Matthew J. Dillon, Ph.D. 2017
Post-Doctoral Fellow, DePauw University
The Heretical Revival
The Nag Hammadi Library in American Religion and Culture
In December 1945, in the shadow of the towering cliffs of the Jabl al-Tariff, Egyptian peasant Muhammad Ali struck upon an antique jar while digging for fertilizer. The subsequent tale of treasures exhumed, blood feuds, black market intrigue and scholars smuggling texts across national borders has become a modern legend, while the twelve codices found and collectively referred to as the Nag Hammadi Library have revolutionized our understanding of early Christian history. Yet while numerous scholarly texts have theorized how the Nag Hammadi find has altered our understanding of the ancient Mediterranean, there has been comparatively little analysis of how these same texts have impacted, transformed, or inspired contemporary religion.
My dissertation, “The Gnostic Renaissance: The Nag Hammadi Library in American Religion and Culture,” is the first book-length study of the reception of the Nag Hammadi Codices (NHC) as religious documents. In it I analyze interpretations of the NHC within orthodox congregations, Gnostic churches, media, the arts, and “spiritual but not religious” individuals. Utilizing cultural memory theory and the social-scientific theory of mourning, I argue that the publication of the NHC has inspired two related lines of interpretation in America. First, the NHC have been met as a “return of the repressed” Christian memory that has generated debates about the true Christian history. Groups, individuals and media use the NHC to assert competing interpretations of the Christian past that contend for authority over Christianity in the present. Secondly, many individuals in this reception history read the NHC after having been alienated from mainstream Christianity. In an effort to reconnect to the Christian tradition, these individuals use the NHC to reinterpret Christian symbols along psychological, feminist, and metaphysical lines. I offer two conclusions. One, that the reception of the NHC exposes a reconfiguration of Christian memory in America that began within new religions and culture (media, art, and academia), but is now entering Orthodox churches. Two, that this reconfiguration of memory is itself an attempt to revivify Christianity in the wake of Biblical criticism, secularization, and disenchantment.