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.