The Nag Hammadi Codices were made by monks

The provenance of the Nag Hammadi Codices has been a point of contention among scholars ever since they were discovered in Upper Egypt in 1945. A new book strongly supports the hypothesis that they were manufactured and read by Christian monks in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Two of the pages from Nag Hammadi Codex II. On the left is page 32 showing the end of the Apocryphon of John and the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas, on the right is page 111, a page of the untitled text commonly referred to as On the Origin of the World. Photo: The Coptic Museum in Cairo

For centuries the mysterious Nag Hammadi Codices lay buried and forgotten under a cliff in rural Egypt until a local famer found them in 1945, close to the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi.

The 13 papyrus books (codices) turned out to contain gospels, apocalypses, prayers, liturgical writings and acts of various apostles, none of which were included in the Bible. It also includes observations and commentaries on topics such as the meaning of existence, the creation of humankind and the nature of salvation. Since their discovery these works have provoked enormous interest amongst scholars and the public alike due to the startling new light they throw on the early Christian movement.

Professor Hugo Lundhaug at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo leads a research project funded by the European Research Council that focuses on these codices. The project is called “New Contexts for Old Texts: Unorthodox Texts and Monastic Manuscript Culture in Fourth- and Fifth-Century Egypt” (NEWCONT).

Lundhaug tells us that the ideas found in the Nag Hammadi Codices are often very different from those familiar to us in the Bible. ”These codices demonstrate that a far greater diversity of thought existed amongst people who considered themselves Christian than we previously thought,” Lundhaug explains.

The Codices are written in Coptic, a form of the Egyptian language used in the late antique period. They contain 52 works, most of which were previously unknown to modern scholars. It is probable, although not certain, that most of the texts were originally written in Greek and have been translated into Coptic for the benefit for non-Greek readers.

The question of the origins of the codices

The question of who owned and produced the Nag Hammadi Codices is of major importance in helping us to understand their historical significance. In order to understand what they may have meant to those who read them, it is important to know who actually read them. Together with post-doctoral fellow in the NEWCONT-project Lance Jenott, Lundhaug has just published a book dealing with this question, entitled The Monastic Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices. Lundhaug and Jenott answer the question in their new book by thoroughly exploring the issues surrounding the discovery of the codices, their material aspects, and their status as fourth- and fifth-century books of Christian literature.

Jabal al-Tarif, the cliff where the Nag Hammadi Codices were discovered. Photo: Hugo Lundhaug

”We both felt the need to examine the evidence more closely from as many angles as possible, and to assess the various alternatives”, Lundhaug states. For him and Jenott this assessment has left them in no doubt that the Nag Hammadi Codices originate from and were read by Christian monks.

In earlier attempts to answer the question of ownership, the controversial contents of the codices have led many scholars to insist that they had belonged to a group of ‘Gnostics.’ The term ‘Gnostic’ was generally applied in reference to exclusive communities, influenced by Greek philosophy, whose members desired access to secret knowledge that was revealed only to a certain elect few. As such, the codices thus become marked out as ‘heretical’ books that should not have been read by orthodox Christians, such as the early Christian monks. This point of view is well reflected in the title of the first book on the subject of the Nag Hammadi Codices, Jean Doresse’s The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics.

Contests claims of Gnostic origins

But according to Lundhaug and Jenott, following the lead of Michael Williams’ influential work Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category, the term Gnostic has never been satisfactorily defined, and is often misleading when trying to understand those texts that have been labelled as such. Further, it is hard to find concrete evidence for societies or organisations in the fourth and fifth century who would fit modern scholarly notions of ‘Gnostics.’

”The wide diversity of texts found in the Nag Hammadi Codices make it difficult to allocate these works to any one of the several viewpoints commonly given the scholarly label ‘Gnostic,’ ” Lundhaug says. ”The texts do not readily conform to common stereotypical ideas of ‘Gnostic’ attitudes, such as a ‘hatred of the world and its creator,’ or an ‘anti-biblical’ stance”, he explains. 

Lundhaug and Jenott find ‘Gnosticism’ to be a highly misleading category that has led scholars to ask the wrong questions and to offer unnecessary explanations. Their focus instead has been on the diversity of early Christianity in Egypt and the place of the Nag Hammadi Codices within it.

They emphasise the fact that their aim has been to move the discussion of the origin and use of the codices away from being a study of Gnosticism. They have therefore consciously jettisoned the term ‘Gnostic’ in their analysis.

Monks and their reading habits

That idea the Nag Hammadi Codices may have belonged to Egyptian monks was suggested by some of the scholars who first studied the codices. They noted in particular the existence of several monasteries in the area close to the discovery site, such as the major Pachomian monasteries at Chenoboskion and Pbow.

“However, this suggestion has attracted considerable criticism from other scholars”, Lundhaug explains. “Many have found it impossible to imagine that the early Pachomian monks, often considered to be the bastion of orthodoxy, could have read such “heretical” literature.”

This criticism was most extensively expressed by Alexandr Khosroyev in 1995, who emphasized what he regarded to be the “philosophical” and “anti-biblical” contents of the Nag Hammadi texts. He argued that they must have belonged to a group of urban intellectuals sufficiently educated in Greek philosophy to read and understand them. His work was highly influential in ensuring that the idea of a monastic origin for the books largely fell out of favour.

In their critical response to Khosroyev’s theory, Lundhaug and Jenott argue that, while the Nag Hammadi texts are written in Coptic, the type of intellectuals imagined by Khosroyev would have simply read these texts in Greek:

“If the owners were urban intellectuals steeped in Greek philosophy and culture, why would they read their literary texts in Coptic and bother to translate them from Greek in the first place? Why not simply read the texts in Greek?” Lundhaug and Jenott ask in their book.

While Khosroyev suggested that urban intellectuals may have felt compelled to translate the texts into Coptic at a time when they were losing their ability to read Greek, Lundhaug and Jenott maintain that the texts were most likely translated into Coptic for the benefit of a monastic community which would have included a number of non-Greek readers.

The case for a monastic origin

Lundhaug and Jenott make their case for a monastic origin by surveying a wide breadth of material and discussing the question from a multitude of angles. They set the stage with a discussion of the nature of monasticism in late antique Upper Egypt. Using a variety of sources, including biographies of saints, monastic rules, documentary papyri and archaeological evidence, they demonstrate that monasticism at this period was more diverse than has often been often recognised, both in terms of organization and theology.

In the middle of the village Faw Qibli, the ruins of the basilica at the ancient Pachomian monastery of Pbow lies scattered about. The ruins are approximately 7 km from the site where the codices were found. Photo: Hugo Lundhaug

They also discuss the available evidence for the literary practices of Egyptian monks in the early centuries. ”The reading material of monks at that time cannot always be labelled as ‘orthodox’” Lundhaug argues. ”Monks were criticised on several occasions by Church authorities for reading non-canonical or apocryphal literature. Despite this condemnation, such works continued to form part of monastic libraries for many centuries to come”, he explains.

Lundhaug and Jenott also note how many of the themes that appear in the texts of the Nag Hammadi Codices would have appealed to monks. They include allusions to subjects such as spiritual progress, revealed knowledge, visions, heavenly ascents, angels, demons, and asceticism, as well as an emphasis on scriptural interpretation. It is easy to see then how they might fit into a monastic library alongside biblical texts and other, well-known, monastic works of the period.

Written on scrap paper

Two important chapters in the book deal with the production techniques used in the making and writing of the codices and the relationship of the Nag Hammadi Codices to other Christian books produced at around the same period. “The Nag Hammadi Codices are not unique in their make-up and scribal practices,” Lundhaug tells us. “In fact they closely resemble other books, including biblical manuscripts, which are likely to have come from a monastic milieu. One example is a manuscript of the Gospel of Matthew held in the Schøyen collection close to Oslo.”

Lundhaug and Jenott pay particular attention to the “cartonnage” material used to stiffen the leather covers of the Nag Hammadi Codices. Cartonnage was traditionally made up of scraps of discarded papyrus from personal letters, account books, and so on.  It therefore provides invaluable evidence for everyday life and the social context in which the codices were produced.

In the case of the Nag Hammadi Codices, these cartonnage papyri include an entire collection of personal letters written to and from monks, strongly suggesting that the codices themselves were produced by monks. These documents include several references to a monk named Sansnos who writes about economic and philanthropic issues with his correspondents.

Some scholars have, however, dismissed these fragments as irrelevant, arguing instead that such letters might have been simply collected from a local rubbish heap, and therefore shed no light on the book-makers. Lundhaug and Jenott argue for the likelihood that these documents were in fact the property of the people who made the codices and, as such, are valuable evidence for pinpointing the origin of these books.

One highly significant letter is in fact addressed to a certain ‘Father Pachomius,’ whom Lundhaug and Jenott maintain is the famous abbot Pachomius himself. If so, then this letter demonstrates a close connection between the makers of the codices and the nearby Pachomian monks.

Likely owned by Pachomian monks

In the book, the authors further discuss which type of monastic group may have owned the codices. A variety of monastic groups existed at this period who did not share the same theological beliefs.

However, it is to the Pachomian Federation in particular to which the authors turn for answers. As several of these Pachomian monasteries lay close to the place of discovery, and used the cliffs for burials and ascetic practices, it is not unlikely that the owners of these codices were Pachomians.

Lundhaug an Jenott emphasise diversity within the Pachomian community. “There is evidence for ongoing concerns over apocryphal books read in the monasteries, and the Pachomians placed great emphasis upon literacy and biblical interpretation”, Lundhaug explains.  The monks need not have believed everything they read, but many of them would surely have been interested in the various interpretations of the Bible, for example stories about Adam and Eve, and Jesus appearing to his disciples after his resurrection, which are recorded in these books.

 Eventually discarded as heretical texts

”Very often, an overly idealised picture of monasticism has obscured our ability to place Egyptian monks accurately within their own society. In addition, the over-application of the term ‘Gnostic’ has helped to create a distance between the texts and the seemingly ‘orthodox’ monks of traditional scholarship”, Lundhaug sums up. 

“It is important to remember that the monks who may have read these works for spiritual guidance were also likely to have had recourse to many other religious works within their libraries, including the books of the Bible . In time, as Christian thought developed, the reading of such unusual texts would have become less acceptable until finally the command came to discard them completely”.

The authors express their hope that their book will act as a catalyst for further research into the codices as a part of the monastic culture of Upper Egypt. “In many ways, research into these fascinating manuscripts have only just begun,” they state, and emphasize how important it is that future studies of the Nag Hammadi texts take fully into account the monastic provenance of the manuscripts, while studies of early Egyptian monasticism should not continue to ignore the Nag Hammadi Codices, some of the earliest and most well-preserved evidence of monastic literary practices in existence.

The Nag Hammadi Codices. Photo: Claremont Colleges Digital Library

 

By Paula J. Tutty
Published Jan. 12, 2016 12:37 PM - Last modified Jan. 13, 2016 10:13 AM