Liberator of the Nag Hammadi Codices

As published in the July/August 2016 Biblical Archaeology Review

In memoriam
James McConkey Robinson
June 30, 1924–March 22, 2016

Jim Robinson—as he was known to his students, colleagues and friends—will be remembered for many things, especially as the liberator of the Nag Hammadi Codices.a


James McConkey Robinson. Photo: Warren Harbeck.

The Nag Hammadi Library consists of 12 ancient leather-bound books plus eight leaves from a 13th book. Peasants, who were digging for fertilizer, accidentally discovered the codices in 1945 buried in a sealed jar about 6 miles east of the modern Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi, which is located about 35 miles northwest of Luxor as the crow flies. Originally the peasants did not think the manuscripts were valuable, but eventually antiquities collectors purchased the codices. Ultimately the manuscripts were deposited in the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo.

Preserved by the arid Egyptian desert, the Nag Hammadi Codices contained 52 ancient texts. Written in Coptic on papyrus, the texts opened a window onto the diversity of early Christianity before the ascendancy of early orthodoxy in the fourth century C.E. These texts may in general be described as heretical Christian Gnostic writings, but they are much more diverse than that. For example, they contain texts from Greek wisdom literature, Sethianism, Hermeticism and Judaism. The religious stance they reflect is very different from what one reads in the four Gospels of the New Testament. They emphasize the importance of spiritual knowledge over material comfort. The author/collector of the Gospel of Thomas, for example, stressed that Jesus’ words contained secret knowledge and wrote, “Whoever discovers the explanation of these sayings will never die” (Saying 1).

In the Hebrew Bible, Sophia (Wisdom) is personified as a confidante and collaborator with God; she knew things hidden from the foundation of the world (Isaiah 48:6; Psalm 78:2–3), and she passes that gnosis (knowledge) into holy souls in every generation (Wisdom 7:26–27). Jesus was believed to be one of those select few (Luke 7:33–35). To Christian Gnostics, this secret knowledge was the key to salvation—not faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christian Gnostics thus placed a high value on Jesus’ sayings.

Condemned by the Christian Church as heresy in the fourth century C.E., Christian Gnosticism slowly died. Many of its books were banned, burned and lost to posterity—that is, until the cache at Nag Hammadi was discovered. These codices date to the mid-fourth century C.E.—with some texts written as early as the first or second century C.E.


Discovered in 1945, the Nag Hammadi Library consists of 12 leather-bound volumes, plus eight leaves from a 13th book. Dated to the mid-fourth century C.E., these codices contain more than 50 ancient texts written in Coptic—with some of the texts themselves dated as early as the second century C.E. The texts at Nag Hammadi describe a variety of Gnostic viewpoints. Some of these Christian Gnostic texts present stories and views of Jesus that differ—and sometimes contradict—the New Testament. Since Christian Gnosticism was declared a heresy by the Church in the fourth century C.E., these differences are not surprising. Photo: Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont, California.

One would think that a discovery of ancient texts, which had been lost to us for more than a millennium and a half, would be made public quickly, but that was not to be the case. When the codices came to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, the museum director and the Egyptian Department of Antiquities permitted first only French and then only West German scholars to study the texts.1 In the first 15 years after the discovery, only the Gospel of Thomas had been published (1959). At first early orthodoxy had stopped the spread of these texts; now, a monopoly of a few European scholars held control over their translation and publication.


A complete copy of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas—containing 114 sayings of Jesus—was found among the Nag Hammadi Codices.

Jim Robinson stepped into this situation in 1965, and five years later he managed to break the monopoly’s exclusive hold on the Nag Hammadi Codices.2 Before we explore how he broke the monopoly, let’s look at the course of his career and see how he became equipped to break it.

Jim was born into a traditional Christian home. His father, William Childs Robinson, was a distinguished conservative theologian who taught Church history and polity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Jim graduated from Davidson College (summa cum laude) in 1945 with a degree in Classics and from Columbia Theological Seminary (magna cum laude) in 1946 with a Bachelor of Divinity.

Following in his father’s footsteps, in 1947 he enrolled in the University of Basel in Switzerland, where he studied with Karl Barth and Oscar Cullmann, and in 1952 he earned a Doctorate of Theology (summa cum laude) in contemporary theology. His thesis was supervised by Karl Barth; it was never published. Just before graduating, Jim spent a semester (1950–1951) in Marburg, Germany, attending lectures by Rudolf Bultmann on the Book of 1 Corinthians and Hellenistic religions during the height of the demythologizing controversy in the Protestant Church in Germany. This experience became formative for Jim, and his subsequent career followed in the tradition of Bultmann rather than Barth.

In 1952 Jim began teaching Biblical theology at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and simultaneously he completed a Doctorate of Theology at Princeton University (1955). His Princeton thesis, supervised by the German scholar Otto Piper, was later published as The Problem of History in Mark (1957). In 1958 Jim moved to Claremont, California, where he taught theology and New Testament at the Claremont School of Theology. In 1964 he became the Arthur Letts, Jr., Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University, where he founded the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity (1968) and held the position of director until his retirement in 1999.

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Several of Jim’s achievements—including his research about the historical Jesus and the early Christian Sayings Gospel Q—helped shape the academic study of the New Testament in the 20th century. He became involved in the quest for the historical Jesus—a branch of Biblical studies that applies critical historical methods to the New Testament to reconstruct the teachings and career of the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth.b Jim’s A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (1959) has been described as giving “definition and nomenclature to an entire theological movement”—the new quest for the historical Jesus.3

Later Jim would join the controversial Jesus Seminar, a group of New Testament scholars who classified the historical accuracy of the various sayings and deeds of Jesus in the New Testament.

Additionally Jim studied the hypothetical early Sayings Gospel Q (the first letter of the German word Quelle, which means source).c Many scholars think that the Sayings Gospel Q was a written collection of Jesus’ sayings. There are numerous agreements, as well as disagreements, between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). The current dominant theory is that Mark was written before the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and in turn the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both independently used the Gospel of Mark as a source while writing their gospels. However, additional material with a high degree of similarity appears in both Matthew and Luke that does not appear in Mark. Most scholars theorize that these additional agreements in Matthew and Luke can be traced to the same source—Q. Therefore, the dominant theory in the guild is that the authors of Matthew and Luke used both the written sources of the Gospel of Mark and the Sayings Gospel Q when they wrote their gospels. No copy of Q has ever been found, but scholars have attempted to reconstruct this source—with Jim Robinson spearheading the project. Jim’s International Q Project, sponsored jointly by the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity and the Society of Biblical Literature, aimed at establishing a critical Greek text of the Gospel Q. This project published a single volume—intended to serve as a standard reference tool in the discipline for the study of Q—in 2000.

Jim received many honors for his scholarly achievements—in particular, for fostering collaborative research and publication and for encouraging dialogue between American and European scholars. As mentioned above, however, his signal achievement was breaking the European monopoly holding up the publication of the Nag Hammadi Codices.

Discovered in 1945 and deposited in the Coptic Museum in Cairo on June 8, 1952, the Nag Hammadi Codices were kept under lock and key. From that time the Egyptian Department of Antiquities permitted only French scholars and then—after the Suez Crisis of 1956 that severed diplomatic ties between France and Egypt—only West German scholars to access the codices.4 During 1965–1966 Jim went to Cairo to see the manuscripts, but he was refused access. The German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, however, granted him permission to transcribe the Coptic texts from the photographs in its possession. To see photographs of the bulk of the manuscripts, Jim had to go to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris. His question to the UNESCO official as to whether or not their photographs were in publishable condition led to his being given an office and access to the material (half of the collection in photographic prints and half in negatives) to use over the weekend and, hence, to answer his own question and provide UNESCO a report. He immediately found a photography shop to make photographs from the negatives, while he himself took photographs of the prints. He returned the prints and negatives the following Monday morning—but kept the copies he had made for his own study.

He later admitted that such “unorthodox methods” gave him “pangs of conscience,” but in this situation “the end justified the means.”5 As a result, using Jim’s photographs, the Coptic Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity with its team of young American translators made critical transcriptions and draft translations of the texts and circulated them privately in Europe and America with a stamp on each page cautioning the users that they had no publication rights (and neither did the American team). Circulating the transcriptions effectively broke the European monopoly on the Nag Hammadi Codices by 1970.6

In 1970 UNESCO appointed Jim as the American Representative and Permanent Secretary of the UNESCO International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices. From 1971 to 1977, Jim led an American team to assist the Technical Sub-Committee of the International Committee in reconstructing and photographing the Nag Hammadi texts. In 1977 The Facsimile Edition and an English translation were published simultaneously. The manuscripts finally entered the public domain—breaking the last vestiges of the monopoly.7

Jim also played a small role in the breaking of the monopoly on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Having been discovered two years later than the Nag Hammadi Library in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls too were held up by a monopoly of international scholars who delayed publication. Jim entered into a venture with Robert Eisenman to publish a two-volume facsimile edition of all the unpublished fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, before his and Eisenman’s work was published (1991) to challenge the monopoly, William A. Moffett, the director of the Huntington Library in southern California, where negatives of the scrolls had been placed for safe-keeping, announced in late 1990 that the negatives in the Huntington Library would be made “accessible to the scholarly public without restrictions.”8 Moffett’s decision—along with Robinson and Eisenman’s facsimile and the reconstruction of some Dead Sea Scroll texts from a private concordance of the Scroll fragments by Ben Zion Wacholder and Martin G. Abegg, both published by the Biblical Archaeology Society—broke the Dead Sea Scroll monopoly.9d

In his 90th year (2014), Jim’s final publication was a two-volume work titled The Nag Hammadi Story. Its goal was to tell just what happened during the 32 years from the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices to their eventual publication in 1977.10

The motto by which Jim frequently encouraged his students, Alles für die Wissenschaft (everything for science), is a fitting epitaph for a scholar who changed the face of New Testament studies by such significant contributions to the discipline.

“Liberator of the Nag Hammadi Codices” by Charles W. Hendrick was originally published in Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2016.

charles-hedrickCharles W. Hedrick is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Missouri State University. His most recent book is The Wisdom of Jesus: Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014).



a. Birger A. Pearson, Reviews: “Search for Fertilizer Yields Coptic Treasure,” BAR, January/February 2016; “Issue 200: Ten Top Discoveries,” BAR, July/August/September/October 2009; James M. Robinson, “What We Should Do Next Time Great Manuscripts Are Discovered,” BAR, January/February 1992; James Brashler, “Nag Hammadi Codices Shed New Light on Early Christian History,” BAR, January/February 1984.

b. “Jesus of History vs. Jesus of Tradition,” BAR, November/December 2010; Marcus J. Borg, “The Search Begins: The Fathers of Historical Jesus Scholarship,” Bible Review, Summer 2005.

c. Eta Linnemann, “Is There a Gospel of Q?” Bible Review, August 1995.

d. Lawrence Schiffman, “A Short History of the Dead Sea Scrolls and What They Tell Us,” BAR, May/June 2015.

1. James M. Robinson, “Theological Autobiography,” in Jon R. Stone, ed., The Craft of Religious Studies (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 125–126.

2. James M. Robinson, “Nag Hammadi: The First Fifty Years,” in John D. Turner and Anne McGuire, eds., The Nag Hammadi Library After Fifty Years: Proceedings of the 1995 Society of Biblical Literature Commemoration (Leiden: Brill, 1997), pp. 10–11.

3. Stephen J. Patterson, “James M. Robinson: A Biography,” in James E. Goehring, Charles W. Hedrick and Jack T. Sanders, with Hans Dieter Betz, eds., Gnosticism and the Early Christian World (Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1990), p. xxii.

4. Robinson, “Nag Hammadi: The First Fifty Years,” p. 8.

5. James M. Robinson, “How My Mind Has Changed (Or Remained the Same),” in Kent Harold Richards, ed., Society of Biblical Literature 1985 Seminar Papers (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985), p. 487.

6. Robinson, “Nag Hammadi: The First Fifty Years,” p. 12.

7. Robinson, “Theological Autobiography,” p. 132.

8. Robinson, “Nag Hammadi: The First Fifty Years,” p. 23.

9. Robinson, “Nag Hammadi: The First Fifty Years,” pp. 22–23.

10. James M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Story, 2 volumes (Leiden: Brill, 2014).


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  • Gary says

    There is nothing more annoying to me than scholars who sit on ancient texts, and milk them for prestige, career, publication one-upmanship, and other completely selfish motives. Their lame excuses only exacerbate their guilt. They have no place in the World to Come, for their denying the starving world the Word…

    For they have had their small reward, in the here and now.

  • nick says

    ancient apostate literature

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