Driving between Abydos and Dendara you’ll pass Nag Hammadi, a town that has given its name to the Nag Hammadi Codices found nearby in 1945. Commonly called the Gnostic Gospels, they are fourth-century Coptic translations of second-century Greek originals, although the Gospel of Thomas might date from 50–100 AD, and therefore be as early as – or even older than – the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Gnostics (from gnosis, Greek for “knowledge”) were early mystics who believed that God could only be known through self-understanding and that the world was illusory. Regarding self and the divine as one, they saw Jesus as a spiritual guide rather than the crucified son of God, pointing to his words in the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what is within you will destroy you.” But the official church thought otherwise and condemned Gnosticism as a heresy; hence the burial of these codices (some of which can be seen today in Cairo’s Coptic Museum).

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