The Nag Hammadi Discovery Story

Over on his blog, Bart Ehrman is answering questions about the Gospel of Thomas. He has started out by re-telling a version of the traditional find story of the Nag Hammadi codices. This is a topic that I treat in my new book and that I’ve also addressed in a recent article.

The traditional story of the discovery has been a point of contention in the last few years. Mark Goodacre has pointed out a number of inconsistencies in the details of the various versions of the story. In another article, Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount have argued that the traditional version of events is not reliable and that the Nag Hammadi books were burial goods not associated with early Christian monks. My own article was a response to the articles by Goodacre and Denzey Lewis pieces (also check out the other response articles on the topic by Tony BurkeDylan Burns, and Eva Mroczek, as well as Denzey Lewis’s response). And then for the most up-to-date assessment of the Nag Hammadi collection, see the recent book by Hugo Lundhaug and Lance Jenott, The Monastic Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices.

This would also be a useful time to remind readers that the alleged discoverer of the codices, Muhammad ʿAli al-Samman, was once recorded (a few decades after the fact) giving his version of events in his own words.

The interview was part of a multi-episode series, The Gnostics, that originally aired in 1987 on Channel 4 (UK). The whole series is worth watching, but the segment on the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices is especially interesting. It is a remarkable video, an interview of Muhammad Ali by the Dutch scholar of ancient Christianity, Gilles Quispel, with periodic narration by James M. Robinson. I’ve excerpted the relevant clip below:

 

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3 Responses to The Nag Hammadi Discovery Story

  1. Maybe some comparison with Dead Sea Scroll history of scholarship is worth considering, since most options have been explored concerning the intent of ms deposits. Though some Qumran mss may have been stashed in a hurry (or were scattered later), many were originally wrapped and carefully sealed in jars. Rather than a genizah–nor a permanent burial–some scrolls were likely stored by those at this wilderness tabernacle-like site where they thought the Jerusalem temple impure and were awaiting a time with a pure temple, when some of these these texts could be reused. (And Tyrian silver coins paid, etc.)
    Another comparison factor may be in a possible tendency of some to retroject later categories: for example, calling the Qumran scrolls a Sadducee collection, based on limited legal similarities (which were early on pointed out by Joseph M. Baumgarten, who nonetheless affirmed the Essene identification as most likely), retrojecting later (and more varied) rabbinic accounts of Sadducees.

  2. Nicola Denzey Lewis also wrote “(Stlll) Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices” at Marginalia Review:
    https://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/still-rethinking-the-origins-of-the-nag-hammadi-codices/
    She wrote, in part: “Ultimately, Robinson’s account leads us back not to Mohamed Ali, but rather to Phokion Tano. He knew his sources and understood his buyers. I think that the similarity between the Nag Hammadi find story and another great discovery nearby in the desert that Tano also brokered – the so-called Dishna hoard of various monastic texts also mysteriously deposited in jars – proves that Tano simply modified a generic but exciting find story that played well to his collectors; after all, it remains part of the art of entrepreneurialism to add value to a product.”
    I would say that this conjecture does not “prove” what Tano did. If he coached Mohamed Ali (did they even meet?), for whom apparently this was not of greatest importance, that didn’t work especially well.
    As with (my interpretation of) the Dead Sea Scrolls, and comparing other deposits in jars (of whatever size, e.g. Deir el-Medina), some person or some group may have deposited mss in jars in order to preserve them for a time when they could be safely retrieved (which did not always obtain in time),

  3. Joseph I. Lauer conveyed news of an archaeological find that may suggest another stashing of papyrus mss in jars, this time in Maresha. Reportedly, Hellenistic mss and jars in an area reused in Roman times. Jars broken; then too wet for ms survival;only seals remaining.
    http://huc.edu/news/2018/09/04/hundreds-hellenistic-period-seal-impressions-discovered-maresha-israel
    [URLs for the pictures accompanying the release. Image Credit : Hebrew Union College.]
    http://huc.edu/sites/default/files/news%20and%20events/SC%20169%20chambers.jpg [enlargeable picture]
    http://huc.edu/sites/default/files/news%20and%20events/_MG_7755.JPG [enlargeable picture]

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