THE INSCRIPTION

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Full story from my volume "The Door and other extraordinary stories"

“Esteemed Mr. Alexie, I insist to attach to this electronic message the photo of the inscription I discovered these past weeks. I tried by myself, then with several of my colleagues overseas to decipher it and to classify it. Our opinions differ and we would like to have another pertinent idea. Normally, I wouldn’t have bothered you for this much, if there wasn’t for certain circumstances that forced me to. Maybe I will meet you again sometime, and I will present them to you. I am sure that you, the world’s most renowned specialist in Proto-Christianity and expert in old languages, will discover the true meaning. I therefore ask for your help. I hope it will catch your attention. Sincerely yours, prof. B. Benedict, Princeton University.”

I read this e-mail several times, until I decided to present you the photo I received. I would like you to look at it carefully and to try to decipher it together.

I couldn’t believe it. The renowned professor B. Benedict from Princeton was asking for help from the even more renowned prof. Alexie, from Chicago University, which in his turn, asked for our help, his three PhDs. Besides me, there was Joseph, from South Africa, the “oldest” of all three of us, although age-wise he was younger than me, he had started his doctoral studies two years before me, and Charlize (born in India, from a local and an English man, who run to America to fulfill their love) who had started studying for her PHD a year later than Joseph. Ultimately, myself, I studied for my Bachelor’s Degree in Cluj, I was lucky enough to hear professor Alexie talk at Sorbonne (he was born in Romania as well), while I was studying for my Master in the history of religions, where he was invited by my first mentor, professor Michel Meslin, to speak about The Gnostic Manuscripts. Ever since high school, when I read I.P. Culianu’s The Dualist Gnoses and The Gnosis’ Tree, I was interested in Gnostics and the first centuries in the evolution of Christianity. I asked a few pertinent questions, whose answer stretched a few hours past the end of the conference, up until dinner. This is how I met the man who, one year later, became my teacher and doctoral advisor.

For a long time afterwards I thought about the extraordinary chance I had to walk the same halls, and to breath the same air as Mircea Eliade, Ioan Petru Culianu or Virgil Alexie, each one follower of the previous at the Divinity School chair (unfortunately, the latter replacing Culianu as a consequence of his tragic end). This was one of the reasons why I decide to study for my PhD here, instead of Paris. Then, although in one year at Sorbonne I had learned as much as I learn in Romania throughout college, and probably even more, I needed to leave old Europe and to give the American learning system a try. I don’t regret it: the libraries are excellent, the teachers have time to talk to every student, even more so with those who show interest, and, last but not least, there is more freedom. Most of all, however, I wanted to be there where my first teachers were, the ones I had only met in books. First of all, Eliade, ever since the secondary school and The Near-sighted Adolescent’s Novel, the novels, essays and his memories, than his overwhelming work as historian of religion. I discovered Culianu only a short while before his assassination, but I haven’t left him since. He always brought something new, a new idea, an ingenious perspective; he shed some personal light on some dark aspect. I myself was, just like them, concerned with literature as well, but ever since I had gotten to the US, I didn’t have time to write almost anything at all, that is why I decided to write down these lines, even though they are not written as literature, but as events which, no doubt about it, are very important, and will prove to be, in the future, I’m convinced.

The inscription that professor Alexie projected onto the white wall was in fact a fragment, one piece of a papyrus, which, at first, seemed to be related to the codex found at Nag Hammadi. Just like the manuscripts were a crucial discovery, Professor Benedict hoped this would be the case for his inscription as well. The professor, said Alexie, didn’t send us the translation he and his colleagues made, probably, in order not to influence us. The same applies to their opinion in respect to the text, to what it pertains to, who it could be written by etc. So I am not going to tell you mine either, until I will first hear from you. So, what do you think? What is it?

All three of us were looking at the inscription. There were only a few blunted sentences, and their translation, given the fact that the complete body of the text was missing, rendered them senseless. I believe it is related to the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, I said. There’s a rather obvious reference in the text, although indirect, to Pistis Sophia. It is a starting point said the professor. I, however, believe that the word refers to Sophia indeed, but polemically, not as an argument of Gnostics, Joseph started saying. Or, at least, not of those that we know. I have the same impression, Charlize added, that they look nothing like what we already know. My opinion, therefore, is that it is a fragment from a new apocryphal gospel, or, what would be truly extraordinary, a fragment from a dualist system which is barely being discovered. And then, said the professor, there would be a connection to the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, even though it serves only to complement them. Whatever it is, the first idea that pops out is that the fragment is not part of an already known dualist gnosis, nor of the four gospels or of the apocryphal texts discovered so far. Can it really be something new? It seems improbable, I said. Even though the words make no sense without relating them to something already discovered. I mean, that is precisely why… It is logically impossible, I added, to be something completely new: even if it were to be an apocryphal, then it must be put into relation to The Bible, and if it is a new Gnostic system, which, again, seems even less probable, for it not to have left any trace yet, and still it must be put into relation to something, in this case, again with The Bible. I agree, said the professor. Then let us have a closer look at how it is written. Until carbon dating tests will shed some light, let us see if we cannot guess, but estimate the period when it was written. Let us start from the beginning.

We struggled for almost an hour to reach a conclusion. It was clear that given such a fragment it was a difficult task. There were some words that weren’t used anymore after 300 A.D. And if we were to think about the first Christians and first Gnostics, we could narrow it down to the period up until the year 200. Therefore the text was written somewhere between the first and second century. Then we tried to identify the possible author. Imagine, though, that you would be asked to recognize an author based on a fragment which covers a quarter of a page from a book, from no matter where in the book. This thing would be almost impossible, especially if the work is unpublished. Moreover, if all you knew about it would resume to some reviews published in some magazines, more or less complete and pertinent, a fragment of a biography, and that is it. Therefore, we had to solve a mystery, having very little clues. That is why, our proposals, the ones we sent to Professor Benedict, were to be treated as mere possibilities. Our versions were the following:

1. The text was written by a representative of Gnosticism, probably from the Valentinianism, and therefore it was clearly a piece of a new papyrus which pertained to the ones discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, in Upper Egypt. The reference to Sophia was then legal, if we were to consider the myths presented in most variants of the Gnostics, namely that of Sophia’s fall, which leads to the creation of the world, or that of demiurge’s fall, Sophia’s abortion, who creates the world himself, imperfect as he is.

2. The inscription was a fragment of the yet undiscovered writings of the great Marcion of Sinope, who lived around 80 and 155 and who even established a church, a fearful competitor to the Christian Church up until mid-3rd century. As it is well known, the extinction of the Marcionite Church was due to both the martyr of its members, as well as to the drastic self-imposed ascesis, which was not for everybody, although it gathered many followers at the time.

3. Finally, the third version, according to our opinion, too beautiful to be true, was that the fragment found could be a piece of the controversial gospel of Apostle Pavel, which just because it wasn’t discovered, does not mean it was not written. Marcion himself accepts only Pavel as an apostle, even though he wasn’t one of the twelve disciples, because he was directly chosen by Jesus and God Himself. Pavel speaks often of his gospel, inspired by Christ Himself, but it not yet known whether there was also a written version. There are, however, in The Bible, the well-known Epistles.

Then, in the last two cases, the reference to Sophia, which was already mentioned, appears in the text as a possible polemics to Gnosticism. The final conclusion was that this inscription by itself couldn’t establish for sure which of these versions was the real one and we hoped that future would reveal other fragments as well, if not the whole text.

Professor Benedict’s answer came fast. Professor Alexie forwarded it to us: “My dears, I’m sending you the message I received today from Professor Benedict. (The next line is Original message and the receiver’s details and then the following text): “Dear Mr. Alexie, I thank you for promptly sending me your results. Meanwhile, we continued our research, but unfortunately we have not discovered – yet, I hope, any other fragment. The conclusions you’ve reached – together, as you wrote, with your best students, shed a new light upon our conclusions. First, we believed it was a Paulician text, mainly because it was discovered in Bulgaria (now you can see why I did not want to reveal this information), but the first carbon dating test, for which we received the results yesterday, confirms you hypothesis: indeed, the papyrus is from around 120 A.D. We are to receive the results of the analysis conducted in the London laboratory, where we’ve sent a sample, but I am convinced they will not be different, just more precise. I am happy that you were absorbed by this fragment and I thank you that you are offering your help for the future as well. If you need anything that might be of service, please write to me. I hope we will find other fragments which might help us in the research, from now on our research. Yours sincerely, B. Benedict.”

After a month of archeological research without any results, our Professor and Professor Benedict decided to publish a first article, to give in the discovery and the conclusions. We were happy that we were going to be mentioned as well. After all, as Mr. Alexie said, we worked together, you deserve it! The article which was first published in the US caused a stir. It was immediately translated and republished from France to Japan, from England to South Africa. Many scholars formulated their own opinions, but theirs were not significantly different from the conclusions we had reached. At most, they would choose one or two of our versions, and this was it. Time passed and nothing shed light on the mysterious inscription. Little by little, we started to forget about it and to continue our research for our PhD theses. The fact that mine was relate to the Les gnoses dualistes d'Occident, as Ioan Petru Culianu entitled his famous book, determined me to include the inscription and to quote the conclusions in an annex.

This was it, neither one of us could do more. And until History itself will decide to reveal or to create other fragments, other inscriptions, to guide us to find the truth about this first one, this first fragment, or at least to enlighten us, to help us understand the meanings which are now hidden. I for one am convinced that, in due time, this is what will happen. Maybe now, the world is not yet ready, to find out everything[1].

 

[1] A little while back, when I was preparing to take this text to be published, we received, this time Professor Alexie and us, a new message from Professor Benedict. When he almost gave up digging, he discovered another inscription, a new fragment of the same text. It is mainly about contesting The Old Testament as a prefiguration of The New and arguing the necessity to renounce it; The O.T. is based on Law, whereas the N.T. is based on Faith. Christ came into the world to help us escape the curse of the Law.

This is mostly the content of the fragment, which couldn’t but convince us that our versions were true, but without bringing further clarification in respect to which one we could renounce. Because it is known that the Gnostics conducted a “reverted exegesis” of the Old Testament, Pavel was the first to directly attack the Old Testament, and Marcion, even firmer, considering it however a veritable historical document, he denied any connection what so ever, between it and The New Testament.

Moreover, this new fragment discovered, can only confirm my conclusion: since there were several tries to cut the already dim connections between the O.T. and the N.T., without any success, it seems that the world is not ready yet. Maybe when it will be…

 

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