Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents, a variant account

I mentioned earlier the documentary The Gnostics, broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK in 1987. Both Brent (in comments) and April De Conick note that a book accompanied the series, Tobias Churton, The Gnostics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson in association with Channel Four Television Co., Ltd. and Border Television, 1987). There are tons of copies of the book available second hand on the net. I wish I could say the same of the video, which is very scarce indeed. Luckily, we have a copy of the book in the library here and there is a lot of material of interest.

The thing that really struck me is this new version of the story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, from the mouth of Muhammad Ali himself:
I found it at the Hamra Dūm mountain in the December of 1945. By 6 o'clock in the morning when I started my work . . . all of a sudden I found this pot. And after I found it I had the feeling that there was something inside it. So I kept it, and because it was cold this morning . . . I decided that I would leave it and would come back again for it to find out what's inside. I came back in the same day in fact, and I broke this pot. But I was afraid at the beginning because there might be something inside it -- a jinn, a bad spirit. I was by myself when I broke the pot. I wanted my friends to be with me. After I broke it I found that it was a story book. I decided to bring my friends to tell them about the story. We were seven and we realized immediately that this has something to do with the Christian people. And we said that we don't really need it at all -- it was just useless to us. So I took it to the ministry over here and he told me, well we really don't need it. It was just rubbish for us. So I took it back home. Some of them were burned and I tried to sell some of them (The Gnostics, 9).
The definitive version of the story of the discovery is told by James M. Robinson in a variety of places, but most fully in "The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Codices" in The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 42, No. 4, "The Nag Hammadi Library and Its Archeological Context" (Autumn 1979): 206-224. Robinson's brilliantly told account is based on several visits to Nag Hammadi, and extensive discussions with Ali and others. It has been celebrated and repeated in multiple accounts, all of which are ultimately derived from Robinson's version. The account above is interesting both for what it has in common and for how it diverges. In several respects it is clearly inferior to Robinson's narrative -- it is a decade or so later, it is more sketchy, it is more self-obsessed -- but to hear the man himself speak (through an interpreter) is most interesting.

As in Robinson's account, there is the note about the fear of the jinn, and the worrying note about the burning of "some of them". In contrast, though, Ali here represents himself as the sole discoverer of the codices in contrast to Robinson's account which names his brother Abū al-Majd as the one who uncovered the pot. Further, there is no suggestion in Robinson's account that Ali was alone when he discovered it. Quite the contrary. There, he already has the six others (two brothers and four others) with him on discovery. I am guessing that "ministry" is a slight mistranslation for "minister", which would make the piece cohere with Robinson's account.

Churton has a little more in his own words on the following pages and his narrative largely follows the lines of Robinson's on which it is, I think, partially dependent. But there are some additional elements including a quotation of Ali on the revolting blood vengeance, "I took my knife and cut out his heart and ate most of his pieces" (11), and there is more on the police investigation and detainment in prison.

I would guess that the confident assertion about "December 1945" is superimposed by Ali's discussions with Robinson in the 1970s, a major part of which involved the attempt to date the find. If Ali had already known then that it was December 1945, it would hardly have been necessary to have spent so long locating the discovery, with the discussion of the murders and when they happened.

I suppose that one of the elements that also comes through in Ali's comments here is just how insignificant the discovery was to him, especially in relation to the big issue of the blood feud. These were just story books and, what's more, other people's story books. It's no surprise that his memory was very sketchy.

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