Bodmer, Nag Hammadi, and the Cargo Cults of Vanatu Island

vanatu plane

These folks on the island of Vanatu in the Pacific have woven together from reeds or palm fronds what they hope is a somewhat accurate reconstruction of an airplane — a facsimile good enough at least to let the Cargo God know that it is him whom they worship. It is him whom they implore for assistance.

You see, during World War II airplanes started flying over villages in remote areas of the Pacific that had never before seen Westerners, much less any form of technology. Those planes dropped supplies intended for soldiers on the islands, but sometimes the dropped cargo fell accidentally into areas where these very primitive people lived.

Manna from heaven!

Or, if not Manna, then bread and canned goods and beer and silverrware and gum and hammers and nails and saws and scores of other things the natives had never before seen or even known about.

Lacking any information whatsoever about the industrialized character of much of the Western world, some of these natives concluded that the things that fell unexpectedly from the sky were gifts from the gods, and began to worship them.

Even today, adherents of these so-called Cargo Cults continue to construct from memory and from wrecks (like the one below) replicas of planes, seeking thereby to call the cargo planes back again.

aircraft rotted rodger06 silhouetted copy

It’s a religion based on an error — and specifically, on an error rooted in incomplete knowledge of the rest of the world, which is far more populated and far more sophisticated than they realize.

It’s an error that we moderns see clearly, as they cannot, for they know only their culture.

But it’s the kind of error that we modern commit with ever greater frequency, and often for exactly the same reason: because most of us know only our own culture.

Ancient papyrus scroll

This point comes to mind in part because the decaying airplanes on which adherents of Cargo Cults model their “idols” bear a striking resemblance to the decaying papyri dug from the dry Egyptian earth. Recently some moderns have argued that these half-rotted scrolls should be the foundation for a new understanding, and perhaps even new forms, of the Christian religion. These papyri have awakened in many an impetus to defend old forms such as Gnosticism and the mishmash of historical and theological claims made in books like the da Vinci Code.

As you can see from the image above, a freshly dug papyrus is not a pretty picture, and even once it’s moistened and carefully teased open by pressing its curls flat, it hardly looks less decrepit than that airplane.

P__Oxy__I_29 euclids elements wiki

These, however, are merely superficial resemblances to Cargo Cults.

And they’re not the reason moderns tend to build new forms of Christianity from these old documents.

The real reason is more subtle, and not easily seen by us today.

For (as will be shown in my coming posts on this blog, and as will be shown in detail in our forthcoming book on the Bodmer papyrus) just as early adherents of the Cargo Cults did, in fact, truly see airplanes fly overhead and actually received from those airplanes many kinds of strange goods, so, in recent decades archaeologists have found many non-canonical papyri like the Sayings of Jesus, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and others from the early centuries after the death of Jesus that diverge from and sometimes even contradict outright Christian teachings that have been accepted for centuries.

In both cases — that is, with regard to both the cargoes that fell from heaven and the real non-canonical Gospels that have come forth recently from the earth — the question is, “What are we to make of them?”

In the coming weeks, we shall see that just as the Cargo Cults are religions based on an error— and specifically, on an error rooted in incomplete knowledge of the rest of the world and a failure to comprehend its sophistication — so Gnostic-like Christian cults grounded in recent discoveries of papyri are also based on an error — and specifically, on a factual error rooted in incomplete knowledge of the life of Christians in the ancient world as well as a failure to comprehend its sophistication, which was far greater than most of us realize.

Most persons disturbed by a small fragment of a papyrus that seems to suggest that Jesus was married have no idea that in the past 150 years archaeologists have not merely found a few fragments of papyri, nor even a few hundred. Today there are hundreds of thousands of them housed in warehouses across the world.

To those papyri — more than half a million in number — we must turn if we are to grasp with confidence the real significance of fragments suggesting a married Jesus, and the Nag Hammadi and the Bodmer discoveries.

Over the coming weeks, our attention will turn to those papyri, hoping thereby to overcome critical factual errors about the life of early Christians in Egypt: precisley the kind of factual errors that gave birth to the Cargo Cults of Vanatu. Doing so will help ensure that we do not find ourselves worshipping, if only figuratively, under the wings of a pseudo-cargo plane.



Cliffs and Columns, Camels and Levers

Two hundred years before Christ, while Archimedes lived and taught there with scores of other great scholars, Alexandria, Egypt was the intellectual capital of the world.

In those heady days Archimedes boasted that were he given a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, he could move the world.


Four hundred miles south of Archimedes’ Alexandria and six hundred years later, a young Egyptian peasant did just that: he moved the world, though the world at the time knew it not.

And the world today has forgotten it.

His  lever?

His  will and example.

His fulcrum?

The lands lying within sight of this forbidding cliff, Abu Jamal, the “Amen Cliff.”

Jabal al-Tarif

Today, in the village of Faw Qibi seven miles east of this cliff, camels stand and cattle graze among fallen columns — the sole remnants of a great basilica where thousands of monks once raised their voices to heaven, a basilica famous as far away as central Europe.

Ruins_of_the_Basilica_of_St_Pachomius 3

Lying higgledy-piggledy, this way and that, and too heavy for plunderers to drag away, the fallen columns themselves look almost like one long lever broken in many pieces, a lever perhaps insufficient to move the world literally, but a reminder nonetheless of the world-changing power that once was concentrated within the walls and under the roofs they supported.

Over a thousand years ago, and before these columns fell, some men, acting in hope or desperation, jammed ancient books into large jars, and carried them away from this  grand structure to bury them furtively at the base of the nearby  cliffs, where they slept until one torrid day in 1947 and another in 1952 brought their discovery by peasants digging for fertilizer.


Then, like angry genies set loose from a jar, some of those books shook the confidence of scholars and assailed the faith of Christians, shoving right into the Twentieth Century the very controversies that led to their burial in the first place.

In the following posts, I will recount some of the highlights of the tale of these books and speak of their impact — then and now. I will show why they and the issues they raise need to be considered not only by scholars, but by any who share the Christian faith of the men who, when they sensed their time was past, buried these documents, hoping, as in fact happened, that these books would once again see the light of day and once again be, as they should be, the concern of believers.