The Nag Hammadi discovery of manuscripts

In December 1945, two peasants, Muhammed and Khalifah 'Ali of the al-Samman clan were digging for fertiliser at the base of the Jabal al-Tarif cliff, using the saddle-bags of their camels to carry the earth back.  The cliff is about 11km north-east of Nag Hammadi. They tethered their camels to a boulder, and came upon a buried jar as they were digging around the base of the boulder.  Muhammed 'Ali told J.M.Robinson that at first he was afraid to break the jar -- the lid may have been sealed with bitumen, as a blackish substance is present on the lid -- for fear a jinn might be inside, but then he thought that gold might be contained in it instead, so he broke it with his mattock.  Out flew particles of papyrus.  The jar was of red slip ware, with four small handles near the opening.  It was large, approximately 60cm or more in height, with an opening of some 15-20cm widening to 30cm in the side.  The jar had been closed by fitting a bowl into its mouth.  The bowl survives, and is Coptic red slip ware of the 4-5th century, with a rim decorated with four fields of stripes.  The diameter at the outer edge is 23.3-24.0 cm, with inside diameter of 18.2-18.7cm.

The books were divided among the 7 people (including camel-drivers) present.  According to 'Ali there were 13 (our 'codex XIII' was not included in this number, as it was inside codex VI).  Thus a codex may have been lost more or less at the site (but see postscript 04/2006 below).  Seven lots were drawn up.  Covers were removed and each consisted of a complete codex plus part of another.  The other drivers, ignorant of the value and afraid of sorcery and Muhammed 'Ali, disclaimed any share, whereon he piled them all back together.

'Ali wrapped his books in his tunic and took them home, to his hovel in the hamlet of al-Qasr, built on the site of ancient Chenoboskion.  The books, loose covers and loose pages were dumped in the straw, next to the oven.  A blood-feud was in progress, for which reason Muhammed 'Ali was very careful not to venture back later to the area.  Muhammed deposited the books with a local coptic priest, Basiliyus 'Abd al-Masih, as the police were searching his house almost nightly for weapons.  The priest's wife had a brother, Raghib Andrawus, who went from village to village teaching English and history in the local coptic church schools.  He came to visit, and, on seeing one of the books, recognised it might be valuable and took it to Cairo.  There he showed it to a Coptic physician interested in the Coptic language, George Sobhi, who called in the authorities from the Department of Antiquities.  They seized the book, agreeing to pay Raghib ?E 300.  After endless haggling, he got ?E 250, on condition he donated the remaining ?E 50 to the Coptic Museum.  The book was deposited in the museum, according to the register, on 4th October 1946.

Thinking the books were worthless, or maybe even unlucky to have, 'Ali's widowed mother 'Umm Ahmad had burned part of those lying in the straw in the oven (probably the covers and most of the pages of codex XII, of which only a few leaves remain, but also the cover of X, and loose leaves: 1 in codex II, 9 in III, 1 in VI, 3 in VIII and 2 in IX, and large and small fragments from otherwise intact sequences of fragments), as she conceded to Robinson.  Illiterate Muslim neighbours bartered or purchased them for next to nothing.  Nashid Bisadah had one and entrusted it to a gold merchant of Nag Hammadi to sell in Cairo, dividing the profit between them.  A grain merchant supposedly acquired another and sold it for such a price that he ws able to set up his shop in Cairo.  Bahij 'Ali, a one-eyed outlaw of al-Qasr, got a number of the books.  Escorted by a well-known antiquities dealer of the region, Dhaki Basta, he went to Cairo.  They first offered the books to Mansoor's shop at Shepheard's hotel, and then to the shop of Phokion J. Tano, a Cypriot dealer, who bought the lot and then went to Nag Hammadi to get whatever was left.  Once the news of the value of the books reached al-Qasr, the 'Ali brothers tried to lay hands on the remainder.

Most of Codex I was exported from Egypt by a Belgian antiques dealer, Albert Eid.  He offered it for sale in New York and Ann Arbor in 1949, and then his widow sold it on 10th May 1952 to the Jung Institute of Zurich.  It was returned to Cairo bit by bit after a very delayed publication as the 'Jung Codex' (see the comments of James M. Robinson for details).  Meanwhile Tano's collection was seized by the Egyptian Department of Antiquities to prevent it being exported; when Nasser came to power, it was 'nationalised', a paltry £E 4,000 being paid as compensation.  

Today all the Nag Hammadi codices are in the Coptic Museum in Cairo.

Publication was obstructed by the desire of various scholars to publish works first, with a full (and so lengthy to prepare) commentary.  US scholar James Robinson became interested in the 1960's, and using contacts at UNESCO was able eventually to bypass this exhibition of obscurantism. The full collection was published in facsimile by Brill between 1972-1984 as the Facsimile edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices.  There is a 17-volume English edition, entitled The Coptic Gnostic Library, and full English translations in the Nag Hammadi Library in English.  Robinson also visited Nag Hammadi in the 1960's and 1970's, and tracked down those who found them and wormed out them the story of the find.

 All the codices are fourth century papyrus.  The find consists of 12 codices, plus 8 leaves from a 13th, and contains 52 texts.  Duplications mean the number of unique works is 45.  The Berlin Papyrus 8502 is grouped with them, although found separately, because of its related contents.  The texts were originally written in Greek, and later translated into Coptic, not always very well (e.g. the passage of Plato).  The passage of Plato in fact has been reworked also.

The largest leaves -- in codex VII -- are 17.5cm tall.  All of the codices are single-quire, apart from codex I.





(The Jung Codex)
1. The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
2. The Apocryphon of James
3. The Gospel of Truth (1st copy)
4. The Treatise on the Resurrection
5. The Tripartite Tractate
II. 1. The Apocryphon of John (1st copy -- long version)
2. The Gospel of Thomas
3. The Gospel of Philip
4. The Hypostasis of the Archons
5. On the Origin of the World (1st copy)
6. The Exegesis on the Soul
7. The Book of Thomas the Contender
III. 1. The Apocryphon of John (2nd copy -- translation 1 of short version)
2. The Gospel of the Egyptians (1st copy -- translation 1)
3. Eugnostos the Blessed (1st copy)
4. The Sophia of Jesus Christ (1st copy)
5. The Dialogue of the Saviour
IV. 1. The Apocryphon of John (3rd copy  -- long version.  Copy of same Coptic translation as II.1)
2. The Gospel of the Egyptians (2nd copy  -- translation 2)
V. 1. Eugnostos the Blessed (2nd copy)
2. The Apocalypse of Paul
3. The (First) Apocalypse of James
4. The (Second) Apocalypse of James
5. The Apocalypse of Adam
VI. 1. The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles
2. The Thunder: Perfect Mind
3. Authoritative Teaching
4. The Concept of Our Great Power
5. Plato, Republic 588a-589b
6. The Discourse on the Eight and Ninth
7. The Prayer of Thanksgiving
7a. Scribal Note
8. Asclepius 21-29
VII. 1. The Paraphrase of Shem
2. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth
3. Apocalypse of Peter
4. The Teachings of Silvanus
5. The Three Steles of Seth
VIII. 1. Zostrianos
2. The Letter of Peter to Philip
IX. 1. Melchizedek
2. The Thought of Norea
3. The Testimony of Truth
X. Marsanes
XI. 1. The Interpretation of Knowledge
2. A Valentinian Exposition:
2a. On the Anointing
2b. On Baptism A
2c. On Baptism B
2d. On the Eucharist A
2e. On the Eucharist B
3. Allogenes
4. Hypsiphrone
(Mostly burned)
1. The Sentences of Sextus (10 pages only of about 39 originally).
2. The Gospel of Truth (2nd copy)
3. Fragments
XIII. 1. Trimorphic Protennoia
2. On the Origin of the World (2nd copy)

This 'codex' consists of only 8 leaves, removed from some volume in antiquity and tucked inside the front cover of codex VI.

Papyrus Berolinensis 8502
Early 5th century
1. The Gospel of Mary
2. The Apocryphon of John (4th copy  -- translation 2 of short version)
3. The Sophia of Jesus Christ (2nd copy)
4. The Act of Peter

Note that the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians is not related to the apocryphal text of that name referred to by the fathers.  The Sentences of Sextus was already known in Latin, Syriac, Armenian an Georgian translations, plus two Mss. in the original Greek.  The Coptic text stands closer to the modern critical text than any other version. 

The opening section of the Gospel of Mary relies on an exegesis of Romans 7.  The original Greek was written some time in the second century.  The earliest text is a single leaf from the early 3rd century (P. Rylands III 463) containing 22:16,1-19,4.  The longer text in BG contains only 8 pages of the original 18.  The text of the Greek fragment varies considerably from the Coptic text, which includes the same passage.

Postscript (April 2006)

Since I wrote this account, James M. Robinson has published his account of events surrounding the find of the ps.gospel of Judas, in which he kindly corrects my misunderstanding that a 13th codex may have been destroyed at the site.  The discussion can be found on p.103-4 of "The secrets of Judas", with a quotation from the original article.

It seems that the count of 13 codices was that expressed by Robinson and his colleagues while in Egypt, and that this number was then repeated by 'Ali as "the correct number".  There is only evidence that 12 physical volumes (our 'Codex 13' was tucked inside one of these) ever existed.  Fragments of all 12 exist, including codex 12, which was indeed mostly burned.  

There is thus no 'missing codex' from Nag Hammadi.


J.M.ROBINSON (Ed.), The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Translated and introduced by members of the Coptic Gnostic Library project.... Brill, 3rd ed. (1988). Checked.

J.M.ROBINSON et al, Various articles, Biblical Archaeologist 42.4 (Fall 1979).  Includes plates.  Checked.  A very valuable account of how the texts came to found.  Robinson relates the story of the discovery, as obtained by himself from those involved in what was plainly a wearisome and lengthy process of cross-examination.  He makes a plea for free access to material of public interest -- ironically, now buried in this copyrighted journal and accessible to almost no-one!  The publishers ignored a letter I wrote suggesting they make the material available online.

James M. ROBINSON, The Secrets of Judas: the story of the misunderstood disciple and his lost gospel. (2006) ISBN 0-06-117063-1. Checked.

Herbert KROSNEY, The Lost Gospel: The search for the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. National Geographic (2006).  This adds comments from the French team led by Jean Doresse, whose account is also available, and which questions some of Robinson's story. Checked.

Jean DORESSE, The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Texts : A Firsthand Account of the Expedition That Shook the Foundations of Christianity (1960, reprint 2005). ISBN: 159477045X. Not checked.  Robinson considered Doresse's account "bad. He was an adventurer. He would talk to villagers" (Krosney p.132) and organised his own expedition. 

There is also a YouTube video which features some of the people involved here.

Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse. Corrections and additions are very welcome.

This page has been online since 31st July 2003

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