The Nag Hammadi Library

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Discoveries

  • Mohammed Ali Samman discovered the Nag Hammadi Library in December 1945 near the site of an ancient monastery founded by St. Pachomius in Upper Egypt.

The Discovery

  • Mohammed Ali of the el-Samman clan was one of two brothers who were in that area digging for sabakh, a natural fertilizer that accumulated in that area when his shovel hit a large earthenware vessel.
  • Ali was reluctant to open the sealed jar lest he unleash an evil spirit that would haunt or harm him.
  • However, he had heard of many legends about hidden treasures buried in that area. In the end, the lure of financial gain won out.
  • Upon opening the vessel, he claims, "A golden substance flew out of the jar." (It was probably just papyrus fragments flying into the air.)
  • For his part, Ali was bitterly disappointed not to find gold in the vessel.
  • However he was right about the treasure, but it wasn't a treasure of gold.

Not the Treasure Ali Thought

  • In the vessel were twelve leather-bound papyrus codices, or books.
  • Ali tore apart some of the books to share with the camel drivers who accompanied him, but they declined. So he packed them all up and took them home.
  • Thinking they were worthless, Ali dumped the codices in his yard – where the animals roamed and ate.
  • His mother actually used some of the codices for firewood.
  • After unsuccessfully trying to sell them, Ali bartered a few for cigarettes and fruit.

Keeping Part of the Discovery Safe

  • Ali gave one codex to a priest for safekeeping. Because there was a blood feud in Egypt at the time, police had raided his house on several occasions looking for evidence that would tie him to a feudal killing (which he had actually committed).
  • The priest gave the codex to his brother-in-law who was a history professor.
  • The brother-in-law took it to Cairo to sell it. But when he went to an antiquities dealer to determine its value he was promptly arrested.
  • The Cairo Museum allowed him to sell the book to them in order to avoid prison time. The brother-in-law was very grateful and gave a large "donation" to the Museum.

Double-Crossing Business Men

  • By the time one codex had been sold to the Cairo Museum other antiquities dealers had heard about a possible discovery.
  • Two business partners (Zaki Basta and Bahij Ali) managed to buy two of the codices for a pittance.
  • The men took the codices to Cairo to sell them to the leading antiquities dealer - a man named Tano.
  • As soon as he realized the value of the codices, Bahij hurried back to Ali's family and bought all of them – double-crossing his own partner.
  • Bahij used the money to buy a farm and lived a very comfortable life.

Getting the Coptic Museum in Cairo

  • Tano wanted to safeguard the documents through the government.
    • Since this happened during a regime change in Egypt (from King Farouk to President Nassar), they were nationalized and placed in the Coptic Museum.
  • Eventually all 1200 pages of text were placed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, where they are currently housed.

What's in the Codices and How Did They Get There?

  • Within the 12 codices are 52 separate writings, a few miscellaneous works, and a partial translation of Plato's Republic.
  • All are written in Sahidic Coptic.
    • Sahidic is one of the dialects of Coptic, a language that uses the Greek alphabet plus a few Egyptian characters to accommodate the Egyptian sounds lacking in Greek. It was mostly a spoken language that was in use from the 2nd to the 13th centuries. Today, only a handful of people speak Coptic.
  • Scholars think the vessel and its contents were buried by monks around 367 CE after Bishop Athanasius decreed in his Festal Letter that all heretical books were to be destroyed. (See here for more about this.)
  • The monks probably buried it so that it could be retrieved at a later date when the rules about heretical books were changed.
  • Little did they know it would take almost 2000 years before the vessel would be opened.


  • It took 25 years for scholars to have full access to the documents. Some of the delay was due to translation difficulties, but most of it was due to academic politics.
  • Scholars continue to dissect, discuss, and debate the significance of these texts.
  • They do agree on one point, however: the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is surely the most significant.

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