- 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...