Thursday, October 22, 2009

Doubts about the story of the discovery at Nag Hammadi

Although the compelling story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1945 is frequently narrated, it is not widely known that two scholars questioned the story and wished to distance themselves from it.

The key bibliography for the story of the discovery is as follows. The fullest version of the story of the finds is in James Robinson, "The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices", The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 42, No. 4, "The Nag Hammadi Library and Its Archeological Context" (Autumn 1979): 206-224. The most influential version is The Nag Hammadi Library in English (translated by members of the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977; rev. eds. 1988, 1996). The version in Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), which is based on Robinson's earliest account, has also been influential in other retellings.

Now, Robinson's account is based on extensive research in and around the Nag Hammadi region, with many interviews on several occasions with the protagonists in the 1960s and 1970s. His achievement in digging up the original details of what happened a generation earlier, and in writing so fascinating an account, is a testament to the skills of one of the most important and influential scholars of the late twentieth century.

The element of controversy is that Rudolphe Kasser and Martin Krause, who worked with Robinson on the Nag Hammadi Library in the 1970s and early 1980s, expressed major reservations about Robinson's story, so much so that they asked him to publish the following remarkable disclaimer in The Facsimile Edition on which they collaborated:
Rudolphe Kasser and Martin Krause wish to make it known here that they have serious reasons to put in doubt the objective value of a number of important points of the Introduction that follows. They contest especially the detailed history of the discovery of the Coptic Gnostic manuscripts of Nag Hammadi resulting from the investigation of James M. Robinson. Kasser and Krause and others who were involved do not consider as assured anything more than the core of the story (the general location and approximate date of the discovery), the rest not having for them more than the value of stories and fables that one can collect in popular Egyptian circles thirty years after an event whose exceptional significance the protagonists could not at the time understand. R. K. and M. K.
The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices: Introduction (Published under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt. In conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984), 3.

Although Robinson's account has often been retold, Krause's and Kasser's publicly stated objection to it has almost never been repeated. (I will discuss the exception next time). My guess is that this is more through ignorance than anything else. The quotation above is written in a tiny font in square brackets as the first few lines in a two-page footnote in the Preface of an expensive and highly technical volume, and that may explain why not many have seen it.

So what are we to make of Krause's and Kasser's concerns? I have some further thoughts on the topic which I hope to post here in due course.


Roger Pearse said...

Interesting indeed, and I hope I see your thoughts.

There is politics in all this, which not everyone will know or remember. What follows may not be 100% accurate, as I write from memory.

We must remember that the Nag Hammadi documents were appropriated by the scholars to whom they were assigned, who promptly sat on them, without publishing more than bits of them, for nearly 20 years. It was the genius of Robinson to find a way past such obstructiveness and get the texts out there and accessible to us all. I doubt that some of the scholars, who had hoped to make their reputations with these texts, ever forgave him. But we all owe him a debt. There may be scores being settled.

Kasser in particular belongs to the "don't let anyone see" group. He was involved in the dubious goings-on around the Jung Codex, if I understand correctly.

He was also an ally of the art-dealer Frieda Nussberger Tchacos and her lawyer, the personally charming Mario Roberty, in the dealings behind the publication of the critical text of the gospel of Judas codex. The determination to reveal nothing except to selected privileged people at the time was quite amusing to witness, as I was poking around the story at the time. Fortunately National Geographic took a public-spirited view of the text and made it freely available online.

Kasser was heavily criticised by the notorious Michel van Rijn, the whistleblower on much of the dodgy dealings in the art world, during the early 2000's (although not nearly as much as Frieda and co) on his now defunct and vanished website. Van Rijn was very well-informed, but very much a colourful character and the material on the site could be gossip as well as fact; so we have to treat it with care. Nevertheless he got hold of photos of the codex which he made available online well before anyone else.

It must also be considered that Robinson did the leg-work. He went and tracked down the site of the discovery and the people who discovered it. It may be that his informants misled him. But ... did anyone else even look? Robinson, at least, is alive to the possibility of folk-tale.

In all this, I don't know quite what to think. I suspect that I simply don't know all the facts. The feuding is a little unedifying, if that is what it is.

I wish that glasnost would break out over papyrology. It seems to be a small circle of bitter people sometimes. I have never worked out why!

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I wonder if Robinson's gathering of the details some thrity years after the facts from Mohammed Ali is of relevance to what Bauckham discusses in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for your interesting and helpful comments, Roger. Yes, there is clearly no love lost between Kasser and Krause on the one hand and Robinson on the other. I am going to discuss that a little next time.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Stephen. Interesting potential material for reflection there. It is potentially of interest as an analogy in that Ali is illiterate and his stories are written down by literates, and also that one version of the story (Robinson's) has become the accepted version. As I will explain in subsequent posts, there are major variations in the stories, even as presented by Robinson.