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Nag Hammadi


NAG HAMMADI . Unearthed in 1945 by a group of Egyptians digging for fertilizer, the so-called Nag Hammadi codices were one of the most important manuscript discoveries of the twentieth century for the study of religion in the late ancient Mediterranean world, particularly formative Christianity and Judaism. The forty-six different tractates that the codices contain have provided scholars with a wealth of new data for understanding the development of early Christian traditions about Jesus; Gnostic, Valentinian, and other streams of Christian thought later considered to be heretical; and Coptic grammar, orthography, and codicology. For the most part, however, these sources have not resulted in settled opinions or certain knowledge, but in sharpened debate and new avenues of investigation. Many questions about the codices and their contents remain unanswered.

The Discovery and Publication of the Codices

A group of Egyptian peasants discovered a jar containing the codices in December 1945 at the base of the Jabal al-Tarīf on the east bank of the Nile, across the river from the town of Nag Hammadi. One of the group, Muhammad ˓Alī, broke the jar and found within it thirteen leather-bound codices, which he brought home. There his mother used some of the leaves as fuel for an oven. The codices then passed into the hands of different antiquities dealers. Most famously, Codex I ended up at the Jung Institute in Zurich; also known as the Jung Codex, it was one of the first codices whose tractates were published. Eventually all the codices (except for a fragment) were deposited in the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, where they are now preserved. Although ˓Alī reports that he found thirteen codices in the jar, the present "Codex XIII" consists actually of leaves that had been removed from a codex in antiquity and placed into the cover of Codex VI. The fate of the thirteenth codex seen by ˓Alī remains unknown.

Especially in comparison to the fate of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the publication of the Nag Hammadi codices was efficient and a model of international cooperation. The political circumstances of Egypt in the 1950s delayed some early publication efforts, but during the 1950s and 1960s some of the texts, especially from Codex I, were published, among which was the Gospel of Thomas from Codex II. With the support of UNESCO, a complete facsimile edition was published over the course of the 1970s and completed with an introduction in 1984. James M. Robinson, the American New Testament scholar, organized an international team of scholars to produce an English-language edition and translation. The first English translation appeared in 1977, and volumes of editions of the Coptic texts, with extensive introductions and notes appeared gradually, until the so-called Coptic Gnostic Library was complete; the entire set was reissued in five large paperback volumes in 2000.

As they did their work, most of the editors generously circulated photocopied transcriptions of the texts, so that interested scholars could read them even before the official edition appeared. Meanwhile, two other publishing projects have contributed significantly to the study of the codices. The Berliner Arbeitskreis für koptische-gnostische Schriften, founded and directed by the late Hans-Martin Schenke, has produced a series of important translations, monographs, and commentaries in German. The Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi, based at the University of Laval in Québec and directed by Louis Painchaud, continues to issue high-quality editions of the Coptic texts with translations and commentary in French. Other scholars have published editions and translations independently. Today many of the Nag Hammadi works can be studied in multiple critical editions and modern translations. In 1971 David Scholer published a comprehensive bibliography of scholarship on Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism, which he updates annually in the journal Novum Testamentum.

The Codices and their Origins

Although the hoard of manuscripts is often referred to as a "library," scholars have no definitive evidence for the context of the manuscripts' creation and collection. The scripts, writing materials, and dialects of the manuscripts are diverse. It has been estimated that the handwriting of as many as fourteen different scribes can be detected in the codices. Although all the texts are in Coptic, some are in the Sahidic dialect and others in Subakhmimic, with great variation even within these two broad categories. It seems likely, therefore, that the manuscripts were copied at different locations and subsequently collected by a person or group. In addition to their importance for the history of religions, the codices have contributed to a revival in the study of Coptic philology and codicology. Several of the leather covers contain cartonnage, scraps of discarded papyrus glued together to make the cover firm: the latest of the scraps can be dated to 348 ce, and thus it is believed that the codices were constructed around 350 ce and buried sometime in the following decades.

Scholars continue to debate who might have ordered the copying of the manuscripts, collected them, and buried them. Most have suggested Christian monks. The discovery was made near the site of ancient Pbou, the location of a major Pachomian monastery during the fourth century; the cartonnage of Codex VII contains scraps of letters written by solitary (not Pachomian) monks; some of the manuscripts contain scribal notes with Christian prayers or blessings; and at least some of the tractates can be understood to support an ascetic lifestyle. Some scholars have suggested that the order of the tractates in individual codices reflects interests in liturgy, eschatology, and contemplative ascent that are characteristic of Egyptian monks. On the other hand, monks were not the only religiously interested persons in fourth-century Egypt with the wherewithal to finance the production and collection of such books: literate and well-off persons, Christians and not, clerical and lay, could be found in many of the cities and towns along the Nile. Since cartonnage could have been simply gathered from a local trash heap by the makers of the covers, it provides no evidence for the identity of the person or persons who paid for their creation. It is not clear that the original owner(s), the collector(s), and the burier(s) of the codices were identical. Some scholars have speculated that the codices were buried in the wake of Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria's declaration of an official canon of the Bible for the Egyptian church in a letter of 367 ce. Despite these theories, the social context of the codices and the circumstances of their burial remain unknown.

The Contents of the Codices

The forty-six different tractates contained in the Nag Hammadi codices vary widely in their genres and theologies. Although most can be considered Jewish or Christian in the sense that they draw on the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and other Jewish and Christian literature, others, such as a fragment of Plato's Republic, certainly did not derive from a Jewish or Christian milieu. All of the texts were originally composed in Greek and subsequently translated into Coptic; thus, they could have originated in locations throughout the eastern Mediterranean or among Greek-speaking communities in the West. Many of the tractates are apocalypses or revelations, in which a divine figure (e.g., Jesus) or authoritative human being (e.g., Adam) reveals future events, cosmological secrets, or theological doctrines to an elect person or group. In the Apocryphon of James, for example, Jesus appears after his resurrection and teaches a small group of disciples, and in the Apocalypse of Adam, Adam reveals to his son Seth the true story of his origin and predicts future events. Other works are or include theological treatises (e.g., Tripartite Tractate ), sermons (e.g., Gospel of Truth ), prayers (Prayer of the Apostle Paul), hymns (e.g., The Three Tablets of Seth ), wisdom books (e.g., Teachings of Silvanus ), a philosophical epistle (Treatise on Resurrection ), and an anthology of excerpts from theological works (Gospel of Philip ). Several tractates call themselves "gospels," but none resemble the Gospels of the New Testament, which present a narrative of Jesus' ministry emphasizing his passion and death. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, presents a collection of Jesus' sayings, in the manner of the biblical book of Proverbs, without any narrative.

Like other manuscripts from antiquity, the codices contain works that appealed to the collector(s), but that also represent diverse theologies and original social and religious contexts. Scholars have only begun the task of categorizing the tractates and attempting to reconstruct their original milieus, and certainty in these areas is probably impossible. Nonetheless, a scholarly consensus appears to have emerged that at least four corpora of literature can be identified. First, scholars call a set of approximately twelve Nag Hammadi tractates "Sethian Gnostic." Although the precise contents of this grouping is debated, it usually includes The Apocryphon of John, The Hypostasis of the Archons, The Egyptian Gospel, The Apocalypse of Adam, The Three Steles of Seth, Zostrianos, Allogenes, Melchizedek, The Thought of Norea, Marsanes, Trimorphic Protennoia, and sometimes ThunderPerfect Intellect. Although these treatises differ from one another in genre and some mythic and theological details, they share an underlying myth of origins, in which Adam's son Seth, four divine caregivers called luminaries, and the (according to the myth) ignorant and foolish God of Genesis (sometimes called Ialdabaoth) play prominent roles. In his anti-heretical work Detection and Overthrow of Gnosis, Falsely So-Called (Haer., c. 180 ce), Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons attributes this same myth to "the gnostic school of thought" and to "the gnostics" (Haer. 1.11, 29). For this reason, some scholars believe that these works originated in the only ancient religious group that should be called "Gnostic."

Related to the (Sethian) Gnostic text group is another set of treatises that scholars assign to the Valentinian school of thought, an important Christian theological tradition of the second through fourth centuries. According to Irenaeus, the Christian teacher Valentinus, who died around 175, adapted the Gnostic myth in creating his own system of thought. In the decades following Valentinus's death, Christian theologians teaching in his tradition formed study circles of interested Christians alongside and sometimes in competition with Christian churches. Like its (Sethian) Gnostic counterpart, the Valentinian myth was open to creative revision and elaboration, but it generally took a less negative attitude toward the God of Genesis and emphasized themes of integration and recovery of original cosmic and psychic unity; Valentinian theologians devoted considerable attention to such traditional Christian topics as sin and salvation, the resurrection of the dead, and the sacraments. Valentinian works found at Nag Hammadi include Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Gospel of Truth, Treatise on Resurrection, Tripartite Tractate, and The Gospel of Philip, among others. Some argue that Valentinus himself is the author of The Gospel of Truth.

Two tractates, The Gospel of Thomas and The Book of Thomas the Contender, grant special authority to the apostle Didymus Judas Thomas, whom Christian tradition credits with bringing Christianity to Mesopotamia and India and sometimes identifies as Jesus' twin brother. Since these works share literary connections and theological affinities with each other and with The Acts of Thomas, a text that survives in Greek and Syriac and was not found in the Nag Hammadi cache, some scholars consider them evidence for a "Thomas Christianity," similar to the Pauline Christianity and Johannine Christianity associated with other sets of early Christian literature. Thomas Christianity is believed to have been centered in Edessa, a city in northern Mesopotamia, and to have run from the first century down to the third and perhaps fourth. Thomas theology was highly ascetic, emphasizing the divine origin of the soul, its fall into matter and the body, and its return to its origin and reunion with its true self. Other scholars, however, doubt this reconstruction of an organized Thomas branch of Christianity. Although it is often referred to as the most prominent of the "Gnostic gospels," The Gospel of Thomas lacks evidence of the kind of elaborate myth found in the (Sethian) Gnostic works, and thus scholars are increasingly reluctant to refer to it as "Gnostic."

In three tractates from Codex VIThe Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Asclepius the divine revealer is "thrice great Hermes" or Hermes Trismegistus, a composite of the native Egyptian god Thoth and the Greek god Hermes. These tractates belong, therefore, to a body of pseudepigraphic literature composed in Greek centered around Hermes, now called the Corpus Hermeticum, which may have originated in religious and philosophical circles active in Greco-Roman and late ancient Egypt. Both The Prayer of Thanksgiving and Asclepius were known before the Nag Hammadi discovery, while The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth is a new addition to the corpus.

Most of the remaining Nag Hammadi tractates are simply miscellaneous Christian literature, the precise doctrinal, sectarian, or theological affiliations of which are unclear or debated. To be sure, some are not Christian in their origin at all (e.g., the fragment of Plato's Republic in Codex VI), and some scholars question the "Christian" character of others (e.g., Authoritative Teaching ). But most are Christian works of an astonishing variety, underlining the impressive diversity of early Christianity in the centuries before Constantine.

The Significance of the Discovery

The Nag Hammadi discovery has made an enormous impact on several areas of the religious history of the ancient Mediterranean world, even if the results of the impact are not entirely clear. After decades of editing and translating the tractates, scholars are still engaged in sorting out the implications of the new data for such fields as Gnosticism, Jesus traditions and the New Testament, early church history, and late ancient Platonism.

Certainly the codices have contributed the most to the study of Gnosticism. Before the discovery, except for a handful of other recently published texts in Coptic, scholars' knowledge of "Gnosticism" was limited to the statements made by Christian heresiologists, such as Irenaeus. The parallel between The Apocryphon of John and Irenaeus's description of the myth of "the gnostics" (Haer. 1.29) showed that this work (which is found also in a previously known Coptic manuscript) and the texts closely related to it came from a circle that was known as Gnostic. At last scholars could read (in Coptic translation) works composed by the presumed Gnostics themselves, rather than depend solely on the reports of their "orthodox" opponents, and thus several clichéd charges against the Gnostics (e.g., their lack of interest in ethics) could be evaluated more fully. On the other hand, scholars have found few other correspondences between the Nag Hammadi tractates and the myths and sects described by such anti-Gnostic authors as Irenaeus, Hippolytus of Rome, and Epiphanius of Salamis, and so they have increasingly questioned the value of the heresiological reports, which still provide the only evidence for the social history of such groups.

The tractates have not resolved the protracted debate over the definition of Gnostic and Gnosticism. Impressed by the variety of the texts and their mismatch with the heresiologists, some scholars argue that these terms should be abandoned altogether and the surviving texts analyzed individually and on their own terms, apart from these categories. Others point to the correspondence between the myth found in The Apocryphon of John and that in Irenaeus's account of "the gnostics" (Haer. 1.29) and suggest that the term Gnostic be applied only to the group responsible for the texts belonging to the "Sethian Gnostic" group; perhaps the Valentinians can be called "Gnostic," but only in a derivative sense, because they adapted the myth of the Gnostics. Still other scholars believe that, despite their variety on several points, many (if not most) of the Nag Hammadi tractates exhibit a set of characteristics that are usefully gathered under the category "Gnosticism." In this case, the Nag Hammadi tractates have not led to a scholarly consensus, but the terms of the debate are perhaps clearer than they were before.

Debate also surrounds the significance of Nag Hammadi works that include sayings attributed to Jesus or that parallel writings of the New Testament. One question is whether such works as The Gospel of Thomas, The Dialogue of the Savior, and The Apocryphon of James preserve oral or written traditions of Jesus' sayings that are independent of the New Testament Gospels, and thus provide additional information about the historical Jesus and the development of early Christian gospels. Of the relevant tractates, The Gospel of Thomas has received the most attention and seems most likely to contain traditions independent of the canonical Gospels, and perhaps even sayings that can be attributed to the historical Jesus. Passages in Trimorphic Protennoia and The Apocryphon of John parallel sections of the Gospel of John, especially the prologue, and some scholars have suggested that they can be used to reconstruct earlier written sources that were available to the author of the Fourth Gospel. The Nag Hammadi texts also have provided new material for the discussion of whether Gnosticism, however it is defined, existed during the first century ce and thus may stand behind the opponents criticized by New Testament authors like Paul. Most scholars now reject the identification of Paul's opponents as Gnostics.

The codices have raised or affected numerous other issues in the study of early church history. These include the development of a Christian canon of scripture. What status did these writings have for the Christians who produced and read them? Were they considered scriptural, equivalent in authority to the texts that were emerging in some churches as "the New Testament"? The tractates' extensive use and revision of the Hebrew Bible (in the form of its Greek translation, the Septuagint) have provided new insights into conflicts among early Christians over the interpretation of the Bible and have suggested links between early Christian and Jewish exegeses of the same biblical texts. Scholars have discovered connections also between certain Nag Hammadi worksespecially some Valentinian writings and "wisdom texts" like The Teachings of Silvanus and the literature of early Egyptian monasticism, particularly those letters attributed to Antony the Great and Paul of Tamma.

It appears that Plotinus, the great Neoplatonist philosopher (d. 269/270), knew Zostrianos and Allogenes or at least persons in the circles in which these works circulated. These two tractates, along with Marsanes and others, show contact with the issues and terminology that characterized Platonist philosophical discussions in the second and third centuries. Scholars have now been able to construct a fuller and more detailed narrative of the development of Platonism in this period, one that more extensively documents the interchanges between "Christian" and "pagan" circles and the centrality of "mystical" or "esoteric" themes that scholars once saw as marginal.

The study of the Nag Hammadi codices is still an emerging and relatively new field in comparison to the study of most other sources for ancient Mediterranean religions. In the sixty years since their discovery, scholars have edited and translated the texts, making them available to a wide range of interested readers. Although many questions remain open, especially about the authors of the tractates and the collector(s) of the codices, the thirteen books found by Muhammad ˓Alī and his friends have already creatively unsettled traditional ways of understanding the religious history of the first four centuries after Jesus Christ.

See Also



Hedrick, Charles W., and Robert Hodgson Jr., eds. Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism, and Early Christianity. Peabody, Mass., 1986.

King, Karen L. What Is Gnosticism? Cambridge, Mass., 2003.

Koester, Helmut. Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development. Philadelphia, 1990.

Layton, Bentley, ed. The Rediscovery of Gnosticism: Proceedings of the International Conference on Gnosticism at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, March 2831, 1978. 2 vols. Leiden, 19801981.

Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures. Garden City, N.Y., 1987.

Layton, Bentley. "Prolegomena to the Study of Ancient Gnosticism." In The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks, edited by L. Michael White and O. Larry Yarbrough, pp. 33450. Minneapolis, 1995.

Lease, Gary. "Nag Hammadi: Archaeology." In Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, vol. 4. New York, 1992.

Painchaud, Louis, and Anne Pasquier, eds. Les textes de Nag Hammadi et le problème de leur classification: Actes du colloque tenu à Québec du 15 au 19 septembre 1993. Québec, 1995.

Pearson, Birger. "Nag Hammadi Codices." In Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, Vol. 4. New York, 1992.

Pearson, Birger, and James E. Goehring, eds. The Roots of Egyptian Christianity. Philadelphia, 1986.

Perkins, Pheme. Gnosticism and the New Testament. Minneapolis, 1993.

Robinson, James M. "From Cliff to Cairo: The Story of the Discoverers and Middlemen of the Nag Hammadi Codices." In Colloque international sur les textes de Nag Hammadi (Québec, 2225 août 1978), edited by Dernard Barc, pp. 2158. Québec, 1981.

Robinson, James M., ed. The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices. 15 vols. in 11. Leiden, 19721984.

Robinson, James M., ed. The Hag Hammadi Library in English. 3d rev. ed. San Francisco, 1988.

Robinson, James M., ed. The Coptic Gnostic Library: A Complete Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices. 5 vols. Leiden, 2000.

Scholer, David M. Nag Hammadi Bibliography 194869. Leiden, 1971.

Scholer, David M. "Bibliographica Gnostica: Supplementum I." Novum Testamentum 13 (1971): 322336. Updated annually thereafter, except for 1976.

Turner, John D., and Anne McGuire, eds. The Nag Hammadi Library after Fifty Years: Proceedings of the 1995 Society of Biblical Literature Commemoration. Leiden, 1997.

Turner, John D., and Ruth Majercik, eds. Gnosticism and Later Platonism: Themes, Figures, and Texts. Atlanta, 2000.

Williams, Michael A. Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, 1996.

Wisse, Frederik. "The Nag Hammadi Library and the Heresiologists." Vigiliae Christianae 25 (1971): 205223.

David Brakke (2005)

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