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Kirchengeschichte: Allgemeines


Lundhaug, Hugo, and Lance Jenott


The Monastic Origins of the Nag Hammadi Codices.


Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2015. XVIII, 332 S. = Studien und Texte zu Antike und Christentum, 97. Kart. EUR 89,00. ISBN 978-3-16-154172-8.


Nicola Denzey Lewis

Most academic studies aim to break new ground by challenging a long-extant theory or approach; this book differs by, instead, open-ing with the words of nineteenth-century Coptologist Walter Crum on the Fayum papyri: »As with all Coptic Literature, their monastic origin is evident« (1). In Hugo Lundhaugs and Lance Jenotts view, Crum was on to something: the Nag Hammadi codices (henceforth NHC) – discovered in Egypt around 1945 – should equally be considered monastic productions. The authors thus promote an essentially conservative position, which they argue for and support by a thorough analysis of the codices themselves. They maintain that these books were produced, read, circulated, and buried for safekeeping by Pachomian monks in the late fourth to mid-fifth centuries. This argument is not new. In fact, it originat-ed with the late James Robinson, the American impresario of the NHC. Despite new scholarship that challenges this story, L. and J. dig in their heels, insisting that the NHC did indeed have their roots in the various Pachomian monasteries that once fringed the Gebel al-Tarif.
This book begins by dismissing those who argued against the NHC’s monastic origins, from Jean Doresse’s insistence that the books were found at a different find-spot, to Alexandr Khosroyef’s often ignored counter-theory that the codices were produced by and for the literati of Graeco-Roman cities. I agree with their argument that scholars such as Khosroyef and Alastair Logan work with an outdated concept of »Gnosticism« which led them to conclude that the books’ contents were only of interest to esoterically-mind-ed laypeople (chapters 1, 3). But I find scholars of Egyptian monas-ticism such as papyrologist Ewa Wipszycka, Stephen Emmel, and Mark Sheridan – all of whom find the theory of the NHC’s monastic origins manifestly unlikely – much harder to dismiss. L. and J. remain undeterred, deploying the work of Clemens Scholten and James Goehring to suggest that Pachomian monasticism was flexible and diverse enough doctrinally to have included monks who found the ideas contained in the NHC to be appealing enough to circulate, copy, and preserve.
A major theme of the volume is monastic diversity in Upper Egypt, aimed at dispelling the idea that the contents of the NHC were too unorthodox to be included in a monastic library. The authors remind us of the range of doctrinal perspectives within Egyptian monasticism itself. The strongest arguments for links between monks and the NHC occur when the authors turn their attention to the cartonnage stiffening of the codex covers (46 ff.), to which they return in chapter five. L. and J. note that at least 26 monks are named in the cartonnage papyri (48), including one Apa Sansnos, the recipient of 8 separate letters (48). The authors argue, therefore, that the cartonnage reveals much social interaction be-tween monks and laypeople, weakening the thesis that the scrap papyri reveal solely secular correspondence and documents from a nearby city. Their »ace in the hole,« so to speak, concerns a letter recovered from the cartonnage addressed to Apa Pachome, which L. and J. consider definitive proof of a strong connection between the NHC and the Pachomians (48.135–37).
There is much in this volume that is genuinely useful. The analysis of the cartonnage fragments and the NHC’s few colophons is especially welcome; I agree, for instance, that it is likely that the traditional terminus post quem for the collection of 348 could be quite a bit earlier than the copying of the tractates within it, although how much earlier is unclear. The authors detect shades of later fifth-century doctrinal controversies that may have shaped the redaction of individual codices, and this too seems like a worthy direction for further scholarship.
There are, however, other points at which this volume is vexing. The authors stubbornly adhere to Robinson’s origin story, despite numerous reasons to find it suspicious; they do so, it seems, be-cause to abandon it would be to lose the central argument for the book: that these codices were produced in a monastic setting and deliberately hidden. Nevertheless, virtually nothing can be proven about the elements of the Robinson story; we know only that the NHC reached the antiquities market between 1945–1947, and a provenance was concocted for them by a few antiquities dealers careful to protect their sources from unregulated excavations. It is there-fore possible that the NHC were indeed produced by monks; but Robinson’s accounts, interviews with locals a full thirty years after the codices’ appearance in Cairo, excavations (which yielded nothing), and guesses that the books were intentionally buried destabilize rather than support the key argument of the present book.
Overall, the tone of the book I found sometimes tiresome: a combination of both L.’s Germanic hyper-organization and J.’s youthful debate style, perhaps best summed up by his implicit attitude, »and therefore we are right.« It is not so much that L. and J. set out to discover whether or not it could be the case that the NHC were monastic; they steadfastly refuse to entertain any alternate theories, or else, they only work to prove them wrong or insufficient. They also do not address other books we have – for example, the Tchacos Codex, the Bruce and Askew codices – that closely resemble the NHC in content, but which do not derive from the Nag Hammadi region. How do these fit their theory? And what to make of the Dishna hoard, which these authors use to support their argument of monastic origins (chapter 8)? Yes, it was supposedly found nearby, but the very fact that a virtually identical find story was peddled to Robinson by antiquities dealers ought to raise alarm bells that discredit both. Even if it is true that both hoards were found by peasants in search of fertilizer secreted away in jars and later partially stupidly and pointlessly burnt as useless, the fact remains that both the content and form of the two collections are very different. The Dishna hoard includes papyrus rolls, correspondence, and books that have writings completely different from the NHC. There are no shared tractates between the two collections (as there are between, for instance, Tchacos and NHC). While Dishna papyri are clearly monastic, it is not at all clear to me that they help prove that the NHC are, despite the positivism of the authors (»they … constitute the closest analogy to the Nag Hammadi Codices in terms of their geographical and archaeological context«) (42).
Still, what if L. and J. are correct about the NHC’s monastic origins? What seems new and interesting to me here, then, is to re-imagine Pachomian monasticism as doctrinally open and expan-sive enough to be invested in the Nag Hammadi tractates. The most compelling aspect of the book is that which receives, relatively speaking, the least amount of attention: the discussions of which NH texts would be most comfortable in a fifth-century monastic setting (chapter 9). Redactions around Origenist concerns is also something at which Lundhaug has specialized, and the impor-tance of considering our NH texts in the form in which we have the m– as opposed to imagining their second- or third-century Greek form – is, I think, the most significant new direction for Nag Hammadi Studies this century. In essence, perhaps L. and J. con-sidered this book’s lengthy argument as a necessary prolegomenon to a fifth-century »turn« in Nag Hammadi Studies, but I find myself wishing that the argument might have been accomplished in a chapter and its consequences the focus of the bulk of the book.