Thursday, April 26, 2007

Gnostic discoveries

Recently, I started to talk about an Egyptian Christian named Pachomius [292-348], who is thought of as the inventor of the concept of monastic communities described as cenobitic, which means that the monks lived together, sharing their possessions, under the guidance of an abbot. Some twenty years after the death of their first abbot, a strange event took place. The Pachomian monks assembled many of the papyrus books in their monastic library and carefully buried them at the foot of the cliffs of Jabal al-Tarif, near the city of Nag Hammadi. Curiously, the monks conducted this book burying, not to destroy them, but as if they wanted their books to be preserved.

In 1945, the buried books of the Pachomian monks were unearthed. Today, an observer might say: "Show me the books they used to read, and I'll tell you who they were." In any case, the books of the so-called Nag Hammadi Library are totally different to what we now think of as "ordinary" Christian reading, and it can be said that the Proto-Christianity of Pachomius and his monks was indeed a very strange affair.

Researchers believe that the monks buried their books as a reaction to a ruling laid down in a festal letter by Athanasius in 367. The archbishop of Alexandria had made a basically unilateral decision concerning his choice of the canonical books of the Christian scriptures, including above all the 27 books of what would later be named the New Testament. As for all the rest, it was declared by Athanasius to be heretical, and this adjective designates most of the books buried by the Pachomian monks.

Today, for us 21st-century citizens who can buy all kinds of books through the Internet, it's a fabulous privilege to be able to read the authentic Proto-Christian books, designated by the mysterious term Gnostic, that were surely part of the everyday "bible" of Pachomius and his monks. In any case, it's an amazing shock for us, since the brand of Christianity revealed by these books of Nag Hammadi appears, at times, to have little to do with our ordinary concepts of the Christian religion.

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