Coptic gnostic collections

The Nag Hammadi Discovery

In December 1945, near the town of Nag Hammadi, some Egyptian peasants inadvertantly unearthed a jar containing thirteen papyrus codices (that is, volumes with flat bindings like our modern books), with leather covers. They had just made one of the 20th century’s most remarkable discoveries of ancient manuscripts.

The 1156 inscribed pages, which are in various states of preservation, contain 54 different works, most of which are otherwise unknown, including the famous Gospel according to Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus. These are religious texts, ones which are generally referred to as Gnostic. Composed at first in Greek, probably during the second and third centuries, they were then translated into Coptic, which was at that time the language of Egypt; around the middle of the fourth century, they were copied into codices which were then buried in a jar, probably at the beginning of the fifth century.

This discovery is of incalculable importance for the history of books (the Nag Hammadi codices are in fact among the oldest surviving books), for the history of the Coptic language and script, and for the history of ancient philosophy and early Christianity.

These texts bring back to life forms of early Christianity which later traditions fought against and attempted to eliminate, but which nevertheless played an important part in the development of Christianity. The editing, translation into modern languages, and study of these texts, although still at an early stage, nonetheless give us a new perspective on the second century, an extremely important period in the development of Christianity. However, the interpretation of these texts is particularly difficult, because we know nothing about their authors or about the places, dates and circumstances under which they were written in Greek, then transmitted, translated into Coptic and finally copied into the codices rediscovered in 1945. Elaborate research efforts have nevertheless allowed scholars to situate them within their context and to extract from them a great deal of information which sheds new light on the first centuries of Christianity. To name one example out of many, the Gospel according to Thomas has become a cornerstone of research into the historical character of Jesus of Nazareth and into the origins of Christianity.