrine Librarian.

It did not take me long to realize that the fate of the Great Library and its companion institutions of learning, the Alexandrine Schools was closely tied to the rise of the early Christian Church and its increasing intolerance of alternative ideas about the nature of the Divine and the divine realm. I document the academic side of the Great Library in Alexandrine Teaching and in The Catechetical School of Alexandria

Also during these years, the first five centuries of the common era, there was a great outburst of spirituality like no other in recorded history that was a sharp contrast to and definitely at odds with the truculent nature of the early Christian Church. It is those desert monks and monasteries of the Egyptian desert south of Alexandria and the gospels they revered on a daily basis that are documented in my Desert Fathers bibliography/blog.

I find the history of the people of those times compelling. My work on this bibliography/blog, the reading and studying, has become a sort of spiritual journey. They are my personal notes on this "accidental" spiritual journey.

In this blog I want to explore available web-based resources for Gnosticism, one specific version of Christianity that appealed to some of those monks, document their belief system or cosmogony/cosmology of the Divine and the divine realm as described in the translations of these lost, now found, documents of the Desert Fathers – the Gnostic Gospels.

I hope you will enjoy these blogs as much as I have enjoyed putting them together and see for yourself who the Gnostics were and what Gnosticism was.

Comments and observations are welcome. If you are interested in contributing a chapter or so to this blog, feel free to contact me.

The Librarian
From the high mountains of southern Colorado
July 2014
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