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How the Gospel of Thomas Was Discovered

A few days ago I responded to a reader’s comment by saying something about how I am reluctant these days to label the Gospel of Thomas a “Gnostic” Gospel.  Several readers responded to my comment by asking what in the blazes I could possibly mean.  So I thought I would respond.  But then I realized that to make sense of anything I have to say about the matter will require me to start at the beginning — since some readers won’t know what the Gospel of Thomas is or how it was discovered or anything else.

So, well, why not? Here we start at the beginning.  This will become it’s own little thread dealing with Gnosticism and the Gospel of Thomas.  I have posted on this before, some years ago.   But it continues to be interesting material.

If you have been an avid reader of the blog for four years or so, you will remember the story of the discovery of the “Nag Hammadi Library.”  This is a cache of books found in 1945 near the village of Nag Hammadi Egypt, the so-called “Gnostic Gospels.”   Once on the blog I had a back-and-forth with my friend and colleague Mark Goodacre, professor of New Testament at Duke, about whether the story is factual or a modern fabrication.  I continue to think that at its heart it is probably pretty much like what probably happened..

In any event, here is I describe the tale of discovery from my undergraduate textbook:


It is an intriguing story, this chance discovery of a cache of ancient Christian documents in 1945, in a remote part of Upper Egypt, a story of serendipity, ineptitude, secrecy, ignorance, scholarly brilliance, murder, and blood revenge.  Even now, after scholars have spent years trying to piece it all together, details of the find remain sketchy.

We do know that it occurred in December 1945 — about a year and half before…


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What Was Discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library?
Is 1 Clement Older than Some Books of the New Testament?



  1. Avatar
    Stephen  August 19, 2018

    The skeleton, presumably buried with the jar, of no use to the fellahin, lost forever?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2018

      Yes, there are varying reports about whether there was a skeleton or not. If there was, there isn’t now!

  2. Avatar
    forthfading  August 19, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Did you and Dr. Goodacre disagree about the validity of the stories and lore surrounding the finding of the the library?


  3. Avatar
    Sixtus  August 19, 2018

    Bart is just scratching the surface here. The story is even more convoluted. It comes complete with a one-eyed criminal and a Nag Hammadi store (but no theme park–yet). See: https://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/still-rethinking-the-origins-of-the-nag-hammadi-codices/

  4. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  August 20, 2018

    i have a question about jesus’ miracles .
    the gospel writers sometimes seem to say that prophecy x was fulfilled and they quote passage from the ot. this is indication that they are witness to a text, right ?

    apologists will admit that nt writers put miracles of jesus in ot wording .

    since neither matthew, mark , luke or john say that they witnessed the miracles of jesus, and since we know the source they reference is ot, then what makes scholars think that the miracles really happened ?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2018

      I suppose their argument is that hte miracles actually happened, but when stories about them were told it was in light of what could (sometimes, not always) be found in the NT.

  5. Avatar
    prestonp  August 20, 2018

    Bart, based on the following explanation, will you announce there are not contradictions in the N.T. over when Christ was murdered?

    First, we note in this passage that the Passover proper is on the fourteenth day of the month Nisan. However, this day of the Passover is then followed by the feast of the Passover which is a seven day period of sacrifices and feasting beginning on the fifteenth of Nisan. We can also see in this passage that only unleavened bread was to be eaten during the seven days of the Passover feast.

    When we compare Numbers 28 with Exodus 12, we learn further that the first Passover meal occurs on the evening of the fourteenth, and this first meal is also supposed to be eaten with unleavened bread. Thus the fourteenth is sometimes referred to as the first day of unleavened bread. Exodus 12:19 also tells us that, during the seven days of feasting beginning on the fifteenth of Nisan, the Jews were not only to eat unleavened bread, but they were also to have no leaven anywhere in their homes. Thus the seven days of feasting beginning on the fifteenth are sometimes referred to as the days of unleavened bread. The fact that the Jews were not allowed to have leaven in their houses during the week of feast days also explains why the fourteenth was referred to as the day of preparation. The evening of the fourteenth was spent in celebration of the Passover proper with a meal of lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened bread while the following day of the fourteenth was spent removing all leaven from the home in preparation for the Passover week.
    Therefore, when John mentions in John 18:28 that the Jewish leaders did not want to defile themselves because they wanted to eat the Passover, he was referring to their desire to participate in the seven days of feasting which would begin that evening. When John writes in John 19:14 that it was the day of preparation, he was referring to the preparations conducted on the fourteenth in order to remove all traces of leaven from the homes of the Jews. And when Mark mentions in Mark 14:12 that the Last Supper was on the first day of unleavened bread, the day when the Passover was killed, he was referring to the evening of the fourteenth of Nisan.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 20, 2018

      Nope, it doesn’t work. Jesus is portrayed as the Passover Lamb in John because he dies when the lambs for the passover meal are being sacrificed in the temple. In Mark he dies the next day.

    • Avatar
      ddorner  August 21, 2018

      Prestonp, I would highly recommend reading Jesus Interrupted. I know that in a lot of Christian circles we are taught to conflate the gospels into a single account; that they are simply different perspectives of the same stories.

      But what if that’s not how they were intended to be read? As Dr. Ehrman points out in the book, When we conflate the gospels we really create a new gospel, a 5th gospel, that’s totally unlike the other 4.

      Maybe just try reading them as individual works, with their own theological message. I think you’ll be amazed at what new insights you glean from them.

    • Avatar
      rburos  August 21, 2018

      J. D. Crossan once said. . .”when all else fails–read the text.”

  6. bnongbri
    bnongbri  August 20, 2018

    Hi Bart,
    Thanks for this. I’ve added links to some of the recent debates about the Nag Hammadi discovery at my site:

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2018

      Thanks Brent! I tried to download your article but after 12 fruitless attempts gave it up. Others might have the same problem. Is it available elsewhere?

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