In 1945 an Arab peasant named Muhammed Ali and his brothers discovered a jar at the base of a cliff near the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Inside the jar were 13 leather-bound papyrus books (codices). The manuscripts were immediately caught in a web of family rivalries, black market trading, and international intrigue, but finally they resurfaced and began to be studied by scholars. The Nag Hammadi "library," as it is often called, turned out to be a treasure trove of ancient Gnostic texts.

The 13 codices contained 52 tractates (individual writings—Coptic translations of Greek texts from the second and third centuries A.D. Out of those 52 tractates (which included a partial translation of a very short passage from Plato's Republic), 40 were Gnostic writings that scholars had never seen before. Most are secret apocalypses and/or "revelation" discourses. The collection also includes gospels (the most famous of which is the Gospel of Thomas), acts, and epistles. They combine pagan, Jewish, and Christian ideas and reflect the two major Gnostic schools of thought, the Sethian school and the Valentinian school. Many of the texts emphasize the Apostle Thomas. (This is now often called Thomasine Christianity.)

The origin of the collection remains somewhat mysterious, but most likely the texts were buried by priests and monks from a nearby monastery that had been founded in the early fourth century by Pachomius, the "father" of communal monasticism. The priests may have collected them in order to refute them or, just as likely, to seek some spiritual benefit or wisdom from them. The burial was probably prompted by Bishop Athanasius' Easter letter in 367, in which he condemned heretical and non-canonical books.

The Nag Hammadi ...

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