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The Gnostic Discoveries: The Impact of the Nag Hammadi Library

30 November, 1999

Included in these Gnostic discoveries by Marvin Meyer are several gospels of Jesus’ life that never made it into the modern Christian Bible, as well as a treasury of lost and esoteric wisdom. He also includes an overview of all the texts and their contents, and discusses their meaning and significance for us today.

239pp Darton. Longman and Todd Ltd 2006 To purchase this book online, go to www.darton-longman-todd.co.uk 


Introduction: Gnostic Wisdom: Ancient and Modern

  1. Fertilizer, Blood Vengeance, and Codices
    The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library
  2. Coptic Texts from the Sands of Egypt
    The Nag Hammadi Library and the Berlin Gnostic Codex
  3. “They will not taste Death”
    The Wisdom of the Living Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas and Thomas Texts
  4. The Wisdom of Insight 
    The Fall and Restoration of Sophia in the Secret Book of John and Sethian Texts
  5. Valentinus the Christian Mystic
    Salvation Through Knowledge in the Gospel of Truth and Valentinian Texts
  6. Hermes, Derdekeas, Thunder, and Mary 
    Revealers of Wisdom in Other Nag Hammadi Texts

Discoveries After the Nag Hammadi Library
The Texts of the Nag Hammadi Library and the Berlin Gnostic Codex



The discovery by an Egyptian peasant in December 1945 of a large sealed jar filled with ancient papyrus manuscripts was amazing. Painstakingly restored and translated, these fragments came to be known collectively as the Nag Hammadi Library.  Meyer provides an overview of, and guide to, all the texts and their contents, grouping the codices by their respective genres, schools of thought or attributed author, and discusses their meaning and significance for us today.

The struggle to publish these ancient manuscripts has at times felt like an ancient story of Egyptian magic – filled with curses and drama. Included in these discoveries are several gospels of Jesus’ life that never made it into the modern Christian Bible, as well as a treasury of some lost and esoteric wisdom. The book is written in a very readable style and would be useful for Scripture students and indeed the general public after reading such books as The Da Vinci Code.




The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library
About 60 kilometers south of Cairo and 125 kilometers north of Luxor, at the big bend in the Nile River in Upper Egypt, lies the city of Nag Hammadi. The Nile Valley is particularly scenic there, and the cliffs that flank the river loom large and are close to the river, giving an impressive definition to the inhabited valley. This valley, watered from ancient times by the Nile, is the “black land,” in ancient Egyptian Kemit or Kemi, which was the name of the land of Egypt. The modern name, Egypt, derives from the Greek Aigyptos, as do the words “Coptic” and “Copt,” so that by etymology Coptic means Egyptian and a Copt is an Egyptian person.

The fertile “black land” of Egypt was contrasted in ancient Egyptian mythological texts with the “red land,” that is, the desert land beyond the waters of the Nile River. Before the Aswan High Dam was constructed to control the flow of the Nile, the river typically inundated each year, more or less on schedule. Water marks remaining on older mud-brick buildings in southern Egypt show how high the water used to come during the season of inundation. The inundation of the Nile was judged to be a gift of the divine, since life-giving water and nutrients borne by the water flooded over the land and brought fertility to the soil. The red land extended beyond the reach of the water into the desert that surrounds Egypt. In mythological terms, the black land was the land of the god Osiris; the red land was the land of his hostile brother Seth. As Osiris and Seth were rivals in Egyptian mythology, so the black land, the rich, moist soil. struggled with the red land, the dry desert sands, for the maintenance of life. It was in the vicinity of the city of Nag Hammadi that the Coptic texts of the Nag Hammadi library were discovered, buried in the dry sand of the red land near the edge of the black land.

From early days the Nag Hammadi region was known for a Christian presence. (I) According to tradition, St. Mark brought the Christian gospel to Egypt when he arrived in Alexandria, in the Nile Delta, in the first century C.E. Christianity spread throughout Egypt and beyond, to Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa, and Egyptian Christianity took a variety of forms and expressed itself with a variety of spiritualities: Jewish Christian, apocalyptic, Alexandrian, gnostic, Manichaean, monastic. The richness of Christianity in Egypt rests in large part in the diversity of its early manifestations. Some of this diversity is evident in the Nag Hammadi library and the related texts discovered along the banks of the Nile River.

The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices
In about December of 1945, as Muhammad Ali of the aI-Samman clan has told his story to James M. Robinson, several Egyptian fellahin, including Muhammad Ali himself, were riding their camels near the Jabal al-Tarif, a prominent cliff along the Nile River near Nag Hammadi. (2) Muhammad Ali recalled the date of this particular trip to the Jabal al-Tarif because he associated it with another event that had happened around this time. He had been collecting fertilizer a few weeks before the celebration of Coptic Christmas (January 6), but he remembered more clearly that his camel ride to the cliff had occurred shortly before the time of a dramatic act of blood vengeance on behalf of his father. We shall return to the act of blood vengeance soon.

As Robinson has reconstructed the story, Muhammad Ali was riding his camel, with his brothers Khalifah Ali and Abu al-Magd and others, to the cliff on the edge of the red land. The fellahin hobbled their camels at the foot of the Jabal al-Tarif and began to dig around a large boulder on the talus, or slope of debris, that had formed against the cliff face. They were gathering sabakh, natural fertilizer that accumulates in such places, but to their surprise they discovered a large storage jar buried by the boulder, with a bowl sealed on the mouth of the jar as a lid. Although it was the youngest brother, Abu al-Magd, who initially uncovered the jar, Muhammad Ali, as the oldest of the brothers, took over the operation. In his account, Muhammad Ali has suggested that he paused before removing the lid or breaking open the jar, since he was worried that the jar might contain a jinni, or spirit, that could cause grief if released from the jar. Muhammad Ali apparently also reflected upon stories of treasures hidden in the ground in that area of Egypt, and his love of gold overcame his fear of jinn. He smashed the jar with his mattock, and indeed something golden flew out of the jar and disappeared into the air. But when he peered into the broken jar to see what remained, he was disappointed to find nothing but old codices, or books.

The golden material that Muhammad Ali saw, we may conclude from his story, was not gold at all, but most likely fragments of papyrus, golden in color, that were released into the air from the jar and glistened like particles of gold in the sunlight. Muhammad Ali proceeded to take from the jar the codices that remained – the thirteen codices of the Nag Hammadi library. (The one intact tractate from Codex XIII, Three Forms of First Thought, was stuffed inside the front cover of Codex VI.) He tore up some of the codices in an offer to share them with the other fellahin, but they declined his offer, and so he removed the turban he was wearing and wrapped the codices in it in order to carry the old books back home to al-Qasr. James Robinson has observed that some of the damage done to the Nag Hammadi codices must have occurred when Muhammad Ali ripped them apart that day.

 More damage was done when, upon reaching his home in al-Qasr, Muhammad Ali threw the codices unceremoniously into a courtyard reserved for the animals. A while later, the mother of Muhammad Ali took some of the dry papyrus leaves of the codices and used them along with straw to light a fire in the clay oven used by the family. Robinson has surmised that the papyrus leaves may have come from what we now call Nag Hammadi Codex XII, since that codex is very fragmentary, with only a few leaves remaining. On that day gnosis and wisdom of one sort or another went up in smoke and ash, lost forever.

 As for the rest of the Nag Hammadi codices, the family of Muhammad Ali tried to sell the books for a few piastres each, and some were traded for cigarettes or pieces of fruit. The antiquities dealer Phokion J. Tano got involved in the dealings, and at last the codices were delivered to the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, where they remain to the present day – though Codex I (now often referred to as the Jung Codex) was taken out of Egypt and purchased by the Jung Institute; it remained abroad for a time until it was returned to the Coptic Museum. The leather cover of the Jung Codex, and the bowl apparently used as the lid of the jar, found their way to the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, until they became part of the Schøyen Collection.

The bloody event that Muhammad Ali associated with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library was an act of revenge for the murder of his father. Muhammad Ali told Robinson that his father had been a night watchman at al-Qasr, where he had killed an intruder from Hamra Dum, a village at the foot of the Jabal al-Tarif. Within a day there was retaliation for what Muhammad Ali’s father had done, and he himself was killed, shot through the head. A feud reminiscent of that of the Hatfields and the McCoys ensued. Muhammad Ali’s mother, now widowed, told her sons to keep their mattocks sharp in preparation for their own act of vengeance .against the murderer of their father. About half a year later, Muhammadi Ali recollected, the awaited day arrived. Muhammad Ali and his brothers were told that their father’s killer, Ahmad Isma’il, was asleep by the roadside with a jar of sugarcane molasses next to him. The brothers, obeying their mother’s wishes, grabbed their sharpened mattocks, found sleeping Ahmad, and chopped him to pieces. As the quintessential act of blood vengeance, they cut out Ahmad’s heart, divided it among themselves, and consumed it then and there. It is no surprise that Muhammad Ali remembered the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices to be a fairly coincidental occurrence shortly before those bloody days of life and death.

James Robinson notes he was informed that the local registry of deaths lists the date of the death of Muhammad Ali’s father as May 7, 1945. If Muhammad Ali’s memory is that the act of blood vengeance was about half a year later, and only a short time after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, then the date of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library may have been around the end of 1945.

In his account of these sordid affairs, Robinson reminisces about how he got Muhammad Ali to agree to return to the site of the discovery, so close to Hamra Dum, where Ahmad Isma’il had lived:

I had to go to Hamra Dum myself, find the son of Ahmad Isma’il, the man Muhammad Ali had butchered, and get his assurance that, since he had long since shot up a funeral cortege ofMuhammad Ali’s family, wounding Muhammad Ali and killing a number of his clan, he considered the score settled. Hence, he would not feel honor-bound to attack Muhammad Ali if he returned to the foot of the cliff I took this good news back to Muhammad Ali, who opened his shirt, showed me the scar on his chest, bragged that he had been shot but not killed, yet emphasized that if he ever laid eyes on the son of Ahmad Isma’il again, he would kill him on the spot. As a result of this display of a braggadocio’s fearlessness, he could be persuaded to go to the cliff, camouflaged in my clothes, in a government jeep, with me sitting on the “bullets” side facing the village and him on the safer cliff side, at dusk in Ramadan, when all Muslims are a1 home eating their fill after fasting throughout the daylight hours. (3)

The rest of the story of the disposition of the Nag Hammadi codices is not as bloody, but it has its unpleasant moments. As in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a scholarly monopoly prevented scholarly accessibility to the texts and delayed their publication. Eventually a UNESCO committee was appointed, research projects were organized, and the Nag Hammadi library was published in a facsimile (photographic) edition and in translation. The monopoly has been broken, and the texts of the Nag Hammadi library are available for study. (4)

 The Berlin Gnostic Codex and Other Texts
A few decades before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, at the end of the nineteenth century, a papyrus codex related in its contents to the Nag Hammadi codices came to light in Egypt. The circumstances surrounding the discovery remain obscure, but in January 1896 a dealer in manuscripts in Cairo offered the codex for sale to a German scholar, Carl Reinhardt. The dealer was from Akhmim, north of Nag Hammadi in central Egypt, and the codex may have come from there as well. The dealer claimed the codex had been discovered with feathers covering it in a recessed place in a wall, but that story may be a tall tale. Carl Schmidt, the editor of the codex, thought that it may have come from a cemetery or somewhere else near Akhmim. In any case, Reinhardt bought the codex in Cairo and brought it to Berlin, where it was housed in the Ägyptisches Museum. Today it is referred to as Codex Berolinensis Gnosticus 8502, or Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502. (5)

Carl Schmidt published the last text in the Berlin Gnostic Codex, the Act of Peter, in 1903, and he was preparing to publish the rest of the codex in 1912 when curses from the days of the pharaohs seemed to visit the publishing project. A water pipe in the print shop in Leipzig burst and destroyed the pages that were being prepared. World War I broke out and delayed publication. Carl Schmidt died. World War II again delayed publication. And – though this was hardly a curse the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 attracted the attention of scholars and distracted them from the work on the Berlin Gnostic Codex. At last, Walter C. Till, who had assumed editorial responsibility for the Berlin Gnostic Codex after the death of Carl Schmidt, was able to see the German edition of the first three texts in the codex through the press in 1955. Hans-Martin Schenke published a second, revised, edition of the Berlin Gnostic Codex in 1972: Die gnostischen Schriften des koptischen Papyrus Berolinensis 8502.

Berlin Gnostic Codex 8502 contains four texts written in Coptic like the texts of the Nag Hammadi library. The texts are the Gospel of Mary, preserved in an incomplete state; the Secret Book of John; the Wisdom of Jesus Christ; and the Act of Peter. Versions of the Secret Book of John and the Wisdom of Jesus Christ are also found in the Nag Hammadi library.

Other documents from the world of antiquity and late antiquity also include texts that bear a close relationship to works in the Nag Hammadi library. From an ancient accumulation of rubbish at the Egyptian site of Oxyrhynchus (modern Bahnasa, between Cairo and Akhmim) archeologists uncovered papyri that may add a great deal to our knowledge of the ancient world. The site of Oxyrhynchus has proved to be a treasure trove of texts of all sorts, and volumes of Oxyrhynchus papyri have been published, beginning in 1897, by Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt and those succeeding them. (6) Among the texts are Greek fragments of versions of the Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi library (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1, 654,655) and the Gospel of Mary from the Berlin Gnostic Codex (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 3525; Papyrus Rylands 463), and a Greek fragment of the Wisdom of Jesus Christ known from both the Nag Hammadi library and the Berlin Gnostic Codex (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1081). Within the writings of the church fathers are additional testimonia regarding the Gospel of Thomas, and, in the Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus of Rome gives two quotations that originate in versions of the Gospel of Thomas (5.7.20; 5.8.V). Further, a fragmentary papyrus text from the British Library (British Library Oriental Manuscript 4926 [ 1]) contains a portion of the Nag Hammadi text On the Origin of the World, and a fragment preserved in the Yale Beinecke Library (Yale Inventory 1784) has been identified by Stephen Emmel as a part of the papyrus text of the Nag Hammadi Dialogue of the Savior that made its way to New Haven, Connecticut. (7)

Additionally, a few texts in the Nag Hammadi library are Coptic versions of works previously known from other sources. The Coptic passage from Plato in Nag Hammadi Codex VI comes, ultimately, from Republic 588A-589B. The Hermetic Prayer of Thanksgiving and the Coptic selection from the Perfect Discourse are known from other Greek and Latin versions. The Sentences of Sextus, part of which is given in the fragmentary Nag Hammadi Codex XII, is a well-known ancient text also found in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Georgian versions. Mention should also be made of the poorly preserved tractate Zostrianos, which may now be partially restored from close parallels in Marius Victorinus’s Against Arius (Adversus Arium). (8)

Archeology near Nag Hammadi
After the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, archeologists and other scholars turned their attention to the physical context of the Nag Hammadi library, and the result has been archeological work done in the area around Nag Hammadi and codicological work on the codices themselves. This work has provided fresh glimpses into the history of Christianity in Egypt and the early history of bookbinding. The contributions of archeology and codicology may also help solve the mystery of who compiled the Nag Hammadi library and who buried it by the Jabal al-Tarif.

Archeological surveys and excavations in the region were undertaken in the 1970S and 1980s under the sponsorship of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, and Peter Grossmann of the German Archeological Institute brought this work to an appropriate – if penultimate – conclusion.” Prior to the archeological work in the area, it was recognized that during the early centuries there was a strong Christian presence in the Nag Hammadi region and that Christian monks and monasteries were especially prevalent in this part of Upper Egypt. In the fourth century, Apa Pachomius, often considered the father of cenobitic Christian monasticism, established monasteries all around this part of Egypt – including a monastery in a small village named Seneset (in Greek, Chenoboskia), modern-day al-Qasr, the same village that was to become, much later, the home of the family of Muhammad Ali of the al-Samman clan.

Archeological work at one of the most significant monasteries in the area, at Pbow (or Pabau, modern Faw Qibli), located within sight of the Jabal al-Tarif, has given a clear indication of how important and impressive a Pachomian monastery and monastic church could be. Pbow was the administrative center of the Pachomian monastic movement, where monks from the surrounding monasteries could come for special occasions. The site of Pbow is littered with the architectural and archeological remains of the monastic church in its several stages of building and rebuilding: rose granite columns, limestone foundation blocks, brick rubble, and countless potsherds. More granite pieces – for example, an olive press for making olive oil used for preparing food and in oil lamps – are scattered around the archeological site, and sometimes the remaining hieroglyphs and artistic markings (such as stylized stars) seem to indicate that the granite used in the church had been recycled from an older building, probably an Egyptian temple.

The Pachomian church at Pbow went through at least three building stages. Gary Lease, who participated in the archeological excavations and collaborated with Peter Grossmann, has described the church buildings uncovered at Pbow.(10) Each church had five aisles, with a central nave and two aisles on each side, and each church was built to be larger than the one before – an indication of the growth of the Christian population in the area and the success of the monastic movement. The first (and lowest) church may have been built during the lifetime of Pachomius; the second was constructed somewhat later; and the third, the great basilica, was completed in 459. That date for the great basilica seems secure, since a text said to be a sermon of Timothy II of Alexandria preached on the occasion of the dedication of the Pachomian basilica at Pbow refers to that very date. (11)

Each of the church buildings at Pbow may have been quite a stately ecclesiastical structure, but the great basilica must have been especially impressive. The great basilica was an imposing church with massive brick walls, huge granite columns, and attractively decorated capitals for the columns. It might be hoped that the church buildings were not too attractive. There is a legend that when Pachomius saw the finished early church at Pbow, he was disturbed at its beauty, and so he ordered the monks to twist the columns from their positions to ensure that no one would be seduced and led astray by artistic beauty.

Archeological forays throughout the area, and especially around the Jabal al-Tarif and up the Wadi Sheikh Ali, have illumined other aspects of monastic life in the Nag Hammadi region. The evidence indicates that Christian monks wandered from place to place all around this area. In the cliff face of the Jabal al-Tarif, near the boulder next to which the Nag Hammadi codices were discovered, there are caves that were used from the days of the Old Kingdom. On the wall inside one of the caves (cave 8), dubbed the “Psalms cave,” are the opening lines, or incipits, of Psalms 51-93, painted in the red paint – “monastic Rustoleum” – commonly used by Egyptian monks. (12)

We can speculate that in their holy wanderings the monks used this cave as a meditation chapel, in which they could focus pious attention upon the Psalms and be aided in their thoughts and prayers by the opening lines, painted on the cave wall, which would remind them of the sequence of the Psalms.

The same sorts of Christian monks also seem to have hiked up the Wadi Sheikh Ali, a narrow and rather inaccessible ravine leading into the mountainous desert of the red land, off the Oishna plain not too far from the Jabal al-Tarif. (13) Archeological investigation of the wadi indicates that Christian monks made their way up the wadi, past an unfinished obelisk abandoned by Egyptian stonecutters long ago, and stopped in the shade of an overhanging rock. There on the surface of the rock are incised hieroglyphs (including the word “gods” and a cartouche of Pharaoh Menkaure) and hunting graffiti, perhaps scratched onto the rock by the stonecutters and hunters accompanying them. Christian monks at the site apparently noticed the pagan inscriptions and consequently rededicated the place to Christ by adding Coptic Christian graffiti. Most of the Christian graffiti are painted onto the rock in the familiar red paint as simple prayers:

Pray for me. I am Phibamon.
Pray for me in love. I am Pakim.
Pray for me in love. I am the servant Pakire.
(“the servant” is scratched out)
Jesus Christ, help me.
. . . in the name of God. . . I am Solomon. Pray for me in love. Da + David +
Remember me in love. I am Philothe the son of David.
+ I am Chael the sinner. Observe love. Pray for me.
Remember me in love. I am
more of a sinner than any other person.
I am Stauros the son. . . .(14)

A stone chip left at the site includes another painted graffito: “1 am Archeleos. Remember me in love.” (A similar pious plea – “Remember me also, my brothers, in your prayers” – is written in a scribal note at the conclusion of Nag Hammadi Codex II.) There is also a portrait of a monk named John incised onto the surface of the rock. Brother John is shown with beard and robe and hands raised in the praying position, and he identifies himself in rough Coptic: “1 am faithful John” or “1, John, am faithful.” (15)

At the same locale there are Byzantine bricks and potsherds, including some sherds that resemble fourth- and fifth-century red-painted slip ware found throughout the region. Ware like this has been found in the excavations of the Pachomian monastic church at Pbow – and at al-Qasr James Robinson acquired a similar bowl that likely was used as the lid of the jar within which the Nag Hammadi codices were buried.

Codicology at the Coptic Museum
Meanwhile, back at the Coptic Museum in the aftermath of the Nag Hammadi discovery, scholarly work on the physical remains of the Nag Hammadi codices has provided new codicological perspectives on the Nag Hammadi library. (16) Codicology is the study of the practice of making books, and the codices of the Nag Hammadi library represent some of the earliest books known. We now understand how these early books were put together. ‘The Nag Hammadi codices stand at a point of transition from scrolls to codices, from the written word preserved on sheets that were rolled up to the written word preserved on sheets that were bound as pages within covers. That transition, aided by those who produced the Nag Hammadi codices, changed forever the way in which the written word could be communicated.

In many respects the Nag Hammadi bookbinding process resembles the process of bookbinding employed ever since. For the Nag Hammadi texts, like other Egyptian texts, papyrus reed was the source of the fibers used for the creation of the sheets on which the texts were written. Papyrus fibers have been made into sheets as a kind of paper in Egypt for millennia: the ancient process continues today at the Papyrus Institute in Egypt. It turns out that papyrus is an especially durable writing surface. If the Nag Hammadi codices had been manufactured using wood pulp instead of papyrus, the texts of the library would have disintegrated into dust long ago.

Traditionally papyrus was assembled into rolls, and at the time of the manufacture of the Nag Hammadi codices papyrus must have been obtained in that form. In the production of papyrus book pages from papyrus rolls, the rolls were cut into the proper width for sheets of a book (each sheet is two pages wide), and the sheets were stacked and folded to form a quire (a bundle of sheets). The use of papyrus fibers in the construction of Egyptian books allows scholars to identify and trace fibers in sheets and pages, and this has enabled scholars to position and place fragments and reassemble fragmentary pages of the Nag Hammadi codices.

After the quires of the Nag Hammadi library were put together, and apparently after the scribes had copied the texts onto the papyrus pages, the quires were bound in leather covers and secured with thongs. Leather covers could be decorated, and the cover of Nag Hammadi Codex II bears an attractive design. The portion of the leather that came from the tail of the animal could form part of the protective flap for the book, and a thong could be attached. Codices were valuable, and the covers and flaps protected such valuable possessions.

In order to convert the leather-bound codices from softbound to hardbound books, scrap papyrus from letters and documents was sometimes pasted inside the covers of the Nag Hammadi codices, and then a blank piece of papyrus could be glued over the unsightly used material. This scrap papyrus, called cartonnage, from the Nag Hammadi library has been carefully examined by scholars and published in a volume dedicated to ancient wastepaper: Nag Hammadi Codices: Greek and Coptic Papyri from the Cartormage of the Covers, edited by John W. B. Barns, Gerald M. Browne, and John C. Shelton. The cartonnage contains names of people, places, and dates, and these bits of information provide clues to the time and place of the construction of the codices. In the cartonnage there are dates in the middle of the fourth century and just before, and names suggesting monks and locations around Pbow and Seneset (Chenoboskia). Cartonnage from the cover of Nag Hammadi Codex VII mentions a monk named Sansnos who supervised the cattle of a monastery. (17) He would have had easy access to leather for codex covers. In other words, the evidence of the cartonnage may provide points of contact between the production of the Nag Hammadi codices and the Pachomian monastic movement.

The Production and Burial of the Nag Hammadi Library
The evidence remains circumstantial, but archeological and codicological work has provided tantalizing hints that may help resolve the mystery of who produced and who buried the Nag Hammadi codices. I suggest that the hints implicate Pachomian monks. On the basis of information from the pottery remains and the Wadi Sheikh Ali and the cartonnage from the codices themselves, we may conjecture that Pachomian monks most likely compiled the Nag Hammadi codices and later buried them by the cliff. The Nag Hammadi codices were put together around the middle of the fourth century, or a little later; their date of manufacture cannot precede the dates found in the cartonnage. The Nag Hammadi library may have functioned, formally or informally, as a part of a Pachomian monastic library in the area. In that regard the Nag Hammadi codices may be compared – and contrasted – with another collection of manuscripts discovered in the area, the Dishna Papers (sometimes referred to as the Bodmer Papyri).

James Robinson, the scholarly sleuth who pieced together the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, has also researched the story of the Dishna Papers, and he describes the discovery of these texts and their place within a Pachomian monastic library:

This discovery included archival copies of formal letters of abbots of the Pachomian Order. And the rest of the holdings are also what one would expect of a Pachomian library: biblical, apocryphal, martyriological, and other edifying material. To be sure, there are also some Greek (and Latin) classical texts, whose presence may be explained by the assumption that persons who joined the Pachomian movement gave their worldly possessions to the Order, which would thus have acquired non-Christian texts. Later they would have been taken to be venerable texts like the others in the archives, fragile and fragmentary relics to be preserved and no longer texts to be read. (18)

In the case of the Nag Hammadi library, the texts finally were buried at the foot of the Jabal al-Tarif, to be discovered centuries later. The fact that they were buried and not burned or thrown into the Nilc River indicates a desire to preserve and not destroy. Further, the scribal notes in the texts themselves are pious and not heresiological in their perspectives. What, then, could have prompted Pachomian monks to bury the Nag Hammadi codices there at the cliff?

A momentous event that happened in the year 367 may suggest an answer to this question. In that year the archbishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, soon to be acclaimed the champion of orthodox Christianity, wrote a festal letter to be read in the churches of Egypt. Among other things, the letter addresses the issue of the canon, of what books should be considered authoritative and inspired and thus included in the Bible. In his festal letter Athanasius lists what he as archbishop believes to be the canonical books of the Christian scriptures, and his list may be the first ever to include the twenty-seven books of the New Testament that eventually were used in most churches. Later Jerome opted for the same twenty-seven books in his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate. Athanasius was deeply concerned about the canon, and that issue of canon is confronted anew in the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library with newly recovered Christian gospels, ads, letters, and apocalypses that also claim to be authoritative and inspired.

In his festal letter Athanasius raises another, related, issue that was dear to his heart: heresy. He condemns the heretics and warns the faithful to beware of the heretics and their despicable writings. Apocryphal texts, he maintains, “are a fabrication of the heretics, who write them down when it pleases them and generously assign to them an early date of composition in order that they may be able to draw upon them as supposedly ancient writings and have in them occasion to deceive the guileless.” (19) These heresiological words of warning were translated into Coptic and, it is said, were adopted to serve as a rule and guide for Pachomian monks.

It is quite plausible, then, to conclude that one likely scenario for the time of and occasion for the burial of the Nag Hammadi codices may be related to Athanasius’s festal letter of 367. When Pachomian monks heard the stern words of admonition of the holy archbishop, they may have thought of the books of spiritual wisdom in their possession, books that could be considered heretical, and they determined to dispose of them. Yet they simply could not destroy them, so they gathered them and hid them safely away, to be uncovered on another day.

What texts they buried by the boulder at the Jabal al-Tarif is the matter to which we now turn.

1. On Christianity in Egypt, see Birger A. Pearson, Gnosticism and Christianity in Roman and Coptic Egypt.
2. For the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, see James M. Robinson, “From the Cliff to Cairo: The Story of the Discoverers and Middlemen of the Nag Hammadi Codices”; “Nag Hammadi: The First Fifty Years.”
3. Robinson, “Nag Hammadi: The First Fifty Years,” 80 (slightly modified, in consultation with the author).
4- On the breaking of the monopoly, see Robinson, “Nag Hammadi: The First Fifty Years,” 83-99; “The Jung Codex: The Rise and Fall of a Monopoly.”
5. For the story of the discovery of the Berlin Gnostic Codex, see Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, 7-12; Michael Waldstein and Frederik Wisse, eds.,The Apocryphon of John, 2-3.
6. Bernard P. Grenfell, Arthur S. Hunt, et a!., eds., The Oxyrhynchus Papyri.
7. Stephen Emmel, “A Fragment of Nag Hammadi Codex III in the Beinccke Library: Yale inv. 1784,”
8. Marins Victorinus, Against Arius 1.49, 9-40; see Michel Tardien, “Recherches sur la formation de I’Apocalypse de Zostrien et les sources de Marius Victorinns”; Catherine Barry, Wolf-Peter Funk, Paul-Hubert Poirier, and John D. Turner, eds., Zostrien, 32-225,483-662.
9. On the Nag Hammadi archeological excavations, see Fernand Debono, “La basilique et le monastere de St. Pachôme”; Biblical Archeologist 42 (1979); Peter Grossmann and Gary Lease, “Faw Qibli -1989 Excavation Report (= Sixth Season)”; Gary Lease, “Traces of Early Egyptian Monasticism: The Faw Qibli Excavatiolls.”
10. Lease, “Traces of Early Egyptian Monasticism,” 6-8.
11. Arnold Van Lantschoot, “Allocution de Timothée d’Alexandrie prononcée à l’occasion de la dédicace de I’église de Pachôme à Pboon.”
12. Bastiaan Van Elderen and James M. Robinson, “The First Season of the Nag Hammadi Excavation: 27 November-19 December 1975.”
13. On the Wadi Sheikh Ali, see Marvin Meyer, “Archaeological Survey of the adi Sheikh Ali: December 1980.”
14. Meyer, “Archaeological Survey of the Wadi Sheikh Ali,” 78-79.
15. Meyer, “Archaeological Survey of the Wadi Sheikh Ali,” 79-80.
16. On the codicology of the Nag Hammadi library, see James M. Robinson, “Introduction,” 1-102, in The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices: Introduction (1984)
17. John W. B. Barns, Gerald M. Browne, and John C. Shelton, eds., Nag Hammadi Codices: Greek and Coptic Papyri from the Cartonnage of the Covers, 61-76, 7-38, 142-44; cf. 39-41.
18. James M. Robinson, “Introduction,” 21, in James M. Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English. 19. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed., New Testament Apocrypha, 1.50.


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