The Nag Hammadi library was discovered in Nag Hammadi, in 1945. It is a collection of religious texts written in Coptic that were buried around 400 CE. The texts themselves vary from each other as to when, where, and by whom they were written (NgH. Robinson, 1). Before the Bible was canonized and consequently these texts were banned, the texts in this collection were considered Christian and devout Christians often owned copies. However, a movement began in early Christianity to standardize Christian beliefs, which lead to the canonization of the Bible. Therefore, these texts eventually became considered unorthodox and heretical. Monks who studied and read this heretical literature were often banned from the church and considered heretics themselves. That is possibly the reason these were buried, so monks who wanted to continue studying these could do so without being caught.
This particular sect of Christianity is today called Gnosticism. Although altered, some Gnostic sects have remained through the centuries in , , and . Gnostics often considered themselves to be the knowers of the true Christianity. In fact, the term Gnosis can be translated to mean knowers or knowledge. Their “life-style involved giving up all the goods that people usually desire and longing for an ultimate liberation” (NgH. Robinson, 1). They often withdrew from society and from many material desires in the hopes that they would be united with the Realm of Light.
Their particular theology is extremely complex. They believed that Genesis existed in fragments. The first part of the original revelation of Genesis had actually been lost. They then added their own version of the lost section and interpreted Genesis 1-5 differently.
Most gnostics believed that Jesus was simply a shell for the spirit. He was an emanation sent from the Realm of Light. This seems to suggest that the need for a male and a female is a material concern and is inferior to the concerns of the emanations. If you will recall, Sophia begot Yaldabaoth without the aide of a male. Also, some Gnostic texts such as the Apocryphon of John call the parent of the entirety “the thrice-named androgynous one” (Apocryphon of John, 5). Therefore, Androgyny is portrayed as a divine characteristic.
Now with that as background, we can finally proceed to “Thunder: Perfect Mind”. The text consists of contradictory phrases spoken by a female. Throughout the text, she uses the phrase “I am” at the beginning of nearly every sentence. Jorunn Jacobson Buckley in her article “Two Female Gnostic Revealers” says, “The recurring ‘I am’ statement provides contradictory clues as to what kind of personage the speaker is. In fact, she seems to elude most categories reserved for revealers and goddesses” (Buckley, 259). Perhaps by having a female use the term “I am” suggests that God is female or androgynous. This would partly explain why the statements contained in this are contradictory. Perhaps, the author wanted to expose flaws in social concepts of God. Perhaps the author did not view God in conventional ways-that is, people often thought of God in terms of human and male characteristics and the author wanted to escape from that limited way of thinking. This would fit quite nicely into the Gnostic way of thinking, since Gnostic theology encouraged deviation from the norms.
I now want to read a section from this text. It’s the third stanza on page 298 for those who want to follow along.
For I am knowledge and ignorance.
I am shame and boldness.
I am shameless; I am ashamed.
I am strength and I am fear.
I am war and peace.
Give heed to me.
I am the one who is disgraced and the great one (Thunder, 14).
With the paradoxical phrases, the reader is encouraged to pursue a hidden meaning within the words. It’s almost as if the author wants the reader to examine the text as a whole rather than specific statements. This suggests that one should look for a deeper meaning in the world. One should not simply accept the status quo. Rather, the reader should be lead to discover the divine within the text and within themselves (McGuire, Diotima). By making it necessary to interpret the text for a more complete understanding, the reader begins to look for meaning in it and then attempts to relate it to his or her own life.
Earlier, I discussed Sophia in the Gnostic tradition. Some scholars believe that the speaker in this text is supposed to be Sophia. On page 299 the speaker says, “For I am the wisdom of the Greeks and the knowledge of the Barbarians” (Thunder, 16). The term “wisdom” was translated from the word Sophia and the term knowledge has the same meaning as gnosis. Therefore, this passage alludes to Sophia as being the speaker since she asserts that she is the wisdom.
Another important thing to notice is that the term “thunder” does not actually appear in the text. Why, then, would Thunder appear in the title? Perhaps, that is another mystery the author wants the reader to figure out. Perhaps, even in the title, the reader is supposed to look for a deeper meaning. Douglas M. Parrott suggests that thunder in Greek myths and the Hebrew Bible comes from the highest God. The Greeks often called Zeus “The Thundering One”. Thunder “is the way in which the god makes his presence known on earth” (NgH. Parrott, 296). This would explain the importance of thunder for the divine.
The prose of “Thunder: Perfect Mind” has an almost Zen-like quality. It does not explain to the reader what and how to believe. Instead, it causes the reader to question the true meaning of the words. By doing this, the reader can ponder the various contradictory statements and perhaps find some meaning within them. Essentially, this causes the reader to have a religious experience by provoking deep thought into the nature of the divine and one’s relation to her.
Buckley, Jorunn Jacobsen. “Two Female Gnostic Revealers”. History of Religions. Vol 19, No 3, pp. 259-269. Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1980.
MacRae, George W. and Douglas M. Parrott. Translators. “The Thunder: Perfect Mind”. Nag Hammadi Library. 3rd ed, 295-303. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1988.
McGuire, Anne. Essay on “The Thunder: Perfect Mind”. Diotima website.http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/thunder.shtml
Wisse, Frederik. Translator. “The Apocryphon of John”. The Nag Hammadi Library.3rd ed, pp. 104-123. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1988.