Friday, February 28, 2014

Another retelling of the Nag Hammadi discovery story

Jeff Rose tells the story of the Nag Hammadi discoveries
A year or so ago, I published an article in which I asked questions about the oft-told story of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in1945 ("How reliable is the story of the Nag Hammadi discovery?", Journal for the Study of the New Testament 35/4 (2013): 303-22).  It emerged from some thoughts and ruminations here on the NT Blog.

One of the elements that is intriguing about the repetition of the story in the scholarship is that it continues to morph and change, ever accreting and losing details, with characters appearing and disappearing, the jar growing every larger, and a corpse mysteriously vanishing.

While I was watching the second part of the recent BBC series, Bible Hunters, reviewed here by Larry Hurtado, I was interested to hear yet another divergent version of this story.  I have transcribed it from the documentary below.  It's in the 43rd minute or so, and Jeff Rose has arrived at Nag Hammadi to tell the story of the discovery.  He crouches down and has a small pot just next to him:
Mohammad Ali's account led the investigators to the edge of the Nile Valley, to the cliffs that separate the fertile land from the desert. And it's here that the story began. Mohammad and his brothers were out looking for fertilizer. They made an amazing discovery.  Underneath a boulder, they found a sealed clay pot.  Now, the other guys, they didn't want to touch it because they were afraid there might be a genie inside.  But Mohammad was more interested in money, so he picks up a rock, smashes the thing.  You can imagine his surprise when he saw what was really inside.  He found the manuscripts that would become the famous thirteen Nag Hammadi codices.
Several common elements from the story are present here, including the brothers and the fertilizer, the genie and the gold (here "money"), but they are configured differently.  There is no version of the story in which it is only the brothers who are afraid of the genie, or in which Mohammad is more interested than them in money.  Moreover, it is an almost universal feature in the story that the pot was broken with a "mattock", something that is given added poignancy because of the subsequent murder also using "mattocks".  Contrast, for example, Elaine Pagels's version of the story from Gnostic Gospels (xiii):
Shortly before he and his brothers avenged their father’s murder in a blood feud, they had saddled their camels and gone out to the Jabal to dig for sabakh, a soft soil they used to fertilize their crops. Digging around a massive boulder, they hit a red earthenware jar, almost a meter high. Muhammad ‘Ali hesitated to break the jar, considering that a jinn, or spirit, might live inside. But realizing that it might also contain gold, he raised his mattock, smashed the jar, and discovered inside thirteen papyrus books, bound in leather. Returning to his home in al-Qasr, Muhammad ‘Ali dumped the books and loose papyrus leaves on the straw piled on the ground next to the oven. Muhammad’s mother, ‘Umm-Ahmad, admits that she burned much of the papyrus in the oven along with the straw she used to kindle the fire.
One of the delightful things about these different versions of the Nag Hammadi find story is that they provide us with a nice contemporary analogy concerning the transmission of tradition.  As with the Synoptics, there are  demonstrable literary links, as when Werner Kelber quotes one of James Robinson's versions.  There are variant versions by the same author, so that Robinson has three different versions of the story just as Luke has three different versions of the conversion of Paul.  There are oral retellings of the written tales, as when Pagels tells the story in TV documentaries from 1987 and 1999, and here, when Jeff Rose tells the story, presumably from memory, of what he has previously read.

Latest NT Pod on the ending of Mark

I've been pleased to get back to a regular schedule of releases again on the NT Pod. I've been meaning to record one for a while on the question of the ending of Mark, and this is the topic of the latest episode:

NT Pod 71: Was the ending of Mark's Gospel lost?

Towards the end of the episode, I couldn't resist chatting about one of my favourite adverts from the 1970s, in which Schubert is unable to complete his unfinished symphony because he is down the pub with his mates.  Sadly, the only version of it that I can find online is a bit grainy and has terrible sound quality, but it's good enough:

If anyone knows of a better version, please let me know.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Historical Jesus Criteria Podcasts

I commented here the other day (Snow and Podcasts) on the latest episodes of the NT Pod, which is finally back after a hiatus of several months.

I have released a couple more episodes since then (NT Pod 69 and NT Pod 70), also both on the discussion about historical Jesus criteria.

Now seems like a good time to gather the links together on all of these:

NT Pod 59: Historical Jesus Criteria
NT Pod 60: The Criterion of Embarrassment
NT Pod 61: The Criterion of Multiple Attestation
NT Pod 69: The Criterion of Discontinuity
NT Pod 70: Views Common to Friend and Foe

Or, if it is easier, I have them together under one label: Historical Jesus Criteria.

I'm a bit bored with the discussion about criteria now, so I'll leave it for a while, perhaps until I teach Historical Jesus again next year.  Episode 71 will be about something different.  I have a couple of ideas and I'll make my mind up over the next day or so.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Snow and Podcasts

I have been meaning to get back to the podcast for a long time and finally, this week, it happened. First, I recorded a new episode, NT Pod 67, on John's Gospel and the Historical Jesus. I've been teaching the Historical Jesus here at Duke this semester and the topics are often conducive to podcasting, and this one ran alongside one of my classes on materials for Jesus research (including Paul, the Synoptics, Thomas, John). Then yesterday, Duke cancelled afternoon classes because of the snow, and for the second time this semester, this affected my Historical Jesus class. Instead of just trying to re-jig the syllabus, I decided to use the occasion to record another podcast.

Traffic at a standstill on my four hour
commute home yesterday!
NT Pod 68 asks "Where do we begin Historical Jesus Research?" The topic was less congenial to podcasting because I was planning, in class, to introduce several different approaches to the Historical Jesus, contrasting the starting points of E. P. Sanders, John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright.  But I had a go anyway and recorded a kind of hybrid episode, going to twenty minutes rather than the usual 10-12 minutes.

The second half of yesterday's class was going to begin looking at Historical Jesus criteria.  This is something I began podcasting on last time I taught the course, in 2012 (see NT Pod 59: Historical Jesus Criteria, NT Pod 60: the Criterion of Embarrassment and NT Pod 61: the Criterion of Multiple Attestation).  I am planning to continue this series now with an episode on the Criterion of Dissimilarity.  I hope to have that episode online by this evening.

You can listen to the NT Pod online or subscribe in your preferred reader or subscribe via iTunes.  You can also find the NT Pod on Facebook, or follow the NT Pod on Twitter.