In 1945, an illiterate field hand named Muhammad Ali al-Samman was digging for fertilizer at a cliff overlooking the Nile River near the village of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. He uncovered a large stone jar, which he thought might contain buried treasure.
When he cracked open the seal, however, he was disappointed to find the jar contained nothing but some crumbling old books. He tore a few of them up and divided the pieces among his fellow camel drivers. He took the rest of the books home, where his mother used some of the old papyrus as kindling for her oven.
Eventually, however, most of the books from the old jar found their way into the hands of scholars, who determined they were a 1,800-year-old library of pre-Christian and early Christian writings, many of which had never been seen before.
The books were in Coptic, a language related to ancient Egyptian, and contained writings of Gnosticism, a religious movement that both influenced and competed with early Christianity.
John Turner, professor of religious studies and classics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is intimately familiar with the Nag Hammadi documents. He has spent most of his career translating and studying the ancient books, which are helping scholars better understand the early development of the Christian faith.
Turner, who once studied to become a Presbyterian minister, was part of a team of 22 researchers that began translating what are known as the Nag Hammadi Codices in 1967. The project is one of the major scholarly achievements of the 20th century, rivaling the translation of the more famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in Palestine at about the same time.
The most well-known of the Nag Hammadi documents is the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus that was not included in the New Testament. The codices also contain several other Gnostic works, including the Book of Thomas, the Acts of Thomas and several works in what is known as Sethian Gnosticism, a topic on which Turner has become the world's leading expert.
Gnosticism, Turner explained, blends elements of Judaism, Christianity, pagan religions and Greek thought. Heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy, the Gnostics believed that the material world -- the world of the senses -- is less real than an ideal spiritual realm that can be known by divine revelation or intellectual contemplation.
The word "Gnosticism" comes from the Greek word "gnosis," which means "intuitive knowledge of spiritual truth." Unlike agnostics, who claim not to have clear knowledge about God or ultimate reality, a gnostic is someone who does claim to have such knowledge.
That knowledge allows the human soul to escape from "a physical world full of uncertainties, frustrations, suffering and ultimately death ... and return to its native home in the world of light," Turner explained.
Gnostics sought to suppress physical passions, such as hunger, greed and lust, and focus instead on the unchanging reality of God. Many of the Gnostic writings are based on the biblical book of Genesis, but with a unique interpretation, Turner said.
For example, they believed that "the God who threw Adam and Eve out of Eden wasn't the true God, but a demigod" who deceived humans and caused them to fall into sin, Turner said. The true God, who appears at the beginning of Genesis, created humans "in his own image," which implies that the true nature of every person is divine.
The fourth chapter of Genesis tells the story of Cain and Abel, the first children of Adam and Eve. Cain killed Abel, committing the world's first murder.
Sethian Gnosticism takes its origin from Genesis 5:3, which tells of the birth of Adam's third son, Seth, "a son in his own likeness, and according to his image." The Sethian Gnostics believed that unlike the sinful Cain, Seth was formed in the true image of God, Turner said.
Sethianism was a Jewish movement that existed before the time of Christ but obviously had influences on Christianity, Turner said.
Significantly, the New Testament Gospel of Luke traces Jesus' human ancestry through Seth (Luke 3:38), not through Cain. Gnostic concepts also are reflected in the opening chapters of the Gospel of John, which identifies Christ with the eternal word (logos) and "the true light, which enlightens everyone."
"Gnosticism means to know my own divinity, to become aware of it," Turner said. "It reminds people of the possibilities inherent in man, but the problem is that our divinity is obscured by immoral behavior and passions."
Because Gnosticism placed primary emphasis on an individual person's knowledge of God, it was viewed as a threat to the authority of the church hierarchy, Turner said. Scholars believe the Nag Hammadi documents were buried in about A.D. 367, when the bishop of Alexandria sent a letter to monasteries instructing them to get rid of heretical books.
Since the Nag Hammadi documents were often in fragments, translating them is something like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. In his office, Turner has large volumes with facsimile reproductions of the manuscript pages. Many are in bits and pieces, but through painstaking work, he and other researchers have been able to reconstruct much of the original texts.
From 1975 through 1995, Turner and the team of scholars published a 14-volume critical edition of the Nag Hammadi Library, with transcriptions, translations and notes on all the texts. He personally translated about 10 percent of the 52 ancient documents contained in the library.
What he calls his "magnum opus," an 864-page book titled "Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition," was published in 2002.
His work shows how the Sethians were influenced by neo-Platonism and vice-versa. For example, Sethian thinkers had developed a theory of the emanation of all reality from a single divine principle before the time of Plotinus, the Greek philosopher who is generally credited with that theory, Turner explained.
Last year, Turner received the Outstanding Research and Creative Activity award from the UNL College of Arts and Sciences. This year, he received a university system-wide ORCA award, which carries a $3,500 grant.
Recipients of the award are nominated by their faculty peers and must receive recognition "as one of the top scholars working in their field," said Joe Rowson, assistant vice president and director of communications for the university. Turner is "a scholar of international stature in the field of Gnosticism, early Christianity and neo-Platonism," he said.
In a lecture he delivered last spring after receiving the award, Turner noted that by coincidence the acronym ORCA spells the Latin name for "the very sort of large-bellied ceramic jar in which the Nag Hammadi Codices were originally discovered."
Asked why people should study the Gnostics today, Turner replied that the authors of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts "were human beings like us, and they have a right to be heard just as we have a right to be heard."
In addition, he said, the codices "tell us what's going on between the lines in the New Testament." For example, much of what the apostle Paul writes in his letters to various churches is in response to "embryonic (not fully developed) Gnostic concepts," he said.
Above all, he said, Gnosticism is an example of the efforts of religious thinkers and philosophers throughout history to make sense of the human condition.
"Human beings have an infinite imagination that finds itself confined in a finite body," Turner said. "That gives us a desire to go beyond that kind of condition, to speculate about ultimate reality, to imagine an invisible universe and even construct a map of it."
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