Third, Completely Revised Edition
James M. Robinson, general editor
Harper & Row, New York, 1988; hardcover, 549 pages.

The story of the study of the Gnostic tradition is the story of important archaeological discoveries. The Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi in Egypt take their place alongside the Bruce Codex, Berlin Codex, Askew Codex, and for that matter the Dead Sea Scrolls, as among the finds that have altered accepted views of Jewish and Christian heterodox traditions of the early centuries A.D. Until the discovery and translation of such original writings of the representatives of Gnostic heterodoxy, scholars and lay persons were forced to rely on the fragmentary and biased accounts concerning Gnostics contained in the writings of the Church fathers Irenaeus (c.a. 185), Clement (c.a. 199-200), Hippolytus (c.a. 200-2251, and others of like ilk. It was rather like trying to form an accurate picture of Jewish customs and character on the basis of the pronouncements of Goebbels and Hitler!

The publication in 1977 of the entire Nag Hammadi find, in an affordable and readable English translation, was an event that will be remembered and appreciated by countless interested persons for decades to come. The updated and to some minor extent retranslated and newly annotated edition of The Nag Hammadi Library in English ten years later is living proof of the continuing, and indeed mounting interest of the public in the writings of the Gnostics, whose teachings G. R. S. Mead early in this century called “a faith forgotten.” Largely due to the persistence and enthusiasm of Dr. James M. Robinson, director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont Graduate School in California, this precious collection of original Gnostic documents (the most extensive to have appeared in all of history) has been available to the public without ever being out of print for any length of time since its first publication. The opportunities afforded contemporary students by this are considerable. For the first time Gnostic works of varying orientation can be read side by side; works of the thoroughly Christian school of Valentinus alternate with writings of the Sethian Gnostics and with initiation discourses of a Hermetic character. No wonder that the Gnostic Gospels have arrested the interest of people including scholars, science fiction writers, journalists, and feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem!

The new edition of this seminal work is in most respects a worthy successor to the earlier ones. For the most part the translations of the best known scriptures remain without major changes, though speculative readings of missing and damaged portions have diminished somewhat. Some of the lesser-known scriptures have been translated anew, and the introductions to the various tractates have been amended in many instances.

The most radical, and potentially the most controversial change from the earlier editions is the omission of the highly useful index of names and its replacement by an eighteen-page essay by one Richard Smith, whose credentials seem to be confined to his title of “managing editor” of the new edition, and whose contribution is a poor substitute for the missing index of Gnostic names. The essay, named an afterword and entitled “The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism,” suggests an appreciation of this value for today's persons of the Gnostic approach to spirituality, but in fact is nothing of the sort. Mr. Smith appears to have the attitude that anyone anywhere at anytime who has shown a positive interest in Gnosticism was either misinformed or mendacious. Edward Gibbon is judged guilty of a “mischievous lie” because he praised the Gnostics. Voltaire was dishonest when nourishing similar sentiments, and William Blake’s great sin was that he “worshipped his own creative imagination” and this personal aberration led him to Gnosticism (p. 534). The considerable attention devoted by Smith to H. P. Blavatsky (pp. 537-538) is also predominantly negative. This great esotericist is egregiously belittled because she advanced the notion of an ongoing secret tradition in history that in part goes back to the Gnostics. That noted contemporary scholars such as Mircea Eliade and Robert Ellwood agree with Blavatsky on this point seems to have escapes Mr. Smith.

One of the more peculiar comments made by Richard Smith concerns C. G. Jung, who, we are informed, “wrote so much about the Gnostics simply because he liked them” (p. 538). One wonders whether and why it might have been preferable for him to write about people whom he did not like? The essay offers no positive conclusions, and the reader is left wondering whether the impressive list of creative figures of Western culture who possessed leanings toward Gnosticism, and who are all damned with faint praise, ought to be viewed as a sort of passenger list of a ship of illustrious fools sailing along under a flag which they consistently misunderstand.

Be that as it may, the new edition of The Nag Hammadi Library, even with its peculiar afterword, testifies eloquently in favor of the proposition that Gnosticism can no longer be relegated to the realm of antiquarian curiosities. A vital tradition, vibrant with contemporary relevance and imminent possibilities, has surfaced in our view. Whatever the critics may say, the spirit of the Gnostics has returned, and it appears more than likely that this time it is here to stay.


Autumn 1989