Another Jesus Was Found in Egypt
In the early days of Christianity, there’d been a splinter movement? A strange, godless group, not even Christian really. They had orgies all the time, and re-wrote the Bible, adding in stories full of ‘pagan’ influences. The church fathers put a stop to that. The ‘Gnostics’ were heretics.
These might be thoughts in the mind of a traditional Christian in 1949 if reading in The Guardian a report of a discovery. It seems, in Egypt, “the scriptures of the Gnostic sect” have come to light.
It’s not a big story. Updates run only occasionally. A 1956 report mentions that “the 1,000 sheets of yellowish-brown centuries-old papyri” had included “twenty pages of sayings of Jesus Christ as recorded by St. Thomas the Apostle.”
The books had appeared among Cairo antiquities dealers, but where were they from?
Two French scholars had been involved in the find, and one, a graduate student named Jean Doresse, set out to find the origin. Dealers weren’t too eager to tell him more. Often, valuables of this type had been taken from tombs. The sale would be illegal, for any antiquity belonged to the state.
Doresse was told that the peasants who found the books had burned some to heat water for tea! But then his colleague, Henri-Charles Puech, informs him:
“This is an old story that never fails to be spread in Egypt on the occasion of finds of this kind.”
Doresse is given the names of a few villages where the books might have come from. He goes to visit Nag Hammadi, south of Cairo, and tells the Arab villagers he’s interested in tombs—so they won’t make up stories for pay.
He’s led to tombs that are burrowed into a high rock cliff, and peers into the “shapeless cavities,” and muses:
“Was it in one of these tombs that the papyri were found?”
Or that’s how it goes in a French edition of Doresse’s book, published in 1958. In an English version, in 1960, there’s a following scene. The villagers start to chat about a discovery of books years before. Some men had been digging for fertilizer, in a cemetery, and happened upon a clay jar — with books!
Doresse asked where this cemetery was, and they point to a general area. He excavated, but could only find “broken bones, fragments of cloth without interest and some potsherds.”
Curiously, the French and English versions of Doresse’s book have different photos of the ‘place of discovery’. He’d later offer a third photo. Were they even of the same place?
Several more scholars visited the village, trying to learn more, but none heard the jar story
Nonetheless, a public history formed. The library was found by Egyptian peasants near Nag Hammadi. In search of fertilizer, they’d dug near a cliff, found a cemetery and a jar, with books in it.
They’d burned a few to heat up their tea.
Over in Israel, the Dead Sea Scrolls had been found, and the story of a shepherd finding a cave with ancient scrolls had charmed the world.
Doresse is conscious of the comparison. Though the Scrolls are “much-admired,” he writes in his book, he prefers to “extol this discovery above anything that has been found elsewhere.”
Could the Nag Hammadi library—with ‘new’ sayings by Jesus!—have more appeal to the Christian marketplace? This ‘gospel of Thomas’ was just odd sayings, “hidden words” as the text calls them, or riddles really—with a promise that whoever solves them would gain eternal life.
Few were likely to do so? A sample of the text:
“Whoever has ears to hear let him hear. Within a man of light there is light and he lights the whole world. When he does not shine, there is darkness.”
When an English translation appeared in 1959, Christians largely ignored it
Scholars seemed interested. The Gospel of Thomas, they’d recall, was known to early Christians—cited by Origen as an accurate record of Jesus. A previously unidentified Greek copy was recognized. And more Gnostic texts came to public view at almost the same time.
An idea seems to rise in the Pop Culture of the time: to write, or perform, a ‘new Jesus’.
In 1961, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein publishes a novel whose original title, he’d say, was The Heretic. In what becomes Stranger in a Strange Land, a Jesus-like teacher from Mars has a new, sexed-up message for the human race.
As scholars would note, Stranger in a Strange Land is full of references to the Gospel of Thomas. The name of the novel’s Martian messiah, ‘Valentine Michael Smith’, might recall the key Gnostic teacher, ‘Valentinus’.
A singer from Britain was fascinated by Heinlein’s novel and talked up efforts to make a movie of it, in which he would be the star. Instead, David Bowie wrote a rock album about a ‘leper messiah’—The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Scholars realized that Christianity had some confessing to do
Almost everything known about the Gnostics had come from the ‘church fathers’. With the Gnostic library now available, it was apparent they had been misrepresented.
In a 1971 paper, “The Nag Hammadi Library and the Heresiologists,” Frederik Wisse notes the books don’t seem to call for orgies. If anything, he thinks, there was “an ascetic morality.”
And the Gnostics—a word derived from the regular Greek word for ‘knowledge’—hadn’t disbelieved the Bible. They just read it differently. For them, the narratives seem more like a veneer over a complex world of spirits. To ‘know’ was to learn to see more deeply.
As Wisse explains:
“For those who are able to look beyond appearances, the truth is visible everywhere.”
The Gnostic texts disagree, and encourage disagreement! As Wisse notes, “several opinions on an issue are given for the benefit of the reader.”
The campaign against them began to look a bit ugly. He writes:
“In the final stage Christian orthodoxy had become so well established and possessed so much political muscle that it could put the Gnostic groups in various areas on the offensive and isolate them.”
James M. Robinson, an American scholar who had worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls, arrives on the scene
It’s not clear why he took up the Gnostic texts. In interviews he gave over the years, he reflects on his Calvinist upbringing. In 2006, thinking over his career as a Bible scholar, he explains:
“I grew up in a very traditional Christian home, and of course believed what I was told. If I had moved from that background into some normal business, I would over the years no doubt have realized that it had nothing to do with the real world.”
His idea was to gather up the Nag Hammadi library and re-present it to the public. This involved prying copies from new owners — no easy task.
He was able to borrow a set of photographs of the books. He made a secret set of copies, and circulated them. The manuscripts were ‘liberated’.
The approach gave him “pangs of conscience,” he’d say, but in this case, perhaps, “the end justified the means.”
He wanted to include a more detailed account of how the books had been found, and in 1975, he arrives in Nag Hammadi and locates the original finder—now revealed as Muḥammad ‘Alī.
Finally, there’s a dating of the find. For Doresse it had wavered oddly, between 1945 and 1947. But now it was clear: November 1945.
The scholar Nicola Denzey Lewis describes Robinson’s methods:
“…a process that involved friendly bribes, translators, and a spirit of adventure and discovery that makes a terrific set of stories, but fieldwork methodology that would not be acceptable today.”
I flip through the photos Robinson left, now in the Claremont College Digital Library. There’s eerie shots of isolated men, with faces in shadow. This is how he sees Muḥammad ‘Alī.
Robinson’s resulting 1977 book, “The Nag Hammadi Library,” was a bestseller
A popular 1979 overview of the subject, The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, was as successful. She summarized the new discovery story Robinson had learned. Muḥammad ‘Alī had been recovering from a blood feud, having avenged his father’s murder in a gruesome scene. Then he saddled his camel and went to dig for fertilizer—and found a red jar.
Should he break it? Muhammad feared a jinn spirit might lurk inside. But the prospect of gold seemed even more likely, so he smashed it—to find books. He took them home and dumped them next to the oven, and his mother burned some while cooking.
From 2013 on, several scholars traced how Robinson’s account was deeply troubled. Nicola Denzey Lewis notes his colleagues told her of private suspicions that he “had largely fabricated the find story.”
Robinson never addressed the critiques. He died in 2016. Where, or when, the Gnostic books were found is unknown.