(Still) Rethinking the Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices

Nicola Denzey Lewis on what we know about Nag Hammadi

The find story of the Nag Hammadi codices is well known to anyone who works in the field of Gnosticism or early Christian literature. There is no point in rehearsing the beginning of the story here in detail; it can be distilled into these central themes: an illiterate peasant, a search for fertilizer gone awry, and the fortuitous discovery of a mysterious jar deep in the Egyptian wilderness containing ancient secret books. But the story does not end there. In this tale of intrigue, the codices themselves emerge as the new romantic heroines of the story. Narrowly escaping their own destruction by fire, the books are hidden and then smuggled, alternately recognized for their value and treated as virtually worthless, passed through multiple hands of people who only exploit them, and hastily dumped or traded for a scandalous price: some tea, some sugar, a bag of oranges. According to the common story, the codices are even witnesses to a gory act of murder, “the ultimate act of blood vengeance,” as Mohamed Ali al-Samman, the peasant in question, slaughters with his brothers the man who a few months before killed their father, tearing out his heart and “devouring it on the spot.”

Even as find stories of ancient documents go, this tale has many compelling elements: a mysterious and exciting discovery; an almost lovably superstitious protagonist; a clueless old woman who almost ruins everything by tossing precious manuscript pages in the fire; exotically dangerous fellaheen who ride through the desert on camels or in jeeps, brandishing rifles and scimitars and whatever else they use to slaughter one another; and finally a happy resolution as the codices are rescued from an ignominious fate and delivered safely into the knowing hands of Western scholars. It’s thoroughly Orientalizing, and, when you think about its lurid details, quite implausible.

My part in debunking this tale began in 2012, when for the first time in twenty years I was forced to think hard about it as I sought to get its details right for a publication of my own. It came, primarily, from the many publications of a single man, James Robinson of Claremont Graduate University in California, who had organized a team of international scholars to produce the first English translations of the Nag Hammadi corpus in 1976. Reading Robinson’s various accounts of the discovery, I found that even the earliest versions revealed unsettling inconsistencies. Specific details vary across tellings. For instance: how many people were with Mohamed Ali that day? Was he alone, or with his brother? Or was he with a small crowd of people? The fact that certain details like these shift makes sense if the tale is, at base, a folktale. If the story is to be taken as an historical account, however, these inconsistencies need to be reconciled.

Mohamed Ali al-Samman turned out to be a nightmare of a source. Each time he was asked to re-tell the story, he told it differently. When Robinson took him, more than once, to the presumed find-spot, he was continually evasive. The final, definitive find-spot that he pointed out is nothing short of absurd: it is in the middle of the desert. Despite Muhamed Ali’s many prevarications, and despite details that emerged only after the delivery of cash bribes, cigarettes, and bottles of Jack Daniels, James Robinson himself insisted, over the course of the next forty years, that the story was true.

I argued in my publication that the elaborate find-story was a sort of “cover” for the reality of illegal antiquities dealing in mid-twentieth-century Egypt, even as it played to our own Western, Orientalizing fantasies of “saving” antiquities from a native audience who could scarcely understand or appreciate their value to world history. Playing into our own prejudices, the find-story neatly sidestepped suspicions that the codices were illegally obtained from clandestine excavations. The stories allowed scholars, in effect, to feel good about basing academic work on looted antiquities. “After all,” the logic goes, “they were just there, sitting in a jar in the open desert, waiting to be discovered and their ancient wisdom disseminated through serendipity and the expertise of Western scholars, changing everything we thought we knew about early Christianity.”

In previous publications I criticized Robinson for sensationalizing the Nag Hammadi discoveries, for changing details, and perhaps even for intentionally crafting a narrative that obscured a distasteful reality: that these books were obtained illegally or illegitimately, robbed out from some lost Egyptian site. At this point, five years after my initial research, I am less inclined to say that Robinson himself invented this story. Instead, I think he believed a story that came together from a well-organized ring of dealers and suppliers active in Egypt, masters of presenting illegally-obtained material in attractive and “safe” ways for Western scholars eager to buy into their fictions.

Let’s go back before Robinson’s now-famous account of the discovery, to what we know of the discovery itself in its non-narrative form. Neither the year nor the place of the books’ discovery was initially specified. It was almost certainly 1945 or 1946, although early accounts give the date as anywhere between 1945 and 1949. When they were discovered, though, is of less historical value than the question of where. Stated in the parlance of scholarship, what is the codices’ provenience? This, too, is disputed. From 1946, information on the find-spot – all of it vague – began to trickle across scholarly networks. The earliest reports from Abbot Etienne Drioton, a French Egyptologist who worked for the Egyptian government, then from Ludwig Keimer of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, give the find-spot as a tiny hamlet called Daba/Dibbeh/Ed-Dabeh, near the Jabal al-Tarif.

By the time this information appeared in 1946, the books’ mysterious appearance on the Cairo black market was already creating a buzz. Cairo is thus their only actual, known provenance. At this point, like all good stories, things get complicated. First, the books did not all arrive together in Cairo. Jean Doresse, the first scholar to publish articles on the find, reported in a letter to Henri-Charles Puech (dated to 1946) that he had heard that ten manuscripts were found in a jar, from a place “the name of which is unknown.” Of these ten, he had heard that two were completely burned, and the rest sold en bloc to local peasants. Of the remaining eight, two were in the possession of collectors. A Coptic Christian antiquities dealer, M. A. Mansoor, offered two others to Charles Kuentz, director of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale de Caire, but the deal fell through when middlemen reclaimed the books from Mansoor before their sale. Jacques Schwartz, who was with Kuentz that day, speculates in a report to Robinson that the unnamed middlemen reclaimed the manuscripts because the books were attracting attention – dangerous when they had come, Schwartz hints, from a “clandestine excavation.” Doresse’s letter continues:

Finally, three other manuscripts are said to have been acquired by [the antiquities dealer Phokion] Tano (who denies it energetically, but I do not believe him), who might already have sold them to Chester Beatty. The total count makes me think that there had been nine manuscripts in all, of which perhaps seven still exist.

This is quite curious, since we have thirteen, not seven, Nag Hammadi codices. I find it odd that almost twice the number of books as initially reported actually appeared on the antiquities market, over the span of nearly two years.

The earliest secure information we have on the Nag Hammadi codices is thus very slim: reports from dealers that the books came from the region around Daba, that there were a number of them that gradually appeared, and that different dealers had been approached rather covertly by middlemen. We also come across one particular name: Phokion Tano.

Tano was a third-generation antiquities dealer whose family hailed originally from Cyprus. He was the great-nephew of a famous dealer, Marious Panayiotis Tano(s), who set up a Cairene business in 1870 and supplied antiquities to many European museums, including the Louvre. Tano’s nephew Nicolas took over his uncle’s business, supplying many precious artifacts to museums in the west, including the Ashmolean, the British Museum, Chicago’s Oriental Institute, and the University of Michigan. The Tanos dealt easily in the back shadows and back rooms of Cairo, and many of their antiquities were entirely unprovenanced.

The sellers who retracted sale of the Nag Hammadi codices after preliminary offers had already been made (apparently) took the books to Phokion Tano, who purchased the lot. I can only speculate on why this was so: perhaps they felt safer unloading what they presumed to be illegal antiquities with Tano, and/or perhaps Tano convinced them that he could get a better price for the books than could Mansoor. Strangely, when Doresse approached the famous Tano asking him if he had any of these wondrous new codices, Tano denied it. As Doresse suspected, Tano indeed appears to have lied about having the codices, because apparently he did have some of them – eventually, in fact, he acquired the rest of the collection. (Two had already been purchased by other buyers from other dealers, and subsequently repatriated to the Egyptian government).

Tano had acquired his codices, according to Robinson, from someone called Bahij Ali, a rough criminal with only one eye from the village of al-Qasr close to Nag Hammadi. Bahij Ali, beginning to see the value of these old books, traveled to Cairo with a dealer named Dhaki Basta. He probably took what books he had to various antiquities dealers, including Mansoor and Tano, although if Ali and Basta had more than one book and traveled on only one occasion, it’s a mystery why Mansoor selected only one from a cache that, in theory, were discovered together. Codex III (the one that ended up in Mansoor’s hands) is in good shape, but was not as well-preserved and attractive as Codex II and Codex VII, the only books with tooled designs on their leather covers (and thus more attractive to collectors). Logic points to a number of trips, each with one or a few books for sale, perhaps over a period of time, to a number of dealers, from various middlemen. Someone named Nashid Bisadah had a codex, entrusting it to a gold merchant and dividing the profit. A grain merchant had another codex, and he profited so handily from its sale that he was able to set up his own shop in Cairo – the “Nag Hammadi Store.” (Curiously, when questioned by Robinson, the proprietor of the store denied ever having possession of the books.)

In the final analysis, it is unclear to me how authentic any of these chains of provenance actually are. They all derive from Robinson’s reconstruction, which began a full thirty years after the fact, and after the deaths of virtually all the figures concerned. Robinson worked tirelessly to find and verify the books’ provenance, making multiple trips to the area around Daba, and even carrying out extensive excavations at the Jabal that produced, embarrassingly, absolutely nothing. Still, when – thirty years later – Robinson arrived at a small town by the Jabal al-Tarif, it is unsurprising that his earnest entreaties, well supported with bribes, produced someone willing to take on the role of the manuscripts’ discoverer.

Ultimately, Robinson’s account leads us back not to Mohamed Ali, but rather to Phokion Tano. He knew his sources and understood his buyers. I think that the similarity between the Nag Hammadi find story and another great discovery nearby in the desert that Tano also brokered – the so-called Dishna hoard of various monastic texts also mysteriously deposited in jars – proves that Tano simply modified a generic but exciting find story that played well to his collectors; after all, it remains part of the art of entrepreneurialism to add value to a product. The story gave both sets of artifacts the needed pedigree to excite foreign buyers, just as the story ultimately protected Tano’s sources. And I suspect that Tano was simply the end of a well-established chain of dealers and suppliers who worked the margins of the antiquities trade in mid-twentieth-century Egypt.

So where, ultimately, did the so-called Nag Hammadi codices come from? We can only guess. The general area of the find is known; the area contains monastic ruins but also ancient and widespread cemeterial grounds. The only thing of which we can be reasonably certain is that whoever pillaged some lost site and produced thirteen ancient and precious codices took the secret of that source to the grave.

Nicola Denzey Lewis holds the Margo L. Goldsmith Chair in Women’s Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University. She is the author of a number of books, including Cosmology and Fate in Gnosticism and Graeco-Roman Antiquity.