Monday, January 10, 2011
Impossible Gnostic poems hidden away
I sipped my second glass of orange juice and watched the morning sun rise over the hills east of Marseille. Here I was, a young, single woman, dark auburn hair, green eyes, slender, five foot ten, reasonably good looking (at least I thought so!), alone in southern France in spring. What more could a girl ask for? As if in answer, my idle day-dreaming was interrupted by a familiar voice calling my name.
“Jeanne-Marie, bonjour, comment sa vas! How are you?”
As I rose to greet the Professeur he grabbed my hand and shook it happily.
“How was your flight? How was the hotel room? Everything is good I ‘ope?”
I grinned at him and retrieved my hand. He’d been my mentor in university, Professor Desjardins, but we always called him ‘le Professeur’. As usual his hair was in disarray, odd strands sticking out at all angles and his speckled salt and pepper beard seemed to have caught some breakfast crumbs. He was a big man and gave the impression of being even larger than he was. He always reminded me of a happy gorilla, or perhaps a French Friar Tuck. Right now he seemed to be excited about something, as his French accent was seeping into his speech, something he normally made a great effort to avoid.
“Thank you Professeur, everything was fine. I slept the entire flight from
. Best way to beat jet lag that I know. I feel great, ready for anything!” Montreal
“Excellent!” he cried, “Excellent! Then anything it shall be!” He squeezed himself into the chair across the table from me. “Garćon!” he called to the waiter who’d spent more time flirting with me than he had serving me breakfast. God, I loved the French! “Café, s'il vous plaît!”
“So my dear, as you’re ready for anything, let us start the day with a pop quiz.” He beamed, waggling his shaggy eye-brows at me. I laughed back at him. So this is the way we’re going to play, is it? I thought. He’d taught hundreds of students over the years and he still loved to test us whenever an opportunity presented itself.
He laid his oversized briefcase on the table, pushing the unused plate and cutlery aside. The waiter arrived with the coffee as the Professeur extracted a binder from the briefcase and handed it to me. He waited until the waiter left and then gestured for me to look at the binder.
“Tell me what you think of that!”
I looked at the binder. It contained a thin sheet of Plexiglas in a thin metal frame, like a picture frame. Behind the Plexiglas was ….
“Hmm,” I said, examining the item. “A vellum scroll, looks to be very good quality. The edges are not at all ragged and there are no thin spots, rips or tears. It’s very well preserved, so I would hazard a guess of, say, 13th or 14th century.”
His smile widened even further and he looked more like a rambunctious school kid eager to show his parent a great report card than a tenured University Professor.
“What else?” he prompted.
I looked back to the parchment. Something about it wasn’t adding up properly. I looked at the lettering and things suddenly clicked into place.
“Aramaic!” I blurted. “Now that’s really unusual. Aramaic wasn’t a language normally used by scribes in the Middle Ages. Nice hand though, the lettering is nice and clean and crisp. Must have been a professional scribe with lots of experience, though why would a scribe of
in the Middle Ages write in Aramaic often enough to get that good?” France
I re-read the title, throwing that little switch in my head to engage the Aramaic gears. The rhythms of Aramaic filled my mind and I read the parchment.
“Thunder: Perfect Mind.” I nearly dropped the frame.
“Professeur, you’ve found a thirteenth century copy of a first century Gnostic poem? Where? How?”
Suddenly I was excited. This was unheard of. Until they’d discovered the 2,000 year old Nag Hammadi Gnostic Scrolls in 1945, Gnostic had been a dead and long forgotten philosophy. Labeled heresy by the Christian church in the early second century, its followers had been subsequently persecuted to destruction. How could it possibly have survived into the thirteenth century?
The Professeur was literally bouncing in his chair now.
“Very good,” he said, “but completely incorrect!” The delight and excitement in his voice was unmistakable.
“OK.” I sat back, relaxing into my chair. “An excellent set-up, Professeur! It’s a great forgery though!”
I smiled at him, expecting him to acknowledge the joke, but he didn’t.
“No, no, still wrong!” He replied. “The scroll has been tentatively dated to …” he glanced furtively at the empty tables around us, hesitated, lent forward and lowered his voice suddenly to deliver the coupe de gras, “the second half of the first century, around 70 AD !”
He sat back, absolutely contented with himself. If his smile got any wider I’d swear his head would fall off.
I was stunned. Surely not possible! I studied the parchment again.
“No.” I said, “Can’t be! It’s very high quality vellum, yes, but it can’t possibly be 2,000 years old. Its condition is much too good to be that old.” I read some more. The words flowed smoothly across the page. The scribe had been excellent, as if he’d been writing in Aramaic his entire life.
“Where did you find this?” I asked, expecting him to say somewhere in
Egypt or maybe Israel or . Jordan
He smiled again. He was obviously having a tremendous time at my expense, though I couldn’t blame him. He turned away and pointed out across the balcony railing, toward the morning sun just peaking above the horizon.
“Over that way.” he said, “About 30 kilometers east and some 2,000 feet high is the Garbalan Massif. We found the scroll there, in an amphora, buried in a cave! And not just one amphora, but many, many! The first amphora contained several scrolls and I’m hoping the others also contain scrolls, but soon we will know!”
I looked east, trying to see the Garbalan, though it was too far away.
Vellum scrolls are common in
Europe, as they were the main source of parchment used until we invented paper. Vellum scrolls written in Aramaic were definitely not common. Finding caves full of stone-age art in southern was, well, not common, but common enough that another such find would be readily acceptable to the academic community. Finding a two thousand year old scroll in a cave in southern France was not just beyond expectation, it was beyond belief! You only found scrolls that old in the deserts of the Middle East, most definitely not in France Europe!
Many, many amphora, he’d said. It sounded like a treasure trove. My fingers tingled in anticipation. Two questions immediately sprang to mind.
What the hell were Aramaic scrolls doing here in
and when could I get my hands on them! France