The Nag Hammadi Library

Roughly a year before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a shepherd boy, another major discovery took place in Egypt. Near the city of Nag Hammadi two brothers discovered a collection of ancient writings. The actual circumstances of the discovery remain unclear. 

The brothers who made the discovery were somewhat vague in the details of how and exactly where the discovery took place. It seems clear the writings were found in a grave. It is considered highly probable the brothers were looting an ancient grave when they made the discovery and thus, they were not completely forthcoming with details. Regardless of where or how it was discovered, what they found was truly extraordinary.

In all, the discovery consisted of thirteen leather bound papyrus codices. These codices contained fifty-two separate entries, mostly Gnostic treatises. Perhaps the best known of these is the Gospel of Thomas. The discovery of these texts helped show the vast differences between the early Christians and the Gnostic beliefs. In many instances the Gnostic writers incorporated elements of other religions, including Christianity, into their texts. 

The brothers, having obtained the documents under less-than-ideal conditions, were cautious in their attempts to sell them. One story tells of how the ancient documents were hung on a pole in the brother’s home and their mother would occasionally rip out pages to start her cook fire.

The collection was eventually purchased and can now be seen in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. It remains unclear as to how or why the books were buried. It was a somewhat common practice to bury books in Egypt, but some scholars believe there may have been another reason. In 367 A.D. about the time the Nag Hammadi documents were buried, Saint Athanasius wrote his festal letter in which he condemned the use of any non-canonical books and went on to list which books were considered to be in the canon. It is thought the Nag Hammadi documents were buried in fear of being caught with the prohibited books.

Regardless of how the books came to be in the grave, or how they were eventually discovered, they represent the hope that more such large caches of ancient documents might still exist. While these documents do not contain books of the Bible, they do offer an excellent insight into the struggle of the early church in dealing with such manuscripts.

Through the Ages

  Geologic Time 4.6 Million B.C. -to- 2.6 Million B.C. Stone Age Palaeolithic 2.6 Million B.C. -to- 10,000 B.C. Mesolithic 10,000 B.C. -to- ...