Graeme Wood

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Holy Treasure

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In December 1945, an Egyptian peasant named Muhammad Ali Samman and his brother wandered away from their village in central Egypt, hoping to scoop up a few buckets of soft dirt to fertilize his crops. Digging next to a large boulder, Muhammad Ali found a mysterious earthenware jar about 3 feet tall. He and his brother backed away from it, worrying that it might contain a genie. Then, on further reflection, they considered that it might contain gold, and they smashed it apart, thereby releasing a force in some ways more disruptive to traditional Christianity than any genie could have been.

The cache of papyrus had lain there for the previous 1,600 years, undisturbed in the Egyptian desert, holding some of deepest mysteries of early Christianity. It was a “secret” gospel, hidden away by monks from the nearby St. Pachomius monastery, probably to preserve them from other Christian sects. In the early, formative days of Christianity, monastic commissars hunted down unorthodox readings of the life of Jesus and burned them, sometimes along with their authors. (The same process occurred in early Islam, when Caliph Omar ordered the elimination of variant versions of the Koran. Reluctant heterodox Muslims, like their Christian counterparts, squirreled away fragments of alternate readings.) Indeed, as Elaine Pagels wrote in her 1979 book “The Gnostic Gospels,” if anyone had found those writings just a thousand years after their burial, the texts would surely have been burned for heresy. Instead, Muhammad Ali took the 13 papyrus scrolls home, where his illiterate mother used bits of them as kindling, incinerating many hundreds of doctoral dissertations worth of manuscript in a matter of days.

What happened to the Nag Hammadi papyrus over the next three decades is a story that unfurls with the tension of a murder mystery — not least because when Muhammad Ali found the urn, he had murder on his mind. Not long before, a man named Ahmed Ismail killed Muhammad’s father. Muhammad and his brother were plotting revenge.

Not long after the find, Muhammad and his brother slayed their father’s murderer with the same picks they used to free the scriptures from their jar. They tore the poor man limb from limb, then ate his heart. The two decided to move the manuscripts to a safe place in case the police came to search their property. A local Coptic priest, al Qummus Basiliyus, took possession briefly, until his brother-in-law Raghib, a history teacher, decided they might have something important in their possession and sent a sample up to Cairo for appraisal. Museum directors, scholars and antiquities dealers spent the next 30 years sneaking bits of the Nag Hammadi texts across borders and suing each other for the rights to study them. In the early 1970s, the texts were finally published, with the final edition appearing in 1984.

What scholars found, after translation from the original Coptic (itself a translation from Greek), was a radically strange and different take on the Christian religion. Many theologies had once competed, and the one recorded in Nag Hammadi lost. It had a view of God wildly at variance with the Christian and Jewish traditions, as they have been understood for nearly all recorded history. Those traditions have envisioned man as separate from God and only vaguely capable of understanding Him. In the Nag Hammadi gospels, God is invoked not as a distant master but as a force that dwells within — a personal God not so different from the deity worshiped today in American Protestant sects.

Where was that branch of Christianity for the last 1,600 years? Pagels, who was among the original crew of scholars granted access to the texts, suggests that aspects of it were alive in the world — just not in Christianity.  Rather, during a millennium and a half of zealous Christian orthodoxy, the unique aspects of these gospels survived in the eastern religious traditions, and those eastern faiths might have informed the Nag Hammadi gospels in the first place.  The Jesus of the Nag Hammadi texts, she writes, is “as cryptic and compelling as Zen koans.” In the Egypt of A.D. 200, Buddhist monks were already proselytizing in the port city of Alexandria, and the Christians of the Malabar Coast of India were meeting Buddhists as well. She quotes the Nag Hammadi Jesus: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” The Jesus trapped in the jar says his follower can find their own internal spark of divinity — a theological curveball that counts as heresy in most versions of Christianity but is standard in Sufism, Mormonism and Scientology.

Most intriguing, of course, is the possibility that more papyrus is still out there, buried under a millennium of soil and waiting for another vengeful Egyptian peasant to scratch the earth and uncover them. And enough uncertainty exists in the documented chain of custody that it’s possible another heretical codex is out there, fading or rotting in the heat of some collector’s shelf next to antiquities of much lesser value — or, worse still, next to an oven.

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