There are a lot of unsettled questions about the “Gnostic Gospels,” that is, the books of the Nag Hammadi Library. After my recent posts I received some interesting questions that *can* be settled, and here I deal with two of them: one that’s a zinger and the other that has been asked by several readers.

First the zinger. The reader noted that I indicated that the books of the library were manufactured in the fourth century; we know this because the leather bindings on the books had their spines strengthened with scrap papyrus (and is therefore called cartonnage) and some of these papyri were dated receipts. And so the reader’s question:


Just out of curiosity – what form of dating did the compilers of the books use, that would correspond to our “341 CE” and so on? I’m assuming they weren’t using Roman dates. But were the Romans themselves, in that era, still using dates “ab urbe condita”?


This is a great question, and I have to admit, I had no idea what the answer was! One of the advantages to being a scholar in the field of early Christian studies is that you tend to know a lot of people who are genuine experts in lots of specific areas that you, otherwise, are ignorant about. As many of you know, I have as a colleague Zlatko Plese (with whom I have co-authored/edited two books that give fresh translations, with introductions, of the Apocryphal Gospels). Zlatko has several areas of deep expertise: Greco-Roman religion; Greco-Roman philosophy (he’s especially an expert on Plutarch); Gnosticism; and the Nag Hammadi Library. So rather than fumbling around for an answer, I simply asked Zlatko the question. Here is what he said in reply:

There are very few dates recorded in the papyrus scraps from the NHC bindings—they all belong to the mid-fourth century and are confined to the ‘cartonnage’ of Codex VII. There is a book dedicated to these papyrus remnants: J. W. B. Barns, G. M. Browne, and J.-C. Shelton, Nag Hammadi Codices: Greek and Coptic Papyri from the Cartonnage of the Covers. Leiden: Brill, 1981.

From what I could see checking the incomplete Google version of the book, there are three types of dating used in these papyri: (i) a couple of references to regnal years (Constans and Constantius II; Aurelian or Domitius Domitianus); (ii) four references to consuls ranging from 341 to 348 (consular dating is used in formal dating clauses), and (iii) indiction years (three times). The material as a whole can be dated, mostly on the paleographical basis, between the late 3rd and mid-4th century.

Thank you Zlatko! Now, just to unpack his answer a bit:

(i) a regnal year refers to the year in which a ruler – in this case, an emperor – was ruling. So if someone writes that an event happened in the “second year of the rule of Constans,” and you know what year Constans started his rule, then you have your date;

(ii) consuls were the highest ranking administrators in Rome, appointed annually, and we know the dates of the various consuls over the centuries, so if someone names a consul in order to establish the date, we can convert that to dates we’re familiar with (e.g. a certain year CE) ;

(iii) indiction years are based on a chronological cycle of taxes on land and agriculture in Egypt, so if an indiction year is stated, it is possible, again, to convert the dates into something we know.

OK, then, so now we know. And now a question I actually can answer (I think…)


What does doubting the received story have to do with interpreting the documents that were discovered? Does the facticity of the account of the discovery have anything to do with the quality or trustworthiness or any other aspect of the documents themselves? Seems like a bit of a non-issue here.


This question was far more common among readers and is also a bit easier to answer. The short story is that the “Discovery Narrative” has almost nothing to do with the interpretation of the books in the NH Library, and almost nothing to do with their quality or trustworthiness.

I say “almost” nothing only because it is always important with archaeological finds – especially the discovery of manuscripts – to know that they were a genuine, authentic find. Otherwise, it is harder (not at all impossible, simply harder) to establish that they are ancient findings, not modern forgeries. We have seen that issue most recently with the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, as I’ve blogged about in the past. The discovery of that text has never been documented, and there are good reasons (convincing to everyone on the planet, so far as I know) for thinking that it is in fact a modern forgery. If it could be shown to have been uncovered in a trash heap of the 8th century during an archaeological dig of the year 1898, then those reasons would be discounted. In that case, it would appear to be the real deal.

With the NH Library, there is really no doubt that these are the real deal. Whichever discovery story turns out to be true, these really are ancient writings from early Christianity, most of them Gnostic texts found in books that were manufactured in the fourth century but that contain documents that were actually composed long before that. There are solid and virtually incontrovertible arguments that most of these documents were composed in the second century CE. And they are almost all (not entirely) Gnostic in character. (Not entirely because, for one thing, one of them is a fragmentary copy of Plato’s Republic; and some of them – most famously, now, the Gospel of Thomas – are being widely considered by scholars not to be Gnostic in origin.)

The interpretation of these texts is absolutely the overarching and driving scholarly interest and concern. So who cares about the “Discovery Narrative”? Well, historians are interested in all sorts of things of secondary concern. And this is one of them. How were these things found? We’d like to know. Why? Just because we like to know things! (And because, as I said, if they were actually discovered in someone’s basement where he stored many pages of ancient blank papyri and leather bindings of the fourth century, and there was a suspicious smell of glue and brewing ink coming from it, well, that’s something we would *very* much like to know.)

As a side note: the reason the date of the manufacture of the books of the NH Library matters is because that shows us these books were being read and, presumably cherished, in the time and place that the books were made. That tells us something about the history of Christianity in Egypt. And that’s something many of us are *very* interested about.

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2023-10-23T16:33:25-04:00October 24th, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, Early Christian Writings (100-400 CE)|

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  1. Jimmy October 24, 2023 at 10:48 am

    Hi Bart, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek are quoted as saying “ three early church fathers clement, Ignatius and polycarp quoted passages of 25 of the 27 books in the New Testament. Is this an accurate statement ?

    • BDEhrman October 24, 2023 at 7:23 pm

      Uh, no. Polycarp gives the most quotatoins, but he never ever identifies his sources. In other words, he’ll say something like “As the Lord said…” and then quote something that sounds veyr much like, say, a passage in the Gospel of Luke. But he never quotes Luke, or any other NT author, as an authority who has written an authoritative book. Ignatius doesn’t actually quote any NT book, though he does mention Paul’s letters and may well know Matthew, and either does Clement. (I assume they mean Clement of Rome, but possibly they don’t know themeselves which Clement they mean. The book of 1 Clement, as it turns out, does not claim to be written by Clement of Rome and doesn’t mention the name Clement, and in fact claims to be written by the Roman congregation). Short story, they’re just makin’ stuff up. But if you get them to respond and give you the evidence of what they’re claiming (i.e. passages where these three apostolic fathers specifically quote specific books), I’d love to know it….

  2. GeoffClifton October 25, 2023 at 4:34 am

    Another fascinating thread. I think there was another dating system, used especially in the Greek East, which was based on the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, ie. the such and such year after the first Olympiad. So it was a bit like the AUC dating system of the Romans. As the Olympic games weren’t banned until 394 AD, that dating system could have survived until at least then.

  3. pommylee October 27, 2023 at 7:24 am

    Speaking of discovered ancient libraries, how excited are you about the advancements in technology meaning we may be able to read the scrolls in the Herculenaum Library?

    1800 scrolls from a library coated in volcanic ash in 79ad

    Is it possible, maybe even probable that some or even one early Christian text could be in there? And if it was a Pauline letter or possibly a copy of Mark would this be the most significant find since??? And would a copy of Mark from 79CE settle a lot of arguments in the actual criticism community?

    Link to story

    • BDEhrman October 29, 2023 at 7:47 pm

      I”m extremely hopeful they can get full texts out of these things, but I doubt it. And I really doubt there will be anything Christian in there. This was a library of heavy duty Greek philosophy.

  4. TimOBrien October 28, 2023 at 11:56 am

    When you say that “the Gospel of Thomas” is “widely considered by scholars not to be Gnostic in origin,” do you mean that its use is not traceable to any known, Gnostic sect? Or that it includes sayings that are antithetical to known Gnostic tenets?

    If the former, why would this impeach the bona fides of a text that undeniably existed by the mid-4th century and AFAIK is widely recognized by scholars as being two centuries older than that (i.e., dating back to the ‘Golden Age’ of Gnosticism)? Even if unconnected with any identifiable sect, why would patristic authors have explicitly repudiated an inauthentic (or, at least, inconsequential) text? Res ipsa loquitur.

    If the latter, which of the 114 sayings in particular do scholars believe to be incompatible with essential, Gnostic beliefs? And in that event, how and why would Thomas have found its way into the Nag Hammadi collection — alongside genuine, Gnostic works?

    • BDEhrman October 30, 2023 at 12:20 pm

      I’ll be talking about the Thomasine Christians soon. The reason for thinking Thomas is not GNostic is that it contains no clear statement of distinctively Gnostic ideas. So it’s not that there is any anti-Gnostic material in it. It’s a question of why you would want to call it Gnostic in the first place, as opposed to something else.

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