Fragments from an Earthen Jar–James Robinson and the Nag Hammadi Library

by John Dart

Formerly religion religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, John Dart is news editor of the Christian Century magazine.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 1, 1978, pp. 213-215. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The writings of Gnostics themselves were relatively rare until December 1945 when 52 partial and whole texts, written in fourth century Coptic (Egyptian), were found in an earthen jar. James Robinson, more than any other, was instrumental in reviving studies in Gnosticism through his realization of the importance of these texts.

By the close of 1977, Theologian James M. Robinson of Claremont, California, had reached the end of what he called "a forced march" of more than a decade. All 13 books, or codices, of the Nag Hammadi (NAHG Ha-MAH-dee) Library had been put into the public domain with the publication in December of the tenth and final volume of photographs of the papyrus pages and fragments. E. J. Brill of Leiden, which published these "facsimile" editions, also combined forces with Harper & Row to issue the complete collection in English translation, unveiling the 493-page book just before the new year at the annual conference of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco.

Robinson "has done more than any other single person to revive studies in Gnosticism and the Nag Hammadi documents," said Harvard’s George MacRae, former SBL executive secretary. Gnosticism is commonly remembered as a hydra-headed heresy of the second century attacked at length by several church fathers. Many Gnostic Christians believed that, because of his divine origins, Jesus did not suffer on the cross, that the heavens were populated by all sorts of entities including a lower Creator God and a superior God of Light -- and that knowledge of one’s ultimate origins from the latter was the key to salvation.

Prodding and Persuading

The writings of Gnostics themselves were relatively rare until December 1945 when 52 partial and whole texts, written in fourth century Coptic (Egyptian), were found in an earthen jar. Two brothers, peasants from the nearby village, were looking for fertilizer at the base of a cliff about a dozen miles across the Nile River from Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt when they found and broke open the jar. It wasn’t until late 1947 that a Western scholar recognized the significance of some of the texts he saw at Cairo’s Coptic Museum, where they are now all kept.

For various reasons, progress was slow in getting the works into the hands of scholars. An international colloquium on the origins of Gnosticism convened in Messina, Sicily, in 1966, but the participants had little to discuss intelligently from the largely Gnostic Nag Hammadi Library. Notable texts such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and the Apocryphon of John had been published, but little else.

That was when Robinson, a relative newcomer to Gnostic studies, began his prodding, persuading and perhaps purloining to assemble transcriptions of practically the whole library in a year or two. Whether he was called secretary or editor, depending on the committee, he convinced UNESCO to speed up its photographing of manuscript pages, even reshooting some pages. While holding appointments at both the School of Theology at Claremont and the Claremont Graduate School, Robinson helped establish a translation team based at a new Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont.

First-draft translations into English were beginning to circulate widely by 1968. "Whatever we had access to, everyone had access to," said Robinson of his sharing principle. The process was working against the usual system of private assignments of texts to individual scholars. "The sociology of scholarship has been such as to reward those who get exclusive rights and then climb up the academic ladder with the status of those publishing important materials," Robinson said in the SBL conference. "In reality, they are not publishing it but blocking its publication."

Robinson blistered the European scholars who had had possession of the so-called Jung Codex from Nag Hammadi (smuggled out of Egypt by an antiquities dealer) since 1952 but did not publish the last of five text translations and commentaries until 1975. He also alluded to delays in Dead Sea Scroll accessibility and wondered about the future of newly discovered 24th century BC. tablets from the surprisingly large kingdom of Ebla in northern Syria (earliest-ever mentions of Jerusalem, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.).

Gnostic Texts

How significant is the Nag Hammadi Library? In strictly archaeological-historical terms, of the 52 titles, 40 were writings found for the first time ever, said Robinson. Ten are in poor condition, leaving 30 in "relatively good condition and rescued for posterity." Among the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Jewish Essene sect, the previously unknown treatises which survived intact are considerably smaller in number, he said.

The most famous of the Nag Hammadi texts is the Gospel of Thomas -- not the fanciful infancy gospel preserved through the centuries but a collection of 14 sayings attributed to Jesus. Modern critical research on Matthew and Luke has worked under the assumption that those Gospel writers used collections of sayings of Jesus to build up their narratives. Thomas, as it turns out, is material confirmation that such collections of sayings did exist. Very little dialogue accompanies the sayings, and there is no account of Jesus’ life and passion.

Because it was one of the books rejected by the developing church orthodoxy and because a number of scholars today claim that Gnostic influences dominate most of Thomas, the Gospel has not caused much stir.

But Helmut Koester of Harvard may be the harbinger of a new perspective on the text. In his introduction to Thomas in the Brill-Harper Nag Hammadi Library in English, Koester says that a comparison of its Jesus sayings with synoptic parallels "suggests that the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas either are present in a more primitive form or are developments of a more primitive form of such sayings." In other words, Thomas, though perhaps written in final form about mid-second century or shortly thereafter, may preserve an independent tradition of sayings more reliable in some cases than those found in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

To the extent that contemporary biblical analysis gets a hearing in Christian circles, the Nag Hammadi Library is a potential bombshell. The tendency in church circles is to think comfortably that "archaeology always proves the Bible." The Nag Hammadi Library, perhaps like some other discoveries, is likely to "disprove" further the harmonizing view of the New Testament as the product of entirely like-minded writers and to "prove" additionally the great diversity of early Christianity through critical study of the biblical and extrabiblical books.

"The shadow-boxing with invisible opponents going on in the New Testament can be fleshed out more fully with the new materials," said Robinson, referring particularly to Gnostic Christian beliefs that the resurrection had already arrived for believers. Whether Jesus’ teachings were horribly misrepresented or not may now be judged by modern scholars.

Scholars who have doubted that Gnostic redeemer myths could have influenced the Gospel of John’s Imagery of Jesus as the heavenly redeemer often cite European scholar Carsten Colpe as having debunked the thesis soundly in 1960. However, Robinson noted that Colpe enthused in a 1974 article over the "stupendous parallels" to the prologue of John in a Gnostic "classic" in the Nag Hammadi collection --the heaven-sent Logos of the Father who makes frequent "I am" statements in the text Trimorphic Protennoia. There are some references to Christ, but there is strong suspicion that the text has been Christianized from an earlier version.

Possible Jewish origins of Gnostic thought are stimulated in part by the wealth of material about Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve. First century Jewish historian Josephus referred to Jewish beliefs about the greatness of Seth, but only in the Gnostic works does one find extensive literature about Seth. Many Gnostics apparently identified with the "seed of Seth," including tile believers who used the Apocalypse of Adam, perhaps the oldest writing in the Nag Hammadi Library.

The female side of the deity and the prominence of women disciples in Gnostic Christian writings should interest feminist theologians regarding a discarded side of early Christianity.

New Excavations

Are there any more writings like this to be had from Upper Egypt? Following a trail about 30 years old, Robinson found one of the brothers who made the discovery and others who handled the texts only in the past couple of years. The discovery site, now surveyed, doesn’t promise to yield any more, but Robinson’s institute is engaged in its third year of excavation at the nearby ruins of the fourth century -- founded basilica of St. Pachomius, where the first Christian monastic communities were formed. The Nag Hammadi codices may have been copied and bound there.

And on his most recent trip there, Robinson also learned that the Bodmer Papyri (canonical and apocryphal texts) may have been found in a cave north of the monastery ruins. A few days after the biblical scholars’ conference in San Francisco, Robinson was back in Egypt.