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On the Origin of the World

This tractate, which was discovered for the first time as part of the Nag Hammadi Library (see p. 9), is not provided with a title in its manuscript. Modern scholars have called it “On the Origin of the World” simply as a summation of its contents. The unknown author appears to be writing for outsiders, and is concerned to provide in involved and intricate detail a Gnostic view of how the world came into being. Many important aspects of Gnostic mythology are covered here: the existence of the divine pleroma before all things, the emergence of Yaldabaoth the creator God, his gener­ ation of other divine beings, the creation of the material world, and the formation of the human race. As with other Gnostic myths, “On the Origin of the World” is largely based on an imaginative exposition of the opening chapters of Genesis, in which a number of the gaps of the narrative (includ­ ing the events that transpired before Gen 1:1) are filled in. In many ways the mythological exposition here is similar to what can be found in other important treatises of the Nag Hammadi Library; but as a comparison with the Secret Book of John shows, there are key differences as well. Gnostic Christians did not have a single myth at the root of their religion, but a number of different ways of explaining the existence of the world and the place of humans within it. Scholars debate the dating of the work; possibly it was written near the end of the third century. The following excerpt gives approximately twothirds of the treatise, from its beginning through the creation of Adam.

Seeing that everybody, gods of the world and humankind, 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 people, on the subject of chaos, to say that it is a kind of darkness! But in fact it comes from a shadow, which

Translation by Hans-Gebhard Bethge, Bentley Layton, Societas Coptica Hierosolymi­ tana in James Robinson, Nag Hammadi Library in English, 3rd ed. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988) 172–81; used with permission.


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