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.
Unlock 4,000+ Articles Like This!
You like this post? It's free! However, you'll need to be a blog member to read most articles here. Get access to Dr. Ehrman's library of 4,000+ articles plus five new articles per week. Membership starts at $2.99/mth and every cent goes to charity!
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.
Over $2 Million Donated to Charity!
We have two goals at Ehrman Blog. One is to increase your knowledge of the New Testament and early Christianity. The other is to raise money for charity! In fact, in 2022, we raised over $360,000 for the charities below.