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Nag 'Hammadi Texts Discovered

A.D. 1945

The Nag 'Hammadi texts were discovered south of Cairo, Egypt, in the 1940s, and date to about the same time as the Gospel of Judas.
The Nag 'Hammadi texts were discovered south of Cairo, Egypt, in the 1940s, and date to about the same time as the Gospel of Judas.
Photograph by Jean Doresse/copyright Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont, California

In 1945 an Arab peasant unearthed an ancient trove of Egyptian Christian texts in a sealed earthen jar near the Upper Egypt town of Nag 'Hammadi. The fateful find added immensely to our understanding of religious and philosophical thought in the ancient Middle East.

Dating back to the fourth century, the 13 papyrus codices are copies of documents written during the second and third centuries.

The texts offer tantalizing alternative versions of Jesus' life and teachings, including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, and Philip and the Gospel of Truth. Other documents include a compilation of sayings attributed to the born-again Jesus, prayers, and theological discourses.

The long-hidden trove of Gnostic writings dramatically increased contemporary knowledge of these sects' ancient ideas. Before the discovery, Gnostic beliefs had been largely known only from the references in works by orthodox Christian scribes, such as Irenaeus, who had refuted Gnostic "heresies" in great detail.

The ancient texts of Nag 'Hammadi were possibly hidden during an era when Christian leaders were striving to solidify the New Testament canon and stamp out alternative Gospels and writings that were considered heretical. It is possible that they were secreted away during the circa 390 campaign of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, against such writings and ideas.

The library also includes priceless non-Christian works, such as a copy of Plato's Republic.