The Naughty Monks of Chenoboskion

In 1945, several leather-bound codices were recovered from an earthen jar at the base of Jebel al-Tarif, across the Nile from the town of Nag Hammadi. The “library,” as it came to be called, was a treasure trove of Gnostic writings.

According to James Robinson, in his introduction to one of the standard works on the subject, the collection belonged to Pachomian monks living in the area, possibly in the nearby settlement of Chenoboskion.[1] Then, when Athanasius of Alexandria launched his attack on heretical writings in 367, the monks ran out and buried the offending books.

From all of this we are supposed to believe that the early church dabbled, quite happily, in a variety of “Christianities.”[2] The New Testament we know and love is actually an impoverished remnant of a once thriving religion – a religion made to suffer at the hands of a small, narrow-minded but powerful minority. Gnostic writings were pushed to the margins of the church, and ultimately to extinction. Athanasius’ effect on the monks of Chenoboskion symbolizes the rise of one Christianity at the expense of another.

If you like that story, you will probably like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. For something a little less entertaining, but just as infuriating, you can read almost anything by Elaine Pagels. Here is Pagels’ indictment of Athanasius and his orthodox allies:

Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offense. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed.[3]

Not that Pagels really cares, but she has just libeled both Athanasius and the Pachomian monks. In his famous “festal letter” of 367, Athanasius never demanded the burning or destruction of any books.[4] He had no authority to make anything a criminal offense. In fact, his opposition to the growing Arian heresy had made him something of a pariah in the eastern half of the Roman Empire.

What about the monks? Can they be tied to the heretical works of Nag Hammadi? Other than geographical proximity, Robinson relied on a study by John Barns of ancient repairs to the codices. Someone had reinforced the covers with cartonnage – a kind cardboard made out of scrap papyri. In these layers of ancient documents, Barns found a few references to monks. If these monks belonged to the nearby monastery, then so did the codices. Of course, this is a huge leap in logic. The cartonnages are a mishmash of bills, letters, and even pages from the Bible. They seemed to have been scavenged from a city dump. At present, there is no solid evidence, either from the cartonnages or from what we know of the Pachomian order, to prove that these monks ever owned, read, believed, repaired, or buried these codices.

Barns’ work came under immediate criticism, but Robinson’s endorsement carried the day. Jon Dechow voiced his frustration over 25 years ago:

A purge of apocrypha throughout Egypt, or even in Pachomianism, about 367-370 seems to me to be one of those scholarly myths that someone starts, others pick it up, some with notable names, and finally it becomes widely quoted and is taken as the “informed consensus” or the “assured results” of modern scholarship. Unfortunately, there is no historical evidence for it.[5]

The monks of Chenoboskion are now feted for their tolerance and pitied for their loss. Their story, fictional though it may be, is wielded in the fight against Biblical Christianity. Indeed, Pagels grinds her axe in full view. She cannot love, she says, “the tendency to identify Christianity with a single, authorized set of beliefs.”[6]

Ironically, the elitists in all of this were the Gnostics. They were the ones who reserved genuine, secret knowledge (gnosis) for a chosen few. And they were the Johnny-come-latelies who wanted to subvert and ultimately destroy an existing religion founded on the teaching of Christ and His apostles.

Athanasius was right to pull the church away from heresy. Gnostics rejected the tutorship of the Hebrew Scriptures. They wanted a Christ without prophecy, and a Savior without atoning sacrifice. Gnosticism represented, not merely a different emphasis, but an entirely different worldview. That reality – so clear in Athanasius’ day – is now under pressure from a neo-Gnostic revival.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, May 2009.]


[1] James M. Robinson. The Nag Hammadi Library. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1990, pp. 16ff.

[2]Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

[3] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, New York: Random House, 1979, pp. xviii-xix.

[4] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf204.xxv.iii.iii.xxv.html

[5] Jon F. Dechow, “The Nag Hammadi Milieu: An Assessment in the Light of the Origenist Controversies.” AAR Western Region, Annual Meeting, Stanford University, March 26, 1982, p. 12.

[6] Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, New York: Random House, 2003, p. 29.

© 2009 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to “The Naughty Monks of Chenoboskion”

  • Hexalpa Says:

    With regard to the following: "From all of this we are supposed to believe that the early church dabbled, quite happily, in a variety of “Christianities.” Please note that during the first two centuries of the Christian "movement", there was no uniformity of practice. Almost everyone within the Christian movement did what some might characterize as "dabbling"... not just the good Pachomian monks... everyone. It was not until Emperor Constantine "backed" (co-opted might be a more accurate description) one of the many "strains" of Christianity, that anything resembling orthodoxy existed. The edict of a bishop could hardly be expected to change overnight the attitude of those monks toward the scriptures that they had held sacred "the day before". We are the most fortunate beneficiaries of that devotion that led those monks to follow their heart, and preserve those sacred scriptures for another future day.

    • Trevor Major Says:

      Well, there's uniformity and then there's uniformity.

      If by "no uniformity" you mean there was diversity in the church in matters such as language, customs, dress, etc., then yes, I would agree with you.

      If by "no uniformity" you mean there was heterodoxy on the margins then, yes, I would agree with you.

      But if by "no uniformity" you mean that the early church (and even more so, New Testament Christianity) lacked a consistent Christology then you will have to contend with an overwhelming weight of textual and archaeological evidence to the contrary.

      Likewise, before I believe the "naughty monks" myth I am going to have to see compelling evidence that the Nag Hammadi codices belonged to the monks, were read by the monks, believed by the monks, and hidden by the monks. Gnosticism was not a 'strain' of Christianity; the two were competing and incompatible world views. The Gnostics knew this as well as the Christians, else why write their own books which were both late to the party and never included on any list of canonical books?