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Recent Questions about the Nag Hammadi Codices

March 30, 2016

In commencing work toward a future project, I’ve come across a couple of noteworthy articles that question the widely-repeated stories (and there are several versions) of how the Nag Hammadi codices were discovered.  In addition to cautioning us (especially scholars) about passing on to our students and the general public stories of the find that have dubious bases, there are also some wider lessons to be learned.

First, this one:  Mark Goodacre, “How Reliable Is the Story of the Nag Hammadi Discovery?,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35, no. 4 (2013):  303-22.  Goodacre documents the variant-forms of the story of the discovery of the codices, and shows that they seem to have become more elaborate as time went on, becoming more elaborate decades later than the date of the discovery.  He shows also how Western prejudices about supposedly ignorant and uncivilized Egyptian peasants seem to have shaped and promoted certain versions of the story.  And he finally draws a few intriguing similarities with the variant forms of stories that we find in the Gospels (e.g., resurrection narratives), noting that we scholars are highly suspicious of the latter, but have curiously ignored and repeated uncritically the legendary features of the accounts of the Nag Hammadi codices.

Also, Nicola Denzey Lewis and Justine Ariel Blount, “Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices,” Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 2 (2014): 399-419, address the matter, offering a similar critique.  But their argument involves proposing a different likely account of where the codices were found, the likely reason the codices were buried, and the circumstances of the find.  And their argument involves also a proposal about who the ancient readers of these codices and texts were.  Their article I found especially intriguing.

For they seem to me to provide a further basis for the sort of view that I came to several years ago (influenced by proposals originally from Fred Wisse), that these texts weren’t the “scriptures” of this or that supposed version or sect of early Christianity, but, instead, probably circulated among loose networks of like-minded individuals who had a particular penchant for things esoteric.  I think that Denzey Lewis and Blount have now provided a strong basis for this sort of view of the 4th-century people among whom the Nag Hammadi codices likely circulated.  They also contend (and quite cogently, to my mind) that the codices weren’t actually found where the traditional reports put them, but, instead, were likely found by would-be grave-robbers among burials of individuals, these texts buried with them as a kind of “books of the dead” (in keeping with ancient Egyptian practice for centuries).

The implications are considerable.  If, for example, the Nag Hammadi codices weren’t composed by and for Pachomian monks, and weren’t hidden in the 4th century from “orthodox” bishops, and don’t, thus, reflect some variant-version of early Christianity, that’s quite a lot to take on board.  If, as Denzey Lewis and Blount contend, instead, these texts (at least in the 4th century) circulated among somewhat elitist individuals of esoteric tastes and rather eclectic reading habits, then these codices can’t really be used as they often have been to “re-write” 4th century history of Egyptian Christianity.  So, it will now be interesting to see how the scholarly discussion moves forward.  But, to my mind, these articles, particularly the Denzey Lewis and Blount study, can’t rightly be ignored.


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  1. Vincent Olivier permalink

    Hello. Is it just me or there is a strong gender/sexual bias in the research currently being conducted on those texts and nobody talks about it? To me, the feminist and/or heterosexual scholars’ obsession over the GoT authors/readers, qualifying them as “loose networks of like-minded individuals”, “elitist individuals of esoteric tastes and rather eclectic reading habits”, “early sect”, (proto or actual) “Pachomian monks”, is gross (misandrist) homophobia, and most importantly proves the very point they are unconsciously trying to refute.

    • Vincent: It is “just you”. To say that many ancient “gnostic” texts were the products of people of esoteric tastes and circulated among like-minded individuals carries no connotation of their sexual orientation, and for the life of me I can’t see how you presume that. Take a breath.

  2. Almost 10 years ago in his “Cities of God” Rodney Stark also noted that Gnosticism is more like an intellectual movement than a religious one. He made a strong, although briefly stated, argument that scholars have been guilty of misinterpreting it. Ismo Dundberberg’s “Beyond Gnosticism” would also be of interest too if you haven’t come across it.

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