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.


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.