By James M. Robinson
(Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2014), 1,216 pp., $499 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Birger A. Pearson
This massive work tells the story of one of the most important manuscript finds ever discovered in Egypt—the Nag Hammadi Codices. The 13 papyrus codices inscribed in the Coptic language were discovered near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt in 1945. James M. Robinson, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Claremont Graduate University and author of this book, writes in his capacity as Permanent Secretary of the International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices, nominated by UNESCO and appointed by the Arab Republic of Egypt.
The International Committee held its first meeting in Cairo in December 1970, when it was decided that a history of the Nag Hammadi discovery and subsequent research on the manuscripts should be written. These two volumes constitute that history. Robinson refers to it as “a socio-historical narration of just what went on during the thirty-two years from the discovery late in 1945, via their initial trafficking, and then the attempts to monopolize them, until finally, through the intervention of UNESCO, the whole collection of thirteen codices was published in facsimiles and in English translation, both completed late in 1977.”
The story is based on Robinson’s notebooks in which he records in rich detail his travels and interviews and also correspondence among various scholars. All this is presented at length in English translation, with the French or German originals given in footnotes.
The manuscripts were discovered by peasants digging for fertilizer at a burial site at the base of a cliff, the Jabal al-Tarif, near a village called Chenoboskia (modern al Qasr), not far from the modern city of Nag Hammadi on the banks of the Nile River. The discoverers of the manuscripts did not think they were worth anything, but eventually they wound up in the hands of antiquities dealers. All but one of the manuscripts (the Jung Codex) wound up in the library of the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, and eventually the Jung Codex as well.
The French have played a leading role in the affairs of Egypt ever since the days of Napoleon, and this is reflected in the role of French scholars in the study of the Nag Hammadi texts. Chief among these were Jean and Marianne Doresse, Henri-Charles Puech and Etienne Drioton. Doresse made numerous visits to Egypt over the years, working on the Nag Hammadi texts housed in the Coptic Museum. Puech, a well-known scholar of early Christian history (but who didn’t know Coptic), was Doresse’s teacher and exerted a great deal of influence on the work of the other scholars. Drioton was based in Cairo and served as head of the Antiquities Service.
All that changed in July 1952 when a coup d’état was carried out against King Farouk. Relations were broken off between France and the Arab Republic of Egypt, effectively preventing travel to Egypt by French citizens. Puech was able to reassert French leadership by turning to Parisbased UNESCO with the help of another French scholar, Antoine Guillaumont.
French-language scholarship continues to this day, with the work of scholars based at the University of Laval in Quebec.
In 1952 Albert Eid appeared in the offices of the Bollingen Foundation in Brussels and offered a Gnostic codex for sale. It was purchased for the foundation at the behest of the renowned psychoanalyst C.G. Jung and brought to the Jung Institute in Zürich by the Dutch scholar Gilles Quispel. Of special interest to Jung was the Gnostic tractate, the Gospel of Truth, attributed by church fathers to the famous Christian heretic Valentinus. But there was a problem with the codex—40 pages were missing. These pages were in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. The codex was published in 1957 without these pages. The missing pages were published in a supplementary volume in 1961.
The best-known tractate of the Nag Hammadi collection is the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which opens with the words, “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.” The gospel contains 114 sayings, usually introduced by “Jesus said.”* H.-C. Puech identified three Greek papyri found at Oxyrhynchus in the late 19th century and published at the beginning of the 20th in London as parts of the Gospel of Thomas. Some of the sayings found in that gospel have parallels in the New Testament, but most do not.
American involvement in Nag Hammadi studies began with the Coptic Gnostic Library Project. Inspired by the publication of the Gospel of Thomas, Robinson resolved to become involved in Nag Hammadi studies. He began by organizing a small group of faculty and students at Claremont to learn Coptic, led by two faculty members at Claremont who knew Coptic.
Robinson was the Annual Professor at the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem in 1965–1966. During that academic year he made several trips to Egypt and spent some time in the Coptic Museum. He also obtained from UNESCO in Paris copies of the photographs of the manuscripts made in Cairo and brought them to Claremont.
In 1966 he applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a grant for research on the Nag Hammadi Codices. In 1967 he founded at Claremont the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity as a center for research in the humanities. He also organized the Coptic Gnostic Library Project as part of the Institute and enlisted a team of American scholars to join the project. In the summer of 1968, he convened an organizational workshop of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project to meet for two weeks beginning June 24, 1968.
By 1977 all of the Nag Hammadi Codices were available to scholars in the Facsimile Edition. Also in 1977, a complete English-language edition was published, The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Brill, Harper & Row). Two other volumes of the Facsimile Edition followed: Cartonnage (papyrus fragments found in the leather covers) in 1979 and Robinson’s Introduction in 1984. By 1996 all of the volumes of the critical edition of the Coptic Gnostic Library had been published.
The last chapter of the story deals with three seasons of archaeological excavations: at the site of the discovery and the burial caves at the Jabal al-Tarif in November–December 1975 and at the basilica of St. Pachomius at Faw Qibli in November–December 1976 and December 1977–January 1978.
We are all in James Robinson’s debt for making available to the public the 13 Coptic codices discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945.
Birger A. Pearson is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was one of the original translators of the Nag Hammadi Library. His research focuses on the roots of Gnosticism and Christianity, and he is the author of numerous books and articles on the subject.
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