The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics

Pets, family and friends die progressively as one grows older. A result of the daily tide of bad news from the media is an awareness of how much evil and suffering there is in the world. One of the benchmarks for any kind of religion or mysticism is its explanation for evil. A question one might pose is “if God is good, why is all this shit happening”?

One of the most unusual and least-known answers is: “because the universe was made by ignorant beings”. It is defective. It is broken. Views of this kind were common in the period contemporary with the birth of Christianity, and until 300-400 AD they formed an alternative to what subsequently became the canonical view. Until the middle part of the 20th. century most of what we knew about the many gnostic sects came from the writings of a small number of Church heresiologists. Very few of their original writings survived. We knew that they believed the world was made by an ignorant creator god, and an emissary of the world of light (the true reality) would come into this world to redeem the select.

Then, according to the story, a large earthenware pot was found in a necropolis in Egypt in 1945 near the modern city of Nag Hammadi. It contained a large collection of copies of gnostic texts. One of the people who handled the original find and investigated the discovery was the French scholar Jean Doresse.

I came across The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics by Doresse during a complicated Google search for information on the Peratae, a gnostic sect. I ordered the book because I thought it might be fun to read about the discovery at Nag Hammadi by someone who was there. It is the stuff of Indiana Jones … or so I thought.

In my opinion Doresse’s The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics is one of the most interesting, perceptive and thoughtful discussions of Gnosticism I have found. Gnosticism is a difficult subject to write about – there were so many sects, so much ill-transmitted doctrine, so many baroque cosmologies – it is a quagmire for scholars. Sitting bang in the middle between the past and future of the subject, Doresse provides a very accessible introduction, and (IMO) is superior to many modern authors.

The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics: An Introduction to the Gnostic Coptic Manuscripts Discovered at Chenoboskion