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New Contexts for Old Texts: Unorthodox Texts and Monastic Manuscript Culture in Fourth- and Fifth-Century Egypt

Final Report Summary - NEWCONT (New Contexts for Old Texts: Unorthodox Texts and Monastic Manuscript Culture in Fourth- and Fifth-Century Egypt)

New Contexts for Old Texts: Unorthodox Texts and Monastic Manuscript Culture in Fourth- and Fifth-Century Egypt (NEWCONT)

The purpose of the NEWCONT project has been to analyze the transmission and use of non-canonical and apocryphal texts in fourth- and fifth-century Egyptian monasticism. Focusing primarily on the Nag Hammadi Codices, discovered in Upper Egypt in 1945, the project endeavored to understand the transmission and use of such texts in the social, historical, and theological contexts of the manuscripts in which they have been preserved. The project applied methodologies inspired by New Philology and analyzed the texts exactly as they appear in the extant fourth- and/or fifth-century Coptic manuscripts, taking into consideration all important features of this material evidence as well as the fluidity of textual transmission in a manuscript culture. Finally, the project has also been informed by cognitive theories of literature and memory. In contrast to what has been the norm in previous scholarship on this material, NEWCONT refrained from analyzing, or trying to get back to, the hypothetical Greek originals of the Coptic texts in the manuscripts under scrutiny, and actively eschewed the use of the interpretive category of “Gnosticism.” Instead, the focus was on analyses of the Coptic texts in light of comparative evidence from fourth- and fifth-century Christianity in general, and monasticism in particular, focusing on Egypt, and especially the geographical area in Upper Egypt where the Nag Hammadi Codices were discovered. Using methodological approaches inspired by New Philology, NEWCONT investigated the material and paratextual features of the Nag Hammadi Codices and related manuscripts, including scribal practices and colophons, papyrological evidence from the cartonnage of the covers, and comparative codicology. Informed by discussions of textual fluidity, the project analyzed textual variants in light of their manuscript contexts in cases where more than one copy of a text has been preserved, but the instability of textual transmission was also taken into consideration in studies of texts preserved only in single copies. The possibility and implications of late rewriting and editing has been explored in analyses of a wide selection of texts, and their relationships with fourth- and fifth-century theology and monasticism have been investigated on the basis of comparisons with both contemporary and later Egyptian sources. The question of the provenance of the Nag Hammadi Codices has been approached from as many angles as possible, utilizing literary, archaeological, papyrological, codicological, and scientific (radiocarbon dating) evidence. NEWCONT has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the Nag Hammadi Codices were produced and used by monks in Upper Egypt located in the vicinity of the site of the discovery of the codices. Possible relationship with several known groups and movements of the fourth- and fifth- centuries has been explored, and it has been established that it is highly likely that these monks were part of the Pachomian monastic federation. It has also become clear that a number of Nag Hammadi texts show an awareness of theological controversies of the time when the codices were produced and read, including issues associated with Arianism and Origenism. Much work still remains to be done on the understanding of individual texts in this light, but the NEWCONT project has certainly made it impossible to ignore the Egyptian monastic milieu in future studies of the Nag Hammadi texts and the codices in which they have been preserved, as well as of other manuscripts with similar contents.