The thirteen ancient papyrus codices translated from Greek into Coptic, accidentally discovered in December 1945 by farmers in Upper Egypt. They contain forty-five Gnostic works, which are our chief source of first-hand knowledge of GNOSTICISM. Although the details of the discovery have remained unverified, despite archaeological investigation, there is little reason to doubt the eyewitness reports that the books were found in a ceramic jar hidden at the al-Tarif, a section of the eastern wall of the Nile Valley near the modern village of Hamrah Dum.

There are no traces of ancient habitation in the immediate vicinity of this site, except for about 150 pharaonic tombs cut into the cliff face. Some of these tombs contain of use during the Greco-Roman period and later. It is not known who originally owned the codices or why they were thus hidden. Hence, whether or not they should be regarded as an ancient “library” is also a matter of dispute.

Chenoboskeion (Chenoboskia), the town nearest the burial site at the time the codices were written, has been used by some scholars and bibliographers to name the collection. But it is standard now to refer to the codices by the name of the largest modern city in the area, Nag Hammadi. The individual codices are referred to with the abbreviations NHC (Nag Hammadi Codex) or simply NH or, less commonly, CG (Cairensis Gnosticus). The standard numeration of the codices is that established by the ARE-UNESCO Facsimile Edition, though several other numbering systems have also been used.

The Nag Hammadi codices are currently the property of three institutions. The bulk of the collection is kept at the Coptic Museum in Cairo (Nos. 4851, 10544-55, 10589, 10590, 11597, and 11640), which began to acquire them in 1946. For a time, part of Codex I was the property of the psychologist C. G. Jung, and it is also known as the Jung Codex. Jung’s heirs returned his portion to Egypt, where it joined the rest of the collection in the Coptic Museum.

The leather cover of Codex I, together with the scrap papyrus (cartonnage) that lined it, is owned by the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont, California. Part of one leaf of Codex III (pp. 145-46) is owned by the Beinecke Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (Yale 1784). It is possible that other parts of the collection survive elsewhere, awaiting identification.

Beginning in the late 1950s, the Coptic Museum, with the help of the German Institute of Archeology in Cairo, undertook to conserve the manuscripts by taking apart each codex and placing the leaves and fragments between panes of acrylic plastic. During the following decade, these acrylic frames were photographed, under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), with a view toward publishing a complete photographic facsimile edition.

During the 1970s a UNESCO International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices began the physical restoration of the manuscripts. James M. Robinson, secretary of the UNESCO committee, also organized and directed two other projects that facilitated the committee’s work: the Coptic Gnostic Library Project of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity and the Nag Hammadi Codices Editing Project of the American Research Center in Egypt. The latter project was designed primarily to conserve the manuscripts, a painstaking task that it successfully concluded in 1978.

The original sequence of the pages in each codex was determined with only a few uncertainties, and hundreds of fragments were restored to their proper positions. Seven hundred and thirteen inscribed fragments remain unplaced, but most of these are very small. Robinson’s team also reconserved the manuscripts, mounting the carefully restored sheets between panes of acrylic plastic of a uniform size. These frames are now stored in two specially designed cabinets. The unplaced fragments, cartonnage, and leather covers were included in the conservation. This restoration is recorded in the ARE-UNESCO Facsimile Edition.

The manuscripts had suffered a good deal of deterioration, both before or during their interment and after their discovery. What survive are extensive remains of eleven papyrus books in codex form with leather covers (Codices I-XI); eight leaves (as well as two large fragments that probably represent two further leaves) of a twelfth codex, the bulk and leather cover of which are assumed to have been lost since the discovery (Codex XII); and eight leaves (Codex XIII) that had been removed in antiquity from a thirteenth codex and laid inside the front cover of Codex VI.

The original extent of the collection may be calculated at a minimum of 1,240 inscribed pages. Of these pages, 1,156 are currently represented by at least a fragment. The major loss (estimated at at least 51 pages) is from Codex XII alone. While Codices I-III, VI, VII, and XIII contain many complete or nearly complete leaves, Codices IV, V, and VIII-XII are fragmentary enough that comprehension of the texts contained in them is severely hampered. Throughout the collection there are some passages of text that are now preserved only, or sometimes preserved best, in photographs.

The Nag Hammadi codices contain fifty-one texts. Some of these are copies or variant versions of other texts in the collection, so that there are actually only forty-five works, thirty-six of which were previously unknown in any form. In addition, traces of at least two further texts are recognizable in Codices I and XII. The number of texts per codex varies from one (Codex X) to eight (Codex VI).

All the texts were originally composed in Greek, at different times (mostly during the first four centuries of the Christian era) and in various parts of the Mediterranean world. They were translated into Coptic, presumably during the fourth century or slightly earlier. Although some of the texts were translated into a variety of the Lycopolitan dialect (Codices I, X, and the first two texts in XI), most were translated into the Sahidic dialect, with varying degrees of deviation from what is generally recognized as the classical standard.

None of the Nag Hammadi Codices contains the first Coptic copy of a text. Rather they are a compilation of later copies, the work of as many as fourteen or possibly as few as eight scribes. The quality of the copies varies, as does the quality of the original translations, so far as this can be judged.

Each of the Nag Hammadi Codices, except Codex I (and possibly also Codices XII and XIII, where the surviving codicological is inconclusive), was made up of a single quire. A single stack of papyrus sheets was folded down the middle and then sewn at the fold to a leather cover. In detail, however, the method of manufacture varies from codex to codex. Codex I stands apart in that it consists of three quires. The front and back covers of each codex were lined with scrap papyrus glued together to form a kind of cardboard.

When removed, much of this cartonnage was found to be inscribed in both Coptic and Greek. One of several dated texts used in the cover of Codex VII indicates that it was manufactured sometime after A.D. 348. Various documents used in the covers of Codices I, V, VII, and XI mention places in the Nag Hammadi region. It is generally assumed that all of the Nag Hammadi Codices were produced in the latter half of the fourth century, somewhere in the area surrounding the site of their discovery. They are among the oldest well-preserved books in codex form to have survived the centuries.

[See also: Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles; Allogenes; Apocalypse of Adam; Apocalypse of James, First; Apocalypse of James, Second; Apocalypse of Paul; Apocalypse of Peter; Apocryphon of James; Apocryphon of John; Asclepius 21-29; Authentikos Logos; Book of Thomas the Contender; Concept of Our Great Power; Dialogue of the Savior; Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth; Eugnostos the Blessed and Sophia of Jesus Christ; on the Soul; Gospel of Philip; Gospel of the Egyptians; Gospel of Thomas; Gospel of Truth; Hypostasis of the Archons; Hypsiphrone; Interpretation of Knowledge; Letter of Philip; Melchizedek; On the Origin of the World; Paraphrase of Shem; Plato’s Republic; Prayer of Thanksgiving; Prayer of the Paul; Second Treatise of the Great Seth; Sentences of Sextus; Teachings of Silvanius; Three Steles of Seth; Thunder; Perfect Mind; Treatise on the Resurrection; Trimorphic Protennoia; Tripartite Tractate; Valentinian Exposition; Zostrianus.]


  • Emmel, S. “Unique Photographic for Nag Hammadi Texts.” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 14 (1977):109-21; 15 (1978):195-205, 251-61; 16 (1979):179-91, 263-75; 17 (1980):143-44.
  • . “The Nag Hammadi Codices Editing Project: A Final Report.” Newsletter 104 (1978):10-32.
  • Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, published under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt in conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, 12 vols. Leiden, 1972-1984.
  • Robinson, J. M. “From the Cliff to Cairo: The Story of the Discoverers and Middlemen of the Nag Hammadi Codices.” In Colloque international sur les textes de Nag Hammadi (Québec, 22-25 aôut 1978), ed. B. Barc. Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi, Section “Etudes,” vol. 1, pp. 21-58. Quebec and Louvain, 1981.
  • Scholer, D. M. Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1948-1969. 1). Leiden, 1971. Supplemented annually in the autumn issue of Novum Testamentum, beginning with Vol. 13 (1971).