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

A couple of days ago we enjoyed a guest post on the blog by Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament at Duke University.  In this post Mark provided five reasons for doubting if the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library – as that story has been recounted by scholars for many years – is in fact accurate.  Mark’s post was a summary of a longer, more detailed, and scholarly article that he has published on the subject.

I asked Mark’s permission to respond to his five points, and he gladly agreed; I in turn have agreed to let him respond to my responses.   Rather than asking you to reread his post, I have reproduced each of his five reasons here, and then dealt with them one at a time.   Mark will later post a response to each of my responses.

Let me say that I really don’t have a horse in this race, and my sense is that Mark doesn’t either.  We would both love to be able to keep telling the story, since it’s such a great one.  But there’s no particular reason for wanting it to be true, other than the fact that it helps make our New Testament lectures a lot more interesting.  But whether the story is true or not has no other major impact (or even minor) on our scholarship or lives.  Still, it would be nice to know what really happened.

My responses are given in boldface after each of Mark’s reasons, below.


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!

My response:  I completely agree that as people tell stories, they change the details, often making them more impressive.   We have all experienced that ourselves, as we have heard different versions of a story over time.    But….

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Contradictory Stories and Historical Method
Mark Goodacre: Questioning the Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library



  1. Avatar
    brendan.creaven  June 22, 2015

    I really hope Goodacre is right on this one. I cringe at the thought of what might have been burnt.

  2. Avatar
    Raemon  June 22, 2015

    Today’s blog illustrates how the gist of a story can be true despite conflicting details. Another example might be the resurrection of Jesus. Bart, can you distinguish these two for us?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2015

      Yes, you need to apply other criteria to decide if the gist itself is historical.

  3. Avatar
    mjordan20149  June 22, 2015

    I’m struck by the somewhat ironic resemblance that this discussion shares with scholarly debate concerning the New Testament in general and the Historical Jesus in particular.

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    Rthompsonmdog  June 22, 2015

    Thank you for this detailed rebuttal. As you said, the story of how the documents were found does not change what is contained in them.

    In the past, you recommended Dr. Goodacre’s “The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through The Maze.” I read that and found his arguments against the existence of Q compelling. Obviously you and most other scholars do not find the arguments compelling or you find other evidence for Q’s existence more compelling.
    At some point could you offer a rebuttal (or recommend a rebuttal) to his arguments from “The Synoptic Problem?”

    Thank you for all you do with this blog. It is a terrific resource.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  June 22, 2015

    My question would be, why would anyone bother to make this up? Exaggerate it, sure. Misremember it. The usual adding-on of details. But just confabulate it? Who would gain? The manuscripts were what mattered. Nobody got any more academic credit–or money–for coming up with a colorful story of blood feuds and etc. It didn’t make the provenance of the library any more credible.

    Is it implausible that people in this part of the world might engage in blood feuds? No more than it would be in Appalachia during the 19th century (and sometimes after). Does that mean we believe every story we hear about the Hatfields and McCoys? No, but we know stuff like this really did happen.

    The most amazing story I ever heard about a religious artifact was the story of how Joseph Smith found the golden disks containing the Book of Mormon–which he never produced, and yet people still believed him, and he founded a religion that exists to this day, with millions of followers, that for a time advocated and practiced polygamous marriage in 19th century America, and founded an entire U.S. state, and eventually spawned a Presidential nominee for a major party, not to mention one of the alltime great Jeopardy! champions, and a world-famous choral ensemble.

    I don’t believe there were any disks. But that’s not the part of the story that’s hardest to believe, is it? And it’s unquestionably true. When you look at all the thing we know have happened in human history, it’s very hard to say that anything we hear didn’t happen because it sounds improbable. Improbable compared to what? Alexander the Great?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2015

      Muhammed Ali would have made it up, if he did, for the goods he could get out of it.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 23, 2015

        There either was or wasn’t a police investigation into the murder of the man they had a blood feud with. That seems like something that could be confirmed. It also seems like something a man wouldn’t want to publicly talk about–killing, dismembering, and partly eating another man. I assume there’s no statute of limitations regarding murder in Egypt? If he could openly talk about committing such a horrible crime, that could be evidence that no such crime was committed. Or is there some reason he didn’t have to fear punishment? We just saw Robert Durst voluntarily participate in a documentary that essentially unmasked him as a multiple murderer. He didn’t need any money–he’s rich.

        It isn’t the most important thing–the knowledge we gained from the library is–but it is interesting how easily details can get confused. We know these people really existed, that the books were really found. And yet we’re debating what happened–in 1945–lots of people alive in that time period who are still here, though not for much longer.

        It sort of highlights the fact that even in the modern era, the study of history is complex and confusing, and it’s hard to be sure of anything. Even when we have live video of recent events, we argue about what they mean, put them in different contexts, say there were things the smartphone camera didn’t capture, details left out.

        Something happened. It isn’t just a made-up story. The books didn’t discover themselves.

        I’m not saying it’s pointless

        • Bart
          Bart  June 24, 2015

          No, I’m afraid there are no records that can help us. And yes, by far the most important matter is what is in the books, not how they were discovered.

  6. Avatar
    Judith  June 22, 2015

    Thanks for keeping the blog vibrant and interesting even when away on a trip!

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 22, 2015

    I’m getting a kick out of this. I can’t help thinking of how *you* claim that there being multiple versions of the “empty tomb” story (differing in how many women were there, what they saw, what they were told to do, what they later *did* do) makes the “gist” of the story unbelievable!

    Yes, I know Paul didn’t mention it in that Epistle in which he cites “appearances” of Jesus as proofs of the Resurrection. But if the “empty tomb” story had been circulating for years, the people to whom he was writing would already have known about it.

    And it certainly wasn’t “proof” of anything! I myself think that if the tomb was found empty, it was because interment of Jesus’s body there had never been intended as permanent. It might have been moved to a location provided by, say, a sympathetic rabbi, on condition it be kept secret.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2015

      No, the multiple stories of the tomb don’t make it unbelievable. They show that not all of them can be true historically. Whether or not there was an empty tomb has to be decided on other grounds. (See my book How Jesus Became God to see what the grounds for doubting it are)

    • Avatar
      godspell  June 23, 2015

      To me, Paul not mentioning the tomb–or the virgin birth–seems like evidence that those stories had not yet taken root in the overall Christian community. Paul must have heard a lot of stories, many of which conflicted with each other, and he was wary of committing himself to one version of events–he mainly stuck with the details everyone agreed on, and kept the story as simple as possible.

      To him, the Jesus he saw in his imagination–and reportedly in his vision on the road to Damascus–was the Jesus that really mattered. He knew there had been a real flesh and blood man, he even met his brother James, but never having known Jesus, he was free to come up with his own conception of who and what and why Jesus really was.

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    RonaldTaska  June 22, 2015

    Points 1, 2, and 4 in this discussion seem very similar to a discussion about whether the Gospels are completely historical, have a historical “gist” with elaborated incidental details, or are completely fiction. I think in those Gospel debates one usually looks for discrepancies in the different accounts or implausible accounts.

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    rbrtbaumgardner  June 22, 2015

    Seems like the problems with the story of the Nag Hammadi discovery are much like the problems with determining the historical Jesus. About the Nag Hammadi discovery–Is there a fundamentally different story to account for it that is more plausible and better supported?

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    dtkline  June 23, 2015

    Even so, 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. (Sorry to be harrumphing at this.)

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2015

      The story of the discovery has no bearing on how the documents are to be interpreted.

  11. Avatar
    Yvonne  June 23, 2015

    I do not think that Brian Williams is a very good comparison.

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    UMRevChris  June 23, 2015

    Interesting – but aren’t Mark’s reasons some of the ones you have for doubting the historicity of the Gospel stories? Would love to see a discussion of the similarities and differences.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2015

      Great question! I’ll blog on this. (the differences between accounts show that they cannot all be historically accurate; the fact there re differences does not mean that something like the story actually happened; that needs to be shown on other grounds)

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    Jana  June 23, 2015

    The aspect I liked most about an intriguing story is the reported skeleton(s) next to the urn … dead men tell no tales or is it lies ? 🙂

    • bnongbri
      bnongbri  June 24, 2015

      Hi Jana,
      The skeleton is an interesting detail. I think that is part of what is at stake in whether or not the “traditional” account of the Nag Hammadi find is reliable. James Robinson argued that the Nag Hammadi books were stowed away to keep them safe for posterity. But if they really were found with a corpse, then they might be interpreted as burial goods reflecting some kind of beliefs about the afterlife. An article that dovetails with Mark Goodacre’s piece and explores the “burial goods” hypothesis can be found here: https://www.academia.edu/8105963/_Rethinking_the_Origins_of_the_Nag_Hammadi_Library_

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