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Mark Goodacre: Questioning the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library

A few days ago I posted about the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library, giving the remarkable story that scholars — for as long as I myself have been a scholar — have been telling about how it happened.  I also mentioned that my New Testament colleague at Duke, Mark Goodacre – who is on this blog and who has an important blog of his own, as well as the most important website on the New Testament on the entire Internet – has written an article calling this story into question.

I asked Mark if he would be willing to summarize his objections to the story as it is typically recited, and he has done so in the following post.   In my next post I will respond to his objections, and then Mark will respond to my response.  Isn’t scholarship great?

Here’s Mark’s post on the matter:



Five Reasons to Question the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery 

I am grateful to my friend and colleague Bart Ehrman for mentioning me in his blog in connection with the fascinating and compelling story of the Nag Hammadi discovery in 1945. I must admit that I have always found the stories of the discovery utterly gripping, and I have narrated them many times in the classroom. In fact, it was on one such occasion that I checked myself for a moment and just listened to what I was saying. Genies? A six foot jar? The discoverer’s mum burning the manuscripts to make her tea? Cannibalism and blood vengeance? I realized that I was telling this story not because I knew it was good history but because it I loved its exotic details. It was a little bit of The Arabian Knights in a story that I could tell in class!


So is it true? I have my doubts. Here are five reasons to question the popular account:


  • The Mystery of the Growing Jar: Like all good legends, the details get ever more impressive with repeated retellings. In the earliest versions of the story, the jar in which the manuscripts were found is just under two feet tall. In later versions, it grows to a remarkable six feet in size!
  • The people keep changing: In some versions of the story, two brothers (Mohammed Ali and Khalifah Ali) discover the jar. In others, their brother Abu Al Majd is the one to find it. Sometimes there are only two people present. Sometimes there are seven. Sometimes eight.
  • James Robinson is the scholar responsible for the detailed reporting of the find in several different versions over the years. But two of his closest collaborators, who were there with him in Egypt in the 1970s, were sceptical about his story. Buried deep in an abstruse footnote of an expensive volume of photographs of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, Rodolphe Kasser and Martin Krause contested Robinson’s story. They had “serious reasons to put in doubt the objective value” of points in his story, they said. In other words, they didn’t believe a word of it.
  • There are no recordings and no transcripts of the research conducted by Robinson in the 1970s. But a decade later, the alleged discoverer, Muhammad Ali Al Samman, appeared on camera in a British TV documentary in which he narrated the story afresh. His version has still more anomalies, yet more contradictions with the earlier versions.
  • There was actually a scholar present in Nag Hammadi not long after the discovery of the codices. He was the French scholar Jean Doresse, an expert on Egyptian Christianity. There are pictures of him in the area from the late 1940s. He had the instinct for how to conduct field research. He got among the people there and he did not ask leading questions. Unlike Robinson, he did not offer them whiskey or Egyptian pounds. He heard legends about blood feuds and the burning of manuscripts, but he attributed them to a kind of sensationalist tittle-tattle. His story is more lean, less detailed, and probably more historical. Several peasants, no one knew who, had found the manuscripts in a jar in that area a few years earlier. Sometimes history is a little less interesting than legend.


If you would like to read the full story of my doubts about the Nag Hammadi finds, it’s published in Mark Goodacre, “How reliable is the story of the Nag Hammadi discovery?”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35/4 (2013): 303-22




My Response To Mark Goodacre on the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library
The Contents of the Nag Hammadi Library



  1. Avatar
    John  June 20, 2015

    “The Mystery of the Growing Jar: Like all good legends, the details get ever more impressive with repeated retellings….”

    “The people keep changing:…”

    Isn’t this all a tad ironic coming from a Christian?

  2. Avatar
    madmargie  June 20, 2015

    It does sound very sensational. Sometimes stories grow and change over time…to make the story even more interesting. Think of the Bible stories.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 20, 2015

    Dr. Goodacre: I have spent a lot of time on your New Testament website and regularly follow your blogs. Thanks for contributing. I have to admit that I had my historical doubts the first time I read about the “6 foot” jar. I think your analysis illustrates what, for me, is the main task of Biblical research: separating the history from the “story.” In the case of the Gospel of Thomas, it is a really good story. Do most scholars agree with your five points? Thanks

  4. Avatar
    Kevin  June 20, 2015

    Goodacres scepticism seems justified but I’m not sure I see how the embellishments effect the find, or it’s import, or authenticity.
    The core story from Jean Doresse and Robinson are the same. Can one blame these people if the the most world renowned thing that happened to them got jazzed up with a bit of BS? How is it relevant to text?

  5. ZekePiestrup
    ZekePiestrup  June 20, 2015

    Whiskey, contradictions & a buried footnote! I love this blog.

  6. Avatar
    jlparris  June 21, 2015

    An interesting article on the same topic referencing Prof. Goodacre’s article is: Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount, “Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Library.” Journal of Biblical Literature 133 (2014): 399-419.

  7. Avatar
    Jason  June 21, 2015

    If, as Dr. E stated in response to my question on the last post, the dating of N.H. is secure, then are the details of the discovery really that important to scholarship? In other words, is it as important to ask/teach how many people found the allegedly occupied jar as it is to ask/teach how many people found the allegedly empty tomb?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2015

      The details are not very important for understanding the books themselves. But one always wants to know how artifacts were discovered!

      • Avatar
        Mhamed Errifi  June 22, 2015

        hello bart

        is it true that you suggested the gospels cannot be used as historical evidence for the existence of Jesus, because they are documents of faith.

        thank you

        • Bart
          Bart  June 23, 2015

          No, definitely not.

          • Avatar
            Mhamed Errifi  June 24, 2015

            no you did not suggest that or no we cant use gospels

  8. Avatar
    nichael  June 21, 2015

    No need to publish this comment, but there’s a small typo in the above: “The Arabian [K]Nights”

    [Unless you really were referring to the old Hanna-Barbera animated series in your class. 😉 ]

  9. John Dash
    John Dash  June 21, 2015

    Thanks to Mark Goodacre for giving us this. Back in January, there was a discussion about the same issues on Tony Burke’s blog. Nicola Denzey Lewis wrapped up her comments with this post:
    “As for the finds and find stories, yes, I think it’s possible that Doresse was also inventing. At least he was there much closer to 1945. His report is vague. The only thing we know for sure is this: that the codices appeared on the Cairo antiquities market gradually, over a period of around two years. They didn’t all come in one chunk. I think both Mohamed Ali and Robinson thoroughly discredited themselves for a whole host of reasons. Thirty years had passed (thirty years! Think of it!), and you have a ‘witness’ come forward who has been bribed — a classic case of ‘leading the witness’ — and who changes his story at every turn. Furthermore, there was never any physical evidence for the jar — which is described differently in different accounts (Mark G. points this out well). So. I don’t really believe there was a jar. I don’t believe that MA was the one who discovered the codices. I think they were robbed out from some site around 1943, mostly likely a tomb site. If pressed, I would also say that their excellent state means that they must have been in some sort of container, and if they were in a tomb, they were well protected from the bodies (books and corpses are a bad mix). This means, for instance, that they couldn’t have been from a trash heap like other books and papyrus from Oxyrhynchus. In the end, I think we have to be cautious and agnostic: they may have been together or separate; they may have been in a jar or a stone box; they may have been in a tomb or in some other protected place; they may have been discovered all at once or fairly gradually. That’s all we can really tell from the accounts and the evidence. All the rest is ‘apocryphal’ — haha!”
    Mark Goodacre replied at that time:
    “I think one of our difficulties is that we intuitively think that greater detail correlates to greater reliability/stronger memories. Thus many scholars simply bought Robinson’s story wholesale and simply restate it as a matter of course (including me, too, for some years) … imagining that it supersedes Doresse’s version. But in fact Doresse had a much better grasp of how to do good ethnographic research — he appears not to have asked leading questions or to have manipulated the audience and still less did he bribe them!”

  10. Avatar
    SteveWalach  June 21, 2015

    Bart —

    Mark’s streamlining and de-sensationalizing of the Nag Hammadi discovery brings to mind the central thesis of your latest book, namely, how memory aka legend is not wholly reliable in a factual sense. And these memories/accounts/stories about the discovery were recorded soon after it happened. If Jean Doresse is a “he” as Mark maintains, then your account – and the reckoning of so many others – needs major revising.

    However, what always surprises me are accounts about the discovery that fail to put it in its larger historical context. The discovery in December 1945 came just a few months after the end of WW2, the most violent, deadly conflict in all of human history. It claimed 100’s of millions of lives and caused a worldwide tsunami that upended longstanding political/military/ideological hegemonies. WW2 generated a wave of cataclysmic change whose ripple effects still reverberate strongly today and will probably do so well into the future.

    For the most part, the war was waged by Christian nations, yet Christianity did little to mitigate the violence and played at least an indirect role in the persecution and murder of millions of Jews.

    However, before the dust of combat had barely settled, never-before-seen, ancient writings – for the most part having a Christian or Judeo-Christian context – turned up accidentally, serendipitously, astoundingly … perhaps miraculously, in a cave where they had lain buried for more than a millennium.

    Was this a marvelous coincidence or was it a perfectly-timed cosmic hint? Maybe the Christianity that was so ineffectual in preventing or ameliorating WW2 and in at least one instance indirectly contributed to the slaughter of millions of Jews, maybe that Christianity isn’t exactly the message Jesus and his close contemporaries were trying to get across.

    The Gospels of Thomas and Philip and the Gospel of Truth make little if any reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus, which in itself gets the Jews off the hook. These gospels alone dispel the myth of Jews as Christ-killers because absent a narrative of Jesus’s life and death, it is simply not an issue.

    These gospels do not point their audiences to the salvific effects of a human-divine sacrifice. They each point elsewhere, namely within, which increases the element of personal responsibility with respect to realizing one’s spiritual needs, and while one is still alive!

    And in best-case outcomes, these gospels promise their audiences the possibility of a direct, meaningful and fulfilling connection with their creator, independent of all-knowing, doctrinal authorities.

    The provenance of the Nag Hammadi discovery is fascinating. A recent novel, “Resurrection” by Tucker Malarkey (yes, an unfortunate surname for a writer of historical fiction) is worth reading if someone prefers a novelist’s take on the discovery, which Mark tells us has already undergone more than a few fictional flourishes. “Resurrection” pumps up the intrigue but also gamely attempts to come to terms with the essence of the writing, in particular the Gospel of Thomas.

    Thank you, Bart, for returning our attention to this remarkable discovery. I wish, though, that Christianity as a whole was taking the hint, earnestly considering its contents – and their profound implications.

  11. Avatar
    gavm  June 21, 2015

    not believing a story because of inconsistent details, development of legend, suspect of bias and nothing being recorded till yrs after the fact? is this reasons to doubt the Nag Hammadi or christanity?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2015

      Nope. I don’t think any one should say it is! (Mark Goodacre certainly is not!)

      • Avatar
        gavm  June 24, 2015

        yeah i know. im just stiring the pot

  12. Avatar
    Jana  June 22, 2015

    OK. But there is usually a motive of convenience behind a lie including this one of magnitude. What would James Robinson have to gain by lying and/or embellishing the truth?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2015

      Fame, I suppose. But I don’t think that was his motive. I think he was genuinely interested.

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