A Conversation with John D. Turner on Sethian Gnosticism

On October 27, our dear colleague and friend, John D. Turner, passed away. His scholarship influenced so many of us who work (or worked) on Nag Hammadi, early Christian, and Platonic texts.

I knew John since 2002, when we started an extensive email exchange about all things Gnostic. In 2006, when I was working for my PhD at Laval University, we spent together the whole summer in Québec, talking about Sethian Gnostics and Platonic philosophy.

While going through every piece I email I exchanged with John in the early 2000s, I found a lengthy conversation I had with him in 2003 about his work on Gnosticism. If I remember correctly, this appeared in print in a Romanian journal. I decided to publish it on this blog again in John’s memory.

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Alin Suciu: Dear Professor Turner, please tell us a few things about your university years. Whom did you study with? What was your first contact with Gnosticism, a subject to which you have dedicated your scholarly life?

John D. Turner: I attended Dartmouth College from 1956 to 1960, graduating with concentrations in Philosophy and Mathematics. I became interested in religion and theology as a result of attending a seminar offered by Paul Tillich, so after a tour of duty in the Army and a couple of years’ work in a large corporation I attended Union Theological Seminary in Virginia where I concentrated mostly in biblical studies with James Luther Mays and John Bright, receiving a B.D. in 1964 and a Th.M. degree in 1965. Thereupon I entered the doctoral program at Duke University, studying mostly with W. D. Davies, D. Moody Smith, James L. Price, and my eventual dissertation supervisor Orval S. Wintermute. Halfway through the program it became apparent that the scholarship on early Christianity of the late sixties had somehow become moribund with remote prospects for exciting breakthroughs or an original contribution to knowledge, so I shifted my attention to the study of ancient languages and literatures relevant to the study of Mediterranean antiquity. Just at the time I was working on certain Middle Egyptian and Coptic texts, my principal adviser Orval Wintermute returned from a trip to Cairo, bringing with him photographs of Codex II of the Nag Hammadi library. After making my own English translation the Book of Thomas and the Apocalypse of Paul from Böhlig’s Koptisch-gnostische Apokalypsen aus Codex V von Nag Hammadi, I decided to pursue the study of Gnosticism and the Nag Hammadi Codices. I met Hans Jonas and James Robinson at the 1966 annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, and Robinson mailed me photos of Codex XIII, so I translated the Trimorphic Protennoia and sent it to him, and as a result he asked me to join a team of 20-odd younger scholars, mostly American, that he was in the process of assembling for the Coptic Gnostic Project at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont, California.

A.S.: You were a member of the team of researchers which, beginning with 1967, worked in the Coptic Museum in Cairo on the study and replacement of the papyrus pieces and finally on the translation of the Nag Hammadi Coptic Codices. What is worth telling about that period?

JDT: After I took my doctoral exams at Duke, in 1968 I left for Claremont, California under the auspices of a Rockefeller Doctoral Fellowship to write my dissertation on the Book of Thomas. James Robinson had just returned from Europe, where he had managed to obtain photographs of all the Nag Hammadi Codices. We spent the next year using these black and white photographs, in lieu of the originals, to reassemble the somewhat jumbled papyrus leaves together with many fragments into its original order by making paper tracings and cutouts and putting them in stacks to see where the contours lay, trying as best we could match fiber direction and textures in order to reconstruct the original sequence of papyrus leaves and placement of fragments. In 1969-1972 I began work on the papyrus originals in Cairo as an associate of the UNESCO technical subcommittee for the publication of the Nag Hammadi Codices, collaborating with colleagues from France, Germany, Switzerland, and the USA whom I came to know in the course of several trips there. In 1969 I also spent some time in Jerusalem to consult with H. J. Polotsky. By 1973-4 we had everything pretty well placed, and proceeded to send mimeographed transcriptions and translations of these materials to interested scholars throughout the world who had until now been unable to access them.

A.S.: In 1970 you obtained your Ph.D. at Duke University. It was about one of the Christian Gnostic texts, The Book of Thomas the Contender, which would become later your first book (John D. Turner, The Book of Thomas the Contender. Coptic Text with Translation, Introduction and Commentary, Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 23; Missoula, Montana: Scholars Press, 1975). What can you tell us about this first period of your work?

JDT: While at Claremont, I finished my dissertation—the edition princeps of the Book of Thomas the Contender from Codex II—and took a job as Assistant Dean of the Graduate School, and used my spare time to begin critical editions of 6 more of the Nag Hammadi treatises from Codices XI and XIII. I became most interested in the Trimorphic Protennoia and Allogenes, which proved to have Sethian affinities, eventually leading me to develop a specialization in Sethian Gnosticism and especially in its fascinating relationship to the development of Platonic philosophy in the first four centuries of our era. From 1970-75 I taught at the University of Montana as a biblical scholar with a specialization in early Christian literature and history. There I became a colleague of Robert Funk, the executive secretary of the Society of Biblical Literature, who founded the internationally prominent but short-lived Scholars Press and, fifteen years later, the “notorious” Jesus Seminar. At that time I became heavily involved with the Society of Biblical Literature and especially with its recently formed Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Section. The next year after I had moved to the University of Nebraska to begin a new program in Religious Studies, we released The Nag Hammadi Library in English (Brill and Harper&Row, 1977), the first complete one-volume English translation of all thirteen codices plus the treatises from the Berlin Codex 8502, although my critical edition of Codices XI and XIII did not appear until 1990. Since the late 1980’s, I have been on the steering committee of the Society of Biblical Literature’s Nag Hammadi and Gnosticism Section; during my six-year term as chair, I organized the SBL’s 1995 plenary commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Nag Hammadi discovery (see The Nag Hammadi Library After Fifty Years: Proceedings of the 1995 Society of Biblical Literature Commemoration, ed. J. D. Turner and A. McGuire; Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 44; Brill, 1997).

A.S.: Afterwards you passed on to another subject, bringing some of the most important contributions to the issue of the Sethian branch of Gnosticism, a branch you consider prior to the school of Valentinus. Thus, you wrote in Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition, p. 57: “Sethian Gnosticism is the earliest form of Gnosticism for which we possess a great deal of textual evidence”. Could you tell us something about the beginning of your passion for Sethianism and how do you understand the origins of this branch of Gnosticism?

JDT: Throughout the 1980’s, I undertook the English language critical editions of Nag Hammadi Codices XI (The Interpretation of Knowledge, A Valentinian Exposition, Allogenes, Hypsiphrone) and XIII (Trimorphic Protennoia), as well as an updated edition of the Book of Thomas the Contender from Codex II, which were published as volumes #21 (1989) and #28 (1990) in E. J. Brill’s “Nag Hammadi (and Manichean) Studies” series. From my work on the Trimorphic Protennoia and Allogenes, and especially after my friendship with Hans-Martin Schenke, I began to concentrate on Sethian Gnosticism, and so, except for brief encyclopedia articles, I published nothing further on the Book of Thomas until the May 2003 international colloquium on “L’Évangile selon Thomas et les textes de Nag Hammadi” at Laval University in Québec, where I explored the Platonic affinities of that text (to be published as “The Platonic Jesus”). In 1991 I began my lasting association with the Nag Hammadi project at Université Laval in Québec City as visiting research professor and eventually member of the editorial board of the Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi, the French language project to produce critical editions, concordances, and monographs on the entire Nag Hammadi Library. It was during seven summers there that I produced introductions and commentaries to 3 more Sethian treatises, Zostrianos from Codex VIII, Marsanes from Codex X, and a new and improved edition of Allogenes from Codex XI. It was the special philosophical properties of these three treatises—which together with the Three Steles of Seth I call the Platonizing Sethian treatises—that led me into the study of the history of the Platonic tradition and ultimately to my magnum opus to date, Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition (Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi, section « Études » 6; Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval; Louvain-Paris: Éditions Peeters, 2001). One of the outcomes of this work is the demonstration that the theological interpretation of Plato’s Parmenides so evident in the Sethian Platonizing treatises Zostrianos and Allogenes (studied in Plotinus’ third century Roman seminar) originated, not with Plotinus, but with his Middle Platonic precursors. During the last ten years, I have focused on the relationship of the Sethian religion to Johannine Christianity and its subsequent crucial involvement in the origins of Neoplatonic metaphysics. I have pursued the former topic in the Johannine seminar of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (to which I was elected in 1985), and the latter topic in the SBL, where I inaugurated the six-year-long (1992-98) “Gnosticism and Later Platonism Seminar” composed of experts on Greek philosophy and Gnosticism (see Gnosticism and Later Platonism: Themes, Figures, and Texts, ed. J. D. Turner and R. Majercik; SBL Symposium Series 12; Society of Biblical Literature, 2001). I had thus developed another specialty in the history of later Greek philosophy. As a sequel, I went on to inaugurate a new six year seminar, Rethinking Plato’s Parmenides and its Platonic, Gnostic and Patristic Reception, consisting of international authorities in religion, theology, classics, philosophy, patristics, and history who convene at the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature to reexamine the entire question of the place of Plato’s Parmenides in the world of classical and late antique philosophy from Speusippus in the 4th century BCE through Proclus in the fifth century CE. Since this work has been of especial interest to continental, mainly Parisian, scholars, I have given invited lectures on my work on Sethianism and Platonism at the 2002 Paris colloquium on Gnosis and Greek Philosophy commemorating the royal charter granted by Queen Victoria to Université Laval in Québec, and this summer in Paris at the CNRS/EPHE Centre d’études des religions du Livre and at the Collège de France. I also have been asked by the Société d’Édition « Les Belles Lettres » to do a volume La gnose séthienne et les orignes du néoplatonisme for a wider, non-specialist audience.

A.S.: Why do you think we should imagine Sethianism so dynamic? Why couldn’t we imagine that both the Christian and the Platonic expression of Sethianism were in fact contemporary?

JDT: Its consistently innovative character. As Michael Williams (Rethinking Gnosticism, 91-93) has noted, the significant diversity among the Sethian texts as a whole most likely reveals—not so much the writings of a single sect or social group—but rather “indices to a series of related religious innovations.” Some of these eventuated in the formation of Sethian communities, but none with the size or perdurance to become “successful” new religious movements. Sethianism can be thought of as a sequence of fascinating, but “failed,” religious innovations. Thus, the innovative Sethian Christologies that tried to explain the pre-existent Christ as the self-generated son of Barbelo, or—on a lower level—as identical with the ancient Seth who has recently appeared in the guise of Jesus, seem to have resulted in a gradual expulsion of Sethians from the apostolic churches. Since the basic framework of the Sethian picture of the world and its origin had already incorporated Platonic features, subsequent affiliation with Platonist circles such as that of Plotinus would have been a natural move. But again, their innovative multiplication of divine hypostases and apparent disparagement of the physical cosmos and the cause of its origin likely led to increasing exclusion from these circles too.

I cite from my article “Time and History in Sethian Gnosticism,” in the H.-M Schenke Festschrift For the Children, Perfect Instruction: “The designation ‘Platonizing Sethian treatises’ is not intended to deny in any way the vital influence of Platonism throughout the entire Sethian corpus. Even the Sethian treatises of the descent pattern exhibit the influence Platonic doctrine: They distinguish the earthly, visible realm of change and becoming from a transcendent, invisible realm of permanence and stability, and make much use of the associated doctrines of archetype/image and model/copy. And their portrayal—usually a parody—of the world creator is broadly patterned, not only on the initial chapters of Genesis, but also on the demiurgic figure of Plato’s Timaeus. But only the four Platonizing treatises feature a method of enlightenment through a visionary ascent that in effect reascends the chain of being generated by the original emanation of the Barbelo Aeon from the Triple Power of the supreme deity. That is, their approach to enlightenment directly presupposes their distinctive ontology and emanative theogony.”

A.S.: An original contribution of your work is the division of the Sethian corpus in two fundamental patterns: “the descent pattern” and “the ascent pattern”. While the texts influenced by the first pattern would be of Jewish origins, the second would be evidently Platonic… Could you please develop this idea in a few words?

JDT: Of course, it is possible that the ascent and descent patterns were merely alternative—rather than successive—conceptions enlightenment from the beginnings of the Sethian movement, but such an assumption cannot account for the elaborate multiplication of psychic realms and post-mortem conditions of souls in Zostrianos (e.g., VIII 42,10-44,22 and 27,19-28,30; attested also by Plotinus) compared with the rather simpler four-level hierarchy of psychic realms and conditions within the four Luminaries of the Apocryphon of John (BG 64,14-71,2; II 25,16-27,30). I cite again from my Schenke Festschrift article: “There is of course an element of both ascent and descent in all the Sethian treatises. The ‘ascent pattern’ treatises narrate the ascent of an exemplary visionary who achieves enlightenment through cognitive assimilation with transcendent realities. Angels and glories may descend to reveal information, but they raise no one into the light. There are no external antidivine powers to be defeated. In the ‘descent pattern’ treatises that portray enlightenment as a gift conferred by a descending revealer, all but two (the Hypostasis of the Archons and Thought of Norea) associate its advent with a baptismal rite usually called the ‘Five Seals.’ Here, a savior descends, not only to elevate the participants out of corporeal and emotional bondage into the world of light, but also to free them from bondage to hostile external powers. In the descent pattern, salvation is effected by the revealer; in the ascent pattern, the revealers merely explain what is heard and seen by the visionary, but the visionary must actualize the ascent. Platonism from Plato to Plotinus held that the unaided human soul had the power to free itself from the bondage to the material world and unite with the divine, and the Platonizing Sethian treatises are no exception. Approximation to the descent pattern only begins with Iamblichus, for whom the soul’s ascent requires illumination by the lower “visible” gods invoked through theurgical ritual. But no invisible transcendent gods descend to earth.

Although the Platonizing Sethian treatises presume the self-performable character of enlightenment through visionary ascent, both they and the descent pattern treatises clearly affirm the importance of the divine initiative. The divine realities they describe have themselves ordained, authorized, and revealed the salvific rituals or contemplative practices offered for the readers’ emulation. In fact, Zostrianos effects a transition between these two approaches by symbolizing the stages of the visionary ascent as ritual actions such as baptism, anointing, and crowning, even though they have been entirely transposed into the transcendental realm. In reality, every Sethian text is incomplete, for each points beyond itself to its completion by certain actions or cognitions inexpressible in words. They all require actualization by the readers’ own emulation, whether by ritual action, or by contemplative assimilation to transcendent realities.”

About Alin Suciu

I am a researcher at the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities. I write mostly on Coptic literature, Patristics, and apocryphal texts.
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1 Response to A Conversation with John D. Turner on Sethian Gnosticism

  1. Dr-Inas Elshoura says:

    Our condolences, God bless you The Lord have mercy on him

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