The Nag Hammadi Scriptures.

By Marvin Meyer

Printed: 2007

Publisher: Harper Collins. London

Dimensions 15 × 23 × 5 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 15 x 23 x 5

Condition: As new  (See explanation of ratings)

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Softback. Tan cover with Black title.

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The Definitive Collection of Gnostic Writings

The year is 1945. At the foot of a cliff along the Nile River, near the city of Nag Hammadi, an Egyptian peasant unearths a large storage jar containing ancient manuscripts. The discovery turns out to be one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the past century. A treasure of fourth-century texts, the manuscripts are the scriptures of the ancient mystical tradition commonly called Gnosticism, from the Greek gnosis, that is, secret knowledge. It is a discovery that challenges everything we thought we knew about the early Christian church, ancient Judaism, and Greco-Roman religions.

The Nag Hammadi Scriptures is the most complete and up-to-date English-language edition of these sacred texts from Egypt. It is full of treatises, testimonies, and secret books that had been lost for centuries. In addition to gospels purportedly by the apostles Thomas and Philip, and the revelations of James, Peter, and Paul, this collection also includes the Gospel of Mary and the controversial Gospel of Judas. The documents have been newly translated by a team of prominent international scholars. This volume also features introductory essays and extensive notes to help readers understand the context and significance of these texts that have revolutionized the study of early Christianity and ancient religious thought.

Review: This book finds an honoured place on my shelves, next to the older edition of the Nag Hammadi scriptures assembled under the direction of James M. Robinson, who provides the preface (and much underlying research). According to Robinson, `The Nag Hammadi Scriptures is a collection of thirteen papyrus codices – bound books, not scrolls – that were buried near the city of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt most likely in the second half of the fourth century CE.’ The texts contained here are a fascinating collection, bringing to light literally dozens of texts that had previously been unknown for over a millennium, although about ten of them are in such fragmentary form that it still cannot be said that these have been recovered. It is supposed by many scholars that this is a collection that was buried by Gnostics, but this is not without controversy.

This text has as a leader over the title the phrase `The International Edition’, for good reason. There have been three different projects, one in English, one in French, and one in German, over the past generation, the fruits of which have been brought together here in one volume. The representatives from each team are James M. Robinson, Wolf-Peter Funk, and Paul-Hubert Poirier, for the English, German, and French research projects respectively. The introduction is provided by Marvin Meyer and Elaine Pagels, both names known to people who study Gnostic and early biblical texts.

In the introduction, Meyers and Pagels offer the caution that the title `Nag Hammadi Scriptures’ cannot imply a canon of scriptures similar to the Bible or Quran – these are texts that were less a sacred (and closed) collection and more of a general gathering of pieces that were considered inspired and inspirational. The original language of the texts is Coptic, although these may have been translated originally from Greek.

Coptic is the Egyptian language written with the Greek alphabet; there are different dialects of Coptic, and the Nag Hammadi library shows at least two. They were found in codex form (book form rather than scroll form), discovered in the mid 1940s, just a few years prior to the discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls (another reason for the combination of the texts in the public imagination). However, even this discovery led to others – there was an earlier find that made its way to Berlin (rather like the earlier `Dead Sea Scroll’ that had been found in Cairo), and a third collection discovered in the 1970s, and passed from hand to hand until retrieved by scholars (now known as the Codex Tchacos).

Included in these texts are The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Mary and other gospel contenders (alas, in fragmentary form–this edition carries as much of the text in translation as was recovered). The Gospel of Thomas has perhaps been the highest profile text from Nag Hammadi; it has been translated and commented upon extensively, particularly in modern scholarship which discusses gospel development. The most recent `star’ among the non-canonical gospels is the Gospel of Judas, the publication of which Meyer was involved in not long ago (taken for the first time from the Codex Tchacos discovery).

Some of the texts were known by title prior to the discovery of these manuscripts – some titles were found on heretical texts lists, and yet, the idea of heresy is a slippery one, which the authors discuss in context of the non-canonical gospels and texts found in the collection that still had a following within early Christian communities.

For purposes of scholarship, there are limitations to this volume. `As in Nag Hammadi Deutsche, here also only Coptic page numbers are given, and not line numbers from the manuscripts. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures is not presented as an edition of Coptic manuscripts but a publication of texts in English translation, and for this reason the continuation of the use of references based upon line numbers in Coptic manuscripts seems inappropriate.’ There are, however, generous notes and references that can provide much of what the average and even scholarly reader will need save for those few specialists who will no doubt know how to use this information to go further.

As an epilogue after the texts, there are four essays that discuss the different ideas within the scholarly community about the texts and Gnosticism more generally. Some have proposed abandoning the term as inappropriate (or too vague to be useful), and others follow the lead of Ireneaus, who apparently used the terms to describe certain groups as they themselves had used it in self-reference.

This is a fascinating text, useful for those who want more insight into the kinds of spiritual writing that were circulating in addition to the canonical scriptures of the early Christians. This also provides information about what the early Christians were reacting to – and opens up new possibilities of interpretation of early Christian history and practice.


                                                  The site of discovery, Nag Hammadi in map of Egypt

The Nag Hammadi library (also known as the “Chenoboskion Manuscripts” and the “Gnostic Gospels”) is a collection of early Christian and Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.

Thirteen leather-bound papyrus codices buried in a sealed jar were found by a local farmer named Muhammed al-Samman. The writings in these codices comprise 52 mostly Gnostic treatises, but they also include three works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum and a partial translation/alteration of Plato’s Republic. In his introduction to The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James Robinson suggests that these codices may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery and were buried after Saint Athanasius condemned the use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367 A.D. The discovery of these texts significantly influenced modern scholarship’s pursuit and knowledge of early Christianity and Gnosticism.


 Codex II, one of the most prominent Gnostic writings found in the Nag Hammadi library, which contains the end of the Gospel of Thomas and the beginning of the Apocryphon of John.                       

The contents of the codices were written in the Coptic language. The best-known of these works is probably the Gospel of Thomas, of which the Nag Hammadi codices contain the only complete text. After the discovery, scholars recognized that fragments of these sayings attributed to Jesus appeared in manuscripts discovered at Oxyrhynchus in 1898 (P. Oxy. 1), and matching quotations were recognized in other early Christian sources. The written text of the Gospel of Thomas is dated to the second century by most interpreters, but based on much earlier sources. The buried manuscripts date from the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The Nag Hammadi codices are now housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt.

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