- The Nag Hammadi Story by James M. Robinson
The Nag Hammadi Story, 2 Volumes
Boston: Brill, 2014
Pp. xxxiv + 1,216 pp. $499.00.
For students of early Christianity, the most important manuscript discovery of the twentieth century was undoubtedly the Nag Hammadi collection of Coptic texts. That collection of the remains of twelve codices and portions of a thirteenth provided new primary documentation for the phenomenon of Gnosticism in its manifold variety, as well as new Hermetic literature and texts that do not fit neatly into any classification of ancient religious literature. These two volumes, by a scholar who played a significant role in the story, describe not the content of the ancient leather bound papyri, but the process by which they were discovered and eventually published. They provide a wealth of documentary material and testimonials from most of the scholars who were involved in the process. One of the factors that leads to the heft of these two volumes is that all of this material is presented in both an English translation and, in footnotes, in the original [End Page 618] languages. Most of this material was collected over the years while Robinson served as secretary of the UNESCO committee that eventually produced the facsimile edition of the find. Robinson’s narrative situates the documents and provides useful cross references and comments that make clear his own take on the process that he archives. A final chapter (2:1101–48) focuses on the excavations at the site of Nag Hammadi and the Basilica of St. Pachomius from 1975–1978.
The initial episode in this whole account (1:1–40) is in many ways the most colorful and most intriguing as a historical problem. Jean Doresse, the earliest European scholar to be involved with the find, visited the area of the discovery in 1947. Robinson’s own version of the discovery, developed in critical dialogue with Doresse’s account, has long been a part of Nag Hammadi lore (The Biblical Archaeologist 42 ) but has been critically re-examined in recent years (Goodacre, JSNT 35 ; Lewis and Blount, JBL 133 ).
Much of the recent controversy has focused on the precise location of the discovery. After a visit to the area in 1950, Doresse identified the general area of the discovery as a site near the village of Ḥamrah Dūm, at the base of the cliffs known as the Jabal al-Ṭārif. Doresse took a series of photos of the site from slightly different angles and published them in different versions of his account (Les livres secrets des gnostiques d’Égypte, 1958; The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Texts, 1960). His descriptions of the area also note features such as cavities on the face of the cliff that served as tombs and burials scattered around the base of the cliff. Robinson (1:9–11) notes the difficulties with Doresse’s description. There is not much evidence of burials on the lower areas, while there are tombs from the Sixth Dynasty midway up the talus.
Locating the site of discovery more precisely has been hindered not only by some vagueness in Doresse’s account, but also by different versions of the site of the discovery (Robinson, 1:28). All the venues are in the same general vicinity but in slightly different circumstances. Robinson interviewed the man who discovered the codices, Muḥammad ‘Alī, in 1975, and travelled with him to the area. ‘Alī initially identified the location of the find as the tomb of Thauti but then later identified the site that Robinson believes to be correct, underneath a broken boulder on the talus. This identification was corroborated by the testimony of another local. The archaeological investigation, however, did not find confirmatory evidence, nor was Robinson able to confirm ‘Alī’s claim to have found remains of a corpse near the jar containing the codices.
Robinson’s efforts to find the historical facts of the discovery are admirable. They include the publication of hitherto unknown and very important early reports of the find, yet they also serve as a lesson to anyone interested in “wie es eigentligh gewesen” about how...