Monday, February 28, 2011

Nag Hammadi Gnostic Scrolls cache found in Southern France

I don’t think this is the collection of a single persons’ work, but more likely someone’s collected library of books, stored away for posterity.  I’m guessing that the library was created by collecting existing documents from other places, possibly over a period of several years.  The writers generally appear to have been followers of the Gnostic creed and there are documents in the main languages of the period.   If all the scrolls are Gnostic documents then what we have here is the biggest Gnostic library ever found!”
“Slow down, Jeanne-Marie, slow down.  It seems you know these Gnostics quite well, but while I am familiar with the term, as you know most of my work has been on biblical scrolls, rather than on works only peripherally related to the Bible sources.  Please, tell me more of your understanding of them.”
“Well…” I started, pulling my thoughts together enough to give the Professeur a coherent review.  “The term Gnostic comes from the Greek words, ‘gnosis’ meaning ‘knowledge’ or possibly secret or spiritual knowledge, the enlightenment of a man and ‘gnostikos’ meaning the ‘knower’ or possessor of the knowledge.  You should know the general Gnostic philosophy is old, older even than Christianity.  Some suggest it may date as far back as Zoroaster, around 1200 BC.  Many of the basic themes of Zoroaster are echoed in both the Christian and Gnostic myths: the virgin birth, his sacrifice, death and rebirth, ascension to some kind of heaven.  In the first century the Gnostics became one of many sects of the early Christian church and their basic premise was that the highest God expected us to learn for ourselves, from ourselves.  They claimed that there was hidden knowledge which the most learned could discover, or be taught by a more advanced adherent.  A Gnostic was expected to question the world, use logic and thought, observation and meditation to discover the truths hidden within the world. 
The Gnostic belief from the time of Christ is that Jesus was teaching his disciples new knowledge, some of it spiritual in nature, some revealing the ways of God.  However, there were levels of knowledge and the higher levels of understanding were only given out to those who had progressed up through the lower levels.  Thus within the Gnostic sect, general members had every-day knowledge given to them, while members higher up in the hierarchy, like the disciples, would have secret knowledge passed to them.
The basic tenet of Gnosticism, or at least the main sects I’m most familiar with, was that the only true sin was ignorance.  They believed that we had forgotten who we were and where we came from and had fallen into ignorance, which is the cardinal sin.  It was only by re-learning that lost knowledge, from God and from within ourselves, that we could save ourselves.  We could be delivered from sin by gaining knowledge and wisdom, by reaching out to and possibly touching God.  One sect believed that we each carried a small reflection of God within ourselves and that by study, meditation and introspection we could find that piece and thus rejoin with God.  Obviously that concept was considered to be heretical as far as the more Catholic-like sects of the time were concerned.
The ‘Thunder, Perfect Mind’ scroll is probably the best known Gnostic poem and a version was known previously from the Nag Hammadi Scrolls, found in Egypt in 1945.  The version found in our cave is similar, but as you can see has distinct differences.  It’s as if the writer started to copy the original and then added her own verses as they came to her, which would be a very Gnostic thing to do.  Think of it as a religion that encourages you to go your own way, learning things as you go.
My skimming suggests we’ve found scrolls varying from teaching materials, to analysis of gospels and other documents, to poems of surprising simplicity and beauty, giving insights into the depths of the Gnostic complexity.”
“Hmm, interesting.  How would you suggest we approach the problem?”
“Well, given the huge number of documents we have, translating them sequentially, in full, will take years.  I’d like to continue with my ‘skimming’ approach, but do it a little more logically.  I’d like to pull the first page or two of a document and translate enough of it to get an idea of what the document is about.  Some will be readily identifiable as books from the bible, others I’m sure are copies of documents found at Nag Hammadi.  The ones that aren’t readily recognized I translate until I can figure out what they are, for example, a teaching text or an analysis of some other book.  Once I have an idea what the document is, I file it and go on to the next one.  That way I’ll build up an index of what we have fairly quickly, giving us an overview.  Then we can zero in on documents which are new or unique.  If I also keep track of the languages used that will allow you to bring in the most appropriate translators.”
“That sounds like an excellent approach!  Carry on.  I have already found you one assistant.  His name is Sebastian.  He’s a middle aged cleric whom I’ve borrowed from the Catholic Church of Paris.  He’ll be starting in a week or so.  His Greek and Latin are excellent, so make sure you point him towards documents of that type.
The Chancellor and I have also decided to keep the discovery quiet for now, so only you and Sebastian will be working on the translations for the time being.  I like your idea of creating an index to the documents first.  That will allow us to get a good handle on what we have here before going public or releasing the documents to the world.”
At the time I was so pleased the Professeur had approved my plan that I didn’t really pay much attention to those last few words.  Later though, when I thought back, I realized the Professeur’s plan made me slightly uneasy.  Bringing in the clerics and keeping the discover quiet seemed a bit odd, almost sinister.  I remembered the Dead Sea Scrolls team of the 1950’s, almost all with a religious background, all of whom were very secretive about the documents they were working on.  They spent nearly 50 years ‘protecting’ those scrolls from both the public and all other researchers.  I think we should be broadcasting our discovery to the world.  However, it’s not my dig, so I don’t get to call the shots.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Thunder: Perfect Mind - variation from a female author ??

 “Good evening Professeur.”  I slipped into my favorite comfy chair in the lounge.  The Professeur had finally returned from Paris and I’d cornered him as soon as I could.
“Good evening Jeanne-Marie.  How has your day been.”  His latte looked lost in his hand.  I curled my fingers around the warmth of my own cup, gratefully inhaling the mellow scent of Chai tea.
“Well, we’ve developed a good backlog of scanned images, so it’s probably time I stopped helping Henri and started doing some translating.  I’m just a little unsure how to begin.”
He gave me a slightly puzzled look and gestured for me to continue.
“I completed the translation of that first document you gave me, the Thunder scroll.  While it’s beginning is very similar to the copy found in the Nag Hammadi cache, the one Robinson describes, it takes quite a different tack as it progresses and ends quite differently.  Here, let me show you.”
I handed him the hand written version of the translation I’d input back into the computer system.
Thunder, Perfect Mind
For I am the first and the last
I am the honored one and the scorned one
I am the holy one and the harlot
I am the wife and the virgin
I am the mother and the daughter
I am the barren one and many are my children
I am the wife whose wedding celebration was great and I have yet to take a husband
I am the midwife and she who does not bear
I am the solace of my labor pains
I am the bride and the bridegroom and it is my husband who begot me.
I am the mother of my father and the sister of my husband, for he is my off-spring
I am the widow of the heart and the heart of all wisdom
I am the silence that is incomprehensible and the memory that every child comprehends
I am the sound so loud it cannot be ignored, that no-one hears
I am the voice which never speaks, to which every living being listens
I am the silence that echoes down the ages, soft as the wind, dry as the rain
I am the utterance of my name
I am the alpha and I am the omega.
I am the first, the female, creator
I am the living and the dead
I am the believer and the unbeliever
I am the saved and the lost
I am the last, alone in the grave.
Where I walk, seeds quicken
Where I rest, trees blossom
Where I sleep, life grows strong
Where I walk not, lies barren and dry
I am the sun, the moons and the stars
I am the first and last, creator and destroyer and I am woman
I am Sophia
“The writer is obviously a woman, which makes it absolutely unique.  We have no identifiable writings of women from that era, other than a fragment of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and our only copy of that is barely more than a single page.  Not only that, but the whole tone of the poem is Gnostic.   As I’ve been scanning the other documents into the database I’ve been reading bits and pieces and come to some tentative conclusions.   Many of the other scrolls in the cache seem to be writings similar to the Nag Hammadi Gnostic documents.  Some are duplicates of what we already have from Nag Hammadi and other finds, although in much better condition.  Many of the other scrolls look to be previously unknown.
Now, every amphora that Henri and I have opened so far has contained scrolls.  Every single jar so far has been perfectly sealed, the scrolls inside beautifully preserved.  Henri’s conservation process is working flawlessly and we’re now up to our ears in images of documents.  The process is working well, so well it’s beyond my wildest hopes.  The scrolls look as if they were written just yesterday.  The scanned images are clean and clear.  The text is crisp.  The use of the language in the scrolls suggests the writers were well educated and very comfortable with the art of writing.  I say writers plural because from the several scrolls I’ve skimmed through, the handwriting appears to be the work of several different scribes.  We’ve clipped samples from each set of documents and sent them off for radiocarbon dating.  All the documents that have been dated so far show origins between 100 BC and 100 AD.  The rougher quality documents seem to be created in the last years BC, while the better quality documents tend to date to the early first century AD.
Unlike the ‘Thunder’ document which was in Aramaic, almost all the other documents I’ve looked at have been written in Greek, with a few of the older documents in either Coptic or Hebrew.  The quality of the writing varies quite a bit too.  The better copies appear to be re-written versions of texts found in the older or poorer quality scrolls.  Quite often they’re Greek translations from original Coptic and Hebrew manuscripts.  A few of these documents we already know from the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea finds, though what we have are better copies and more complete.  There are also definitely new, previously unknown documents, but they all follow a similar version of Gnosticism, a common creed so to speak.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Gnostic Scrolls on vellum

While truly ancient documents are clay or stone carvings, documents from 2,000 years ago were usually scrolls made of either papyrus or vellum. Papyrus is made from the papyrus plant, found in Egypt and for centuries it formed a major part of their economy.  The plant is stripped of its tough outer coating and the remaining core split into long thin strips, pressed and soaked in water for several days.  The strips are then laid out in a cross hatched pattern, pressed flat and allowed to dry.  At the end of the process you have a sheet of papyrus parchment which is surprisingly tough.  Waterproof, tear-proof, it can be soaked and not fall apart.  It’s actually much tougher than the paper we make today.  The only downside is that the end product has a smooth side and a rough side, so usually only the smooth side is used for writing.  As it’s a plant based product it keeps well in dry desert caves, but not so well in warm, humid climates like southern France where mold and mildew tend to destroy it fairly quickly.  I expect that explains why most papyrus scrolls are found on the other side of the Mediterranean.
Vellum is an entirely different beast, no pun intended.  It’s actually very thin animal skins, usually young sheep, goat or calf.  The skin is soaked, de-haired, scrapped clean, then stretched flat and scrapped until it’s thin and flexible.  I once watched a Discovery Channel special on making vellum and it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.  Cleaning the skin is both gross and messy to say the least.  Once the skin is cleaned, stretched and dried, it’s scraped repeatedly until it’s very thin and fairly flexible.  Each skin is then cut into rectangular pages and in our case the rectangles are folded in half to form the leaves of a book.  Each of our books contains between fifteen and twenty sheets, to make a booklet of thirty to forty pages.  Each book is then covered in a heavier vellum, with a loose front flap that folds over to protect the edges.  The whole thing is then rolled up to form a cylinder about three inches in diameter and eleven inches long, a scroll.  Our scrolls were then wrapped one more time in heavier vellum and dipped in wax to seal them.
Henri’s procedure is working well and we’re progressing through the scrolls slowly but steadily.  We’ve built up a nice rhythm and we’re now producing scanned pages every second day or so.  Each of the jars opened so far contain between 30 and 40 rolled up documents, so we’ve got lots of scrolls to work with.  Now that we have actual scans to work with my time in the lab is reaching an end and it’s time I started my real task, translating.
The scanned images are loaded into a computerized database, referenced by the amphora number, the scroll number and the page number.  I can check out an image from the database, much like checking a book out of the library and work on a translation.  I do the translation on my local computer and when I’m happy with the results I check the translation back into the database and link it to the original image.
Everything is stored here on the main system in Marseille, with nightly backups transmitted to a master system in Paris, where the Professeur continues with his analysis.  There, he’ll have complete access to what we’re doing here and we’ll have a complete backup of all our work just in case the computer here has a problem.  The system itself is probably the best I’ve ever worked on.  Very fast, very flexible, with a full search capability on not only the translation texts but also on the images as well.  ‘Slick’ is a bit of an  understatement!
 The Professeur has been talking about getting several more translators but so far I’m the only one here.  I’m a bit surprised, as I thought the Professeur would have made some sort of public announcement by now and we’d be flooded with researchers wanting to join the project and get access to the documents.  He hasn’t.  It’s most unusual for him, but he’s playing his cards very close to his chest.  I know he meets with the Chancellor of the University on a regular basis, but why they haven’t announced anything about the discovery yet is not clear.  He’s due back on-site in a few days, so I’ll ask him then.