From the Apocryphon of John to Thomas the Contender: Nag Hammadi Codex II in its Fourth-Century Context

  • Kimberley Slack

Student thesis: Phd


Scholarship to date on the Nag Hammadi Codices has been predominantly concerned with establishing the compositional history and doctrinal affiliations of each tractate within the collection. Much less attention has been paid to the library as a fourth-century collection of texts, which must have been understood by the compiler/s of the codices as having ideological coherence, and overarching messages. The present thesis is first and foremost an attempt to address this deficiency. Due to the site of the codices' discovery in the Egyptian desert being in close proximity to the Pachomian monastery at Phbow, the suggestion was made that perhaps these monks were once the owners of the collection, forced to purge their monastery of these texts due to the increasing concern of the Alexandrian Church over the circulation of what it viewed to be 'heretical' religious documents. This 'Pachomian connection' was substantiated mainly by the apparent promotion of ascetic practice and a value placed on knowledge both in the Pachomian movement and many of the tractates from Nag Hammadi, as well as the presence of some monastic documents in the waste paper used to strengthen the covers of the codices. None are sufficient to conclude a relationship between the two. Moreover, scholarly conception of the Nag Hammadi Library as a representative of 'Gnosticism,' which since the critiques of this category by the likes of Williams (1996) and King (2004) has been something of a taboo term, meant that inquiry into connections with Pachomian monastic literature was too invested in searching for so-called 'Gnostic' overlap. On the contrary, this work argues that in order to gain a better understanding of why the Nag Hammadi texts were collected and collated in the way that they were, and how and why they might have been utilised by Christian inhabitants of the Egyptian desert, they must be viewed primarily as a fourth-century Christian collection.The thesis attempts to offer a fresh perspective on the question of monastic usage by viewing the Nag Hammadi texts simply as part of the Egyptian Christian landscape, rather than as a 'heretical' invasion of it. In order to conduct a controlled and sufficiently detailed analysis, this thesis examines one sub-collection of the Nag Hammadi Library - Codex II, alongside contemporaneous Pachomian monastic literature, and suggests agreement on various centralised issues. Building on the suggestions of Michael Williams (1996) and James Robinson (2004), that meaningful order can be detected in the arrangement of the Nag Hammadi Codices, the thesis contends that Nag Hammadi Codex II develops certain key themes through the particular sequencing of its tractates. Each of these, it is argued, would have been attractive to a fourth-century Pachomian monastic readership. Firstly, asceticism must be moderated so as not to lose sight of its spiritual value amidst competitive arrogance. Secondly, one's duty to share and encourage the promulgation of spiritual truths among one's brethren is of vital importance. Thirdly, identification as an 'elite' spiritually superior individual is in no way predetermined, as older definitions of 'Gnosticism' have suggested, but based entirely on one's conscious choice to leave behind worldly pursuits.
Date of Award1 Aug 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorTodd Klutz (Supervisor) & Roberta Mazza (Supervisor)


  • Gnosticism
  • Nag Hammadi Library
  • Pachomians
  • Egyptian Monasticism

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