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What Was Discovered in the Nag Hammadi Library?

I have started a short series in response to a question about the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, discovered in 1945 among a cache of documents near Nag Hammadi Egypt.  In my last post I gave the story typically recited by NT scholars for the discovery of this “Nag Hammadi Library.”   Some scholars have doubted the story, and we may never know the details.  What is not in dispute is what was actually discovered.

This is what I say about it in my undergraduate textbook on the matter.

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 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 bound together.  Altogether there are fifty-two treatises preserved among these volumes; but six of the treatises are duplicates, making a total of forty-six documents in the collection.  They include Gospels by such persons as Jesus’ disciple Philip and secret revelations delivered to his disciple John and another to James; they include mystical speculations about the beginning of the divine realm and the creation of the world, metaphysical reflections on the meaning of existence and the glories of salvation; they include expositions of important religious doctrines and polemical attacks on other Christians for their wrong headed and heretical views — especially Christians we would call proto-orthodox.

The documents are written in…

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The documents are written in Coptic.  But there are solid reasons for thinking that they were each originally composed in Greek.  For some of the books there is no question about it: among the texts, for example, is a small extract taken from Plato’s Republic.  For other works, including the Gospel of Thomas, we have Greek fragments that date from a much earlier period.   For some works, linguists are able to determine that the Coptic is “translation” rather than “original composition” Coptic.

The leather-bound books themselves were manufactured in the second half of the fourth century.  We know this because the spines of the leather bindings were strengthened with scrap paper, and some of the scrap paper came from receipts that are dated 341, 346, and 348 CE.  The books thus must have been manufactured sometime after 348 CE.

The date of the books, of course, is not the same as the date of the documents found within the books — just as the Bible (another anthology) lying on my desk was manufactured in 1998, but the documents it contains were written some 1900 years earlier.  So too with the Nag Hammadi texts: they were originally written long before the end of the fourth century when these particular books were made.  The Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas I just mentioned date from the second century; and as I’ve pointed out in an earlier chapter, this Gospel – along with others in the collection – was known to church fathers of the second and third centuries.  When, then, were the texts of these books written?  Obviously they were produced at different times and places (Plato’s Republic, e.g., in the fourth century BCE); but most of them appear to have been in existence by the second Christian century at the latest.  Scholars have engaged in hard fought debates over the dates of some of these books, especially over whether they were composed as early as the first century, before the books of the New Testament.  Among these particular debates, those over the Gospel of Thomas are probably the most heated.

We do not know exactly who wrote these books, or why they came to be hidden under the cliff of Jabal al-Tarif, just above the bend of the Nile, north of Luxor.  It is probably significant that a Christian monastery, founded by the famous Christian monk Saint Pachomius in the fourth century, is located just three miles away.  Scholars have been inclined to think that these books may have come from the library of the monastery, a view supported by the contents of the scrap paper in their bindings.  But why would monks have disposed of the books?   As we will see more fully in a later chapter, a significant moment occurred in the history of the formation of the New Testament canon in the late fourth century.  It was in the year 367 CE that the powerful bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, wrote a letter to the churches throughout Egypt under his jurisdiction, in which he laid out in strict terms the contours of the canon of Scripture.  This was the first time anyone of record had indicated that the twenty-seven books that we now have in our New Testament canon, and only those twenty-seven books, should be considered as Scripture.  Moreover, Athanasius insisted that other, “heretical,” books not be read.  Is it possible that monks of the Pachomian monastery near Nag Hammadi felt the pressure from on high, and cleaned out their library to conform with the dictates of the powerful bishop of Alexandria?  If so, why did they choose to hide the books instead of burn them?  Is it possible that they – the ones who hid the books in an earthenware jar off in the wilderness – were actually fond of these books, and decided to hide them away for safekeeping until the tides of scriptural preference shifted, and they could be retrieved for their library of sacred texts?  We will never know.

We will be discussing others of these books in the so-called Nag Hammadi library later, when we come to examine one form of early Christian Gnosticism, arguably the most significant, and certainly one of the most fascinating forms of Christianity that came to be “lost.”  For now, we will look at just one of the books, the one that has proved most intriguing and significant for historians of early Christianity, a forgery known by name from ancient times, which came to be lost only now to be discovered.  It is a forgery of the teachings of Jesus written in the name of one who should know them better than anyone, his twin brother, Didymus Judas Thomas.


Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library and Some Crucial Missing Parts!
How the Gospel of Thomas Was Discovered

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Comments

  1. BryanS  August 20, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, how closely does the Coptic Gospel of Thomas track the earlier Greek fragments? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2018

      One of the most notable things is that one of the fragments has a different sequence of the sayings. The wording is not hugely different though.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  August 20, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, FYI, I just bought the whole Nag Hammadi library for Kindle off Amazon for $2. Great deal for anyone interested.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2018

      And reading that can blow your mind! Check out the Apocryphon (Secret Book) of John!

  3. forthfading  August 20, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you think scholars such as Craig Evans or D.A. Carson have good reason to date the Gospel of Thomas in the late second century? I think you disagree with their conclusion, but do they have good grounds to base their findings?
    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2018

      I can’t think of a good reason, but am always open to persuasion! (They are both conservative evangelicals who very much want to prioritize the Gospels of the NT; I wonder if the “early dating” by others has led to a reaction from them?)

  4. ask21771  August 20, 2018

    How many countries did ancient Rome import things from?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2018

      Most of the imports coming into the city of Rome were from cities within the empire. I’m not familiar with any foreign trade, but possibly someone else can tell us?

      • Eric  August 21, 2018

        Romans trading with the Middle east beyond their empire (Persia/Parthia, for instance), and Indai and china (silks in the latter case).

        This doesn’t mean they trading directly with residents of those lands, but things did get passed along from the borders, inward, in the course of trade.

      • Lev
        Lev  August 21, 2018

        I’m no expert, but I hear the silk road supplied the Roman Empire with goods from the east. I also understand that pre-Roman Britain had good trading links with the Empire, especially in Cornish tin.

      • exPCman  August 21, 2018

        Seems to me (a sixty year old memory, I fear) that one day at Union, Dr. F. C. Grant mentioned that he had written/published (perhaps his dissertation … ???) on this topic, about Rome’s trade with Asian countries/cities/nations, with “India” sticking in my mind … although I never ran that down. I do not remember his mentioning what the items were that were imported from the western port-cities of India.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 22, 2018

          You were really fortunate to study under him. He was an amazing scholar.

          • exPCman  August 23, 2018

            Indeed so, but then he was part of the reason I chose to study at Union … along with John Knox and Chris Becker (and then W. D. Davies arrived, when Grant retired!) … and I also took courses with the OT faculty – Terrien and Muilenburg and Landes! What a team!

          • Bart
            Bart  August 24, 2018

            Did you study with J. Christiaan Beker? He was one of my main professors in graduate school — a real genius on Pauline theology.

  5. dwcriswell  August 20, 2018

    I know this is a difficult question to answer accurately. What is your sense on the probability of new finds of biblical manuscripts? I would think you would have some sense based on your knowledge of what has been discovered whether we are only likely to find a few new parts of manuscripts here and there, or there may be important new finds of new documents or perhaps copies of manuscripts earlier than we currently have. Do you think we have a good representation of what was written, or just small parts? Has everything we know of been searched over so much we are only likely to find a new document hidden in a jar somewhere in the desert or similar discovery?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2018

      I think it’s highly probably. In fact it haappens every couple of years. Rarely are the finds earth shattering, though. My sense is that future discovereies will not much change our understandings of the text, given the fact we have so many mss already.

      • Lev
        Lev  August 21, 2018

        My wish list of lost writings (in order of preference):

        1. Q
        2. The complete works of Papias
        3. Gospel of the Hebrews
        4. Paul’s Epistle to the Laodiceans
        5. The complete works of Hegesippus

        Surely you have acquired enough powers by now, Bart, that you can make this happen? 😉

  6. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  August 21, 2018

    Any plausibility to a theory that to preserve these documents they were also mindful of their historical significance?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2018

      It seems unlikely. Our own modern passion for preserving work of historical significance was rarely shared by ancients.

  7. Lactantius  August 21, 2018

    What is the name of this textbook, a book for undergrads you wrote correct? I’m not sure I understand, Didymus Judas Thomas actually existed? He wasn’t Judas or Thomas, but the twin brother of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2018

      It’s called “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.” Good questions! I will devoted a blog post to it, probably next week.

  8. DavidNeale  August 21, 2018

    Really interesting. I look forward to your remaining posts on the Gospel of Thomas. Doesn’t J.D. Crossan have some unusual views about it? Or am I getting confused with his views on other non-canonical texts like the Gospel of Peter? I also remember reading N.T. Wright’s broadside against it in “The Resurrection of the Son of God”. But Wright seems to have an almost obsessive animosity towards Gnosticism (though I know it’s controversial whether GThom can be described as “Gnostic”).

    Interestingly, I remember reading (perhaps here on the blog?) that the fact that the Gospel of Thomas is a sayings-gospel with no Passion narrative makes it more plausible that Q, if it existed, was a sayings-gospel with no Passion narrative. (Though as we’ve previously discussed, I was very convinced by Maurice Casey’s “chaotic” theory of Q. But I won’t derail by going into that here.)

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2018

      He dates it extremely early into the first century, allowing him to use it as a primary, rather than tertiary source for knowing the actual words of teh historical Jesus.

  9. Hormiga  August 21, 2018

    Slightly rambling here, but…

    — How much is known about the people/community that produced and ultimately buried the Nag Hammadi collection?

    — If it was a community, perhaps analogous to the one that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, they might have deposited more than one collection in different places in the vicinity.

    — Has there been a search in the area of the Nag Hammadi discovery for other such material? As I understand it, the NH collection wasn’t deep underground and was in dry soil. So modern instruments like ground-penetrating radar and perhaps magnetometers should be able to find more if they’re there.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2018

      1. It is much debated now whether it was members of the relatively nearby Pachomian monastery; 3. Yes indeed. They’ve found nothing despite intense efforts.

  10. Ficino  August 24, 2018

    Prof. Ehrman, this may be well studied already, but do any of the Nag Hammadi writings show concern with Aristotle’s notion of πνεῦμα in relation to the genesis and operations of human rational soul?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 24, 2018

      I’m afraid I don’t know . If you really want to pursue it, my colleauge Zlatko Plese could tell you.

  11. ditdine  September 2, 2018

    You mention that the manufacture date of the leather-bound Nag Hammadi books is known from scrap paper “receipts” tucked in the bindings, which were “dated” 341, 356, and 348 CE. What do you mean by “dated”? Was carbon-14 dating used, or are you saying that the receipts actually mentioned those numerical dates? I’ve read elsewhere (Wikipedia) that our system of dating was “invented” in 525 by Dionysius Exiguus as he tried to figure out the Easter calendar. So when did people start reckoning the number of years having passed since the birth of Christ? Was this already being done by 341, such that the scribe could just blithely jot the date down on the receipt?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2018

      They had actual dates written on them. I don’t remember off hand what dating system they were using.

  12. SidDhartha1953  September 11, 2018

    Would you post on the origins of the filioque in trinitarian theology? Are there earlier sources than the pseudo-Athanasian Creed?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 12, 2018

      I’m afraid it’s not something I know a lot about. (But my impression is that it was not a big issue until the 12th century)

  13. SidDhartha1953  September 16, 2018

    Is the Coptic translation of The Republic a fair representation of the best extant Greek mss? or does it seem to come from a variant text?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 17, 2018

      Great question. I don’t really know. It’s just a small fragment — not a large chunk.

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