IN DECEMBER 1945, Muhammad Ali and his brothers of the al-Samman clan accidentally discovered a collection of ancient documents at Jabal al-Tarif, a spot near Nag Hammadi, a village in northern Egypt. They found a storage jar containing 12 leather-bound books (codices) and eight leaves removed from the thirteenth book.
With the family of Muhammad Ali involved in an amazing series of events associated with clan murder and blood revenge, the collection also, as a result, embarked on an intricate journey of acquisitions that eventually led to its deposit at the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo.
Another term, “The Coptic Gnostic Library”, is used to describe the entire collection, and that phrase takes into account the research projects in the United States and Germany that aim to translate the texts and the prestigious series of scholarly works published by E. J. Brill in the Netherlands. In fact, scholars have produced an English facsimile edition of the codices that was completed in 1984. There are ongoing translation works in different languages as well as publications based on individual documents or the collection as a whole.
Besides the texts in the Nag Hammadi collection, the Coptic Gnostic Library has included other texts from the Berlin Gnostic Codex (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502). This manuscript was purchased near the city of Achmim, Egypt and later acquired for the Berlin Museum in 1896. The Gospel of Mary is one of the texts in the Berlin Gnostic Codex and has attracted unprecedented attention due to its association with the published The Da Vinci Code, a work of the novelist Dan Brown. The novel has not only developed its story using The Gospel of Mary, but also included The Gospel of Philip, a text found in the Nag Hammadi Library.
The texts in the Nag Hammadi Library are written in Coptic, an Egyptian language written with the Greek alphabet plus letters that are unknown to the Greeks in terms of sound. However, these Coptic documents are translated works that might have been composed originally in Greek in the second century C.E. The monks from the nearby Pachomian monasteries probably used these codices and later buried them in the sands of Egypt in the last half of the 4th century C.E.
Each codex of this library consists of a collection of texts and in total the library has 52 tractates. However, the viewpoint of the library does not represent that of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Instead, the collection has a rich variety of literary genres which include apocalypses, revelation dialogues and discourses, gospels, epistles, doctrinal treatises, wisdom books, homilies, hymns, prayers, and others belonging to specific traditions.
What are the contributions of the Nag Hammadi Library? Some documents are valuable for the analysis of the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy in the early church. For example, the Valentinian Exposition in Codex 11 and The Gospel of Philip in Codex 2 are identified as documents associated with Gnostic teacher Valentinus in the 2nd century C.E.
‘The early churches treated the final collection of acceptable documents as sacred scriptures that acted as a rule for the believers.’
Gnosticism is a 2nd century phenomenon that deals with a series of widespread and diverse groups with religious and philosophical backgrounds. Those groups were upholding the belief that the divine spirit is trapped in the human body. It would only be released from the prison if the individual received special knowledge from an agent sent by God.
The Nag Hammadi documents act as important sources and clarify the origins of heresy in terms of the mutual influence of Gnosticism and Christianity upon one another. The valuable information sheds light on the character and beliefs of religious sects and movements in Palestine, Syria and Egypt.
In addition, The Gospel of Thomas from this ancient library is an important witness to how the public and early churches had understood Jesus and the Gospels. The conclusion of this Gospel presented a Peter that viewed women as unworthy of life. He requested Mary to leave the group to which Jesus responded by claiming that he would turn Mary into male, a condition that was necessary for Mary to secure her salvation. That picture of Jesus and the relationship between His disciples was contrary to what the early churches learnt from the four Gospels of the New Testament.
As the early churches developed doctrines to maintain their identity and affirm their faith, they would reject documents that either presented an unacceptable picture of Jesus or promoted other false teachings. They treated the final collection of acceptable documents as sacred scriptures that acted as a rule for the believers. The Christian faith becomes an informed one that demonstrated centuries of Christians wrestling with their history and literary documents that guide their behaviour.
While ancient documents fill the gap of our knowledge of early Christianity and its environment, the danger associated with the use of ancient stories or legends in the production of novels, movies and fictionalised history is a timely reminder that we should not dismiss our Christian history.
We must maintain or reclaim a historical consciousness that meets the challenges posed by important discoveries of the Nag Hammadi Library and more recently, The Gospel of Judas. Our knowledge of these documents and their challenges to the Christian faith reminds us to remain on guard and be effective in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:8).
An informed faith is based on a solid foundation of the Bible. The additional knowledge of ancient documents together with this foundation would inform our soul the rich heritage of our past, the sense of responsibility for the present, and an anticipation of the glorious future.