Editor’s Note: From May 10-13, more than three dozen scholars, many from Scandinavia and Germany, gathered at Yale Divinity School for the 2011 meeting of the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Network—an association with Nordic roots dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of early Christianity through exploration of mid-fourth century C.E. Gnostic texts discovered in 1945 in the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. The 2011 meeting marked the group’s first meeting in the United States. Here, two young Yale scholars who attended the meeting in New Haven—Dylan Burns ’11 Ph.D., who helped organize and coordinate the gathjering, and Mary Farag ’09 M.A.R., ’16 Ph.D.—reflect on their experiences.
Exploring the mysteries of early Christianity: Nag Hammadi comes to Yale
By Dylan Burns ’11 Ph.D.
“So, what about Yale?” asked the Finn. It was March of 2009, in a dimly lit bar up the street from Université Laval, in Quebec City. The last session of the newly dubbed “Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Network (NHGN)” was over.
From 2004 to 2008, the “Nordic Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Network (NNGN)” met once a year, bringing together a burgeoning scene of Scandinavian scholars of Gnosticism and early Christianity and putting them in touch with their Continental and American colleagues. Funded by the Nordic Academy for Advanced Study (NorFA) and led by Prof. Einar Thomassen (U. Bergen), the group was focused on advanced training of students—sessions were divided between reading groups in Coptic (the late Egyptian language in which many Gnostic texts are preserved) and discussion of papers by doctoral and master’s students. When the NorFA funding ran out in 2008, a longtime attendee and beneficiary of the meetings, Dr. Tuomas Rasimus (Ph.D. 2007, U. Helsinki/Laval), organized a follow-up meeting at Laval for 2009.
Having recently begun my doctoral dissertation on Gnosticism at Yale, I was excited when Tuomas invited me to come to Laval and present my research to a distinguished community of scholars from across the pond. It was an impressive colloquium experience—the Coptic reading sessions gave students a rare opportunity to read these difficult manuscripts in the original language with not one but several expert professors, some of whom had been working on these texts for over four decades. The discussions of papers were informal and lively, yet sharp and highly critical. Most importantly, it was a tight-knit community in which I found not just academic interlocutors but good friends.
So when Tuomas asked me, “the 2011 meeting—so what about Yale?” what could I say but “yes”? Yale Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge agreed to lead the reading group, so the Divinity School was the obvious choice for hosting the meeting; funding was provided by YDS, the Hall of Graduate Studies, the departments of Classics and Judaic Studies, and the Gerber Fund. The allure of the Ivy League produced a great turnout from Europe as well as American universities—over 30 of the 40 participants were visiting from abroad (Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany, and France)—including doctoral and master’s students, postdocs, and many professors, such as Prof. Thomassen himself as well as our keynote speaker, Prof. Christoph Markschies (Humboldt U. Berlin).
The Coptic reading group focused on exegesis of the famously difficult Gnostic homily The Gospel of Truth, an old friend of Dean Attridge and the subject of several new doctoral dissertations. Other papers handled questions in the Egyptian and Monastic backgrounds of Gnosticism, the relationship of Gnosticism to contemporary (Neo-) Platonic philosophy, and other aspects of the Valentinian and Sethian “schools” of Gnostic thought. None of these controversies were settled for good, but the workshop was a great success in educating the next generation of Gnosticism scholars in the tools of their trade, and in sharing the fruits of our common scholarly labors across borders, languages, and continents.
At Yale’s Gnostic conference: deciphering the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Thomas, Zostrianos, the Apocryphon of John, and more
By Mary K. Farag ’09 M.A.R., ’16 Ph.D.
As a member of the host institution, my task on the first day of the Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Networking Conference was to guide a Swedish Professor, Jörgen Magnusson, and his students to YDS. Professor Magnusson’s students were quite a diverse group. Some were primary-school teachers who simply had a penchant for all things Gnostic; others were burgeoning scholars. Professor Magnusson himself, I learned, was blind, was both a chess prodigy and an expert on the Gospel of Truth—the very text we would be reading for two-and-a-half hours that morning and every morning of the conference. His memory was impeccable. Throughout the reading sessions, he would cite lines of the Coptic text by heart.
Professor Magnusson, his students, and I were joined in the RSV seminar room that May 10 morning by several other experts and students in Gnostic studies. I sat beside Professor Einar Thomassen, from Norway, a leader of the Network’s meetings. The title of the conference, long as it is, used to be even longer: the Nordic Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Networking Conference. The purpose of the Network was to gather together, on an annual basis, a number of Scandinavian scholars of Gnostic studies and the Nag Hammadi library. However, the Nordic Network did not remain solely Nordic for long, as its meetings attracted scholars and students across the globe. American scholars who participated in this year’s conference included Karen King from Harvard, John Turner from Nebraska University, and our own dean, Harold Attridge, who led each morning’s Coptic readings with his typical vigor and enthusiasm.
Though there were a significant number of experts in attendance, the great diversity of the group in background and expertise prevented the reading sessions from proving daunting. We read passages of the Valentinian homily aloud, offered various translations, debated grammatical issues, and delved into matters of exegesis and context at length. One of the most complex texts of the Nag Hammadi library due to its rhetorical style and intricate content, the Gospel of Truth proved enlightening for scholar, student, and hobbyist alike. Not only did the Gospel of Truth’s style and content pose difficulties for us and open up endless avenues for conversation, but the language in which it survives did not approximate a Coptic reader’s typical fare. The Gospel of Truth does not survive in standard Sahidic, one of the literary dialects of Coptic in antiquity, but in a Sahidic colored by features of a Lycopolitan variety of Coptic.
To me, the morning reading sessions were the gem of the conference, but the afternoon presentations provided no less interesting or unique an experience. Indeed, the conference laid so much emphasis upon discussion and interaction that papers were not formally presented, but rather pre-circulated by e-mail for participants to read and mull over. This format provided plenty of time for papers to be considered, questions to be formulated, and, when we gathered together, for conversation to ping-pong across the room at length. Papers not only addressed the text at hand, the Gospel of Truth, but also various other texts of the Nag Hammadi Library, such as the Gospel of Thomas, Zostrianos, and the Apocryphon of John.
Toward the conference end, we enjoyed the crowning privilege of seeing an actual fragment of a Nag Hammadi codex at our visit to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library on May 12, led by Kevin Wilkinson ’08 Ph.D. Among a number of other papyri, some liturgical scrolls, an ostracon, and a tiny medieval Latin Bible, Wilkinson showed us a piece of a Nag Hammadi codex that happens to have made its way into the Beinecke’s papyrological collection. We saw firsthand the beautiful script of one of the Nag Hammadi library’s unknown scribes.
I had heard legendary stories about the Network’s previous meetings, and this year the Network came to my very doorstep. Needless to say, my high expectations were confirmed. I enjoyed four days with a stimulating group and am already eager to join next year’s Network meeting, wherever it may be.