The Story of the Nag Hammadi Library

The story of the origins of the Nag Hammadi texts is fascinating, dark, and full of intrigue. It is perhaps best told by Elaine Pagels in her monumental book, The Gnostic Gospels in 1979.

The scene is 1945 in Upper Egypt. Near the town of Naj ‘Hammádì is a mountain filled with hundreds of caves covered with burials dating back thousands of years. Muhammad ‘Alí al-Sammán, an Egyptian peasant, and his brother were digging for soft soil they could use for their family’s crops when they hit a meter tall earthen jar. They were initially afraid of the jar because it might contain a jinn, or genie. However, in the hopes that it might contain gold, they broke open the jar to find thirteen leather bound books (“codices”) written on papyrus leaves. They brought the books home, and tragically, their mother used some of the papyrus as kindling for their fire.

The leather-bound codices found at Nag Hammadi in 1945

At the same time, the brothers were seeking for the right opportunity to avenge their father’s killing. They waited for just the right moment when they attacked another man by hacking off each of his limbs, ripping out his heart, and devouring it. During a polic investigation into the murder, the brothers gave the books to a priest, who shared them with a local history teacher, who sent them to a friend in Cairo to determine if they had any value. Some of the texts got lost through the Black Market until they were acquired by the government to be given to the Museum in Cairo (The Coptic Museum), but several were smuggled out of Egypt and sold in America. This drew the attention of scholars from all over the world.

Originally, the thirteen books contained fifty-two unique, early Christian texts that were rejected by an early Orthodoxy that had emerged in the first couple hundred years of Christianity. Each of the texts were Coptic translation made over 1,500 years prior to their discovery. They were based on Greek originals. Some were considered apocryphal (“hidden”), or Gnostic (“knowledge”), or even heretical, especially once Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. They were likely hidden in the jar in the cave by monks from a nearby abbey seeking to preserve the texts from a violent crackdown on non-church approved books. Early Christian thinkers like Irenaeus complained of the many extent Gospels and other texts that were possessed by many, which conflicted with the goal of a universal, or Catholic, church.

The fifty-two texts represent an incredible amount of diversity in early Christian writing that is not found in the New Testament. Some are books of poems, others are alternative gospels that conflict with New Testament writings, some are theological dialogues in the vein of Plato, myths, and others. Some of them, particularly the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Thomas, date back to the writing of the four canonical Gospels. Some have likened these heretical Gnostic writings to a kind of mystical alternative to the orthodox church teaching: like Zen Buddhism, or Kabbalah in Judaism, or Sufism in Islam.

The Nag Hammadi texts are as follows:

The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles

Allogenes – The Foreigner

The Apocalypse (Revelation) of Adam

The (First) Apocalypse (Revelation) of James

The (Second) Apocalypse (Revelation) of James

The Apocalypse (Revelation) of Paul

The Apocalypse (Revelation) of Peter

The Apocryphon (Secret Book) of James

The Apocryphon (Secret Book) of John

Asclepius 21-29

Authoritative Teaching

The Book of Thomas the Contender

The Concept of Our Great Power

The Dialogue of the Savior

The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth

Eugnostos the Blessed

The Exegesis on the Soul

The Gospel of the Egyptians

The Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Truth

The Hypostasis of the Archons – The Reality of the Rulers

Hypsiphrone

The Interpretation of Knowledge

The Letter of Peter to Philip

Marsanes

Melchizedek

On the Anointing

On the Baptism A and B

On the Eucharist A and B

On the Origin of the World

The Paraphrase of Shem

Plato, Republic 588A-589B

The Prayer of the Apostle Paul

The Prayer of Thanksgiving

The Second Treatise of the Great Seth

The Sentences of Sextus

The Sophia of Jesus Christ

The Teachings of Silvanus

The Testimony of Truth

The Thought of Norea

The Three Steles of Seth

The Thunder, Perfect Mind

The Treatise on the Resurrection

Trimorphic Protennoia – Three Forms of First Thought

The Tripartite Tractate

A Valentinian Exposition

Zostrianos

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