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Ti m o t h y P e t t i p i e c e

Towards a Manichaean Reading of the


Nag Hammadi Codices

Abstract

This article outlines some of the complexities apparent in the literary and historical relationship between the
Nag Hammadi writings and Manichaeism. In particular, it examines the trajectories of reception, redaction,
and refutation reflected on both sides of this relationship. As a prolegomena to future research, it aims to lay the
groundwork for a more nuanced understanding of how Manichaeans read and even influenced several key Nag
Hammadi texts.

Introduction

E ver since their discovery in 1945, the Nag Hammadi codices have garnered a steadily increasing amount
of scholarly and now popular interest. In particular, they have served to provide a fascinating glimpse into the
wide diversity of early Christianity during the first centuries CE and to enlarge greatly the existing corpus of
early Christian apocryphal literature. While much work has been and continues to be done on situating in-
dividual Nag Hammadi texts and, increasingly, exploring trajectories found within the collection as a whole,
there have been far fewer attempts to situate this corpus in relation to other bodies of ancient literature outside
of the Bible. For instance, it has long been assumed that Mani and the Manichaeans must have been influenced
in some significant way by concepts found in at least a part of the literature preserved at Nag Hammadi, but at
what stage and in what form remains difficult to discern. At the same time, traces of both Manichaean scribal
redaction and even anti-Manichaean polemic may also be detected in certain Nag Hammadi texts. As such,
this article serves as a prolegomena to ongoing research into the complex relationship between Manichaean
literature and the texts preserved in the Nag Hammadi library.

Reception, Redaction or Refutation?


When identical or similar themes and motifs occur in two separate bodies of relatively contemporary an-
cient religious literature, it is generally assumed that one has influenced the other. At the same time, it is often
difficult to trace with any degree of certainly the lines of transmission and influence. This is further complicat-
ed when both groups of writings have long and largely obscure textual prehistories that would seem to inform
their apparent points of contact. Such is the case with the Coptic texts from Nag Hammadi and the Coptic
Manichaean texts from Medinet Madi. Discovered a mere sixteen years apart (in 1945 and 1929 respectively),

Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies 3–4 — 2012

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Towards a Manichean Reading of the Nag Hammadi Codices

both corpora have greatly expanded our understanding of early Christian movements that were eventually
marginalized and excluded from the mainstream Churches. More than that, both collections of writings come
from the same general geographic area (Egypt) and are dated to sometime in the fourth–fifth centuries CE.

These manuscripts, however, are mere snapshots in the larger textual history of the writings they contain.
The Nag Hammadi texts are almost certainly Coptic translations of Greek originals with possible traces of Ara-
maic or Syriac elements evident in some.1 Similarly, the Manichaean texts from Medinet Madi are also thought
to be translations of Greek originals, but with evidence of a Syriac substratum. Chronologically speaking, ear-
lier or proto-versions of Nag Hammadi writings go back at least to the second century CE, if not significantly
earlier in some cases, while Manichaean literature begins in the third century CE with the writings of Mani
himself, who appears to have been a highly refined and literate religious teacher. This means that unlike the
traditional hagiographic portrayals of Jesus and Muhammad, for instance, which rightly or wrongly portray
their subjects as having little or no interest in religious “texts,” Mani was clearly someone who would have had
the capacity to read sacred writings for himself and to have been influenced consciously or unconsciously by
their content. The contrast is telling, for in the case of Mani it is at least possible that he borrowed certain ele-
ments directly from religious texts accessible to him, whereas the other prophets are often seen as absorbing
religious imagery and themes from their respective environments aurally or by a kind of cultural osmosis.

The chronological question, however, is the most vexing. As we shall see, certain elements that occur in
both the Nag Hammadi and Medinet Madi writings can, on the one hand, reasonably be attributed to Mani
himself, although where he got them—through inspiration or invention—remains mysterious. On the other
hand, it is equally possible that Nag Hammadi authors, redactors, or translators adapted well-worn Mani-
chaean models and wove them into their work at a later stage. As a result, a number of key questions come to
the fore:

1) Did Mani draw certain key imagery and themes from earlier versions of writings later translated
and anthologized into the Nag Hammadi codices?
2) Did Mani and the authors of certain Nag Hammadi writings work independently from common
sources?
3) Did the translators and redactors of Nag Hammadi writings deliberately incorporate Manichaean
elements?

The Manichaean Myth


Yet, if we are going to consider any of the above scenarios, then it might be useful (especially for those not
initiated into the complexities of Manichaean thought) to begin with a general outline of the Manichaean cos-
mogony. For this, we turn to Theodore bar Khonai, an eighth-century CE Christian bishop of Kashkar (south-
ern Iraq), who, in the early years of the Abbasid revolution, wrote his Book of Scholia,2 as a systematic defence
of Christian doctrines. While chapters one through nine were devoted to scriptural exegesis and a tenth to a

1  On a superficial level, the use of names such as “Yaldabaoth” and “Saklas” inter alia point to such a context,
although the roots likely extend much deeper.
2 See Scher, 1954. For translations see Reeves, 1992: 189–193; and now my new translation in Pettipiece,
2009: 223–229.

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Ti m o t h y P e t t i p i e c e

refutation of Islam, chapter eleven constituted a collection of Christian heresies, including the Manichaeans. In
spite of its late date, the fact that Theodore’s résumé is preserved in Syriac, the original language of Mani and
the Manichaean church, means that it is an important witness to the earliest strata of Manichaean terminology.

According to Theodore’s testimony, Mani taught that before the creation of the universe, two eternally
opposed principles, which he called “Natures,” existed in primordial equilibrium. At some point, however,
the precosmic balance is tipped when the “King of Darkness” launches an invasion of the realm of light. In
response, the ruler of the light realm, whom Mani calls the “Father of Greatness,” summons forth his consort
“the Mother of Life.” The two then offer up part of their essence, in the form of the “First Man” armed with
five luminous powers, to be consumed by the powers of darkness and bond with them. Once the First Man
and his luminous armour are consumed, the Father calls upon a triad of beings—the “Beloved of Lights,” the
“Great Builder,” and the “Living Spirit”—to rescue the First Man and to construct the cosmos out of the slain
bodies of the dark powers. This, in effect, puts in place the cosmic machinery by which the imprisoned light
essence may be filtered out and liberated from the darkness. Once this machinery is in place, the Father, along
with First Man and the Living Spirit, evoke (according to Theodore) a being called “the Messenger,” who in
turn calls Twelve Virgins representing various righteous virtues. The Messenger then commands the cosmic
machinery into operation and reveals an androgynous image to the surviving dark powers, who, filled with
lust, expel the light that they had consumed. In a final counterstroke, a pair of demons, whom Theodore names
as Ashaqlun and Namrael (also known as Salkas and Nebroel in other sources), conspire to create the first pair
of human beings based on the image of the divine Messenger. This couple, Adam and Eve, along with their
descendents, are condemned to lives of ignorance, imprisonment and death. Fortunately, however, another en-
voy from the light-realm, “Jesus the Splendour,” is sent by the Father to awaken Adam and to plant the saving
seed of gnosis, that is, knowledge of the true nature of reality. So ends Theodore’s account of the Manichaean
creation story.

While some aspects of this story may be recognized from mainstream biblical traditions, such as the cre-
ation of the first couple and (somewhat below the surface) the notion of God’s self sacrifice of his own son,
when they are filtered through a Manichaean lens they take on a radically different hue. Yet, as we shall see,
some rather striking parallels emerge when we juxtapose this theological narrative with selections of discourse
found in Nag Hammadi writings. For example, to take one preliminary example, a passage from the Secret
Book of John (II 6.1–10) describes

the pentad of aeons of the Father, which is the First Man, the image of the invisible Spirit. This is Providence—
which is Barbelo—and Thought and Foreknowledge, and Indestructibility, and Eternal Life. This is the andro-
gynous pentad, which is the decad of the aeons of the Father.3

This passage not only associates a characteristically Manichaean series of five “aeons” with a supreme being
called “Father,” but also evokes an “Invisible Spirit,” as well as a “First Man.” It is a language that resonates
strongly with Mani’s own core myth as recorded by Theodore bar Khonai, but where did it originate? On the
surface, we might suppose either that Mani knew and was influenced by an earlier version of the Secret Book
of John (or one of its sources) or, conversely, that the later translator/redactor has incorporated Manichaean
elements. It may even be that both authors derived this language from other sources. It is difficult to judge.

3  Waldstein and Wisse, 1995: 29.

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Towards a Manichean Reading of the Nag Hammadi Codices

While there is evidence to suggest that Mani built much of his system on a primitive (Semitic) trinitarian for-
mula of father-god, mother-spirit, and androgenous-child, which manifests itself as the the Manichaean triad
of “Father of Greatness,” “Living Spirit,” and “First Man,” a similar formula could have also found its way into
an Aramaic substratum of the Secret Book of John independently. Let us look at some of these elements in more
detail.

Father of Greatness
That a key member of this triad should be called “Father” comes as no surprise in the context of Mani’s
generally Judaeo-Christian background, but the specific use of the epithet “of Greatness” (Syriac rabbutha)
seems somewhat less obvious. To be sure, the “greatness” of God is an object of praise in the Jewish Scriptures,
although it is rarely used as more than a simple qualifier for God’s abundant majesty. Philo, for instance, com-
ments that leaven is prohibited in ritual offerings in order that one might not be puffed up with pride and can
therefore remain focused on the “greatness of God” (to megethos tou theou, Special Laws 1.293). Elsewhere, in
Jewish parabiblical writings such as 1 Enoch, however, God is given the specific designation as “the Great One”
(1 En. 103.4; 104.1), as he is in the Vision of Michael from Qumran (4Q529).4 Also from Qumran, the Genesis
Apocryphon refers to God as the “Great Lord,” an expression paralleled, it should be noted, by the Mandaean
phrase “Lord of Greatness” (mara drabuta).5

In the New Testament, however, God is rarely referred to as “great,” with the exception of Titus 2:13. In
fact, this divine quality is more often found in polemical contexts, as when, in the Acts of the Apostles, Simon
the Magician is described by his Samaritan hearers as “the power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:10),
or when the rioters of Ephesus shut down Paul’s address with the words “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”
(Acts 19:28, 34). This accords well with the fact that the epithet “great god” (theos megas) seems to have been
commonly applied to pagan deities such as Helios (PGM 4.155), Mithras (PGM 4.482), and Zeus (PGM
5.474), although in this latter case the sky-god is addressed in remarkably Judaic terms as “ADŌNAI, lord IAŌ
OYĒE.” In fact, the proclamation in Deut 10:17 that “the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the
great God, mighty and awesome” could plausibly be read with such pagan epithets in the background. In this
instance, however, the Hebrew epithet is gādal rather than rab as reflected in the Manichaean usage, although
rabba is employed in the Syriac Peshitta and megas in the Greek Septuagint translations of the same passage. It
would seem then that in the Graeco-Roman context of the New Testament, there was some sensitivity to the
application of the word “greatness” to God.

If canonical Jewish and Christian writings only reluctantly make reference to the “greatness” of God, then
how did this epithet enter into Mani’s theological lexicon? Interestingly, the use of the word “greatness” in
association with God does appear somewhat more frequently in the Nag Hammadi corpus. For instance, in
the Platonically infused theology of the Valentianian Tripartite Tractate, the “greatness” of the Father is repeat-
edly said to be an aspect of his nature beyond intellectual comprehension (NHC I,5 54.20; 55.2, 29; 57.26;
64.31; 72.36),6 while for the author of the treatise On the Origin of the World “greatness” is a quality possessed

4  Eisenman and Wise, 1982: 38–39.


5  See Van Tongerloo, 1994: 330.
6  Attridge, 1985.

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by a variety of divine entities from “Faith” and “Wisdom” (NHC II,5 98.18)7 down to the ignorant demiurge
himself, Yaldabaoth (100). The Dialogue of the Savior, for its part, has Jesus refer to “the Greatness” from which
“the Word” comes forth (NHC III,5 133.6),8 whereas the Second Treatise of the Great Seth meditates on “the
perfect Greatness” (megathos) of the Father (NHC VII, 2 49.109 [BCNH 6:26]10); a sentiment echoed by the
Prayer of Paul (NHC I,1). In addition, the Marsanes treatise invokes the presence of God as the “Great Father”
(1.2311 [BCNH 27:252]12).

One Nag Hammadi text in particular, however, makes the most prominent and concrete use of the concept
of divine “greatness” as an essential quality of the “unbegotten Spirit,” although in this case it is important
to note that this being exists between the opposed principles of Light and Darkness (see Paraphrase of Shem,
passim). This text, the Paraphrase of Shem,13 is considered by some (Michel Roberge in particular) to be a sort
of “missing link” between early forms of Gnostic or gnosticizing discourse and Manichaeism itself,14 although
the fact that it proposes an intermediary power between the opposed natures would seem to complicate that
thesis. Still, if this is the case, that the Paraphrase of Shem “anticipates” Manichaeism,15 then it may indeed
have exercised an influence on Mani himself, who would have sought to revise its core theological framework.
Otherwise, if dated somewhat later, it could be read as a pointed revision of the central Manichaean teaching.

Mother of Life
Theodore’s summary also demonstrates the importance of a feminine entity known as the “Mother of Life”
(emme d-hiyya), alternatively “Mother of the Living” or “Mother of Life.” It is well known that feminine divine
imagery is a prominent feature of Nag Hammadi literature and, as some have argued, of the Gnostic worldview
more generally. For example, Sophia (“Wisdom”) is sometimes called “[Mother of the Universe],” as in Eug-
nostos (NHC V 9.5)16 and The Wisdom of Jesus Christ (NHC III 104.19; BG 99,12),17 whereas in The Dialogue
of the Savior (NHC III,5 144.11) Jesus tells Mary Magdalene that “when the Father established the cosmos
for himself, he left much over from the Mother of the All.”18 The Nature of the Rulers, for its part, describes the
so-called “spiritual” Eve as “Mother of the Living.”19 The femininity of the spirit is a well-known (and gram-

7  Layton, 1989: 30.


8  Emmel, 1984: 66.
9  Pearson, 1996: 146.
10  Painchaud, 1982: 24.
11  Pearson, 1981: 252.
12  Funk, Poirier and Turner, 2000: 250.
13  Pearson, 1996.
14  See M. Roberge in Meyer, 2007: 446.
15  Roberge in Meyer, 2007: 446.
16  Parrott, 1991: 106.
17  Parrott, 1991: 107.
18  Emmel, 1984: 89.
19  Layton, 1989: 67.

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Towards a Manichean Reading of the Nag Hammadi Codices

matically necessary) feature of early Syriac tradition,20 as evidenced by texts such as the Odes of Solomon.21 As
a result, it seems reasonable to assume that the idea of the feminine spirit would have naturally occurred to
the Syriac-speaking Mani and his disciples, and that it influenced the way in which they thought about and
described the triad of the first evocation, which at its core reflects their primitive trinitarian formulation. As
we might expect, in the Secret Book of John, the revealer counsels John not to be afraid, proclaiming “I am [the
Father], I am the Mother, I am the Son.”22 In this case, the Father, gazing into his reflection, produces a be-
ing known as the “Invisible Virgin Spirit” (Secret Book of John 4), although it is Sophia who is actually called
“Mother of the Living” (Secret Book of John 23). The Secret Book of John and the Nature of the Rulers, much like
the Paraphrase of Shem, also contain features linking it with a Semitic milieu. Thus, these writings could have
also circulated in Mani’s environment and even found their way to Mani’s reading table.

First Man
The passage from the Secret Book of John (II 6.1–10) cited above also mentions the “First Man,” the tragic
hero of the Manichaean cosmogony. Known as nasha qadmiya in Syriac sources (Theodore bar Khonai 313.28
[Scher]), he is sent out by the Father and Mother armed with the elements of light as armour in order to meet
the dark invaders.

The idea that God might send an envoy in the likeness of a human being is known even in the Jewish Scrip-
tures. Famously, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God appearing as “something that seemed like a human
form” (1:26 NRSV). The desire to understand this “something” seems to have launched a long line of Jewish
speculation about the correlation between the human and divine forms.23 As a result the notion of a divine
prototype for human beings was well known in Jewish, esoteric and speculative circles in antiquity. Even Philo
described a “heavenly man” as the prototype of Adam (Questions and Answers on Genesis 1.4),24 whereas Paul,
himself a Jew, in his Letter to the Colosians, described Jesus as “the image (eikōn) of the invisible God” (1:15)
and elsewhere as being “in the form of God” (Phil 2:6).25

Similar themes found resonance among some of the more theologically daring groups of early Christians.
The Valentinians, for instance, taught that the Father produces one “whose light dawned from him, stretching
himself out to give birth and knowledge to the members of the All, he is all these names without falsehood,
and he is truly the Father’s only first Man” (Tripartite Tractate 66).26 The author of the Secret Book of John, for
his part, relates that the demiurge Yaldabaoth heard a voice from heaven which is identified (in the shorter
version of the text, at least) as that of “the first man” (14.23).27 This figure is essentially the heavenly prototype

20  Even outside of the Syrian milieu, the concept of feminine Spirit is attested in a number of early Christian
sources. I am deeply indebted to my colleague S. Cazelais (1993: 68–93) for his insightful survey of spirit-mother
traditions in early Christianity.
21  Cazelais, 1993: 88, especially Ode 19.
22  Waldstein and Wisse, 1995: 18–19; see Secret Book of John 9.
23  Quispel, 1980: 1–13.
24  Altmann, 1968: 241.
25  Altmann, 1968: 244.
26  Trans. E. Thomassen in Meyer, 2007: 68.
27  Waldstein and Wisse, 1995: 84–85.

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for Adam. Whereas in other versions of the Secret Book of John he is variously called “Adamas” (NHC III 13.4),
“Adam,” or “Gera-adamas” (NHC II 8.34).28 The name “Adamas” appears to have been a way to distinguish
the Adam of the Genesis story from his heavenly prototype, although in Manichaean mythology Adamas is
personified as one of the five sons of the Living Spirit who watches over the cosmos. Nevertheless, the notion
of the heavenly prototype of Adam becomes fixed in Manichaean discourse as a member of the original divine
triad in the form of the “First Man.”

As in the case of the Father of Greatness and the feminine Spirit, it is difficult to judge whether Mani has
picked up his concept of the First Man specifically from something like the Secret Book of John or whether its
author is incorporating a Manichaean, or simply commonplace, motif. On the one hand, given the widespread
nature of this concept, it would not be a surprise to find it multiply attested, but on the other, given the specific
cluster of characteristic ideas from the core Manichaean myth in Secret Book of John (II 6.1–10) we should be
open to other possibilities.

Other Motifs
Other details from the Manichaean myth also have parallels in Nag Hammadi literature. For instance,
the description of the King of Darkness as “lion-faced” found in Manichaean Kephalaia chapters 6 and 27,
can also be found in the Secret Book of John, which portrays Yaldabaoth as “a lion-faced serpent” (NHC II,1
10.9),29 as well as On the Origin of the World, which describes the dark ruler as “lion-like in appearance” (NHC
II,5 100.7).30 Beastly descriptions are also given in the Secret Book of John to the rulers of the seven heavens
(NHC II,1 11.26–34),31 and it explains that the demiurge appointed five kings to rule over the abyss (NHC
II,1 11.6),32 a concept also articulated in Manichaean Kephalaia chapter 6. In addition, Sakla(s), a key hench-
man of the Manichaean King of Darkness and co-creator of Adam and Eve also appears in the Secret Book of
John, where his name serves as one of the three names of the demiurge (11.17),33 as well as in The Nature of
the Rulers (95.7).

Other texts, such as the Book of Thomas and the Concept of Our Great Power, resonate with Manichaean de-
scriptions of the end-times. The Book of Thomas (NHC II,7), for its part, presents Jesus as predicting that what
is sown “will hide in tombs of darkness,”34 which evokes Manichaean terminology for the “tombs” reserved as
a prison for darkness, while the Concept of Our Great Power (NHC VI,4) contains the only outside attestation
of the Manichaean calculation of the final fire—1,468 years.35

28  Waldstein and Wisse, 1995: 53. Here, I can see no justification for the use of the name Pigeradamas, incor-
porating the Coptic demonstrative pi-, especially in light of the other versions of the same text. See Jackson, 1981:
390–391.
29  Waldstein and Wisse, 1995: 61.
30  Waldstein and Wisse, 1995: 35.
31  Waldstein and Wisse, 1995: 71.
32  Waldstein and Wisse, 1995: 69.
33  The three epithets are also found in Three Forms of First Thought 39.
34  Layton, 1989: 194–195.
35  Parrott, 1979: 318.

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Other Dynamics
While most of the above-cited examples involve the reception or incorporation of certain preexisting mo-
tifs, some of the more episodic parallels are compelling. For instance, Louis Painchaud has suggested that
certain passages from On the Origin of the World could be seen as Manichaean interpolations,36 such as when
“forethought” upon seeing the messenger of light “was unable to assuage her love, she poured out her light
upon the earth.”37 This is thought to evoke the episode of the Manichaean myth were the Third Messenger’s
burlesque performance causes the archons who expel the light substance they had consumed during their in-
itial invasion.38 In this case, the author, translator, or redactor of the text is supposed to be shaping his material
to bring it in line with Manichaean standards, although we ought to allow for the possibility that Mani bor-
rowed and reworked this scene into his own mythic opus.

A more likely candidate for such a Manichaean redaction or interpolation can be found in a passage from
the Revelation of Adam, where the author describes the “Illuminator of Knowledge” and states that “they will
punish the flesh of the man on whom the holy spirit has come” (NHC V,5 77.12–18).39 This may indeed be
a veiled allusion to Mani, who was considered by his followers to be the Paraclete promised by Jesus and was
ultimately executed by Sassanian authorities.

The relationship between Manichaean and Nag Hammadi texts is further complicated when we raise the
possibility that certain passages from Nag Hammadi writings appear to display an anti-Manichaean bias, as in
the case of the Gospel of Philip 53.14–23, which states that:

Light and darkness, life and death, right and left are brothers of one another. They are inseparable. Because of
this neither are the good, nor the evil evil, nor is life life, nor death death. For this reason each one will dissolve
into its earliest origin. But those who are exalted above the world are indissoluble, eternal.40

This passage appears to challenge the notion that light and darkness were eternally separate from the beginning,
as Manichaeans would contend. By describing them as “siblings” the author and/or redactor is attempting to
point to their common origin and thereby possibly refute a distinctly Manichaean theological claim.

Similarly, On the Origin of the World begins with a prologue explaining that:

Seeing that everybody, gods of the world and mankind, says that nothing existed prior to chaos, I, in distinction
to them, shall demonstrate that they are all mistaken, because they are not acquainted with the origin of chaos,
nor with its root. Here is the demonstration. How well it suits all men, on the subject of chaos, to say that it is
a kind of darkness! But in fact it comes from a shadow, which has been called by the name ‘darkness’. And the
shadow comes from a product that has existed since the beginning. It is, moreover, clear that it existed before
chaos came into being, and that the latter is posterior to the first product. Let us therefore concern ourselves with

36  L. Painchaud in fact calls this “une contamination manichéenne” (in Mahé and Poirier, 2007: 436).
37  Layton, 1989: 51.
38  Mahé and Poirier, 2007: 436.
39  Parrott, 1979: 178.
40  Layton, 1989: 147.

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the facts of the matter; and furthermore, with the first product, from which chaos was projected. And in this way
the truth will be clearly demonstrated.41

Here the eternal nature of darkness, a core Manichaean dogma, is called into question by supposing that pri-
mal chaos is merely a shadow cast by a preexisting principle. Yet given the fact that we have already seen that
other thematic and conceptual parallels exist between On the Origin of the World and Manichaean teaching,
what might explain this polemical turn? Perhaps a later redactor or translator of the text, perceiving its appar-
ent similarity to certain Manichaean ideas, sought to diffuse this tendency by provided an anti-Manichaean
prologue. We cannot know for certain.

Conclusions and Implications


What is most remarkable about this limited sampling is the presence of so many seemingly contrary dy-
namics at work. As we have seen, a number of key details from the Manichaean myth can be found in writings
from Nag Hammadi, particularly those texts that appear to show internal traces of an Aramaic/Syriac sub-
stratum such as the Secret Book of John, the Reality of the Rulers, On the Origin of the World, and the Paraphrase
of Shem. Not only that, but some of these same texts, which may have plausibly influenced Mani in their earlier
forms contain traces of possibly later Manichaean interpolations and even anti-Manichaean refutations.

Interestingly, most of these points of contact come from writings contained in the same codex: Nag Ham-
madi Codex II, which contains seven writings: II,1 Secret Book of John (long version), which we saw contains
a certain amount of Manichaean terminology; II,2 Gospel of Thomas, which Manichaeans are known to have
cited in their own literature to the extent that Church authorities came to regard it as a Manichaean gospel;42
II,3 Gospel of Philip, with its anti-dualist passage; II,4 Reality of the Rulers with its Manichaean terminology;
II,5 On the Origin of the World, with both its anti-dualist prologue and possible Manichaean interpolations;
and finally the II,6 Interpretation of the Soul; and II,7 Book of Thomas, with its eschatological imagery of fire and
tombs of darkness. What could explain such a peculiar mixture of received, redacted, and refuted elements?

It seems plausible that if Mani read earlier versions of some of these writings (or even some of their source
material) in Aramaic, he would have naturally adopted elements that fit his theological imperative. Later, when
Manichaean scribes and redactors recognized this affinity, as in the case of the Secret Book of John in particular,
they may have felt compelled to leave a more explicit Manichaean stamp on their transmission of these works,
such as the incorporation of pentads or Manichaean keywords. Finally, at a later (or even parallel) stage of
transmission, redactors and scribes hostile to Manichaeism, but still sympathetic to some of the basic themes
of the writings in question, attempted to distance or disassociate them from their real or imagined Manichaean
tendencies. Figure 1 outlines a proposed trajectory of transmission and/or influence between Nag Hammadi
and Manichaean sources that might help illuminate some of the complexities and dynamics just described.

41  Layton, 1989: 29.


42  Funk, 2002 and Coyle, 2007.

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Towards a Manichean Reading of the Nag Hammadi Codices

Figure 1:
TIMELINE
Common
*Syriac (Aramaic) 1st-2nd
Sources cent. CE

MESOPOTAMIA/SYRIA

Mani’s Writings Proto-Nag Hammadi 3rd


(Syriac) (*Greek< *Syriac) cent. CE

EGYPT

Coptic Manichaean Nag Hammadi 4th-5th


(Medinet Madi) Codices Codices cent. CE
(Coptic < *Greek) (Coptic < *Greek)
Common/
competitive
Coptic scribal
culture

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offer a fascinating
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yet still under-appreciated Egyptian scribal culture
of literature, but atthat
the played out ititspromises
same time religioustodebates on the
offer a fascinating
pages
glimpseof into
manuscripts thatscribal
an Egyptian it produced.
culture that played out its religious debates on the pages of manuscripts that
it produced.

52

9
Ti m o t h y P e t t i p i e c e

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Timothy Pe t tipie c e
Instructor
College of the Humanities
Carleton University

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