Reading Nag Hammadi: Cognitive Narratology and Codex II

  • Alexander Potts

Student thesis: Phd


Scholarly writings on material found in the Nag Hammadi codices have increasingly focused on their socio-historical contextualization, since the dismantling of Gnosticism as a coherent religious affiliative category - as initiated by Michael A. Williams (1996) and Karen L. King (2004). While this effort helpfully complicates popular imaginings of an early Christian landscape - by dismantling constructed categories of orthodox Christianity and heretical Gnosticism - it has also led to the voices of pre-'dismantling' scholars and early church writers being regularly submerged. These earlier voices - who regularly applied the term 'gnostic' to summarize evaluations of individualistic excess, egoism, and hermeneutical deviation - are re-acknowledged here as perceptive readers of Nag Hammadi or Nag Hammadi-related material. The great deficiency in these readings, rightfully noted by Williams and King, lies in their rarely being grounded in textual evidence. Rather, these earlier readings have relied on descriptions of a general and imprecise 'feel'. The present thesis provides a more coherent backing for these earlier readings, by locating an impetus for repeated evaluations of 'gnostic' excess in the presence of analogous experiential scripts of embodiment. This thesis uses an enactivist-derived cognitive narratological method to demonstrate a potential coherence behind repeated impulses to assign texts, which embed potential for privileged and divergent mode of reader experience, as 'gnostic'. The effects of this thesis highlight not only the coherent potential for such a 'gnostic' experiential mode of reading in some Codex II tractates, but the discretionary nature of this mode and its option for enaction through many varieties of text - including text traditionally understood as 'non-Gnostic' or orthodox. This furthers the efforts of Williams and King to project a diverse early Christian landscape, but also re-centers the concerns of 'gnostic' evaluators from Irenaeus to Hans Jonas (1958) - without co-signing any of these valuations. Grounding understanding of a 'gnostic' experiential mode in analogous scripts also acts to qualify ongoing efforts to construct genealogical theories of 'Gnostic return', as exemplified by Cyril O'Regan (2001). Consideration of this thesis' outputs in the monastic settings increasingly proposed for the NHL by scholars during the 2010s would also highlight the significance of gynocentric image and feminine voice - as well as emotional and cognitive-functioning markers of embodiment - in the reading process.
Date of Award1 Aug 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorHolly Morse (Supervisor) & Todd Klutz (Supervisor)


  • On the Origin of the World
  • Thomas the Contender
  • Gnostic
  • Hans Jonas
  • Experiential Scripts
  • Phenomenology
  • Gnostic Studies
  • Irenaeus
  • Individualism
  • Exegesis on the Soul
  • Experiential Backgrounds
  • Hypostasis of the Archons
  • Apocryphon of John
  • Gnosticism
  • Nag Hammadi Codices
  • Nag Hammadi Studies
  • Gospel of Thomas
  • Narratology
  • Early Christianity
  • Experientiality
  • Enactivist Narratology
  • Enactivism
  • Cognitive Narratology

Cite this