Critical editions available from two collaborative projects
The Nag Hammadi Codices are a group of papyrus manuscripts discovered near the city of Nag Hammadi in southern Egypt, about 70 miles north of Luxor. The codices (i.e., bound volumes) contain writings that shed light on the diverse religious and philosophical currents of the early Christian period.
Reportedly, the discovery was made in 1945 by Egyptian farmers digging for fertile soil at the base of the Jabal al-Tarif cliff on the east bank of the Nile River across from Nag Hammadi. The codices were allegedly found buried in a ceramic storage jar. Both the precise location and circumstances in this chance discovery story are questionable, with some scholars suspecting that the manuscripts come from an illicitly excavated grave (or graves). They are now in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.
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The collection consists of 12 papyrus volumes and fragments of another one. They contain a total of 52 separate texts, which make up 48 individual titles, as some works appear twice, in different codices. These texts are all written in Coptic Egyptian, though it is generally assumed that they were originally composed in Greek. Although the versions preserved in the Nag Hammadi codices were collected and written down sometime in the mid-fourth century, the original works must have been conceived during the first three centuries of the Christian era.
The writings include noncanonical gospels, acts, letters, apocalypses, revelatory dialogs, and philosophical tractates. Although these illuminate ancient Judaism and early Christianity, they most importantly aid our understanding of Gnosticism, of which there were several schools. Generally, ancient Gnostics shared contempt for this physical world, which they accepted was created by the biblical God, but who they believed was a lower, jealous deity that resulted from a singular, higher, ultimate, transcendent deity. Understanding this—through a higher insight (gnosis, in Greek)—allowed one to liberate the transcendent divine spark trapped within the material world and imprisoned within the physical, human bodies of Gnostics, and let her return to the divine realm (i.e., achieve salvation). Modern interpretations of Gnosticism range from viewing it as a Christian sect to a religion in its own right to a movement transcending any single religion.
The most consequential text for New Testament studies is the Gospel of Thomas (see photo, top)—a collection of Jesus’s sayings that appropriately assumes its place alongside the hypothesized synoptic sayings source Q. Some other works reflect traditions of Jewish thought or are Christianized versions of Gnostic tractates.
Some scholars link the codices with early Egyptian monasticism, specifically the nearby Pachomian monastery at Faw Qibli—due to monastic documents used as stuffing inside the covers of two of the codices and ascetic overtones in several treatises. It would make sense for the codices to have been removed from a monastic library and hidden away in the time of accelerated evolution of the Christian orthodoxy and promulgation of the official canon of Christian Bible in the mid-fourth century that brought banning of apocryphal and heretic books. It has yet to be proven, however, that Pachomians either produced or read the codices. Imprecisely, the manuscripts are often referred to as a “Gnostic library,” but it is not obvious that they constituted a personal or institutional library, and the works they contain are not all Gnostic. For instance, a copy of Plato’s The Republic, edited to include some contemporary Gnostic concepts, was included among the writings.
Two collaborative projects have produced critical editions of the original texts: an English completed one appeared in the series Nag Hammadi Studies (reproduced in a five-volume set The Coptic Gnostic Library, 2000), and the French ongoing one in the series Bibliothèque Copte de Nag Hammadi. Translations exist in many languages, including English.1 Fourteen volumes of The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices (1972–1984) offer reproductions of the original manuscripts.
A version of this post first appeared in Bible History Daily in October, 2020
Nag Hammadi Codices Shed New Light on Early Christian History by James Brashler. Books written by good scholars seldom achieve bestseller status. When the book is about a little-known collection of manuscripts associated with heretical religious sects and written in a dead language that few people have even heard of, best-seller status is even more remarkable. It is a tribute to the skill and ingenuity of Professor Elaine Pagels (with a “g” as in gelatin), formerly of Barnard College and now on the faculty of Princeton University, that her book The Gnostic Gospels has been so well received by the publishing establishment and the reading public. Summarized in a series of articles in The New York Review of Books, offered as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection, and translated into several other languages, her book is a lucidly written account of the significance of the Coptic Gnostica documents found in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt.
Q by Stephen J. Patterson. The Lost Gospel. The very concept provokes a flood of questions. If it is lost, how do we know it ever existed? How do we know what was in it? Who lost it? And how was it lost? Perhaps most intriguing of all: Will it ever be found?
The Gospel of Thomas: Does it contain authentic sayings of Jesus? by Helmut Koester and Stephen J. Patterson. Scholars have long theorized that collections of Jesus’ sayings circulated in the decades following his death and that therefore they would be among the earliest witnesses to his message. Modern critical scholars have even been able to reconstruct one of these collections of sayings —we’ll tell you how later. In the scholarly jargon, this collection of sayings is called simply “Q,” from the German word quelle, meaning “source.” But a copy of Q has never been found.
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