July 06, 2004


One of the oddities about the Nag Hammadi Library -- the 50-odd Gnostic gospels that date to roughly the middle fourth century -- is the circumstances of their discovery. As I understand the story from James M. Robinson's introduction to the library and from the account in Elaine Pagels' work The Gnostic Gospels, a group of brothers digging for a kind of soil they used in agriculture came across a large jar. One brother broke it open, and found within the codexes, which he brought back to his home. The brothers were involved in some sort of blood feud over the death of their father; after killing the man they held responsible, one brother spirited the books away to a priest, who in turn gave one to a school teacher who later sold it on the black market; the remainder were eventually seized by the Egyptian government and deposited in the Coptic Museum there.

From a strictly archaeological standpoint, the discovery is totally useless. There's a term in archaeology -- provenience -- which refers to the disposition of an artifact in a site. A great deal of useful information can be gleaned not only from what you find, but where you find it, and what else you find with it. Case in point: finding a bronze figure of the Buddha dating from the 6th or 7th century in a Swedish shop devoted to fine arts is one thing; finding one buried with coins from the Caliphate and the Carolingians is an entirely different matter. The former tells us almost nothing of value; the latter indicates the extent of globalization in the age of the Vikings. (Such a Buddha, it's worth noting, was found.)

In the case of the Nag Hammadi find -- if it can be called that (I'm not entirely sure I believe the story, for reasons I'll get to in a moment) -- all provenience was apparently lost. It is very difficult to tell whether the sealed jar that contained the manuscripts was ever discovered or analyzed, for example -- neither Pagels nor Robinson mention this, which is odd, because potterty types are, generally speaking, fairly good chronological indicators, and might shed some light on when the Nag Hammadi gospels were buried.

I mention all this because a minor theme in both Pagels and, to a much a lesser extent, in Robinson's introduction to the collection of Gnostic texts is the motive of the unknown person or persons who took some pains to seal the codexes in a jar, transport them to the desert and bury them. Pagels rather explicitly suggests the reason was a desire to preserve them from being burnt as heretical texts by either Constantinian or post-Constantinian Christian persecutions; in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, for example, she writes of a potential reaction to Athanasius's Festal Letter XXXIX, which explicitly named the canon of accepted Old and New Testament books:

It is likely that one or more of the monks who heard his letter read at their monastery near the town of Nag Hammadi decided to defy Athanasius's order and removed more than fifty books from the monastery library, hid them in a jar to preserve them, and buried them near the cliff where Muhammad 'Ali would find them sixteen hundred years later.

Now, the texts themselves date from the mid-fourth century; but, unless I'm missing something (I may very well be -- Pagels is not an archaeologist, and there may be some archaeological research on the find of which I'm unaware), it does not necessarily follow that the texts were copied out in the mid-Fourth Century only to be buried almost immediately. It's equally possible that they were buried a century or more later. Absent the provenience, it's very hard to determine the date they were buried, and hence the circumstances that led to their burial (assuming, of course, that they were buried).

I mentioned some doubts about the story of the find, and the source of these doubts is Pagels' own account of it. In the aforementioned Gnostic Gospels, she wrote that Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman discovered the famed jar, "...near the town of Naj 'Hammadi at the Jabal al-Tarif, a mountain honeycombed with more than 150 caves. Originally natural, some of these caves were cut and painted and used as grave sites as early as the sixth dynasty, some 4,300 years ago." This passage suggests to me that perhaps the brothers were looking for something other than good soil for farming -- that perhaps they were looking for Egyptian antiquities. Perhaps Muhammad 'Ali had professional reasons for obscuring the circumstances surrounding his discovery of the jar.

Posted by Ideofact at July 6, 2004 11:43 PM

This is a strange connection of events. Pieces of the story are reminiscent of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

--A clay jar with books inside, found in a mountainous region honeycombed with caves.

--A little bit of black-market dealing before the find is publicized

However, there might be differences.

The Dead Sea Scrolls site became the focus of a careful search, eventually revealing much information about the religious community that lived at Masada and stored their scrolls in those caves.

Also, the scrolls that were found were turned over to a group of scholars who worked in Jerusalem. If I remember right, a noteworthy (and interfaith) group of scholars were involved in the study, and worked through a university in Jerusalem...

A last detail--the original finder was a Bedouin boy, looking for a lost sheep in the caves.

What about the discordant details?

--A blood feud?

--Farmers searching for soil (in a mountainous region full of caves?)

--Lack of provenience information

I wonder if the blood feud was more related to the search that discovered the scrolls, than to the death of the father...Or if the blood feud had anything at all to do with the events. But if it was entirely disconnected, why was it mentioned?

Posted by: steve h at July 7, 2004 12:18 PM

I think the blood feud is mentioned to explain how the codexes ended up in the hands of black marketeers. The brothers were afraid, after they killed the man whom they blamed for their father's death, that the police would search their home. They took the books to the home of someone described as a village priest (the name, if I remember rightly, appears to be Muslim, but I may be wrong -- he may have been Coptic) for safe keeping.

I guess my major point here is that it's impossible to draw inferences from story of the find. While the codexes are certainly an important find and well worth the scholarly attention devoted to them, the lack of provenience makes it impossible to draw any conclusions as to why or when they were buried.

It's also possible that the story of the discovery of the books is entirely fictional -- that they were not found in a jar, or found where we are told they were found.

Looters of archaeological sites have good reason to be dishonest about where they find what they find.

Posted by: Bill at July 7, 2004 12:38 PM