The Discovery of the Gnostic Gospels


In December 1945, in the Upper Egyptian desert, an Arab peasant made an astonishing discovery of thirteen papyrus books—a discovery that is radically changing our understanding of the early Christians, their church, and their beliefs. The circumstances of this find were for years obscure, perhaps because the discovery was accidental, and its sale on the black market illegal. Even the identity of the discoverer remained unknown. According to one rumor, he had found the books near the town of Nag Hammadi at the Jabal al-Tarif, a mountain honeycombed with more than 150 caves. Originally natural, some of these caves were cut and painted, and used as grave sites as early as the sixth dynasty, some 4,300 years ago.

Thirty years later the discoverer himself, Muhammad ‘Ali al-Samman, told what happened.1 He and his brothers had gone out to the Jabal to dig for sabakh, a soft soil they used to fertilize their crops. Digging around a huge 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 thinking that it might also contain gold, he raised his mattock, smashed the jar, and discovered inside the thirteen papyrus books, bound in leather. When he returned 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.

A few weeks later, as Muhammad ‘Ali tells it, he and his brothers avenged their father’s death by murdering the man who had killed him, Ahmed Isma ‘il. The brothers “hacked off his limbs…ripped out his heart, and devoured it among them, as the ultimate act of blood revenge.”2 Fearing that the police investigating the murder would search his house and discover the books, Muhammad ‘Ali asked the local priest, al-Qummus Basiliyus ‘Abd al Masih, to keep at least one of them, perhaps more. During the time that Muhammad ‘Ali and his brothers were being interrogated, Raghib Andrawus, a local history teacher, had seen one of the books, and suspected that it might be of value. He got hold of one of them from the priest and sent it to a friend in Cairo to find out its worth.

Some of the manuscripts were soon being sold on the black market by antiquities dealers in Cairo. Egyptian government officials eventually bought one and confiscated ten and a half of the thirteen leather-bound books (or “codices”) and deposited them in the Coptic Museum there. But a large part of the thirteenth codex, containing five extraordinary texts, was smuggled out of Egypt and offered for sale in America. News of this codex soon reached Professor Gilles Quispel, a distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht, in the Netherlands, who urged the Jung Foundation in Zürich to buy the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.