Rediscovering a “Lost Work”

The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of early Christian and Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. It is comparable to the Dead Sea Scrolls in terms of its literary significance, though less well known. Please note that what follows is a discussion of the texts and their discovery and not an interpretation of their religious merit or meaning. If that interests you then there are many such books available on the topic.

There are a few different stories of how the texts were discovered. The consistent elements are that the ‘library’ was buried sometime around the fourth century AD, most likely in a grave, and uncovered in 1945. It is called a library because there were thirteen texts found. These took the form of codices written on leather-bound papyrus. The contents of the codices were written in Coptic.

However they were discovered what is tragically clear is that the mother of the person who dug up the library burnt parts of at least one codex and possibly entire other codices. I can only mourn the loss of such ancient treasures, for these codices contain many non-biblical gospels and apocryphal stories of Christ. What secrets or revelations could they have contained? The codices were split up and moved around before the Egyptian government started collecting them. One wound up being given to the famed psychologist, Carl Jung as a birthday present.

The library contains several gospels, apocalypses, epistles and acts not found in the New Testament. The best-known of these non-canonical works is the Gospel of Thomas. But before I talk about this particular codex, I think it’s worth mentioning that there is a similarly named (and similarly heretical/apocryphal) Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not from the Nag Hammadi Library) which tells the story of Jesus as a child. Let’s just say in that text he doesn’t always use his powers responsibly and has to be taught restraint. Anyway, back to the Nag Hammadi version which is interesting for many reasons.

First is a somewhat nerdy reason; it’s quoted by Tairrie B of the band My Ruin in their song, Sanctuary. I felt like I was probably the only one of their fans to get such an obscure reference.

The second is its awesome opening line “These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas wrote them down,” clearly implying secret knowledge is about to be bestowed upon the reader, but it gets better with the next sentence; “And he said, ‘Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death.’” What a great start to a text. I know I was hooked by those lines. The fact that the book was buried for over a thousand years adds to the mystique.

Third, it is largely a collection of “sayings” and there are many new sayings attributed to Christ alongside replications of those which are found in the biblical gospels. Due to similarities of events and quotes, scholars have theorised that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written by people using a source document of sayings. Could the Gospel of Thomas be that document? It’s purely speculative, but I like that such an idea makes you really think about how the bible was constructed.

The fourth interesting thing is that the Gospel of Thomas places less emphasis on organised religion and instead teaches that the kingdom of heaven is within you and your spiritual practices lead to the unlocking of that. It’s a different take on Christian religion and more in line with Buddhist or Hindu teachings which makes the whole thing quite controversial and probably explains why the text is not part of the traditional biblical canon.

The fifth interesting thing is that if you type apocryphal into google the example it gives is of the Gospel of Thomas.

There are many more interesting things about the Nag Hammadi library, but the tale of its burial, secret knowledge, discovery, and revelation to the world is a great moment in literature.

Next time I’ll talk about a very controversial literary award winner.

This post is part of my Great Moments in Literature series. So you never miss a new Great Moment, please subscribe to my list or this website:

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