Thursday, March 1, 2012

Nag Hammadi codices: a new interpretive approach

The texts of the Nag Hammadi codices have commonly been treated as mere witnesses to Gnostic texts in Greek mainly from the second and third centuries. A new research project will now challenge this approach by interpreting the Coptic texts of these codices within the context of their probable production and use in fourth- and fifth-century Egyptian monasticism.

Shrouded in mystery, the Nag Hammadi codices have, since their discovery by Bedouins in the vicinity of the Upper Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1945, evoked great interest in the scientific community and general public alike.

The research project “New Contexts for Old Texts: Unorthodox Texts and Monastic Manuscript Culture in Fourth- and Fifth-Century Egypt“ seeks to unravel new aspects of the codices and their texts using new methods and perspectives.

Starting Grant from European Research Council

Hugo Lundhaug is the principal investigator of this project, and recently received an ERC Starting Grant to fund it. The European Research Council (ERC) describes the Starting Grant funding scheme as follows:

“ERC Starting Independent Researcher Grants (ERC Starting Grants) aim to support up-and-coming research leaders who are about to establish or consolidate a proper research team and to start conducting independent research in Europe. The scheme targets promising researchers who have the proven potential of becoming independent research leaders. It will support the creation of excellent new research teams and will strengthen others that have been recently created.”

New methods and new contexts

Hugo Lundhaug describes the project in the following way:

Using recently accessible Coptic monastic texts, new philology, and cognitive theories of literature and memory, this project aims to shed important new light on the production and use of some of the most enigmatic manuscripts discovered during the last century, namely the Nag Hammadi codices.

These codices are perhaps most well-known for their inclusion of the gospels of Thomas and Philip, together with the highly similar Berlin, Bruce, Askew, and Tchacos codices. The project will interpret the contents of the codices as they are preserved to us in their Coptic versions primarily within the context of fourth- and fifth-century Egyptian monasticism and contemporary Coptic texts, while eschewing the category of “Gnosticism.”

This approach constitutes a decisive shift away from interpretations of the hypothetical Greek origins of this material within hypothetical first, second, or third century contexts all over the Mediterranean world, to a focus on the context of the production and use of the texts as they have been preserved to us in actual manuscripts.

The project will approach the material from a new philology perspective on manuscript culture, implying a focus on the users and producers of the extant manuscripts, and on textual variants, rewriting, and paratextual features as important clues. From this point of view, the project will also employ cognitive theories of literature and memory in order to illuminate early monastic attitudes towards books, canonicity, and doctrinal diversity in the context of monastic literary practices of writing, copying, translation, memorization, and recitation, and the interfaces between orality and literacy in the monasteries.

The project will thus combine new and traditional methodologies within a multi-disciplinary theoretical framework, thus bringing fresh theoretical and historico-philosophical approaches to bear on a traditionally methodologically conservative field of study, and has the potential to radically alter our picture of early Christian monasticism, manuscript culture, and the doctrinal development and diversity of early Christian Egypt and beyond.

The project will organise annual workshops and conferences and will be conducted by the principal investigator in collaboration with two postdoctoral researchers and one PhD-student.

Past Horizons. 2012. "Nag Hammadi codices: a new interpretive approach". Past Horizons. Posted: February 9, 2012. Available online:

image: The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London.

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