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Holman Bible Dictionary

Nag Hammadi

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(nuhg ham ma' di) Modern Egyptian village 300 miles south of Cairo and about 60 miles north of Luxor, or ancient Thebes. Because of the close proximity of Nag Hammadi to the site of an important discovery of ancient documents relating to gnosticism, the collection of documents is usually referred to as the Nag Hammadi documents or library. Another name occasionally associated with the documents is Chenoboskion, the name of an ancient Christian community which is also near the discovery site. Although the documents were found in an abandoned cemetery near Chenoboskion, they probably had no ancient association with that community.

Unlike the Dead Sea Scroll materials, which consisted primarily of scrolls, the documents found near Nag Hammadi are codices, books containing leaves. Each codex was formed of sheets of papyrus bound in leather, and measured from about 9 inches to 11 inches. Thirteen separate codices were found containing fifty-one smaller writings. While the documents are written in the Coptic language, an ancient language of Egypt, they are probably translations of Greek originals. The date of the present documents appears to be about A.D. 350. While there is debate as to the dates of the original texts, some were probably written before A.D. 200.

The Discovery of the Nag Hammadi Documents As in the case with many major archaeological discoveries, the find was something quite unexpected. In 1945 an Arab peasant digging in an ancient cemetery for soft dirt to be used as fertilizer, found instead a large earthenware jar. At first he feared to open the jar due to his superstitious beliefs, but the prospect of valuable treasure inside prompted him to break open the container. He found the thirteen leather-bound books, or codices. Some of the documents may have been destroyed, but the discovery eventually came to the attention of those involved in antiquity studies.

The Contents of the Nag Hammadi Documents Practically all the materials reflect the religious outlook called gnosticism, an emerging world view that caused considerable difficulty for early Christianity. See Gnosticism .

Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Documents, our knowledge of gnosticism came primarily from early Christian writers who wrote against the movement. Christian writers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian not only gave descriptions of the teachings of gnosticism, but they also quoted from gnostic writings. With the Nag Hammadi discovery, however, a small library of actual gnostic writings became available for study.

The Nag Hammadi Documents represent a rather wide diversity of content. Of special interest are several more clearly defined categories. The materials referred to as “Gospels” are especially important. In this category are such works as The Gospel of Philip , The Gospel of Truth , and perhaps the most important work found at Nag Hammadi, The Gospel of Thomas , which purports to be a collection of sayings of Jesus. See Apocrpha, New Testament.

Another category of documents concerns the work and circumstances of the apostles. The Apocalypse of Paul relates an account of the heavenly journey of Paul. The Revelation of Peter describes special revelations given to Peter by Jesus before Peter's imprisonment. The Revelation of James tells of the death of James.

An additional category of documents contains a wide variety of mythological speculations covering such topics as creation, redemption, and ultimate destiny. In this category are such works as On the Origin of the World , Secret Book of the Great Invisible Spirit , Revelation of Adam , The Thought of our Great Power , The Paraphrase of Shem , The Second Logos of the Great Seth , and The Trimorphic Protennoia .

Although the Nag Hammadi Documents represent a diversity of gnostic systems, most of the materials do reflect the gnostic orientation. A possible exception is the work called The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles which is an apocryphal work about the twelve apostles.

Significance of the Nag Hammadi Documents

1. Provides primary source material enabling a greater understanding of Gnosticism.

2. Prove the existence of gnostic systems independent of the Christian framework. Some were primarily Jewish, and others existed as movements independent of either a Jewish or a Christian orientation.

3. Enhance the study of the New Testament, especially of the books that may have been written as reactions to Gnosticism, such as Colossians, John, and possibly 1Corinthians.

4. Reflect the diversity of Gnosticism and point to the diversity of early Christianity and the resultant struggle for orthodoxy.

5. Reinforces an appreciation for the seriousness of the gnostic threat to early Christianity. Firsthand evidence now exists of the divergent gnostic views of creation, Christ, redemption, the doctrine of humanity, and the significance of the institutional church.

In conclusion, although not as well known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, the discovery at Nag Hammadi represents an important milestone in the understanding of the struggles and developments of the early Christian church. Bruce Tankersley

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Nag Hammadi'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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