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.


Dave Lewis said...

Maybe Jeff didn't know what a mattock is. I didn't.

Dave Lewis said...

Mark, it's like reading Josephus in which you get the same material reworked in a different context.