Nag Hammadi library

The Nag Hammadi Codices from Claremont Colleges Digital Library
The Nag Hammadi Codices from Claremont Colleges Digital Library

Nag Hammadi library or the codices are they are called is, in my mind, the greatest untold story in modern history. Sure, it’s been revealed and somewhat released to the public but the entire truth has not been heard. The Gospel of Thomas for example is by itself miraculous.

Nag Hammadi

The story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 has been described as ‘as exciting as the contents of the find itself’.  In December of that year, two Egyptian brothers found several papyri in a large earthenware vessel while digging for fertilizer around the Jabal al-Ṭārif caves near present-day Hamra Dom in Upper Egypt. Neither originally reported the find, as they sought to make money from the manuscripts by selling them individually at intervals. The brothers’ mother burned several of the manuscripts, worried, apparently, that the papers might have ‘dangerous effects’ (Markschies, Gnosis, 48). As a result, what came to be known as the Nag Hammadi library (owing to the proximity of the find to Nag Hammadi, the nearest major settlement) appeared only gradually, and its significance went unacknowledged until some time after its initial discovery.

In 1946, the brothers became involved in a feud, and left the manuscripts with a Coptic priest. His brother-in-law in October that year sold a codex to the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo (this tract is today numbered Codex III in the collection). The resident Coptologist and religious historian Jean Doresse, realizing the significance of the artifact, published the first reference to it in 1948. Over the years, most of the tracts were passed by the priest to Phokion J. Tanos.  a Cypriot antiques dealer in Cairo, thereafter being retained by the Department of Antiquities, for fear that they would be sold out of the country. After the revolution in 1952, these texts were handed to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, and declared national property. Pahor Labib, the director of the Coptic Museum at that time, was keen to keep these manuscripts in their country of origin.

Nag Hammadi Codex IV papyrus page 26
Nag Hammadi Codex IV papyrus page 26

Meanwhile, a single codex had been sold in Cairo to a Belgian antiques dealer. After an attempt was made to sell the codex in both New York City and Paris, it was acquired by the Carl Gustav Jung Institute in Zurich in 1951, through the mediation of Gilles Quispel. It was intended as a birthday present to the famous psychologist; for this reason, this codex is typically known as the Jung Codex, being Codex I in the collection.

Jung’s death in 1961 resulted in a quarrel over the ownership of the Jung Codex; the pages were not given to the Coptic Museum in Cairo until 1975, after a first edition of the text had been published. The papyri were finally brought together in Cairo: of the 1945 find, eleven complete books and fragments of two others, ‘amounting to well over 1000 written pages’ are preserved there.

Nag Hammadi Texts Photo credit: Claremont Colleges Digital Library on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

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