The Monastic Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices: Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum 97 by Hugo Lundhaug and Lance Jenott
Throughout the past half-century, the Nag Hammadi codices have fascinated [End Page 291] historians of early Christianity. A particular challenge, however, for analyzing their importance is the lack of information on the context of the texts themselves: who wrote, read, and copied them? This important book revisits these questions to argue that monks, most likely in the Pachomian federation, produced and read these books. Admittedly (1), this is not a new suggestion and thus the strengths of the book lie in its careful and detailed arguments, which both explore the variety of evidence and engage in meticulous debate with the extensive scholarship on the subject.
Indeed, the level of specificity of this work makes it particularly difficult to provide a summary of its many important points. Broadly speaking, the authors argue that two obstacles have prevented their theory from becoming the definitive explanation. First, they maintain that many scholars continue to rely on an "overly idealized portrait" of late antique Christian monks in Egypt as "severed from society, often illiterate, and adhering only to the Bible"; and, second, they argue that "the persistent classification of the Nag Hammadi texts as "gnostic" has led to the impression that they are somehow alien to "authentic" Christianity, and therefore beyond the pale of Christian monasticism" (247). "Gnosticism" and "Monasticism" thus function as separate categories, wherein the codices belong to the former and so are separated from the latter. Lundhaug and Jenott reject this bifurcation for several reasons. First, because, following Michael Williams and others, they avoid the category of "Gnosticism" altogether (7 and throughout the book at several key points; see the index, 321). The presence of Gnostic texts, they maintain, indicates neither the presence of people labeled as Gnostics nor communities of such thinkers. Second, the authors instead show how the range of evidence associated with the codices is consistent with the more complex understanding of Egyptian monasticism that has emerged in the past few decades. The success, and general persuasiveness, of the book lies in the authors' ability to break down those broad claims into specific points of evidence, each receiving its own chapter.
The book opens with an overview of the history of the debate in a chapter entitled "The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics?", a title that has its counter-point in the last chapter, "The Secret Books of the Egyptian Monastics." Both chapters provide succinct summaries of the authors' position (7 and 247). Of particular importance in the opening chapter is the discussion of the date of the codices, which cannot be earlier than the mid-fourth century but which Lundhaug and Jennott place later "spanning from the fourth century well into the fifth and possibly even beyond" (11). Chapter two lays out the diversity of monasticism in late antique Upper Egypt, an argument meant to counter the "overly idealized portrait" that contributes to the separation of the Nag Hammadi codices from a monastic context. The following two chapters ("Gnostics" and "Contrasting Mentalities?") further develop the idea that monks would be open to reading works like those in the Nag Hammadi codices. In sum, the authors conclude that the monks were sufficiently educated to be able to understand the texts (90–1)—even though a classical education is not necessary to their understanding (92–3)—and that the texts are not anti-biblical (79) but engage in extensive [End Page 292] biblical exegesis, a topic that would interest biblically literate monks, particularly Pachomians. Furthermore, in a later chapter, they make the case for the presence of non-canonical works in monastic contexts (Ch. 6). Thus the monks need not be "Gnostic" to have copied and read these texts, and in any case they contend that there were no Gnostics in fourth-and fifth-century Egypt (64–69). Perhaps the most intriguing part of this argument is how the authors erase the distinction between heresy (Gnostic) and orthodoxy (monks) to show the shared interest in determining the spiritual meaning of Scripture that unites these two usually distinct categories (81–84). For this argument to work, though, they also have to undermine "old clichés" of Gnosticism, such as its purported negative view of the creator God and creation (85). Finally, Lundhaug and Jenott provide an extensive argument against the claim that these texts fit best with an "urban elite" audience (see 102 for a list of the claims they argue are necessary to accept this view).
The authors then turn to the manuscripts themselves: the papyri in the car-tonnage (Ch. 5), the colophons that are part of the manuscripts (Ch. 7), and the question of book production in Late Antiquity (Ch. 8). As before, each chapter engages scholarship that disputes a monastic context in order to rebut it and provide counterarguments. They deny that the documentary evidence among the papyri in the cartonnage indicates a non-monastic context, since monks were not as separated from the rest of society as the idealized portrait claims (117–23). Other papyri with references to brothers, fatherhood, and including specific names, are more readily identifiable as monastic (129–39). The authors' arguments about the colophons rely both on parallels with monastic evidence (178) and also on arguments that the phrases in them "resonate" with Pachomian monasticism (188) to make the case that overall the language indicates a monastic context. Finally, the authors maintain that organizing the texts into various subgroups based on scribal hand does not refute the argument for monasteries as a locus of production (231), especially since most books were produced in monasteries during this time period.
Having thus established a detailed case for the monastic context for production, Lundhuag and Jenott consider which monks would have been the most likely readers of these texts. Although allowing for a Melitian monastic context, the reference to "Pachome" in the papyri (Ch. 5) tips the scales away from this possibility. Rather they argue that the themes of the texts align with those called "Origenist," (240–26) and further assert that Pachomian monasteries, although viewed by some scholars as fortresses of orthodoxy, would have included monks who were influenced by the teachings of Origen (249).
Near the end of the chapter on carton-nage, Lundhaug and Jennot acknowledge that scholars can never know for certain how the material was collected but that a monastic site is the "most plausible" explanation (143, emphasis theirs). I would extend that uncertainty to the production of the codices as a whole. In the absence of definitive evidence, the authors have made the best case yet for the argument that monks, most likely Pachomian, produced and read these texts. Although their case necessarily rests on interpretive claims that are unlikely to find universal assent, The Monastic Origins of the [End Page 293] Nag Hammadi Codices is now essential reading for anyone interested in the Nag Hammadi texts, Egyptian monasticism or, as they would argue, both. For those who accept the authors' arguments, the book will have succeeded in its goal of moving the conversation from the question of "who produced and read the Nag Hammadi Codices" to that of how the ideas contained within the texts can help us to understand the complexity of monasticism in late antique Egypt (264). [End Page 294]