The Secret Life of the Nag Hammadi Texts

Hello everyone! Because I’ve devoted so much time to processing the Nag Hammadi Codices Project, I have – as you might imagine – had ample opportunity to consider the scholarly potential of this collection. Recently, though, I decided that it would be fun/enlightening to take a break from the academic side of things and learn a little more about the popular religious culture that has sprung up around the texts since they were re-discovered in 1945. 

Once I started looking for information, I discovered there was a lot to find! One of the most entertaining aspects of what you might call “Nag Hammadi Pop Culture” is the connection some people have argued exists between these gnostic texts and…global alien invasion. The basic gist of these conspiracy theories is that gnostic/Nag Hammadi writings about beings called Archons prove that aliens visited earth. And the alien activity didn’t stop back then, they argue. Even today people are being “invaded by Archons,” and that is why we have so much suffering in the world (
If you’re interested in hearing a little more about the “Archon as ET” perspective, you can listen to this New Zealand radio show’s exploration of the topic ( and read this article (!
But if you’re finding yourself shaking your head in skepticism, know you’re not alone. Scholars certainly don’t view the Nag Hammadi texts as histories of extraterrestrial activity. Although it is true that the Archons loomed large in the gnostic imagination, it’s not because they had recently landed near the Nile in a spaceship. Rather, they were discussed with frequency because they were important mythological figures in gnostic theology. Different gnostic groups propagated different interpretations of Archon theology, but the general themes were usually the same. Namely, gnostics believed that the Archons were powerful, non-human beings. They had less authority than God/the Ultimate Creator, but they had vastly greater power than human beings. As such, they were often presented in ancient writings as hostile or threatening figures that divided humans from their God. 
With this in mind, you can imagine how interesting I find contemporary arguments that the Nag Hammadi library is “factual evidence” that the Archons were alien invaders! While I don’t get on board with this theory, I do think it is a fascinating example of how a group of people very far removed from the culture in which the Nag Hammadi texts were created can come up with a very creative interpretation of them…based on contemporary cultural anxieties and concerns. In scriptural studies, there is a term for this: eisegesis. Specifically, eisegesis means “an interpretation, especially of Scripture, that expresses the interpreter’s own ideas, bias, or the like, rather than the meaning of the text” ( The goal for scholars, of course, is to avoid eisegesis and understand how the original record creator’s culture and background shaped his or her perspective and – in turn – the text. 
What do you think about this? Had you heard that the Nag Hammadi library was being used by some as “evidence” for supposed extraterrestrial life? Maybe you should come look at our Nag Hammadi collection when we’re done processing it and examine the evidence for yourself! 

Life Pre-Photoshop

Hello everyone! This week I’ve continued to work hard on processing the Nag Hammadi Codices Project collection. That is to say, I’ve spent a great deal of time organizing photographs of the Nag Hammadi texts, as well as photocopies of these photographs.

One of the things that has made an impression on me as I’ve moved through this collection is how difficult and laborious a process editing images was in a pre-Photoshop world. The phrase “cut and paste” is ubiquitous in our society, and of course it refers to the process of removing a phrase or image from one part of a document and placing it somewhere else. But in a BC (before computer 🙂 world, to “cut and paste” was no digital metaphor! It was what authors and editors literally had to do in order to create a book of images.
As you can imagine, there was a huge amount of cutting and pasting to be done for the Nag Hammadi Facsimile Edition. The gnostic texts had in many cases crumbled to fragments. Where pages still existed, they had often come loose from the binding and were incomplete. Thus, a significant portion of the job performed by Dr. James Robinson (to whom, as you may recall, this collection belonged) and his fellow editors was to try and piece together which fragments and pages went where. 
Fast forward approximately forty years, to the point where I am organizing the drafts and edited images they came up with during this process. Many times I will come across something like this:
fragment pasted_blog ready.jpg(Disclaimer: I recognize this photo is a little fuzzy, but in order to stay on the right side of copyright law, I need to make sure that none of the text in the image is identifiable! Still, it’s clear enough to provide an interesting example.) If you examine this image closely, you can see multiple layers of images that have been cut out and glued, one on top of another. This is what an actual “photoshop” job looked like back then!
With this in mind, I’ll leave you with a great blog post from the website – Check it out! The author, Michael Zang, has images and advice from an actual “how to” book on photographic retouching published in the 1940s. My favorite part is the chart of what tools the photo re-touchers would have used when doing this by hand (hint: rubber cement is on the list!).
I hope you have fun learning a little more about this!

Continue reading “Life Pre-Photoshop”

Reference Requests!

I filled my first reference request today! A professor at one of the Claremont Colleges is doing research that involves the Nag Hammadi texts, and of course that means she’s interested in what we’re processing over here at Special Collections. 


I had the pleasure of meeting her briefly on Wednesday, and followed up on her request to learn more about how she could view the facsimile images of this amazing gnostic library. Although the collection I’m processing won’t be open for scholarly research until I’m done organizing and conserving it, I was able to point her in the direction of some resources that might be helpful for her work in the meantime. I thought I’d share them with you all today, so that any other Nag Hammadi fans out there could settle in for some great weekend reading! There are three main areas I’d recommend looking:


1.     Special Collections has already digitized many of the Nag Hammadi images, and anyone with an internet connection is free to study them! These are located here:

2.     You can find publication details If you’re interested in purchasing (or finding at your local library!) the official, 15-volume facsimile set.

3.     Not fluent in ancient Coptic yet? No problem! There are at least three scholarly translations of the Nag Hammadi library into English of which I am aware: one by Bentley Layton (, another by Claremont’s own James M. Robinson (, and the last by Marvin Meyer and Elaine Pagels (

These should be enough to get you off to a strong start! If I find anything else, I’ll let you know!

Scope and Content Notes

This week I’ve continued to work on processing the amazing photographs and documents contained in our Nag Hammadi collection! In addition, I’ve completed a bit more work on the Dead Sea Scrolls files. Specifically, I have created something called “scope and content” notes for each series and subseries in the collection. In this week’s blog post, I thought it might be helpful for me to explain the purpose of these notes, and also to introduce everyone to the closely related concept of a “finding aid.”

In brief, a scope and content note is a prose paragraph(s) telling the researcher “the range and topical coverage of the described materials, often mentioning the form and arrangement of the materials and naming significant organizations, individuals, events, places, and subjects represented. The purpose of this scope and content note is to assist readers in evaluating the potential relevance of the materials to their research. It may highlight particular strengths of, or gaps in, the described information entered in other parts of the finding aid” (many thanks to my erudite Honnold/Mudd supervisor, Lisa Crane, for this excellent explanation). 
If you’re a researcher, one of the first things you’ll want to do when you’re in an archive is examine the scope and content note(s) for a collection in which you’re interested. These can save you a ton of time, because they’ll clue you in fast and early to the contents of a particular grouping of documents. If there’s nothing useful to your work there, you know it would be more productive for you to move on and spend your time elsewhere.
So what do these notes actually look like? To help orient you, I’ve taken a couple of screenshots of the ones I designed today. You’ll notice I’ve already entered them in Archivist Toolkit. Here’s an image of the Series-level Dead Sea Scroll scope and content note:
DSS Series level scope and content note_blog ready.bmp

If you want to get even more detailed, you can then proceed to investigate one of the Subseries-level scope and content notes, which look like this:
DSS Subseries level scope and content note_blog ready.bmp
Does that make sense? I hope so! With this in mind, then, it’s possible for us to learn more about what a finding aid is. You can think about a finding aid as a much more detailed version of a scope and content note. People have created these for centuries in order to try and help make vast quantities of documents more manageable to sift through (think about how important that would be in the pre-digital world!). In fact, there is even evidence that the ancient Sumerians carved finding aids into clay tablets so that they could easily locate important bureaucratic records (!
Finding aids will often contain a significant amount of background information, such as a biography of the documents’ creator, a historical chronology of important events which relate to the collection, etc. This can help a researcher contextualize the records s/he will find if they choose to study a particular group of records. The finding aid will also probably explain how the collection is organized, and perhaps even contain a detailed overview of the materials it includes. A good archivist will normally create a finding aid in the course of processing a collection. Indeed, this is usually the final step in processing, because by then the records will have been properly conserved and arranged in their final order, and the archivist will be quite familiar with the contents of the entire collection.
If you’re interested in doing archival research anytime soon, I urge you to become comfortable reading scope and contents notes, and in using finding aids. Even the best-organized archive will look like a vast and chaotic sea of records without them! On that note, here’s a great finding aid tutorial created by San Diego State University Library. You may wish to explore it –


This week I’ve continued my efforts to arrange and preserve Special Collection’s many photographs of the Nag Hammadi texts. In doing so, I’ve begun to think a lot about the role the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) plays in helping preserve antiquities. This institution was critically important in helping Claremont’s own Dr. James M. Robinson publish a facsimile edition of the Nag Hammadi trove approximately 40 years ago.

What might motivate UNESCO to engage in this endeavor? Interestingly, UNESCO sees protecting pieces of cultural heritage as a form of peacebuilding. As its website explains, 
“In today’s interconnected world, culture’s power to transform societies is clear. Its diverse manifestations – from our cherished historic monuments and museums to traditional practices and contemporary art forms – enrich our everyday lives in countless ways. Heritage constitutes a source of identity and cohesion for communities disrupted by bewildering change and economic instability. Creativity contributes to building open, inclusive and pluralistic societies. Both heritage and creativity lay the foundations for vibrant, innovative and prosperous knowledge societies” ( 
With this in mind, I’ve been wondering how all these precious Nag Hammadi images might prove a unique source of creative inspiration and spiritual guidance in a world that is very different than the one in which these records were originally created. I am fascinated by the ways in which ancient scriptures and philosophies are used, revised, and re-purposed in light of each generation’s changing/historic needs. I hope over the next few weeks I’ll be able to find and share some examples of how people – both inside and outside the scholarly community – have found new and unique meaning in the Nag Hammadi texts!
On that note, I’ll sign off by pointing you in the direction of a really neat document I found this afternoon: a copy of UNESCO’s magazine, The Courier, from May 1971. Check out the article Dr. Robinson wrote on the Nag Hammadi findings inside!