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 – has written an article calling this story into question.

Years ago when I was discussing this matter on the blog, I asked Mark if he would be willing to summarize his objections to the story as it is typically recited, and he did so in the following post.   He’s asked me to add a couple of links at the end in case you want to look more deeply into 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 skeptical 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.

(1) Mark’s fuller article on this topic is available on his homepage at https://markgoodacre.org/NagHammadiStory.pdf.

(2) The documentary featuring Mohammed Ali Al Samman is available on Mark’s Youtube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8Hf4Om03Gw

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2023-10-12T10:37:17-04:00October 21st, 2023|Christian Apocrypha, History of Biblical Scholarship|

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  1. dsyeo October 21, 2023 at 7:24 am

    Hi Dr Ehrman,

    I’m always fascinated by your insight & objectiveness on historical Christianity. Though unrelated to the post, I’d like to ask if 2 Peter 1:16-18 is evidence for Jesus mythicism. It seems to show that people were claiming Jesus’ was a cleverly devised myth & therefore the author was arguing against that with reference to the Transfiguration.

    How do we know if Jesus’ “power & coming” (verse 16) is a reference to his first coming (ie. proving his existence) or second coming? And why should we think its not an evidence to mythicism?

    Pardon if my logic does not flow very smoothly, I am somewhat new to this. Thanks!


    • BDEhrman October 24, 2023 at 6:39 pm

      The author of 2 Peter is not saying that anyone calls Jesus a myth in the modern sense of “something that never happened.” The word MYTHOS in Greek means something like a “tale” or a “story.” And he does not say that there was anyone saying thta Jesus himself was (just) a story. When you read the verse you’ll see that he is referring to the second coming of Jesus in power, and explaining that this is not just a tale they’ve come up with. He himself knows what he’s talkig aout. (In the very next two verses he refers to *being* with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration; so he has first-hand knowledge about Jesus)

      • dsyeo October 25, 2023 at 9:46 am

        Just a follow up question: take for an example, we understand person A’s claims based on the reply of person B. Similarly, even though the author of 2 Peter does say that there is anyone claiming Jesus did mot exist, could his statement about ‘not following cleverly devised myths’ indirectly show he is replying to such a claim that there possibly were people who doubted Jesus’ existence at that point of time?

        Anyway, is ‘power & coming’ meant to be a hendiasys when read in greek for the second coming?

        Appreciate your insights as always Dr Ehrman!

        • BDEhrman October 26, 2023 at 6:50 pm

          No, he doesn’t seem to be dealing with that issue when you read his comments in context. (Quite apart from the fact that the claims of mythcists trace back to the 18th century). And yes, it would be a hendiadys.

          • dsyeo October 27, 2023 at 12:40 am

            So to summarise:

            -The response of 2 Peter’s author does not seem to be addressing any claim of anyone who believed Jesus did not exist at the time when he wrote the letter.
            -When read in context, the author of 2 Peter is referring to Jesus’ second coming, not first.
            -Mythicist claims started in the 18th century instead rather than the early church period.

            Am I right?

            Thank you Dr Bart.

          • BDEhrman October 29, 2023 at 7:44 pm

            Yup. The first recorded mythicists were at the time of the French Revolution, as it turns out.

  2. TomTerrific October 21, 2023 at 8:54 am

    Thanks, Dr. Goodacre.

    • dsyeo October 30, 2023 at 7:30 pm

      Hi Dr Bart (posting here due to the comment limit in the previous comment about mythicism), could you share some names of the very first mythicists and their works? I’d like to read up more to understand the origin for their beliefs.

      • BDEhrman November 3, 2023 at 6:07 pm

        The first wsa the18th century Constantin Francois Volney, in an essay in 1791 called Ruins of Empire. It was in French and I don’t know if it has been translated. In 1795, Charles-Francois Dupuis wrote a very long book (over 2000 pages) called the Origin of All Religions.). The first actual biblical scholar to make the claim was Bruno Bauer. He may have developed ghe view in his book the Origin of Christianity from Greco-Roman Cultures, but I don’t recall if it’s specifically in that book or not.

  3. RM October 21, 2023 at 1:04 pm

    The Nag Hammadi story is merely the “official” view. Teacher here bids us to ponder if this story “everyone believes” is merely a lie, a fabrication…let us be students of Truth to rise above the herd of scholarship that just took the story at face value and seek out the TRUE, secret, UNHEARD OF, REAL story behind these manuscripts…..

  4. lewrenchge October 21, 2023 at 7:13 pm

    Wait, what? You mean we can’t trust the historicity of oral legends? Stories might be embellished in the telling and retelling? Say it ain’t so!

  5. BobSeidensticker October 22, 2023 at 7:32 pm

    “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.”

    Yes, but remember the Resurrection story and the confusion about the people present at the tomb–different gospels give quite different accounts. And we know that *that* story is correct.

    Oh–wait a minute….

  6. AngeloB October 29, 2023 at 10:13 pm

    I started listening to Mark Goodacre’s NT Pod recently. I’m up to Episode 4 and I’m enjoying it!

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