Biblical Archeology Course 6, Lesson 3
Nag Hammâdi Library
Nag Hammâdi (Arabic نجع حمادي), is ), is a city in Upper Egypt. Nag Hammâdi was known as Chenoboskion (Greek Χηνοβόσκιον) in classical antiquity, meaning “geese grazing grounds”. It is located on the west bank of the Nile in the Qena Governorate, about 80 kilometres north-west of Luxor.
It has population of about 30,000, who are mostly peasants. Sugar and aluminium are produced in Nag Hammâdi.
The town of Nag Hammadi was established by Mahmoud Pasha Hammadi, who was a member of the Hammadi family in Sohag, Egypt. Mahmoud Pasha Hammadi was a major landholder in Sohag, and known for his strong opposition to the British occupation.
Mahmoud Pasha Hammadi created Nag Hammadi for the indigenous people from Sohag who were forced to abandon their homeland by the British occupation. In recognition of this, the new town was given the name “Hammadi”.
The Nag Hammadi Library: Nag Hammadi is best known for being the site where local peasants found a sealed glass jar containing thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices, together with pages torn from another book, in December of 1945. The peasants burned one of the books and parts of a second (including its cover). Thus twelve of these books (one missing its cover) and the loose pages survive. The writings in these codices, dating back to the 2nd century AD, comprised 52 mostly Gnostic tractates (treatises), believed to be a library hidden by monks from the nearby monastery of St Pachomius when the possession of such banned writings, denounced as heresy, was made an offence.
The contents of the Coptic-bound codices were written in Coptic, though the works were probably all translations from Greek. Most famous of these works must be the Gospel of Thomas, of which the Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete copy. All the texts have been public since 1975, and are available online in English, for example, at gnosis.org.
The Nag Hammadi library (popularly known as The Gnostic Gospels) is a collection of early Christian Gnostic texts discovered near the town of Nag Hammâdi in 1945. That year, twelve leather-bound papyrus codices buried in a sealed jar were found by a local peasant named Mohammed Ali Samman. The writings in these codices comprised fifty-two mostly Gnostic tractates (treatises), but they also include three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum and a partial translation / alteration of Plato’s Republic. In his “Introduction” to The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James Robinson suggests that these codices may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery, and were buried after Bishop Athanasius condemned the uncritical use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367 AD.
The contents of the codices were written in Coptic, though the works were probably all translations from Greek. The best-known of these works is probably the Gospel of Thomas, of which the Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete text. After the discovery it was recognized that fragments of these sayings attributed to Jesus appeared in manuscripts discovered at Oxyrhynchus in 1898, and matching quotations were recognized in other early Christian sources. Subsequently, a 1st or 2nd century date of composition circa 80 AD for the lost Greek originals of the Gospel of Thomas has been proposed, though this is disputed by many if not the majority of biblical matter researchers. The once buried manuscripts themselves date from the 3rd and 4th centuries. The Nag Hammadi codices are housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
Discovery at Nag Hammadi: The story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 has been described as ‘exciting as the contents of the find itself’ (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 48). Q In December of that year, two Egyptian brothers found several papyri in a large earthernware vessel while digging for fertilizer around limestone caves near present-day Hamra Dom in Upper Egypt. The find was not initially reported by either of the brothers, who sought to make money from the manuscripts by selling them individually at intervals. It is also reported that the brothers’ mother burned several of the manuscripts, worried, apparently, that the papers might have ‘dangerous effects’ (Markschies, Gnosis, 48). As a result, what came to be known as the Nag Hammadi library (owing to the proximity of the find to Nag Hammadi, the nearest major settlement) appeared only gradually, and its significance went unacknowledged until some time after its initial uncovering.
In 1946, the brothers became involved in a feud, and left the manuscripts with a Coptic priest, whose brother-in-law in October that year sold a codex to the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo (this tract is today numbered Codex III in the collection). The resident Coptologist and religious historian Jean Dorese, realising the significance of the artifact, published the first reference to it in 1948. Over the years, most of the tracts were passed by the priest to a Cypriot antiques dealer in Cairo, thereafter being retained by the Department of Antiquities, for fear that they would be sold out of the country. After the revolution in 1956, these texts were handed to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and declared national property.
Meanwhile, a single codex had been sold in Cairo to a Belgian antique dealer. After an attempt was made to sell the codex in both New York and Paris, it was acquired by the Carl Gustav Jung Institute in Zurich in 1951, through the mediation of Gilles Quispel. There it was intended as a birthday present to the famous psychologist; for this reason, this codex is typically known as the Jung Codex, being Codex I in the collection.
Jung’s death in 1961 caused a quarrel over the ownership of the Jung Codex, with the result that the pages were not given to the Coptic Museum in Cairo until 1975, after a first edition of the text had been published. Thus the papyri were finally brought together in Cairo: of the 1945 find, eleven complete books and fragments of two others, ‘amounting to well over 1000 written pages’ (Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, 49) are preserved there.
Translation: The first edition of a text found at Nag Hammadi was from the Jung Codex, a partial translation of which appeared in Cairo in 1956, and a single extensive facsimile edition was planned. Due to the difficult political circumstances in Egypt, individual tracts followed from the Cairo and Zurich collections only slowly.
This state of affairs changed only in 1966, with the holding of the Messina Congress in Italy. At this conference, intended to allow scholars to arrive at a group consensus concerning the definition of gnosticism, James M. Robinson, an expert on religion, assembled a group of editors and translators whose express task was to publish a bilingual edition of the Nag Hammadi codices in English, in collaboration with the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. Robinson had been elected secretary of the International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices, which had been formed in 1970 by UNESCO and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture; it was in this capacity that he oversaw the project. In the meantime, a facsimile edition in twelve volumes did appear between 1972 and 1977, with subsequent additions in 1979 and 1984 from publisher E.J. Brill in Leiden, called The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, making the whole find available for all interested parties to study in some form.
At the same time, in the former German Democratic Republic a group of scholars – including Alexander Bohlig, Martin Krause and New Testament scholars Gesine Schenke, Hans-Martin Schenke and Hans-Gebhard Bethge – were preparing the first German translation of the find. The last three scholars prepared a complete scholarly translation under the auspices of the Berlin Humboldt University, which was published in 2001.
The James M. Robinson translation was first published in 1977, with the name The Nag Hammadi Library in English, in collaboration between E.J. Brill and Harper & Row. The single-volume publication, according to Robinson, ‘marked the end of one stage of Nag Hammadi scholarship and the beginning of another’ (from the Preface to the third revised edition). Paperback editions followed in 1981 and 1984, from E.J. Brill and Harper respectively. A third, completely revised edition was published in 1988. This marks the final stage in the gradual dispersal of gnostic texts into the wider public arena – the full complement of codices was finally available in unadulterated form to people around the world, in a variety of languages.
A further English edition was published in 1987, by Yale scholar Bentley Layton, called The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations (Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1987). The volume unified new translations from the Nag Hammadi Library with extracts from the heresiological writers, and other gnostic material. It remains, along with The Nag Hammadi Library in English one of the more accessible volumes translating the Nag Hammadi find, with extensive historical introductions to individual gnostic groups, notes on translation, annotations to the text and the organisation of tracts into clearly defined movements. [GFDL Document1, and Document2 with GFDL Copyright]