Mohammed Ali al-Samman and his brothers had approached the man while he slept. Their mother had told them to make sure their mattocks were sharp: their target was the son of a local sheriff, and they needed to work quickly. Without a sound, they tore Ahmad Hawara limb from limb. They ripped out his heart, divided it amongst themselves, and ate it. It was the least they could do to avenge their father’s murder.
This is the bloody drama surrounding the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices in 1945, one of the most important archaeological finds in history, and a discovery with the power to change the course of the Christian religion. In my upcoming book, The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma, I refer to the Nag Hammadi discovery and its impact on how we are able to understand the theologies of important figures who shaped Christian doctrine in the first four centuries of the faith. Since matters related to this discovery will remain a constant topic of conversation at the Buried Deep blog, it seems appropriate to begin with a brief introduction to the NHC for unfamiliar readers…
A few weeks before their mother had sent them to kill the man who had made her a widow, Mohammed Ali and his brothers had gone on a scavenging trip. They had been looking for a kind of natural fertilizer in the rocky landscape of Upper Egypt. Bobbing on their camels in the heat, they’d planned their attack on Hawara for days.
Eventually, near the city of Nag Hammadi, they’d found some promising terrain, and began digging in the rocks. Suddenly: a large clay jar. Mohammed was afraid to open it. There could be an evil djinn, a demon, waiting for him inside; he might be killed or cursed before he could carry out his family’s vengeance. But the thought of gold also crossed his mind: a more powerful motivator than the fear of evil spirits. Mohammed smashed the jar open with his mattock (not yet a weapon of murder), and indeed found gold: flecks of bright dust rising into the hot Egyptian air like embers riding smoke. These were probably particles of papyrus. He had found a collection of twelve leather-bound papyri books, written in Coptic.
Mohammed’s brothers told him not to take the books. “Those belong to the Christians,” they said, “Nothing to do with us!” But he took the strange treasures home to his mother. They weren’t gold, but still, they might be worth something. Certainly his mother found them useful. Regrettably, it was later admitted that she had used many pages to start cooking fires. After her sons returned from the slaying of Hawara, however, the family began to fear that the sheriff, now looking Hawara’s killers, would come to search their house and confiscate the books. Mohammed gave some of them to a local Christian priest for safe-keeping. Soon, a historian named Raghib saw the books in the priest’s collection. After a harrowing drama, the texts made their way into the hands of antiquities dealers, and ultimately, into the hands of scholars.
The emergence of this “Nag Hammadi Library”, a collection of 52 fascinating Christian writings, rocked the academic world. The documents themselves were mostly from the fourth century CE, but the original sources dated back to the second and third centuries. They represented what appeared to be the long-lost writings of Christian sectarians whom ancient historians had referred to as “Gnostics,” mystics who claimed to hold a secret knowledge (gnosis) of God. Until this discovery, accounts of what “Gnostic” Christians believed had been confined to the damning reports of their theological enemies. Christian apologists like Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202 CE), Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 CE), and Tertullian of Carthage (155-240 CE), had written detailed treatises against these Christians in attempts to expose their theology as a corruption of true Christian doctrine. By comparing these writer’s descriptions of what the Gnostics believed with the Nag Hammadi texts, scholars were able to confirm that the works discovered by Mohammed Ali indeed belonged to these mysterious and condemned Christians.
Dutch scholar Gilles Quispel, and French scholar H. C. Puech were among the first to dissect and edit the writings of the NHC, revealing such now-famous works as The Gospel of Thomas. Other scholars, like the American Elaine Pagels, wrote best-selling books to introduce these writings to the wider public. For the first time, Gnostic thought was able to be analyzed without the bias of the ancient heresiologists. But most importantly, the NHC challenged the traditional, official-story of Church history.
Most Christians today have been led to believe that Christian “orthodoxy” has always existed, that all legitimate Christians have always taught the same thing. According to this narrative, the doctrines later preached by the fourth century catholics as being fundamental to the faith had been originally taught by the first century Apostles of Jesus, surviving in the care of the proto-orthodox bishops until later heresies came to challenge it. But the NHC provided a different picture: they emphasized a Christianity which was diverse from the beginning. The first two centuries of the religion must not have enjoyed an established and monolithic “orthodoxy” which authoritatively defined the beliefs of all Christians. Those who called themselves Christians in the earliest centuries entertained a variety of beliefs, practices, and organizational structures, and the “proto-orthodox” framework was solidified partly in response to this diversity. In essence, the “Catholic” Christianity which emerged from the ashes of the fourth century had only, through their polemical histories, made it look like they had always been the sole guardians of the Church’s message. The diversity and early date of the sources of the NHC thus redefined what it meant to be a Christian in the first three hundred years after Jesus. The possibility was opened that the “fundamental” doctrines of the so-called ecumenical councils may not have always been so fundamental after all.
To say that the discovery of the NHC was important for not only ecclesiastical but biblical studies would be an understatement. To say that it has already changed the world, would unfortunately be an inflation of its impact. While in academic circles, the consequences of those discoveries have continued to propose revisions to traditional interpretations of Church history, that pressure towards revision has not yet trickled down into the concerns of mainstream religionists. Make no mistake, the Nag Hammadi discovery still contains within it the raw, elemental power of revolution. As Gilles Quispel promised Mohammed Ali when he met him in Egypt: “Your discovery will change the mind of millions.” But more than seventy years later, we still wait expectantly for that wide change.
Incredibly, just after the finding at Nag Hammadi, another archaeological revelation stunned the globe in 1946/47: the epoch-making discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran. The recovery of the DSS, a collection of OT manuscripts and sectarian Jewish writings from the first century CE, was the only event that could ever overshadow the NHC. Just as the NHC had challenged understandings of early Christianity, the DSS redefined what it meant to be Jewish in the first century: the apocalyptic language and ideas in those Jewish documents demonstrated a shocking affinity with the peculiar brand of “Jewish-Christianity” exhibited by Jesus and his earliest disciples in the New Testament.
Thus two forces were working from opposite directions towards the historical Jesus: the DSS were starting with first century Judaism and working forward to reveal the nature of the earliest Jesus community, and the NHC were starting with the fourth century Christian world of the Gentiles and working backward towards the same goal. What sort of original Christianity would be discovered between them? What sort of Jesus?
Though seventy years have passed, there is still much work to be done here. Considering the persistence of the official story about Church history among Christians, one begins to feel like the DSS and the NHC have not yet had their chance to shock the wider world. It is now up to us to continue to dig deep into the forgotten history these books represent, and introduce others to whatever it tell us about the state of Christianity today, and where it needs to go from here.
Looking back, perhaps Mohammed Ali did unleash a djinn after all when he smashed open that clay jar in the desert: an insatiable spirit with the hidden power to transform Christendom. But will it ever get the chance? Or will Nag Hammadi remain a ghost haunting orthodox history, forever groaning for change?
In future blogs, and in my upcoming book, we will continue to explore the secret, Gnostic, narrative lurking behind Christianity, and what it means for traditional beliefs about the Church, humanity, Jesus of Nazareth, and our own thrilling place in God’s history.
Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), pp. xiii-xxiii.
Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1975), pp. 34-52.
Marvin W. Meyer (ed.), The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: Revised and Updated (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009).
Willis Barnstone, Marvin Meyer (ed.), The Gnostic Bible (London: Shambala, 2003), pp. 1-19.
Ron Cameron (ed.), The Other Gospels (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982).