Nag Hammadi

A town in central Egypt on the western bank of the Nile about forty miles north of Luxor, which has given its name to a Coptic Gnostic library unearthed a few miles away in 1945-46 in a jar in a Greco-Roman cemetery. The scene, so far uninvestigated archaeologically, is near the ancient sites of Chenoboskion, an important fourth-century center of Pachomian monasticism (which originated not far distant at Tabennisi), and the Roman regional capital of Diospolis Parva. The documents, probably interred in the later fourth century, perhaps when Pachomian monks were establishing Catholic orthodoxy in the area, consist of thirteen papyrus codices, one (XII) very fragmentary and another (XIII) now quite short, totaling over 1,100 pages. Ten manuscripts are in Sahidic Coptic and three in a sub-Akmîmic dialect. Palaeographic and other evidence suggests they were written c.330-50. They contain in whole or part fifty-three works, most if not all translated from Greek originals. Three were already known: The Sophia of Jesus Christ, The Sentences of Sextus, and The Apocryphon of John. Of this typical Gnostic “summa,” W.C. Till published in Texte und Untersuchungen 60 one (short) recension, which Nag Hammadi has duplicated (III) along with two texts of a longer version (II, IV). The collection includes doublets of The Letter of Eugnostos the Blessed (III, IV), The Egyptian Gospel (III, IV), an untitled treatise “On the Origin of the World” (II, XII), and The Gospel of Truth (I, fragments in XII). Thus we have forty-four completely new treatises, some of whose titles were recognized from patristic and other sources, and some identical with, or similar to, those of other extant Christian apocrypha.

The manuscripts reside in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, except for part of I-known as the Jung Codex because most of it was acquired in 1952 for the Carl Jung Institute in Zurich-which awaits return to Egypt. Its accessibility led to early publication of The Gospel of Truth, a Valentinian meditation known to Irenaeus. Publication of the Cairo manuscripts was delayed by political vicissitudes, but has quickened since 1960. To date, about half of the treatises have been printed. A complete facsimile edition under UNESCO auspices was initiated in 1972, and a complete ET is planned by the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity of Claremont, California.

This massive accession of new material is bound to prove enormously significant for the study of Gnosticism (hitherto documented chiefly by its opponents), heterodox Judaism, and primitive Christianity and their interrelations. The texts span a wide spectrum of Gnostic thought-Iranian, Hermetic, Jewish, as well as brands of Christian Gnosticism, Valentinian, Basilidian, and Barbelo-Gnostic or Sethian. If vindicated, the claim that The Sophia of Jesus Christ is a secondary Christianized version of The Letter of Eugnostos, and that other works—e.g., The Apocryphon of John, the Book of Thomas the Athlete (II), and The Hypostasis of the Archons-are Christian recensions of non-Christian originals, may illumine the much-debated existence of a pre-Christian Gnosticism. Scholars disagree whether The Apocalypse of Adam (V) is one such pre-Christian (syncretistic Jewish) Gnostic text. The Gospel of Thomas (II), whose markedly less Gnostic character is not unparalleled in the collection, is important for the development of the gospel tradition and early Syrian Christianity.

J. Doresse, The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics (1960); W.C. van Unnik, Newly Discovered Gnostic Writings (1960); U. Bianchi (ed.), Le Origini dello Gnosticismo (1967); A.K. Helmbold, The Nag Hammadi Gnostic Texts and the Bible (1967); J.M. Robinson, “The Coptic Gnostic Library Today,” NTS 14 (1967-68), pp. 356-401. D.M. Scholer, Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1948-1969 (1971, initiating the series Nag Hammadi Studies), supplemented annually in Novum Testamentum; W. Foerster (ed.), Gnosis: A Selection of Gnostic Texts, vol. 2 (1973); J.E. Ménard (ed.), Les Textes de Nag-Hammadi (1975).