July 07, 2004

Curiouser and curioser

Last night, I noted the curious circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library -- the collection of Gnostic texts that date to roughly the middle of the fourth century. Googling today, I came across this interview with Elaine Pagels that goes into some detail about the find:

ELAINE PAGELS: What happened is that one day in December 1945 some villagers from the small town of Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt, were going out to the cliff to dig for birdlime to fertilize the crops. Muhammad Ali al-Samman hit something underground with his spade and as he dug down he found a six foot jar with a corpse buried next to it. He was afraid to break open the jar because he thought there might be a jinnů

BLVR: A genie?

EP: Right. This is the land of Arabian nights, after all. But then he thought that it might be buried treasure so he smashed it open and realized to his disappointment that it was filled with ancient papyrus. He took it home and threw it on the ground near the stove and later his mother said that she used some of the papyrus to start a fire to make some bread. Not too long after his discovery, Muhammad Ali al-Samman was arrested for murder because he had killed the man who had killed his father in a blood feud. He and his brothers were waiting for the man, attacked him, actually cut him open, and ate his heart. It was blood revenge.

BLVR: Literally.

EP: They knew the police would be coming to take them to prison, so they decided to hide the books because having illegal antiquities was another crime. So Muhammad asked a local history teacher to take care of them while he was away. It turns out the history teacher took them to Cairo to see what he could sell them for on the black market. They were seen there by a French archaeologist who realized one of them was the Gospel of Thomas. There were many other secret gospels as
well, over fifty in that bunch.

It doesn't particularly bother me that Pagels omits from her account that, before the high school teacher got the codexes, they were first given to one al-Qummus Basiliyus Abd al-Masih, a priest, who in turn gave one or more to the high school teacher, who in turn took them to Cairo -- this is, after all, an interview, and some omission of detail is understandable. What struck me as odd is the presence of the corpse.

Pagels does not mention it in her account of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in her work The Gnostic Gospels. James M. Robinson, who wrote a more thorough account of the circumstances of the find, doesn't mention the corpse either. Obviously, this raises a host of questions -- was it a corpse or skeleton? If it hadn't decomposed completely, was it mummified (perhaps naturally) or was it of recent vintage? And if so, could the codexes have been buried alongside the corpse fairly recently?

If, as Pagels suggests, the Nag Hammadi codexes were buried by Christian monks to preserve them from the flames, it's unlikely they similarly would have buried one of their brothers with the books for the same reason. If Muhammad 'Ali did claim the books were found with a corpse --skeletal or otherwise (and there's no reason to credit his account), then it suggests rather different circumstances of burial than Pagels contends. It's also possible, of course, that the interviewer may well have misunderstood Pagels in transcribing her words, in which case I'd be very interested to hear what else was buried alongside the famous jar.

Posted by Ideofact at July 7, 2004 11:56 PM