For near fifty years now the “books that did not make it into the New Testament” have been a source of fascination, not just for scholars but for regular ol’ folk intrigued by the idea that there may have been alternative forms of Christianity, a wide range of seemingly bizarre beliefs and practices out there in the early centuries of the church.
In my previous post I gave the standard tale of how the most significant discovery of such books occurred in 1945 somewhere near the village of Nag Hammadi Egypt (and therefore called the Nag Hammadi library). The story I told has fallen into some disrepute over the past decade, for reasons we’ll see in the next post. Before dealing with that issue, however, it’s important to see what this library/collection of books actually is. Here is how I describe it in my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford University Press).
What was this ancient collection of books? The short answer is that it is the most significant collection of lost Christian writings to turn up in modern times. It included several Gospels about Jesus that had never before been seen by any Western scholar, books known to have existed in antiquity but lost for nearly 1500 years. The cache contained twelve leather-bound volumes, with pages of a thirteenth volume removed from its own, now lost, binding and tucked inside the cover of one of the others. The pages are made of papyrus. And the books are anthologies – collections of texts compiled and then