about a&sdean's officeacademics & researchalumni & commuitynews & eventsstudent resourcessitemap


Features August 2002

Professorís research opens up worlds of early Christianity, philosophy
John Turner is one of few with skills required to work with Nag Hammadi texts
By Tom Hancock, Arts and Sciences
Professor John D. Turner 

lassics Professor John Turnerís work on the ancient scriptures known as the Nag Hammadi Library contributes important insights into early Christianity and the nature of Gnosticism. 

Gnosticism is a broad term that comprises select doctrines of pre-Christian, pagan, Hebraic, and early Christian sects. Gnosis literally means knowledge, but in this usage practitioners define it as secret knowledge of spiritual truth. 

Gnosticism was not an alternate Christianity, but rather a radical trend stressing release from the dominion of evil through inner transcendence. It was prevalent through late Antiquity and emerged through Christianity, Judaism, Neoplatonism, and Hermeticism. 

Gnosticism was influential from before the Christian era until the 5th century C.E. Texts connected to the movement were once thought to have been entirely destroyed during the early Christian struggle to define orthodoxy. Having the Nag Hammadi scriptures in hand lets scholars see the Gnostic movements in their own light instead of from the stance of its critics, who branded Gnostics heretics.

The library includes a large number of primary Gnostic scriptures, including 16 gospels that arenít in the New Testament, many of which are collections of the sayings of Jesus. "These have immense historical value," Turner said, "because they are independent witnesses to the tradition of the sayings of the historical Jesus."

Turner is one of very few scholars entrusted with the translation, publication, and interpretation of the library. Nag Hammadi scholars must be experts in papyrology, the Coptic, Greek, and Latin languages, and the New Testament, Early Christianity, and ancient philosophy.

Library background
The Nag Hammadi Library is a collection of 13 ancient codices, or books, containing more than 50 texts, 40 of which were unknown before the libraryís discovery. The codices are comprised of religious and philosophic texts translated by Christians into Coptic, the late-Egyptian language written with Greek characters. Nag Hammadi is the modern name of the town in Egypt near where the library was unearthed in 1945 by a farmer. 

Some of the codices have documentary materials in the bindings such as letters and tax receipts that help date the copying of the books to around 350 C.E. The library was buried around 400 C.E. in a stone jar under a rock. Scholars speculate that the library was buried at the approach of Roman authorities, who had by this time become Christian and could be expected to enforce an orthodoxy that considered texts such as those in the Nag Hammadi library to be heretical. 

Gnosticism was attacked, in general, because its secret texts contain concepts that some church fathers found didnít fit their conception of Christianity. These texts contained concepts such as the equality of the self with the divine and the need to find the kingdom of God within oneís self rather than in the external world.

Gnosticism was eradicated as a major influence in the first centuries C.E. and disappeared except for occasional underground movements, a presence in Medieval mysticism, and English romanticism. There are still Gnostic organizations extant today.

Egyptian origins
"Thereís the mystery of the library," Turner said. "How did it end up in a jar? Many theories have been proposed. Most people suspect a connection to the nearby Pachomian monastery. . . . One of the ways monasteries supported themselves was to produce books, which at the time were very expensive and rare. . . . For some reason, these 13 codices were manufactured, copied by some of these people, preserved, or read by them. You have to assume a period in the Pachomian monastic history when total orthodoxy had not yet been enforced." 

Once found in 1945, the codices circulated through antiquities dealers then were obtained by French scholars, who published 114 sayings of Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas in The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics in 1956. The Christian content was the initial draw and made "Nag Hammadi" a recognizable term among biblical scholars and interested laymen, Turner said.
Mostly French and some German scholars were given sole access to the material by the Minister of Antiquities in Egypt. This designation gave them exclusive access with no schedule by which translations were to be produced. American scholars were denied access to the material because of the political status of the Middle East following the 1967 war. 

The right time and place
John Turner earned his doctorate in religion from Duke University in 1970. His dissertation was a translation, introduction, and commentary of the Book of Thomas the Contender from Codex II of the Nag Hammadi Library. His work was later integrated as chapters in 
The Nag Hammadi Library, the standard, one-volume, comprehensive publication of the codices, edited by James M. Robinson.

Turnerís doctoral work at Duke University initially focused on New Testament studies, especially the social world of the early church and the writing techniques of the evangelists. Halfway through the program, Turner said, he felt that the prospects of creating original research on early Christianity were poor, and that scholarship on the subject was stalling.

Two streams then joined that would carry Turnerís research forward: his language studies and access to the Nag Hammadi Library.

At Duke, Turner shifted his attention from New Testament studies to the study of ancient languages and literatures relevant to early Christianity and its cultural environment. He became adept at eight ancient languages, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Mandaic, Middle Egyptian, Coptic, and Arabic. 

"Just at the time I was concentrating on certain Middle Egyptian and Coptic texts," Turner said, "my principal adviser returned from a trip to Cairo, bringing with him photographs of the pages of Codex II of the Nag Hammadi library.

"The codices were written in Coptic, the latest stage of the Egyptian language," Turner said. "I thought this would be an interesting thing to do for my dissertation, to contribute original knowledge."

At a Society of Biblical Literature meeting in 1966, Turner met Robinson and learned that he had managed to secure some photographs of the library from the UNESCO vaults in Paris. In 1968 the team responsible for the present volume of The Nag Hammadi Library began to come together to form The Coptic Gnostic Library Project under the auspices of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, in Claremont, Calif., which Robinson led.

The team, comprised of 22 people who Turner describes as "young scholars eager to make a career," worked on as much of the material as was available, mainly through photographs. 

The team obtained access to the actual Nag Hammadi Library in the early 1970s. They reassembled the fragments of the codices, which had been degraded by elements such as mildew and worms. Some of the codices are relatively intact, while others are highly fragmented.

The assembly process
Restoring a codex has one advantage over restoring a scroll, Turner said. "You can break the spine of a codex, press each leaf in a pane of glass, then you can stack them and look down through the stack and see the outline of what is left."

Ancient manuscripts can be pieced together using clues such as coloration, fiber direction, and the contours of the pieces.

Assembling the codices requires "good eyesight," Turner said. "Obviously you have to know the language. Ultimately itís great perseverance and a lot of painstaking work. You sit down with tracing paper to draw outlines, and use light tables and ultraviolet and infrared light sources."

The team transcribed the Coptic texts then made translations of them, which they circulated worldwide. The monopoly of the original scholars was broken. 

The English translation of the libraryís complete contents, in facsimile form, was completed in 1977, when theNag Hammadi Library was published.

Fight for orthodoxy
One theory about burial of the texts concerns the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius. He issued a paschal letter in the year 367 C.E. in which he laid out what are basically the contents of the first New Testament canon, or approved works. He also dictated that all other books that mistakenly asserted authority be destroyed.

The group holding the codices, perhaps associated with the Pachomian monastery, apparently treasured these non-canonical works and safeguarded them by burying them in a jar around 400 C.E. Burial of documents is cited in the Bible (Jeremiah 32:14-15; 36:23) as a way to preserve written material.

The Nag Hammadi codices vary widely from each other as to when, where, and by whom they were written. They do not all come from one group or movement, but the fact that someone collected and hid these copies together indicates they had something in common. 

The Nag Hammadi texts provide insight into early Christianity. They answer many questionsóincluding those of history, literary genres, and compositionóthat are not answered in the material of the New Testament or other sources. 

The most famous of the Christian Gnostic writings, The Gospel of Thomas, is attributed to Jesus' "twin brother" Judas Didymos Thomas. Some of these sayings are similar to those found in the New Testament gospels but others are unique. This gospel was probably compiled in the 50s C.E., contemporary with Paulís greatest activity in the church.

Other writings include the Gospel of Philip, an esoteric commentary on Christian ritual; the Gospel of the Egyptians, which contains a full-scale cosmology from creationís origin to the present time, how things went wrong, and how the savior has now come; and the Gospel of Truth, which is a homily similar in form to the Letter to the Hebrews. 

The codices indicate that, despite some popular misconceptions, in the 1st century C.E. the Christian church was not unified and pure, but rather was highly pluralistic, with many competing movements or sects such as Gnosticism.

Before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, many Gnostic works were known only by title in the refutations of the early church founders.

As an example of Gnostic thought, some practitioners believe that the resurrection occurs for an individual when she or he emerges from the waters of baptism, rather than at the end time. Paul argued against this concept in 1 Corinthians.

Although the term Gnosticism covers a wide variety of philosophies and practices, Gnostics, like practitioners of Eastern philosophies, seek to live mindfully in the present. They also promote withdrawal from society and materiality, which they see as a product of error and ignorance.

Itís this sense of the necessity of separating from society to attain an ideal order that provides the focus that brought the Nag Hammadi Library together. 

Sethian Gnosticism
During the last 10 years Turner has focused on a previously unrecognized religious competitor of early Christianity, a Gnostic movement called Sethianism. The results of his efforts in this area recently appeared in an 844-page monograph titled 
SethianGnosticism and the Platonic Tradition

The monograph has been chosen as the focus of one of six colloquia to be held in Paris at the Seminaire des Missions Etrangeres in September 2002 as part of the sesquicentennial commemoration of the royal charter granted by Queen Victoria to the Universite Laval in Quebec, Canada, where Turner does much of his research.

Turnerís was the only English-language work chosen for the commemoration by the French-language university.

Gnostic Sethianism was a religious movement begun in the Jordan valley in the middle of the 1st century, and so paralleled the rise of Christianity. The two may have competed for the hearts and minds of their contemporaries, Turner said. 

The Sethian movement is defined by 14 Gnostic texts found in the Nag Hammadi Library. These texts clearly illustrate a non-Christian Gnosticism that had not previously been documented. They span the transition of non-Christian to Christian Gnosticism.

Fundamental to the Sethian and other texts of the Nag Hammadi Library were events that took place after the Maccabean revolt (168-135 B.C.E.). During the revolt the Jews fought several successful guerrilla-type battles against the Greeks and eventually restored the desecrated Temple. The events are celebrated at the Festival of Hanukkah.

After the revolt and several decades of Jewish self-rule, in 63 B.C.E the Romans invaded and made Judea a provincial territory. They then steadily exercised more and more influence over who would occupy the office of Jewish high priest, essentially paganizing the office in the eyes of the Jews. The office had a revolving door; as an example, Caiaphas, of New Testament infamy, served as high priest from 27-36 C.E., which was a relatively long term at the time.

Some Jews, such as the carriers of what later would be called the Dead Sea Scrolls, reacted to the Roman influence by retreating to the wilderness. These and other refugees also retreated to the idea of a heavenly temple, which unlike the earthly one was undefiled. 

Much of the lore connected with the heavenly temple is fundamental to the Sethian treatises in the Nag Hammadi, as well as to Christian material, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

Alternate beginnings
Sethian texts tell scholars much about speculative Judaism, such as reflections on the meaning of Genesis. For example, The Apocalypse of Adam is purported to be a revelation received by Adam from three heavenly visitors and narrated by him to his son, Seth, who was the third child of Adam and Eve.

Much of Turnerís focus has been on the development of baptismal practices. For Sethians, baptism conferred "the five seals," perhaps indicating a "quinitarian" theology in contrast to the Christian trinity.

Sethiansí goal was to regain the androgynous wholeness of Adam before he/she was divided into man and woman. So for Sethians, the truly authentic condition of the human, made in the image of God, is Adam undivided, Turner said.

Despite the baptismal rite conferring the five seals, Sethians believed in a divine trinity, composed of a Father, or invisible spirit, a Mother, who was a redeemer figure called Barbelo, and a Son, who was self-generated and identified with the heavenly Christ. 

The Sethians and contemporary groups were all part and parcel of a kind of great religious mix along the Jordan valley and into Northern Palestine and Syria in the centuries before and after the appearance of Jesus, Turner said, of which the Nag Hammadi Library is a unique witness.