A Model of Nag Hammadi Codex III (and Some Thoughts on Large Single-quire Codices)

After I started out by making a model of Nag Hammadi Codex VI, the second Nag Hammadi book that I tried to make was Codex III. Like Codex VI, Codex III is made up of a single papyrus quire, but the construction of the cover of Codex III is slightly more complicated than that of Codex VI. The quire of Codex III was composed of 40 bifolia (two of which were in reality a single folio with a stub). So, this is a considerably thicker codex than Codex VI, which contained 20 bifolia. The construction of the quire thus required more materials and more time spent cutting the bifolia to size. Because the quire was so large, the difference between the width of the outermost bifolium (about 31.4 cm) and the central bifolium (about 28.2 cm) was more than 3 cm.

Again, I relied mostly on the black and white photographs of the cover and the detailed discussions of The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices (again supplemented by helpful advice from Julia Miller).

NHC 3 open to middle

NHC 3 tacket and stay

As the close-up picture shows, I added small leather stays between the tackets and the central papyrus bifolium similar to those found in the other Nag Hammadi codices to protect the papyrus from the rubbing of the two tackets. No such stays actually survived with the remains of the cover of Codex III, but some experimentation trying to pull the tackets through the quire without the central stays quickly convinced me that such stays must have been present in the original codex. The papyrus tears too easily along the central fold if stays are absent.

NHC 3 and bw photo

Unlike Codex VI, the tackets that bound the quire of Codex III did not pierce the outside cover. Rather, they passed through the quire and the leather strip lining the outside of the spine but were then “hidden” beneath the outside cover.

The ties were attached by an ingenious method of pulling the leather tie through a slit in the tie itself so that the tie catches without any need for a proper knot:

NHC 3 self catching strap

The decorative tip on the front cover was secured by passing a thing strip of leather through both the cover and the decorative tip:

NHC 3 cover

The finished product presented me with some surprises. Although I obviously knew how many bifolia made up the quire, I didn’t really appreciate how thick the book would be. The quire alone was about 3.5 cm thick (and notice that even though I decreased the length of the bifolia as I cut them, there is still a protrusion of the central bifolia):

NHC codex 3 quire

Tightly binding the quire in the leather cover compressed the quire somewhat, but it was still quite thick. Comparing the finished papyrus model to, say, the Brill photo facsimile of Codex III, gives a good sense of the thickness:

NHC 3 thickness

And Nag Hammadi Codex III is not even close to the size of our largest surviving single-quire codices. The codex numbered 3090 in the Leuven Database is conspicuous for its tall and narrow appearance (12.8 cm wide by 34.4 cm high), but it was also a very thick codex. It probably had 59 bifolia (236 pages). Below is an image of one of its leaves (this one is held in the Scheide Library at Princeton University (Scheide MS 97):

Beatty 9 Scheide 1 small

Papyrus codex containing Ezekiel, Daniel, Susanna, and Esther in Greek (LDAB 3090); image source: Allan Chester Johnson, The John H. Scheide Biblical Papyri: Ezekiel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1938)

Even thicker may be a papyrus codex of Paul’s letters in Coptic (P.Mil.Vogl. V, LDAB 107795). This codex is more damaged; the dimensions of the pages are about 16.5 cm wide by 27.5 cm high. Although only 49 folia survive, the pages are numbered, and the editor of the codex estimated that the book was made up of around 75 bifolia (or 300 pages!).

PMilVoglCopt 5 Pauline Letters 1

Papyrus codex containing the letters of Paul in Coptic (P.Mil.Vogl. V); image source:  Tito Orlandi, Papiri della Università degli Studi di Milano (P. Mil. Copti), Volume quinto: Lettere di San Paolo in Copto-ossirinchita (Milan: Istituto editoriale Cisalpino, 1974).

(If anyone knows of single-quire codices larger than this, I would be grateful for that information.) Imagine folding a stack of 75 sheets of paper in half. These books must have been somewhat awkward to use. If the dates usually assigned to these books are accurate (Nag Hammadi Codex III–sometime after the middle of the fourth century; P.Mil.Vogl. V–fourth or fifth century), then it is quite interesting that such large single-quire books still continued to be manufactured and remained in use when the seemingly superior technology of the multi-quire codex existed and was reasonably well known in Egypt.



Johnson, Allan Chester. The John H. Scheide Biblical Papyri: Ezekiel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1938.

Orlandi, Tito. Papiri della Università degli Studi di Milano (P. Mil. Copti), Volume quinto: Lettere di San Paolo in Copto-ossirinchita. Milan: Istituto editoriale Cisalpino, 1974.

Robinson, James M. (ed.). The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, Codex III. Leiden: Brill, 1976.

Wisse, Frederik. “Nag Hammadi Codex III: Codicological Introduction.” Pages 225-238 in Martin Krause (ed.), Essays on the Nag Hammadi Texts in Honour of Pahor Labib. Leiden: Brill, 1975.

This entry was posted in Book binding, Book covers, Codices, Nag Hammadi. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Model of Nag Hammadi Codex III (and Some Thoughts on Large Single-quire Codices)

  1. svanimpe says:

    Have you read Berte van Regemorters’ article ‘La reliure des manuscrits gnostiques découverts à Nag Hamadi’ in Scriptorium 14 (1960)? I can send a PDF if you like.

  2. Joe in Australia says:

    Forgive me if you’ve discussed this earlier, but who is making papyrus nowadays; who are they msking it for; and (in your opinion) how does it compare to papyrus from the ancient world?

    • Yes, lots of people manufacture papyrus. Mostly I think it is for artists and people doing various crafts. The quality of modern papyrus varies (the same is true of ancient papyrus), but I will say that I have never seen modern papyrus that was as smoothly polished as some especially fine examples of ancient papyrus.

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