sábado, 10 de enero de 2009

The social and cultural setting of the Coptic Gnostic Library

Artículo publicado en STUDIA PATRISTICA XXXI, Peeters, Lovaina, 1997, págs. 464-481. Ponencia leída en la International Conference on Patristic Studies, Oxford, 1995.


J. Montserrat-Torrents
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Some years ago, Tito Orlandi warned: "The scholars who deal with Biblical or Gnostic or Manichaean texts do not generally feel obliged to link their investigations with the problems raised inside other fields or inside the study of the Coptic literature as a whole. Another consequence of this assumption is that such investigations generally lack historical soundness".1
The author of the present paper has perceived the provocative smell of this message, and he, therefore, hurries to proclaim his good will not to fall under the severe curse of his Roman colleague, doing his best to look for such required historical soundness.
To my mind, the treatment of the general subject of the origins of the Coptic Gnostic Library suffers from three main inadequacies:
1) Scholars do not pay enough attention to the distinction between the Sitz-im-Leben of the Greek originals and the Sitz-im-Leben of the Coptic translations. The first question attracts far more attention than the second, which sometimes appears subreptitiously embodied in the first. Now, as I hope to show in this article, the social and cultural setting of the producers of the Greek originals of the Nag Hammadi Library was completely different from the social and cultural setting of the Coptic translators and readers.
2) A very important collection of Manichaean texts, amounting to more than three thousand pages, has been found in Egypt. They were translated and binded at the same epoch as the Nag Hammadi codices. Methodological soundness imposes a joint treatment of the question of the setting of these two main forms of Coptic Gnosis. Now, they are "legion" the scholars who forget completely to take into account and even to mention the conspicuous fact of the Manichaean Library.
3) Until recently historians of the Roman Empire have agreed that the economic and fiscal system of the emperors was a monstruous and absolutely unbearable burden on the population. Authorities who shared this opinion range from Lactantius (De mortibus persecutorum 7,3) to Rostovtzeff. 2 Recent investigation, based mainly on the papyrological findings, and to a lesser extent on archeology, has led to a much more nuanced approach, in particular relating to the period subsequent to the reforms of Diocletian and still more specially in Egypt. The question of the social setting of the Coptic Library is near to be subverted by the new historical perspectives.


The purpose of these introductory pages consists merely in a selective survey of the social and economic history of Egypt in the late Third and in the Fourth Centuries, aimed at a consistent characterization of the holders and users of the Nag Hammadi Library and similar Coptic literature.3

The land and its administration.
The cultivated portion of the Nile Valley from the beginning of the Delta to the First Cataract varies from five to ten miles in width. Cultures frequently mentioned in tax assessments are wheat, barley, flax, vineyard, olives, dates, fruit trees, garden produce and papyrus. A portentuous network of dikes and channels ensured irrigation all the year through.4
From Augustus to the Arabian conquest the population of Egypt remained constant. It has recently been estimated at eight million.
During the whole IV Century the land lived mostly in peace. External threats came from the desert tribes in the West and from the Nubians in the South, also, but to a lesser extent, from nomades in the East (the Blemmyes). Political and social unrest, however, compelled Diocletian to reinforce substantially the military deployment through the Nile Valley. The Notitia dignitatum 5 records 65 military posts in Egypt, most of them real fortresses. The number of soldiers can be estimated at 60.000. In Upper Egypt, heart of the "nationalist" riots of 293-294 qnd 297-298, temples were transformed into huge fortresses (Coptos, Luxor). Later in the IV-V centuries, monasteries, chiefly in the West boundary, were also fortified. This large setting of military individuals in the Nile Valley, mostly in the Thebaid, is of significance in the economic, social and cultural fields.
Under Diocletian, in 297, Egypt was ascribed to the diocese of Orient and subdivided into three provinces: Aegyptus Jovia (Western Delta with Alexandria), Aegyptus Herculea (the Eastern Delta) and Thebaid.6 The Thebaid was later subdivided into two procuratories, North and South of Panopolis. 7 Separate civil (praeses ) and military (dux ) administrators were established upon the provinces.
The traditional administrative division of Egypt had been the nomos. Towards the end of the third Century A.D. the nomoi numbered nearly sixty. The nomoi were subdivided into toparchies (or pagi ) and these into villages. From the time of Septimius Severus (200-201), the Egyptian metropoleis (the capitals of the nomoi) were conferred municipal institutions, and by 297 they raised to the status of cities. In the provincial capitals, and to a lesser extent in the metropoleis, the High Empire achieved a complex administration. Colleges of magistrates and officials were introduced for the internal affairs and at the same time for tax collection. This was backed up by the institution of liturgies imposed on individuals according to rank and property in order to ensure the financing and upkeep of local facilities.
The administrative reforms of the Tetrarchy conveyed a gradual shift of decision power from the metropoleis to the lower territorial divisions, the toparchies and the villages. The moment of the towns faded.8 Villages became administrative units possessing a village secretary and a council of elders.

During the whole period of the Principate, Egypt was kept aside from the general monetary and fiduciary system of the Empire.
After the monetary troubles of the Third Century, Diocletian returned to a more stable currency system based in gold and silver. In 286 he issued a gold coin of uniform weight, the aureus, that was retained until Constantine diminished it slightly. This lighter Constantinian gold piece was called solidus and remained the referential coin for centuries onwards.9
In 296 the separation of the Egyptian coinage from that of the rest of the Empire had come to an end when the Alexandrian mint stopped producing its tetradrachms (nominally equated to the Roman denarius) Thereafter the mint of Alexandria issued only coins of the imperial standard.
Egyptian prices suffered a severe inflation between 269 and 276; however, they thereafter remained reasonably steady until 294. The monetary and administrative reforms of 296-297 could not stop however a new spiral of prices. The famous "Edict of prices" of 301 points to serious deficiencies in the economical policy, partly due to the persistent debasement of the tetradrachm. 10 The inflation in Egypt (and elsewhere) during the fourth Century may be directly traced to government action, in part al least. In any case, it remained a fiduciary inflation with no linkage to any episode of scarsity. 11

Recent research suggests the year 297 for the beginning of the great fiscal reforms of the imperial Tetrarchy. These regulations were introduced earlier in Egypt by the edict of Optatus on the year 296, bringing to an end the fiscal and financial singularities of the previous centuries. The reforms had established the bases for almost 250 years of relative prosperity in Egypt.12
The taxation procedure rested upon a combination of iugatio (land tax) and capitatio. Capitatio was nothing but a unity of account intended to a system of merismov" (distribution of a fixed amount of tax among a given community). The base for the reckoning of the iugatio remained in Egypt the a[roura. Small tax-payers could associate to constitute a guild, called pittavkion.13
Taxes in Egypt were assessed and paid mostly in denarii (tetradrachms) for the greater part of the fourth Century. These sums were doubtless converted into gold before entering in the imperial case. Towards the end of the Century, the assessment in gold that was to become usual in the byzantine period began. The guilds (pittákia ) may have encouraged the evolution.14
Indictions, cycles of fiscal periods, at first of five years and from 313 of fifteen years, were introduced and they contributed notably to the financial regularity.
In 297 Diocletian called for a survey of taxation which was based on the use to which the land was put. Apparently in these lands a uniform rate of taxation, whether in money or in kind, was established. With the passing of the years, however, variations reappeared.
Early in his reign Diocletian had reformed the administration of the imperial estates in Egypt and eliminated much useless machinery. Joined to the reform of provincial and local administration, these changes must have carried a considerable reduction of officials and bureaucrats at all levels. On the other hand, the privileged position enjoyed in the past by the Greek kavtoikoi and presumably by Roman veterans or other land proprietors must have been swept away.15
Recent historiography seems to agree that during the Fourth Century the taxation system was not heavier than formerly, and even that the administrative simplification brought undeniable advantages to the tax-payers. Egypt was not, of course, a fiscal paradise, but taxation was a burden the population could bear.16 The argument of J.F. Oates in relation to the Principate can be extended to the first century of the Dominate: "I would first object to the word exploitation. We cannot, however, deny the evidence that the emperors and the government profited from Egypt. I believe they did so in two ways. The first is the private estates of the imperial family in Egypt which were extensive. The second is the favorable balance of trade (...). I merely wish to show at this point that the level of money taxation is not a part of Roman exploitation. Rather the level seems pragmatically to have been set in accord with the rest of the economy and is essential to the functioning of the economy".17
The picture of crowds of Egyptian peasants starving under the tyranny of a Graeco-roman minority is no longer tenable in relation to the Fourth Century. Politically, the only remaining differentiation after the Diocletian reforms was that which opposed Roman officials to the rest of the population. Socially, as we have seen, the Ptolomaean and early Roman privileges of the kátoikoi had been swept away. The real cleavage was, as usual, between rich and poor, between honestiores and humiliores , but even at this level the gulf was not so great in the Fourth Century as it was to become in the Byzantine period.
The regime of land ownership and the fiscal system in Fourth Century Egypt allowed for the existence of a considerable mass of small landowners and tenents enjoying a living standard above subsistence level; that is, a mass of people who maintained a purchasing power sufficient to become consumers of cultural products. Let us take an example. The land register of Hermopolis circa 340, recorded in a papyrus kept in Florence, has 470 citizens listed. The average holding was 44 arouras. The largest comprised 1.370. Eight citizens held more than 5oo arouras each.18 These figures mean that a considerable number of citizens, after providing for their domestic needs, could sell their wheat surplus in the free market and save money for other commodities.
Economic activity shifted, as we have seen, from town to village. Recent excavations intended to an archeologic survey of the Roman period have shown a high standard of house building in small places such as Karanis, in the Fayum. Built in brick, according to the Egyptian architectural traditions, the abodes of Karanlis are functionnally similar to the insulae of Rome. Shops, storehouses and dwellings shared the sometimes huge constructions.19 If Karanlis is really an example and not an exception,20 we can guess than the standard of housing was reasonably high in those times.
In Alexandria and in the metropoleis the honestiores clung proudly to the Hellenic custom of stone building.

Greeks and Egyptians.
From the Ptolemaic period the population was deeply differentiated into Greeks and natives, and this cleavage persisted in some respects until de Arab conquest. Nevertheless, sources do not sustain a really racial discrimination by Greeks against Egyptians, but a shared consciousness of the Greeks' social and economic superiority. Egyptians were, however, able to obtain official posts in the Roman local bureaucracy, but in order to do so they had to hellenize. Many learned Egyptians adopted Hellenic names and rushed to intermarriage.
The Tetrarchic economic and legal reforms equated theoretically both communities, weakening the racial differences. But, on the other side, they resulted in the strengthening of the social and economic division of honestiores and humiliores , irrespective of their racial adscription. Egyptian wealthy subjects began to acquire social weight.

In Roman Egypt there coexisted two distinct cultural traditions, interacting asymetrically . Greek culture strongly influenced Egyptian culture; the Egyptian tradition worked only sporadically into the Greek Nilotic world. It is one of the most shocking phaenomena in the ancient world the proud indifference of the Greek Alexandrians for the old civilization surrounding them. Philo, Origen, Plotinus ( who was born in Upper Egypt) exhibit nothing of Egyptian cultural influence. The clever philologues of the Museum of Alexandria were altogether unable to transmit to us an interpretation of the hieroglyphic script, which continued being employed right there until the Fourth Century (A.D. 394).
The Ptolemies were indeed powerful supporters of the Egyptian religion, controlling at the same time its economic and political power. A great deal of the building and restoration work in many of the most important Egyptian temples is Ptolemaic. The native traditions persisted in village temples and local cults. The Roman principes did nothing to alter this situation, which began to change substantially under the Christian Dominate.
The Egyptian literary tradition flourished in the Ptolemaic period and produced a large number of works in the Demotic script. But Demotic was by no means a popular method of script. Even simplified, the signs of Demotic depended on a pictographic principle whose complexity reserved it to a minority. On the other hand, the cultural and religious traditions preserved in the temples by the priests-functionaries were an archaism without roots in the popular life.21
The new social and economic circumstances of the Principate and the early Dominate demanded new instruments for the cultural expression of the multitude of Egyptian speakers of the Nile Valley. Coptic script was the most prominent of these new instruments. Coptic script was not wholly an invention of the Christian Church, although the greatest part of Coptic literature belongs to Christianity. At the beginning the use of the Greek alphabet to write "the language of the Egyptians" ( taspe mmntrmnk[me ) was a cultural improvement which originated spontaneously in different domains (Old Coptic): administration, magic, private correspondence... 22 But by the end of the Third Century we encounter one of those "singularities" that make history -and sometimes physics- a realm of reality not subject to scientific explanation by means of laws. A new script emerged, not from stammers and wavers, but complete as Athenea from the head of Zeus. This very statement entails the recognition of the existence at a given moment of a circle of philologists who, towards the end of the Third Century, were expert enough to analyze phonetically Greek and Coptic spoken languages and to frame a set of morphological and syntactical rules for the consistent expression of a speech that for the last centuries had been evolving in oral form exclusively. Again, this very statement implies the existence of a school of scribes, sponsors, money devoted to the purpose, consumers of the products and, inasmuch as spontaneity is to be exlcuded from such a complicated process, a body of decision-makers.
Coptic script brought the two cultural worlds that coexisted in Egypt close together. Translation of Greek writings into Egyptian was greatly facilitated. Greek speaking subjects had literary access to a language more or less known to them throug the everyday interchange. As it could be expected, little of the ancient religious culture came to be expressed in Coptic. Thereafter, the great cultural gulf in Egypt was not between Greeks and natives, but between an archaic priestly tradition and real people in towns and villages, who, in Greek or in Coptic, expressed the same beliefs and the same ideas.23

Conclusions of the first part.
1. The social and economic reforms of the Tetrarchy launched an epoch of relative prosperity in Egypt. The expansion of private land property and the rationalisation of the fiscal rules promoted the growing of an economic middle class with purchasing power.
2. The organization of Egypt as a huge unit of agricultural production for the Empire carried a shift of administrative power from the towns to the villages. A new class emerged of moderately whealthy natives abiding in villages and dwelling aside from the ancient Greek centers.
3. While the Greek speaking population maintained itself almost alien to the Egyptian culture, Egyptian natives abandoned gradually their cultural traditions and adopted Hellenic civilization. Coptic script acted as a powerful tool in the way of this change.
4. At the end of the Third Century and at the beginning of the Fourth, the Nile Valley was inhabited by a mass of natives endowed with a new linguistic instrument, wealthy enough to become consumers of cultural products and, as a result of the abandonment of their ancestral traditions, mentally open to new spiritual messages.
If we consider the results of this sociological analysis plausible, we shall have to bear in mind the following consequence: that the cultural setting of the producers of the original texts of the Nag Hammadi Library was wholly different from the setting of the translators. The devise hereafter will turn to distingue tempora et concordabis iura.


As I asserted in the introduction to this paper, the historical treatment of Gnosticism and Manichaeism among the Copts has to conform to a holistic method. Separate dealing of both subjects according to the scholarly traditional division of the matters favours the wasteful dissipation of the concepts and arises a lot of unwanted problems. Accordingly, I shall take into account the unavoidable fact of Egyptian Manichaeism while studying directly the question of the setting of the Nag Hammadi Library in the next section. What follows is merely an academic memorandum of the essential historical data about Manichaeism.24

As a founder of a religious movement, Mani is to be compared not with Jesus but with Paul. Mani professed and practised an essentially missionary conception of his church.25
During Mani's life (216-277) his envoyees reached the Roman empire. Mani himself had approached the Roman boundary in the kingdom of Adiabene.26 The first missionary Manichaean team, firstly composed of Adda and Patteg (or Patik) and later of Gabiyab, Pappos, Thomas and Akouas, set off to "Rome" about the year 263.27 Rome meant probably Egypt. They were accompanied by scribes who had a copy of the Living Gospel of Mani at their disposal. The Middle Iranian source says that Adda "founded many monasteries".
The Manichaean missionaries came from a region where Greek and Aramaic bilingualism was frequent. Moreover, the defeats of the Romans before the Persians gave place to a large number of Greek-speaking captives ressetled in the Aramaic-speaking provinces. The Manichaeans took advantage of this situation to gain proselytes among the Christian communities. This was going to be one of the constant features of the Manichaean mission in the West: their resorting to the Christian communities. In any case, some of the first Manichaean missionaries to the West were Greek-speakers, as one Akouas who, according to Epiphanius, preached in Eleutheropolis of Palestina.28 The writings of Mani were then easily translated into Greek by the Manichaean scribes.
Adda preached probably in Alexandria. Manichaeism spread then along the Nile Valley until Upper Egypt. Trade with the Far East, specially silk, resorted to the ports of the Red Sea (Berenice) and attained Egypt at Coptos, which was a great commercial center.29 In the same Upper Egypt stood the town of Lycopolis. In that city, towards the end of the Third Century, a Greek philosopher by name Alexander wrote a tractate against the Manichaeans.30 He claims that his Manichaean teacher was Pappos.
Another less reliable account by Epiphanius links trade with mission in the person of a certain Scythianus, who reached the Thebaid from the Red Sea and sojourned at Hypseles, where he married.31
The aforementioned facts are to be replaced in the framework of the Greek- speaking population of Egypt. Now, the fourth Century witnessed, as we have shown, the emergence of a powerful and active Coptic cultural renaissance. Manichaeism did not remain alien to this movement, as the amazing findings of Manichaean Coptic papyri have shown.
I shall proceed now to a brief enumeration of the principal Manichaean findings in Coptic: 32
1. A Collection of Letters of Mani. A part of the findings of C. Schmidt in 1929, these papyri were destroyed during the Second World War. A few leaves remain.
2. The genuine writings of Mani are not conserved in Coptic, but they are mentioned in the Coptic Manichaean Papyri.
3. The Homilies. 96 pages containing four "logoi".33
4. The Kephalaia. A doctrinal commentary amounting to more than 800 pages.34
5. The Psalms. An heteroclite collection of hymns, liturgical and other.35
6. A Manichaen Synaxeis Codex.36
Paleography and Codicology assign to these papyri dates from 350 to 390.


Early Egyptian Christianity.
During the Second Century Christianity spread into the cities of the Delta, perhaps into some metropoleis along de Nile Valley.37 Two characteristics of this early Christianity are relevant to our analysis: it had implant only among Greek-speakers; it manifested an astonishing variety of doctrinal positions, none of them showing enough authority to carry off the label of orthodoxy.
Towards the end of the Second Century a new situation began to emerge. Antioch and Rome had attained the hardening of an orthodox-episcopal axe to which the most respected Christian communities in the Roman world adhered. East Syria and Alexandrian Egypt represented the reluctant areas. Now, while Serapion of Antioch was trying to extend his authority to the region of Edessa, Demetrius of Alexandria (189-232) began to behave as the superior bishop of Egypt and Lybia.38 The pretensions of Demterius and of his successor Dionysius were more willingly acknowledged out of doors than in their own circumscription. Egyptian Christian communities depended upon an elected (and thereafter coopted) body of presbyters administrators. Even when Demetrius and Dionysius began to ordain bishops upon those communities, the concerned Christians did not feel obliged to subdue to the authority of the "patriarch" of Alexandria. Effectively, ordination was a ritual act; jurisdiction was conferred by the local "clergy and people".39 Until the end of the IV Century sources bear witness to the difficulties of the Alexandrian bishops to have their claims recognized. When once Dionysius felt the compulsion to refute the millenarism of Nepos, a bishop "in Egypt", he did not urge any kind of authority, instead he came to hold a theological controversy with the concerned community.40 The schism of Melitius, as we shall see, is to be understood more as an episode of ecclesiastical politics than as a doctrinal dispute.
The difficulties of the Alexandrian bishops did not involve only their relations to the other Egyptian prelates, but were also heavily burdened by the bold doctrinal liberty of Christian believers. The flourishing diversity of the Second Century persisted throughout the two subsequent centuries. Four main doctrinal streams present an interest for our quest:
a) A Judeo-Christianism of salient esoteric contours. To that tendency we can ascribe the use of such strictly Jewish (Greek) texts as the Apocalypsis of Adam (N.H. V,1) and of the christianized Jewish esoterical exegeses of the Hypostasis of the Archons (N.H. II,4) and Origen of the World (N.H. II.5)
b) A religiosity and a theology of Syriac shape. jEgkravteia would be one of the religious attitudes borrowed from Syria, which influenced upon the monastic movement. Sethian Egyptian groups show affinity to the baptist movement and to the theosophical speculation of the "Chaldaean" Platonists (Apocryphon of John, Zostrianos... ).
c) A group of more or less orthodox systems founded patently in Medio-Platonic philosophy in the trend of Philo: Basilides, Valentinus, Carpocrates, Clemens, Origen...
d) A myriad of semi-christianized cultivators of magic and astrology, as shown by the magical papyri, by the two Books of Jehu (Codex Brucianus) and by passages of Gnostic Coptic texts such as the Gospel of the Egyptians (N.H. III,2), Zostrianos (N.H. VIII,1) and others.

The Egyptian native Christians.
The social, economic and linguistic gulfs between Greek Egyptians until the reforms of Diocletian were a serious obstacle for the spread of Christianity among the Coptic population. The first clear indication of the existence of native Christians comes from Origen, who makes a distincion between "Hellenes" and "Egyptians". By the end of the III Century we can collect a few but clear enough evidences that Coptic churches already existed in the Nile Valley before the expansion of the monastic movement.41
From the III Century we possess some manuscript evidence of Christian cultural activity among the Copts. One consists in a Greek-Coptic glossary to Hosea and Amos.42 Another one is a Greek Isaiah text that shows marginal glosses in Old Coptic,43 and has been dated to the first half of the Third Century. In addition, critics consider that the Coptic text of Acts edited by Wallis Budge in 1912 is in fact a copy of an earlier text datable to the end of the Third Century.44 This appraisal could be extended to other biblical Coptic manuscripts of the early Fourth Century.
In addition, the rule of Pachomius, drawn up in 321, assumes that the Coptic Psalter and Gospels were available to the monks.
Once and for all, the Coptic manuscripts which can be dated at about A.D. 300 amount to sixteen.45 Now, ten of them are of the Old Testament. For the remainder of the Fourth Century the figures for the Old Testament manuscripts keep proportionally high. Owing to the fact that the Gnostics abhorred the Jewish Scriptures as inspired by the Demiurge, any statement about the gnostizising bend of early Coptic Christianity has to be considered precipitate. Furthermore, we must bear in mind that Gnosticism was a product of high culture, and "it would be strange if a strongly intellectualist movement had a greater appeal to the native population than orthodoxy".46
To my mind, the characterization of the early Coptic Christianity has to take careful account of the social and economic circumstances of the Fourth Century. As we have seen, the native population of Egypt, from the Ptolemies to the end of the High Roman Empire, was maintained by its successive lords under a state of social and cultural underdevelopment. The curiosity of the cultivated Greek kátoikoi for Egyptian traditional culture and language was close to zero. In these circumstances it is hard to imagine the bouquet of proud intellectuals that configured the Gnostic circles calling upon the villages to preach to the peasants a knowledge they considered their particular inheritance. Instead, it is far more plausible to conceive of a gradual inroad by clerks of the well organized local churches who were bearers of the plain message of the Catholic orthodoxy. The rise of a free religious thought among the Copts had to wait for the previous revival of the native Egyptian culture.
The spontaneous and original answer of the Coptic peasantry to the new faith was the monastic movement. It is irrelevant to our argument if the first impulses to monasticism came from Syria or not. The unavoidable fact is that it took deep roots in the land of the Nile and spread from there to all the Christian world.47
Monks are usually described as men isolating themselves from the "world". Now, what characterizes the withdrawal of the Coptic monks is that the "world" from which they escape is primarily the ecclesiastical machinery set up by the Greek speaking Christians. The monk is clamorously a layman. His flight to the desert implies the acknowledgment that a high degree of sanctification is not normally possible in the Church. Egyptian monks during the first two centuries had little concern for, if not opposition to, the clerical orders of the Church or the pressures of a developing ecclesiastical organization. The appearence and growth of monasticism in Third Century Egypt is another expression of the perceived inadequacies of the clerical organization spreading from Alexandria into the rest of the country.48
It has been recently suggested that the argument of the "desert hermit" that dominates the traditional landscape of early Egyptian monasticism is to a large extent literary. While ascetics continued to ply their trade throughout the towns and villages of Egypt, it was the withdrawal of some to the desert that supplied the metaphor.49
Monasticism in Egypt was by no means an intellectual movement. The proportion between the fantastic number of monks and the literary production of monasticism is derisory. Western monasticism had quite a differend trend. We shall have to bear this statement in mind when discussing the issue of the setting of the Gnostic manuscripts.

The turn of the Fourth Century.
Fourth Century Egypt witnessed the growing ot two parallel phaenomena: the revival of the Egyptian national culture and the spread of Christianity. Now, the Christian Church that during the Fourth Century was conquering the Coptic world was by no means a unitary body.
First of all, the struggle for ecclesiastical power persisted and even increased. The authority of the patriarch of Alexandria reached full acknowledgment only when it was sponsored by the imperial power. However, political and repressive measures did not prevent the emergence of serious dissensions and schisms, among which Melitianism and Arianism were the most relevant.
Melitianism is particularly important to our quest because it sprang in Lycopolis in Upper Egypt, a town of a strong cultural tradition. The schism arose out of Melitius' objections to the terms laid down by Peter of Alexandria for the readmission of the lapsi. About 311 Melitius founded a schismatic church of bishops and clergy of his own ordination. The schism continued to flourish for several decades detaining episcopal sees and monasteries. After an interval of calm, it gained virulence again at the time of the Arian disputes. Now, Melitius was not a heretical as was Donatus in Africa. His greatest sin was to challenge the authority of the bishops of Alexandria.50 Melitian schism was an episode of the struggle for ecclesiastical power among Greek-speaking Christians. We are entitled to suspect that Coptic Christians observed and considered this kind of quarrels with a certain aloofness.
When the new social middle class of Egyptian natives entered Christianity, they did so with a bold syncretic attitude. They did not feel obliged to assent to each of the doctrinal tenets preached by the Greek speaking clerks of the Alexandrian or the Melitian obediences. In fact, everybody chose his own trajectory through the doctrinal richness offered to him in the market of ideas and cultural products, drawing from the Catholic tradition, from Gnosticism, from the monastic ideals, from Origenism, from Hermeticism, from Neoplatonism, from Manichaeism. We cannot refuse to such behavior the fairness of good conscience. Those Christians could feel themselves different indeed, but not separated from the body of the established Church believers.
In possession of a proper instrument of culture, Coptic script, and having a sufficient economic wealth, this body of laymen launched the logistic bases for the translation from Greek into Coptic of a large corpus of religious and philosophical writings that circulated in the cities of the Nile Valley. The whole machinery of such an enterprise imported translators, copyists, scriptoria, papyrus supply, bookbinderies, booksellers, buyers, readers and, of course, money. The corpus of Nag Hammadi consists of a series of products of this cultural framework. Any consideration of this Library as a kind of cultural meteorite would prevent the full understanding of its significance.
The Nag Hammadi Library finds its fitting place among the roughly two hundred Coptic manuscripts prior to the Sixth Century.51 Each of the 52 tractates of the corpus can be correlated to other contemporary Coptic or Greek writings. Except for the Biblical texts, the collection could be regarded as a florilegium and a show-window of the main spiritual streams of the Fourth Century Egypt.
When we use the somehow redundant expression of "Coptic Egypt" we are supposed to refer to the whole country except Alexandria. Now, the circumstances of the finding of the Manichaean and Gnostic manuscripts afford the possibility to introduce some geographical precisions. First of all, these documents were found in Middle and Upper Egypt, never in the Delta. Furthermore, the Coptic dialect of the entire Manichaean corpus and of a part of the Gnostic writings (chiefly Valentinian) is the Subachmimic dialect, probably the language of the region of Lycopolis (Assiut). Lycopolis and Panopolis, in Upper Egypt, were important cultural centers. Pagan culture remained prosperous in Panopolis until the mid-Fifth Century. Lycopolis was probably one of the landing points of Manichaeism in the Nile Valley. Lycopolis was also the birth-place of the Melitian schism, which has been considered a movement of large nationalistic Egyptian support.
The largest part of the tractates of the Nag Hammadi Library and the totality of the remaining Gnostic collections are in the Sahidic dialect. This points also to Upper Egypt, around the region of Thebes and Coptos. Nevertheless, these writings show a very singular characteristic: with some exceptions, their linguistic features do not correspond to the standard Sahidic, but to a hibrid of Sahidic and Subachmimic, or, better, to a Sahidic written by Subachmimic speakers. This kind of mixture is by no means frequent in the contemporary Coptic manuscripts. Biblical Coptic texts of the Fourth Century are extant in correct Sahidic, and even the fragment of Genesis found in the cartonnage of Codex VII of Nag Hammadi is in standard Sahidic.The Subachmimic tilt would point again to the region of Upper Egypt around Panopolis and Lycopolis (Lower Thebaid). The documents found in the cartonnage of some of the codices of Nag Hammadi support a location in Upper Egypt (both Upper and Lower Thebaid).52

The Library.
The scholar treatment of the question about the "origin" of the Nag Hammadi Library suffers from an insatisfactory conceptual ambiguity. A set of books containing dozens of tractates is a historical object too complex to be questionned by a single question. It rather deserves a set of questions which, arranged systematicaly, may give the following series:
1. The question about the Greek originals extant in Upper Egypt which were the immediate literary support of the Coptic translators.
2. The question about the commissioners or the readers of the translations.
3. The question about the translators.
4. The question about the scribes or copyists.
5. The question about the bookbinders.
6. The question about the commissioner and the owner of each codex.
7. The question about the owner of the entire Library.
8. The question about the hiding of the twelve codices.
The main hypotheses advanced for the origin of the Library (the heresiological, the monastic and the sectarian) have to split into a set of complementary hypotheses in order to answer each of the eight questions within the frame of a general theory. Furthermore, the systematic subdivision of the questionnaire affords the possibility of combining different options, which hereafter become non-exclusive.
The non-exclusive hypothesis that I develop in these pages is that the setting of the Nag Hammadi Library lies in the social stratus of native Egyptians that during the Fourth Century acquired economic wealth and cultural definition in Upper Egypt. This social group takes shape on the margin of the Greek ecclesiastical institutions and manifests positive links with the monastic movement.
To that general hypothesis I shall add now a minor suggestion regarding the factual framework of the books: the managers of the Library in its different stages were editors and booksellers. This business existed and flourished in the towns of Egypt. "Oxyrrhinchus has yielded evidence of a copying house and the fees paid for the production of books, which may have been retailed or sold through book sellers who are also found in the town".53 These statements can plausibly be extended to Lycopolis, to Panopolis and to the major cities in the Nile Valley.
I am not asserting that the Nag Hammadi Library was as a whole the result of a single editorial enterprise. I am just introducing a new non-exclusive element in the discussion of the eight basic questions about the corpus.
Henceforth, bearing in mind the whole range of the proposed hypotheses, we shall proceed with flexibility to a summarized reexamination of these questions, a quest aimed more at the method than at the content.
What follows is to be considered as a summary of the whole paper.
1. The Greek originals. Gnostic Greek sects, in a very broad sense of the expression, existed still at the beginning of the Fourth Century in Alexandria.54 Very probably members of these sects made their way up to the Greek metropoleis of the Nile Valley taking their books with them.55 The first stage of the Nag Hammadi Library adopts therefore a sectarian configuration.
2. The Coptic commissioners or readers. The different tractates within each codex have not always been translated by the same translator. On the other hand, each codex, with the exception of codd. I and XI, could be regarded as the work of a single scribe. These statements carry the inference that the commissioners of the translation of the different tractates were not always the same ones who were responsible for the edition of the books.
The commissioners or the readers of the Coptic translations of single tractates (or of a set of tractates) are to be ascribed to the sectarian circle represented by the tractate. Thus, for instance, the individuals who commissioned the translation of the two first tractates of codex XI, which are in the Subachmimic dialect, were surely Valentinian, while the commissioners of the translation of tractate 3 of the same codex XI, which is in the Sahidic dialect, belonged to the stream of philosophical Sethianism.
3 and 4. Translators and scribes. By combining systematically the above statements we get the following conceptual subdivisions:
a) Same translator, same scribe (cod. X).
b) Same translator, different scribe (probably cod. I).
c) Different translator, same scribe (codd. II,III, IV,VIII,XII)
d) Different translator, different scribe (cod. XI).
The remainder of the codices (V,VI,VII and IX) are of dubious adscription, though most probably they belong to class C.56
Consequently, the set of translators is larger than the set of scribes. Translators and scribes belong mostly to different stages of the process of the Library. Translators might be close to the sectarian stage. Sect members or sympathizers might commit the translation of a tractate or of a group of tractates to the translators. Scribes, on the other hand, probably did not belong to the sectarian stage, but rather to a non-sectarian editorial moment.
5. Bookbinders. Scribes could plausibly belong to an attelier of bookmakers.57 These professionals collected single Coptic translations which circulated in the towns, joined some of them according to the size of an ordinary codex and had them copied by a single scribe.
A group of codices of Nag Hammadi are excellently binded: codd. II, VI, IX, X. Codd. VI and IX, moreover, offer Greek documents from the cartonnage, not related to the monastic world. Another group (codd. IV, V, VIII) are more simply binded, though with a similar technique. All of them afford leaves of papyri in the cartonnage (codex VIII in Greek and in Coptic). The remainder of the codices do not offer sufficient basis for a secure grouping.58
6. The commissioner of each codex. The commissioner of the edition of an entire codex has to be assumed as being different from the commisioner of the translation of a single tractate. A look, even perfunctory, at the content of the codices will impose the conclusion that the commisssioners of the entire codices could not belong to the sectarian stage. On the contrary, they appear as sharing a cultural milieu open syncretistically to a variety of intellectual suggestions. None of the codices shows enough doctrinal uniformity to give support to their adscription to a single sect.
7. The owner of the entire Library He could of course be different from the first owners of each codex. All the hypotheses become equally plausible: a monastery, a sectarian group, private people. On the same ground, another minor suggestion is possible: a book dealer.
8. The hiding. The hiding of twelve codices in the sand not far from the ancient Chenoboskion59 is usually dated around A.D. 400. It has been connected with the Festal Letter of Athanasius for the year 367, or with Shenoute's action against the temple of Pneueit near Akhmim.60 Perhaps and more plausibly, the owners of the whole corpus felt they were in an insecure position due to the severe anti-pagan and anti-heretical measures of Theodosius at the end of the Fourth Century. If the books were by then the property of a monastery, some monks would have brought them to a deserted pagan tomb to carefully conceal them. If the collection was the property of a stationer, then the books were perhaps concealed not on their way from, but on their way to a monastery.


1. Tito Orlandi, "The study oof Coptic literature, 1976-1988", Actes du IV Congrès Copte. II: De la linguistique au gnosticisme , Université Catholique de Louvain, 1992, pags. 211-223.

2. M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Enpire , ch. XII.

3. Bibliography (restricted to the works consulted ). The fine study of A.Ch. Johnson, Egypt and the Roman Empire , Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1951, is still valuable for a preliminary survey (it deals also with the IV Century). For the most recent views, consult the splendid volumes of the Storia di Roma directed by A. Momigliano and A. Schiavone, vol. III, L'età tardoantica , Einaudi, Torino, 1993 and particularly the three articles of J.M. Carrié, "Le riforme economiche da Aureliano a Costantino", in vol.III-1, pags. 283-322; "L'economia e le finanze", ibid., pags. 751-782; "L'Egitto", in vol. III-2, pags. 573-602. Further: A.Ch. Johnson and L.C. West, Byzantine Egypt: economic studies , Amsterdam, 1967; R.S. Bagnall, Currency and Inflation in Fourth Century Egypt , (BASP Suppl. 5), New York, 1985. More general: H.I. Bell, Egypt, from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest: a Study in the Diffusion and Decay of Hellenism , Oxford, 1948 (repr. 1980); A.K. Bowman, Egypt after the Pharahos, 332 BC - AD 642: from Alexander to the Arab Conquest , The British Museum, 1986.

4. An outstanding example of irrigation net has been exhumated in the oasis of Khargah (capital Hibis), cf. Carriè, L'Egitto , cit., pag. 600-602.

5. The Notitia dignitatum utriusque Imperii was compiled between 395 and 413 (edit. O. Seek, 1876).

6. According to Papyrus Ryland 538 (Vol. IV, 1952).

7. Cf. T.C. Skeat, Two Papyri from Panopolis , 1964.

8. Cf. Rostoftzeff, cit., chapt. XII.

9. Cf. Johnson, 1951, cit., pags. 51-52. For the gold-based monetary system of the IV Century see Carrié, "L'economia e le finanze", cit., pags. 755-759.

10. The prices of an artaba of wheat in 301 was approximalely six times the price quoted in 294.

11. Between 294 and 352 prices raised from 1 to 1000 (cf. Carrié, "L'economia...", pag. 753.

12. For the oldfashioned theory of the perversity of the Tetrarchic reforms see Rostovtzeff, cit., ch. XII. Further references in Carrié, "L'economia...", cit., pags. 771-772.

13. Cf. Carrié, ibid., pags. 760-764.

14. Cf. Johnson, cit., pags. 54 and 65.

15. Cf. Johnson, ibid., pags. 78 and 81.

16. Cf. K. Hopkins, "Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 BC-AD 400)", Journal of Roman Studies 70 (1980) 101-125; Carrié, "L'economia...", pags. 767-768.

17. John F. Oates, "The Quality of Life in Roman Egypt", ANRW pag. 806.

18. Cf. Johnson, cit., pag. 81.

19. Cf. Carrié, "L'Egitto", in Storia di Roma , cit., vol. III-2, pags. 586-591, citing A.J.. Spencer, Brick Architecture in Ancient Egypt , Warminster, 1979; E.M. Husselman, Karanis Excavations of the University of Michigan in Egypt 1928-1935. Topography and Architecture , Ann Arbor, 1979.

20. Papyri mention often houses of many flats (ex. POxy. XXXIV,2719: five or six flats).

21. Cf. F. Dunand, Religion populaire en Égypte Romain , Brill, Leiden, 1979.

22. The oldest texts preserved in Old Coptic (Egyptian written in Greek characters) are an Horoscope dated AD 95-130 (F.LL. Griffith, "The Old Coptic Horoscope of the Stobart Collection", Ägypt. Zeitschr. 38, 1900, pp. 71-85) and an Oxyrhynchus magic text now in the British Museum (BM 10808).

23. Cf. M. Nardini, "Aspetti ''culturali'' nell'Egitto cristiano", Augustinianum 19 (1979) 75-86.

24. The most comprehensive modern study is still S.N.C. Lieu, Manichaeism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China. A Historic Survey , second ed., Manchester University Press, 1985. For a brief but reliable survey see M. Tardieu, Le Manichéisme , Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1981. Recent erudite references in Manichaica Selecta (Festschr. J. Ries), edd. A. van Tongerloo and S. Giversen, Leuven, 1991.

25. See an express reminder of Paul by Mani in the Kölner Mani Codex 64,1,3 - 65,1,22.

26. "I spent some further years in the royal court (of Sapor), many years in Perse, in the country of the Parths, reaching Adiabene and the frontier regions of the Roman Empire" ( Kephalaia Coptica 1,16).

27. According to Chinese and Middle Iranian sources cited by Lieu, Manichaeism , pag. 64, nn. 27 to 33.

28. Cf. Epiphanius, Panarion , H. 66,1,1.

29. The case of a maritime (Red Sea) procedence of Manichaeism in Egypt has been recently argued by L. Koenen, "Manichäische Mission und Klöster in Ägypten", in Das römische-byzantinische Ägypten , Aegyptiaca Treverensia, Mainz, 1983, pags. 93-108. But see J. Vergote, "L'expansion du Manichéisme en Égypte", in After Chalcedon (Festschr. van Roey), (= Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 18), Leuven, 1985, pags. 471-478.

30. pro" ta" Manicaivou dovxa". PG 18, cols. 411-448. English translation in Ante Nicene Fathers, vol. 6.

31. Cf. Epiphanius, Panarion , H.66,8,1-12. The Acta Archelai (62) offer a similar narrative, although referred to Apostolic times.

32. On the findings in general cf. J. Ries, Les études Manichéennes. Des controverses de la Réforme aux découvertes du XXe siècle , Louvain-la Neuve, 1988, pags. 215-218.

33. Chester Beatty Library of Dublin, Codex Coptic D. Editions: Polotsky, Stuttgart, 1934; Giversen, Genève, 1986.

34. Now partly in Berlin (P 15996), partly in the Chester Beatty Library (Codex C). Editions: Schmidt, Stuttgart, 1940 (I part); Böhlig, 1966 (II part) Complete facsimil edition: Giversen, Genève, 1986.

35. Chester Beatty Library, Codex A. Editions: Allberry, Stuttgart, 1938 (II part); Giversen, Genève, 1986 and 1988 (I and II part).

36. In Berlin, inedited. Cf. P.A. Mirecki, "A descriptive catalogue of Sinaxeis Chapter Titles". Manichaean Studies , ed. P. Bryder, Lund, 1988, pags. 135-145.

37. Cf. the account of Epiphanius on the activity of Basilides in the Delta, Panarion H.24,1.

38. Cf. J. Montserrat-Torrents, El desafío cristiano, Madrid, 1992, pags. 54-59.

39. Cf. J. Montserat-Torrents, Las elecciones episcopales en la historia de la Iglesia, Barcelona, 1872, pags. 51-63; 70-71.

40. Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica , VII 24,6.

41. Athanasius on Anthony: Vita Anthonii I,2; Pap. Oxy. XXXIII 2673: a Christian lector "analphabet" in Greek; Hieracas, a Christian teacher trained in Greek and in Coptic (Epiphanius, Panarion H.67,1,2-3). See Colin H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt , The British Academy and Oxford University Press, 1979, pag. 65.

42. Published by Bell and Thompson in JEA 11 (1925) 241-246. The authors argue for a date at the end of the Second Century or at the beginning of the Third. Roberts (Manuscript , pag. 66) suggests the end of the Third Century.

43. Chester Beatty Isaiah Text (P. Beatty 7).

44. Wallis Budge, Coptic Biblical Texts in the dialects of Upper Egypt , London, Oxford University Press, 1912.

45. Roberts, Manuscript , pags. 69-70. It is perhaps to be added a fragment of Genesis from the cartonnage of Cod. VII of Nag Hammadi.

46. Roberts, Manuscript , pag. 69.

47. See A. Veilleux, "Monachisme et Gnose", Laval Théologique et Philosophique 40 (1984) 275-294; 41 (1985) 3-24; Murad Kamil, Coptic Egypt , Cairo, 1968, pags. 49 ss.

48. Almost wordly from C.W. Griggs, Early Egyptian Christianity. From its origins to 451 C.E. , Brill, Leiden, 1991, pags. 102 and 106.

49. Almost wordly from J.E. Goehring, "The Encroaching Desert: Literary Production and Ascetic Space in Early Christian Egypt", Journal of Early Christian Studies 1 (1993) 281-296.

50. As boldly aknowledged by Theodoretus, Historia Eccl. I 8.

51. Cf. P.E. Kahle, Der Bala'izah, 1954 (cited by Roberts, Manuscript , pag. 70).

52. Cf. the Index of geographical names in Nag Hammadi Codices: Greek and Coptic Papyri from the Cartonnage of the Covers , (N.H.S. 16), ed. by J.W.B. Barns, G.M. Browne and J.C. Shelton, Brill, Leiden, 1981, pag.110.

53. A.K. Bowman, Egypt after the Pharahos , The British Museum, 1986, pag. 108.

54. Epiphanius, Panarion , H. 26.

55. They were nevertheless quite residual: in 350, Serapion of Thmuis ignores the right meaning of the words "Sethian" and "Ophian". Cf. A.B. Scott, "Churches or Books? Sethian Social Organization", Journal of Early Chrisian Studies 3 (1995) 109-122.

56. For the reasons of the adscriptions, see the Introductions to each Codex and each Tractate in the editions of Nag Hammadi Studies .

57. Scribes wrote equally in Greek and in Coptic. See both languages alternating in Papyri Graecae Magicae III 635-689 (Coptic); 689-730 (Greek); IV 1-25: Coptic; thereafter: Coptic insertions.

58. See the first article of Veilleux cited in note 47, and the Introduction of ...Cartonnage, cited in note 52.

59. And not far from the three first Pachomian monasteries, Tabenese, Phboou and Sheneset.

60. cf. Paulí Bellet, "The Colophon of the Gospel of the Egyptians :Concessus and Macarius of Nag Hammadi", in Nag Hammadi and Gnosis (N.H.S. 14), Brill, Leiden, 1978, pags. 44-65.

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