On the outskirts of Nag Hammadi, Egypt in December 1945, a farmer was digging for fertilizer around the mountainous caverns of Jabal al-Tārif. After hitting something unusually solid, the farmer unearthed a skeletal mass guarding an assemblage of archaic books inscribed with esoteric writing. What he unknowingly discovered was the last remaining translations of the lost Gnostic Gospels, widely known as The Nag Hammadi Library.
The Nag Hammadi Library, also called the Chenoboskion Manuscripts, is a compilation of thirteen leather-bound spiritual texts that were initially sealed within a red urn and buried underground. Muhammad ‘Ali al-Sammán, the farmer who uncovered these written volumes, was reluctant to open the sealed jar in fear of an inhabiting djinn or spirit being released. After considering the possibility of finding gold, Muhammad decided on shattering the vessel and used his mattock to smash it open.
The contents were neither a spirit nor gold, but something of far greater value; a collection of early Christian and Gnostic gospels, some of which had been lost for 1500 years. The Library was comprised of 52 Gnostic treatises, 3 works of the Corpus Hermeticum, and a partial transliteration of Plato’s Republic.
The most famous of these works is The Gospel of Thomas, whose complete text has never been seen prior to the Nag Hammadi discovery, despite recovered fragments of previous excavations. Its controversial implications garnered the attention of the world’s theologians, causing them to reevaluate their understanding of early Christian history.
The Gospel proceeded from the perspective of Jesus’ unknown brother, Judas Thomas, who supposedly wrote down the parables of Jesus as he spoke them throughout his days. This non-canonical gospel took an entirely different approach compared to the New Testament Gospels, focusing on the parables and quotes attributed to Jesus rather than a narrative account of his life. It also does not emphasize the divinity, crucifixion, or resurrection of the Christian messiah.
The Gospel of Thomas was only one of many texts in the Nag Hammadi Library that contained unorthodox content incompatible with the current Christian gospel. Other contentious works included anything of Gnostic origin, as these texts did not subscribe to dogmatic theology.
Gnosticism asserts that “direct, personal and absolute knowledge of the authentic truths of existence is accessible to human beings,” and that the attainment of such knowledge is the supreme achievement of human life. Gnosis is not a rational, propositional, logical understanding, but a knowing acquired by experience.http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/nhlintro.html
Academics hypothesize that the manuscripts were hidden in response to the Festal Letter of 367 AD written by Bishop Athanasius, condemning all gnostic and unorthodox texts to be heretical fiction. Fearing their destruction, a Pachomian monk may have decided to conceal the collection from the torches of the church. Despite our best assessments, it is still uncertain how these infamous sacred texts found their way into the hermetically sealed jar that became their home for hundreds of years.
The discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library went unreported for a short period, as Muhammad’s family intended to sell the manuscripts independently and periodically. Muhammad had deposited his discoveries beside the family oven on a pile of straw. In an unlikely turn of events, Muhammad’s mother admitted to mistaking them for kindling, and proceeded to burn some of the loose papyrus in the oven, unaware of what secrets might be lost to time.
Eventually, the remaining volumes found their way into the hands of the Egyptian authorities when the farmer and his brothers were being investigated for avenging their father’s death. Knowing the police would come to investigate him for murder, Muhammad ‘Ali gave some of the manuscripts to a priest for safekeeping, but they were discovered by a local history teacher in the priest’s possession and sent to an appraiser in Cairo.
Sold on the black market through antiquities dealers in Cairo, the manuscripts soon attracted the attention of officials of the Egyptian government. Through circumstances of high drama, as we shall see, they bought one and confiscated ten and a half of the thirteen leather-bound books, called codices, and deposited them in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. But a large part of the thirteenth codex, containing five extraordinary texts, was smuggled out of Egypt and offered for sale in America. Word of this codex soon reached Professor Gilles Quispel, distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht, in the Netherlands. Excited by the discovery, Quispel urged the Jung Foundation in Zurich to buy the codex. But discovering, when he succeeded, that some pages were missing, he flew to Egypt in the spring of 1955 to try to find them in the Coptic Museum. Arriving in Cairo, he went at once to the Coptic Museum, borrowed photographs of some of the texts, and hurried back to his hotel to decipher them. Tracing out the first line, Quispel was startled, then incredulous, to read: “These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke, and which the twin, Judas Thomas, wrote down.”Pagels, Elaine (1979), The Gnostic Gospels, pp. xiii-xxiii
It is a miracle that these texts made their way through the hands of vengeful farmers, absent-minded mothers, loose-lipped priests, opportunity-seizing dealers, and Egyptian officials, to eventually find their home in Cairo’s Coptic Museum. Because of its serendipitous drift through the lives of ordinary people, the Nag Hammadi Library can now take its rightful place among the history of Gnosticism and early Christianity, permanently changing our understanding of the influential beliefs that still deeply impact modern society.