Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices

Article excerpt

The Nag Hammadi codices, discovered in 1945, have perhaps the most compelling find-story of any ancient Egyptian book cache. When Mohamed Ali alSamman, both the hero and the antihero of this story, discovers that his brother has found a jar while digging for fertilizer, he immediately takes control of the operation. Taking the jar into his hands, the moment is tense. Should he open it? He is a cautious, superstitious man, clearly pious and afraid of jinni; yet he also loves gold, and as in those old Arabian nights tales, his curiosity gets the better of him and he smashes the jar, only to find-is it gold?!-pieces of golden papyrus, flying through the air. Little does Mohamed Ali know, when he takes them home and tosses them into the little barn attached to his mother's home, that he has discovered thirteen books of more than fifty "lost Gospels" representing a Gnostic library of heretical documents, carefully secreted away in the increasingly theologically oppressive atmosphere of late-fourth-century Egypt.1

But what if this famous story, which has become the canonical genesis for scholars of Gnosticism, is merely a fiction? Even the earliest and most direct versions of the story reveal unsettling inconsistencies. Elements are unstable, and the key witness, Mohamed Ali, himself recants and changes his account.2 While we may speculate on the reasons for these inconsistencies, it becomes difficult to believe Mohamed Ali at all, not to mention the orientalizing fantasy of his encounter with a papyrus-filled jar somewhere in the geese-grazing territories of Chenoboskion. Indeed, two prominent Coptologists, Rodolphe Kasser and Martin Krause, long ago went on record to distance themselves from the "official"-that is, much publicized and disseminated-find-story.3

We begin by reexamining different accounts of the find-story, noting the central instability of its narrative. We take this starting point because it matters whether this story is true: from it, scholars of Gnosticism have built up fifty years of work based on the assumption that back in the late fourth century, the codices were secreted away together in a jar in order to preserve them for "posterity." We argue here that this was unlikely to have been the intention of those who buried the codices. Rather than parts of a Pachomian library that had been intentionally hidden by monks to avoid persecution by the emerging Alexandrian orthodoxy, we suggest that the Nag Hammadi codices could just as plausibly have been private productions commissioned by late ancient Egyptian Christians with antiquarian interests. The books were later deposited in graves, following a late antique modification of a custom known in Egypt for hundreds of years. Furthermore, we contend that their eventual placement in graves may not have been coincidental; the arrangement of certain volumes reflects eschatological as well as antiquarian interests, meaning that at least some volumes may have been intentionally crafted as funerary deposits, Christian "Books of the Dead" that only made sense in the context of late antique Egypt.

I. FIND-STORIES AND SUSPICIONS

A full thirty years after the initial appearance of the Nag Hammadi codices on the Cairo antiquities market, James M. Robinson traveled to Egypt to survey the area and to see if he might track down the person who initially made the discovery.4 Robinsons efforts yielded a vastly entertaining account of the codices' discovery and brief sojourn in a "modern" Upper Egyptian village; riveting details included the burning of an unspecified number of papyrus leaves by Mohamed Ali's mother (horrors! how could they not have known their value?) and his family's acts of murder and cannibalism. In this modern, Western recounting of 1940s fellaheen life, we have not come far from W. Robertson Smith's 1889 Religion of the Semites (where the "birth" of Judaism comes from a primordial act of sacrifice and collective consumption of a tribe's totem animal in the desert),5 a text much beloved by Freud, who transmuted Smith's postulated sacrifice and consumption of the totem animal into a communal act of parricide in his Totem and Taboo (1913). …

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