Part One: The Gnostic Gospels
In December of 1945 near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, an Arab civilian unearthed a collection of clay jars while digging for a special soil with which to fertilize his crops. Inside these jars he discovered a set of papyrus codices, which contained writing illegible to him. Some weeks later, the books were taken to Cairo, where they were discovered to have immense worth for archeologists from around the world.
Inside these thin, leather-bound volumes were a series of writings in Coptic, revealed by scholars to be the hidden writings of an ancient sect of Christianity, known as the Gnostics. Until the mid 1900's, the primary source of information regarding the Gnostics had been the Christian church fathers (Irenaeus, Turtullian, Origen, and others), who had denounced Gnosticism as a heresy. In Against Heresies (Irenaeus), it is written that "the very heretics themselves [the Gnostics] bear witness to [the Gospels], and, starting from these [documents], each one of them endeavors to establish his own peculiar doctrine." The Gnostics are described as the "ones who separate Jesus from Christ" (Ibid. 3.11.7), whose writings are not to be considered valid. Many look upon this source of information as biased and unreliable.
The discovery at Nag Hammadi affords moderners with a unique opportunity--we may now examine and interpret the Gnostic texts themselves, and better understand the specific, intricate doctrines which early Christians opposed. Since the translation of the Nag Hammadi library, the works have been published, sometimes in separate volumes (for each book). The version being used here is The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Revised Edition (see bibliography for more details) edited by James Robinson. Contained within this library are dozens of works, some severely fragmented, others almost entirely whole.
These documents are of great importance to the claims made by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code. Though he only quotes the texts a single time (which we will take a look at later when we discuss Mary Magdalene), he describes these texts a number of times. According to Brown, "the earlier Gospels [the Gnostic Gospels] were outlawed, gathered up, and burned" (p. 234) after being deemed heretical at the Church Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. but "some managed to survive". The Da Vinci Code is essentially claiming that its facts about the first Christians are based off of this collection of documents.
Among these documents are several that are called 'gospels'. These are as follows: The gospels of Truth, Mary, Egyptians, Thomas, and Philip. Unlike the Christian gospels, these each claim to tell of a different aspect of Jesus' ministry. The gospel of Truth, unlike those found in the New Testament, does not offer an account of the life of Christ. Rather, it provides a Valentinian (circa A.D. 120-160) exposition on Gnostic teaching, especially regarding their cosmological order. The Gospel of Mary tells a smaller story than the four-fold Christian gospels, writing of an argument between Mary Magdalene and Peter over special revelation given by Christ. Peter is claiming that he is the rock that Christ enabled to govern his institutional body after his death, while Mary claims that Jesus gave her a special, secret knowledge (from the Greek word, gnosis or knowledge, from which we derive Gnosticism) that would shape the face of Gnostic religion for the following generations. In Egyptians, Jesus is only mentioned toward the end, and is described as having been put on like a garment by Seth (the son of Adam), working to save his children on earth. Thomas is a collection of sayings supposedly given to some of the disciples by Christ, which demonstrate obvious connections with some later Gnostic mythologies. Finally, the Gospel of Philip utilizes a few sayings of Jesus which are actually from the Christian gospels, with a Gnostic interpretation on them.
This is somewhat different from the canonical (biblical) gospels found in the New Testament. The Gnostic gospels do not profess to be telling the same story, unlike the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the gospel of John. The Gnostics included in their literature exegesis on Gnostic dogma as well as accounts of the life of Christ. They also used opportunities to explain their cosmological order in its relation to the Gnostic Jesus.
According to the Gnostic texts, there was in the beginning an ultimate father god (called the Pleroma) who is a divine universal spirit, incorporeal and immutable. Along with the father is Sophia, the spirit (likened by many Gnostics to the Christian Holy Spirit) who created the Demiurge. This created being then mistook himself for the one true God and created the heavens and the earth, and the beings to inhabit it. Here some part of Sophia entered into the empty shell of flesh and sinews that made up humans, and so man was created. The Gnostics believe that after this was done, the creator God told the humans that he was the one true god, and as is written in the Old Testament, said "you shall have no other gods before me." Here the Gnostics believe he became evil, because his sovereignty was a lie. After doing this, the texts say Sophia rebuked him.
In turn, the Gnostics view the entire material world as inherently evil, and see salvation as something attained through secret knowledge of the divine universal spirit (the Pleroma). They accept the Old Testament as being the inspired word of a god who is false. This Demiurge that created the earth is evil to them; also he is known as the god of the Hebrews. In fact, the Old Testament underwent revision by some of the Gnostic sects to infuse it with their own teaching and remove the Jewish elements.
These aspects of Gnostic mythology are the essentials to understanding their relation to the claims made in The Da Vinci Code. In the coming chapters, we will examine how the Gnostics specifically viewed Jesus, and how all this matches up with Dan Brown's claims about the first Christians.