Nag Hammadi Documents (Codex)

Nag Hammadi Documents

by Jimmy Dunn

The Gospel of Thomas from the Nag Hammadi cache of documents

Recently, controversy has swirled around the DaVinci Code, a book by Dan Brown. This of course is a fictional book, though its author makes a number of claims about the authenticity of facts upon which it is based. Central to the plot in this book are the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Gospels which originated in Egypt.

In order to deliver on his conspiratorial plot, Brown has to lay the groundwork by having his main characters deny the inspiration and authority of the biblical text and replace Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John with the Gnostic gospels found just after World War II at Nag Hammadi. The Gnostic texts are called the "unaltered gospels," and the New Testament texts are dismissed as propaganda for the goddess-bashers.

Some of the Codex from the Nag Hammadi collection

About the dating of the manuscripts themselves there is little debate. Examination of the datable papyrus used to thicken the leather bindings, and of the Coptic script, place them c. A.D. 350-400. However, it is believed that they are copies of earlier texts written in Greek, though scholars sharply disagree about the dating of the original texts. Some of them can hardly be later than c. A.D. 120-150, since Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyons, writing C. 180, declares that heretics "boast that they possess more gospels than there really are.''

The Gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi number fifty-two comprising 1240 pages, and make up a fairly complete Gnostic library.

Certainly the Nag Hammadi documents are important historical texts. What they do reveal is the diversity of the early church in the Holy Land, during the formative years of Christianity. It should come as no surprise that such ancient volumes have been found in Egypt either. As the home of monasticism, Egypt contained a proliferation of early monasteries, frequently located in the dry desert, which made perfect repositories for large Christian libraries. In fact, the Codex Syniaticur which was used as a basis for the English translation of most modern bibles was discovered in the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai, though after a roundabout journey through Russia is now in the British Museum. However, today St. Catherines maintains an enormous collection of ancient and important Christian texts, but this is not the only important monastic library in Egypt. A number of other Egyptian monasteries also house considerable collections.

Nag Hammadi

Of course, the Nag Hammadi documents were not found in a monastery library in 1945, but rather buried in clay jars in the region of Nag Hammadi about three kilometers from the village of al-Qasr. There discovery was one of the major archaeological finds of the twentieth century. Thirty years after their discovery, the Egyptian who found them, Muhammad Ali al-Sammn, told of their discovery.

One day, Muhammad Ali and his brothers went out to dig for sabakh, a soft soil they used to fertilize their crops. Digging around a massive boulder, they hit a red earthenware jar, almost a meter high, sealed with bitumen. Muhammad Ali hesitated to break the jar, considering that a jinn, or spirit, might live inside. But realizing that it might also contain gold, he raised his tool, smashed the jar, and discovered inside thirteen papyrus books, bound in leather. Returning to his home in al-Qasr, Muhammad Ali dumped the books and loose papyrus leaves on the straw piled on the ground next to the oven. Muhammad's mother, 'Umm-Ahmad, admits that she burned much of the papyrus in the oven along with the straw she used to kindle the fire.

The discoverer of the Nag Hammadi documents along with some of his relatives

Sometime before the discovery, Muhammad Ali's father had been murdered in a blood feud. A few weeks later, as Muhammad Ali tells it, he and his brothers avenged their father's death by murdering Ahmed Isma'il, his father's killer. Fearing that the police investigating the murder would search his house and discover the books, Muhammad Ali asked a local priest named al-Qummus Basiliyus Abd al-Masih to keep the books for him. However, during the time that Muhammad Ali and his brothers were being interrogated for murder, apparently the priest told a local history teacher named Raghib about the documents. The teacher thought that they might have considerable value, and was allowed by the priest to send one to a friend in Cairo to find out its worth.

Obviously, their worth was great, and so they were soon placed on the black market through antiquities dealers in Cairo. However, the manuscripts soon attracted the attention of officials of the Egyptian government. Through circumstances of high drama they bought one and confiscated ten and a half of the thirteen leather-bound books, called codices, and deposited them in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. But a large part of the thirteenth codex, containing five extraordinary texts, was smuggled out of Egypt and offered for sale in the United States. Word of this codex soon reached Professor Gilles Quispel, distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Excited by the discovery, Quispel urged the Jung Foundation in Zurich to buy the codex. But discovering, when he succeeded, that some pages were missing, he flew to Egypt in the spring of 1955 to try to find them in the Coptic Museum.

A single codex from the Nag Hammadi cache of documents

Arriving in Cairo, he went at once to the Coptic Museum, borrowed photographs of some of the texts, and hurried back to his hotel to decipher them. Tracing out the first line, Quispel was startled, then incredulous, to read: "These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down." Quispel knew that his colleague H.C. Puech, using notes from another French scholar, Jean Doresse, had identified the opening lines with fragments of a Greek Gospel of Thomas discovered in the 1890's. But the discovery of the whole text raised new questions: Did Jesus have a twin brother, as this text implies? Could the text be an authentic record of Jesus' sayings? According to its title, it contained the Gospel According to Thomas; yet, unlike the gospels of the New Testament, this text identified itself as a secret gospel.

Actually, secret gospels seems to be a large point of Gnostic spirituality. Really, the new religion of Christianity was difficult for the Gentile world to assimilate in many ways. Sophisticated pagans were accustomed to reinterpreting the myths of their gods allegorically, and it was only natural for them to treat the story of Christ in a similar manner, which produced the phenomenon of Gnosticism. Gnosticism basically made a claim to disclose secret revelations that were in fact a mixture of myths and rites drawn from a variety of religious traditions.

It was a theology made from many ingredients. Occultism and oriental mysticism became fused with astrology, magic, cabbalistic elements from the Jewish tradition, a pessimistic reading of Plato's doctrine that man's true home does not lie in this bodily realm, and above all the catalyst of the Christian understanding of the redemption in Christ.

Most of the Gnostic sects claimed to be Christian and to have secret knowledge of the traditions that Jesus had taught the apostles in private. They collected the sayings of Jesus, but shaped them to fit their own interpretations, thus offering their adherents an alternative or rival from Christianity.

The Gnostic movement was born and developed from a disenchanted vision of the world and of the Christian event itself. Pain, suffering, disease and death, together with the victorious presence of evil prove, the Gnostics thought, the intrinsically negative character of the world and therefore the "non-perfection" of the creator of the world, the demiurge, an evil being cast by its own fault or by ignorance into the emptiness outside divine plenitude. However, beyond and above the demiurge, they saw a God who was perfect and merciful and it was he who sent the Savior to reveal God's own existence to the ignorant world.

Unfortunately, they also thought that the revelation of Christ was reserved for those who still have within themselves a spark of the divine spirit, who alone have the ability to understand his real message. For these people the "knowledge" was a guarantee of salvation, but not everyone was privileged to have it. Indeed, not all human beings were considered complete. Most of them were only bodies devoid of souls, destined to die without leaving a trace.

There is really little wonder that these books were not chosen to become a part of the New Testament, or that the Gnostic sects enjoyed a popular front in Egypt. In many ways, the theology was an extension of the more ancient Egyptian religion, where common people were not allowed into the inner sanctuaries of churches nor were they privy to the inner workings and the magical rituals of their own religion.

As for the New Testament, the Gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi were not included and never even a contender to be included. About 130 AD Papia of Hierapolis in Asia Minor recorded traditions about the authorship of the gospels of Matthew and Mark, but was also convinced that the mind of Jesus was captured less from written books than from oral teaching of those seniors who had known apostles personally. At that time, the New Testament gospels were mostly transmitted orally.

Nevertheless, a New Testament canon was needed in order to fix these traditions against future adulterations. At the same time, to set a New Testament canon beside the Old carried implications of the concept of "inspiration", and there were certain formulas in pre-Christianity that set out the theories of inspiration. One of these was the view that inspiration was a type of possession, where the divine took over the voice of the prophet and employed the human agent as a musician plays a lyre, which has no mind of its own. Hence, this view implies that the words are divinely given, so any other texts can be interpreted by its similarities.

As early as the second century, this view of inspiration took hold in the Christian community. The fathers of the church knew the earliest compositions of the apostles, who must have been divinely inspired, and they applied their view of inspiration to other works. This implied that all Christians rightly believing are agreed, and that the cacophony of dissension is a characteristic of either heretics or of pagan philosophers.

Though the original compositions from which the Nag Hammadi documents were copied may date from a fairly early period, even perhaps just after those of the apostles (some even say before, but this is highly doubtful), their departure from those works could obviously never be accepted by the founding fathers of the church In many instances, they completely oppose the words of the apostles, and hence could not have come from the same divine source. Furthermore, the very nature of Gnosticism, of such secret knowledge, precluded it from their faith. Jesus, after all, came to spread the word, and obviously did so to more than a selected few chosen people.

Hence, the Gnostic texts were considered heresy by the Orthodox church, and this probably explains the context in which they were discovered. A letter condemning such work was circulated amongst all of the monasteries in Egypt around the year 367 AD. In the cities, the campaigns against heretics were intensifying, promoted by the Orthodox bishops and their followers, and it was forbidden even to possess books other than those declared "orthodox". It is in this climate of tension and upheaval that the manuscripts were hidden by their unknown owners. One should not rule out the reasonable hypothesis that the owners were in fact monks from one of the many Pachomian monasteries of the region, perhaps that of Chenoboskion, which was only three kilometers way from the place chosen to hide the manuscripts.

While this discussion does not encompass the rather large volume of work in the Nag Hammadi collection, which includes some non-Gnostic works as well, it is available on-line.

See also:






Reference Number

2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia

Capuani, Massimo


Liturgical Press, The

ISBN 0-8146-2406-5

Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture

Gabra, Gawdat


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 691 8

Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400

MacMullen, Ramsay


Yale University Press

ISBN 0-300-03642-6

Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 692 6

Monastery of St. Catherine, The

Papaioannou, Dr. Evangelos



None Stated

Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, The

McManners, John


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-285259-0

St. Catherine's Monastery

Paliouras, Athanasios


St. Catherine's Monastery at Sinai

None Stated