Why the Nag Hammadi Library Was Buried (it’s not what you think)
The account of the burying of the Nag Hammadi library has become close to legendary. It’s even a sort of rallying cry for minority faiths navigating the icebergs of mainstream religions. However, the latest scholarship paints a difference picture. This picture is perhaps more intriguing than the accepted view of the storage of these so-called Gnostic Gospels. And far more occult.
The Traditional Version of Why the Nag Hammadi Library Was Buried
Elaine Pagels explains the accepted account on the Nag Hammadi library, which has its roots in the alluring idea of overcoming censorship:
Their suppression as banned documents, and their burial on the cliff at Nag Hammadi, it turns out, were both part of a struggle critical for the formation of early Christianity. The Nag Hammadi texts, and others like them, which circulated at the beginning of the Christian era, were denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians in the middle of the second century.
Matters only got worse for the Gnostics, according to historical data. In 367 AD, Athanasius, the formidable Bishop of Alexandria, issued a decree known as the Festal Letter, banning the use of alternative Christian writings. Also, he outlined an accepted canon of orthodox scripture. In reaction to this censorship, brave monks from the St Pachomius Monastery in Upper Egypt smuggled out codices and buried them in the nearby sands. These 52 texts were discovered in 1945 close to the town of Nag Hammadi.
When it comes down to it, this theory on the burial of the Nag Hammadi library is highly speculative. It’s also a rather romantic reconstruction in the spirit of a “repressed minority religion” trope that seems to play well with the Gnostic narrative (the perennial repressed minority religion throughout history). In the end, though, the traditional version has more gaps than the pages of the Nag Hammadi texts themselves.
Why the Traditional Version Just Doesn’t Work
In Introduction to “Gnosticism”, Nicola Denzey Lewis provides a less quixotic but fundamentally more mystic reason for the burying of the Nag Hammadi codices (we’ll get to it shortly).
As Lewis commented on my show, historians have found no other cases of Christian monks hiding banned works from their religion in any region of the world. In her book, Lewis furthermore indicates that the composition of the Nag Hammadi library “probably came from a typical Egyptian town dump rather than from a monastery, suggesting that the covers of the books, if not the whole books themselves, were produced in an urban environment in the middle of the fourth century.”
In other words, the texts possibly came from a private collection, temple, or learning center. Lewis furthermore adds these reasons why they never originated in the St Pachomius Monastery, drawing from scholars who specialize in Pachomian monasticism:
- The 4th century is too early for Pachomian monks to have organized scripture.
- The texts themselves bear no traces of having physicially come out of that setting.
- If they derived from a Pachomian setting, The monks left no trace on the way that Pachomians thoughts and behaved as Christians.
Therefore, we can reasonably remove rebelling friars from the list of suspects.
Then why were the texts buried? The plot thickens, it seems, and this is where it gets truly mystical.
A More Precise Version of Why The Nag Hammadi Library Was Buried
Lewis points out that the most prevalent theme in the Nag Hammadi library is the topography of the metaphysical realms. Moreover, historians have found many books buried in Egypt whose central theme is death and the otherworlds. These works were placed next to the deceased in tombs. In fact, placing books with the recently deceased was not uncommon in that region even during the early Christian era.
Thus, it remains unclear who exactly buried the Nag Hammadi library, but the why becomes clear.
In short: The Nag Hammadi library is a funerary text—in the same genre as the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Pyramid Texts (though at a more bourgeois level). Due to their heavy content on out-of-body experiences, the map of the astral planes, and password protocols for heavenly gatekeepers, these texts served as guidance for that particular soul leaving the body on its journey to the afterlife.
Lewis summarizes this alternative theory in her book:
They were simply deposited in graves as a sort of “grave good”; it was not an unusual instance in late ancient Egypt to bury a book in a tomb, since books were luxury items that might demonstrate the prestige and wealth of their owner. Some even speculate that there was a connection between the writings in NH books and a preoccupation about the nature of the afterlife; this is a major theme in many of the individual tractates in the Nag Hammadi collection.
In my view, Lewis’ scholarship makes the Nag Hammadi library more compelling and unified. Scholars have wrestled for decades with the question of why the alleged-monks chose these particular texts for burial. The best answer is that they were in a hurry with the Orthodox shadow of Athanasius looming over Egypt. As funerary texts, on the other hand, a better explanation is provided.
Furthermore, as I told Gordon White in my interview on Runesoup, this might be the reason sex magic works are absent from the Nag Hammadi library (even if both church fathers and Pagan philosophers claimed they were part of the Alexandrian Gnostic praxis). Sexual rituals are irrelevant to the soul’s voyage across the heavens and hells. Obviously, I’m speculating myself, but it’s no more far-fetched than the account scholarship has given the world since the discovery of the so-called Gnostic Gospels.
The Nag Hammadi library might be less about the views of ancient heretics and more about the universal preoccupation on the spirit’s voyage into eternity after the monkey-suit reaches its expiration date. This is a notion any monk, bishop, or seeker of higher truths can relate to, now and then.