Monday, August 25, 2008

Coptic Gnostic Seminar: Anecdote of a Jarring Event

Not Classically Antique Mason Jars
"Anecdote of the Jar" . . . or two
(Image from Wikipedia)

In the late autumn of 1993, I was living and studying in Tübingen, Germany, and as part of that study, I attended -- along with Christoph Markschies, Michael Waldstein, Michael Theobald, Jim Kautt, Mr. Quack (unsure about that spelling), and one or two others -- a seminar conducted by Alexander Böhlig on Coptic Gnostic texts. One of these texts was The Apocryphon of John, from the Nag Hammadi Library.

Böhlig had asked me to prepare a long passage from the Apocryphon, so I read through it carefully in Coptic but only roughly sketching out in my mind German and English renderings. I figured that I could translate it readily enough into understandable German even if I were to make errors in doing so.

That didn't work out so well, as I recorded in my journal on November 12, 1993. Some of what I wrote in that entry was an attempt to reproduce the dialogue that took place in German, which I wasn't very good at, I confess. I'll post my entry in all its errors but also translate the German parts parenthetically into English:
My attempt at translating the Coptic of The Apocryphon of John directly into German failed miserably. I tried, but Professor Böhlig could not understand my German -- primarily, I think, for acoustic reasons . . . at least, now, I think so. At the time, I assumed the fault lay [entirely] in my faulty German.

I had just finished translating a clause about the entire creation lighting up -- I had used the term "ausstrahlen" (to shine) -- when Böhlig interrupted to ask me what I had done with [the Coptic expression] "o enouoeine" (as I recall). I answered that I was uncertain how one translated the qualitative here, but that the qualitative -- he interrupted again, telling me, rather brusquely, to translate it. So I repeated "Die ganze Schöpfung strahltete aus." ("The entire creation shone.")

"Strahlte" ("Shone"), he said.

I looked about the room, puzzled. "Vielleicht ist mein Deutsch falsch" ("Perhaps my German is incorrect"), I volunteered.

So Markschies inquired what I would say in English.

"The entire creation shone," I told him.

"Richtig" ("Right"), they agreed, and Waldstein suggested I continue in English.

But just to make sure, I said, "Ja, wenn niemand etwas dagegen hat." ("Yes, if no one has anything against that.")

No one objected, and so I began again, in English this time, though I had earlier prepared [if merely roughly] the whole exercise in my head in German as well as in English. I finished three lines, following each of which Böhlig impatiently translated into German. Then, after the third line, he stopped me with these words, "So, Sie haben es alles auf Englisch vorbereitet. Das geht nicht. Hier haben wir ein Seminar auf Deutsch -- Sie haben es night rightig getan. Herr Waldstein, könnten Sie übersetzen?" ("So, you have prepared it all in English. That won't do. Here, we have a seminar in German -- you have not done this correctly. Mr. Waldstein, could you translate?")

After a moment's stunned silence, he began [translating]. For a brief moment, I grew intensely angry, clenched my teeth, and fought back my urge to launch a verbal attack. But I remained angry for another five minutes -- plus I felt disappointed that no one had risen to my defense.

Later, however, I got my "revenge" -- though I remained polite (something I hope that I can always do in the face of rudeness). The end of the second hour had arrived, and we had just come across the form "ker-hote" in the BG text; Codices II and III (as I recall) had the qualitative "ko enhote," and Böhlig suggested that "ker-hote" showed an error somewhere, perhaps in the transcription from the original Coptic, explaining that the form "er," a Construct state, does not occur in the bipartite system. But, of course, he spoke German, using terms I didn't know, and it took me a few minutes to figure out his meaning. When I had it, he was already asking Herr Quack (my transliteration of his name, for which I apologize) -- an expert, one who comes to us from Egyptology -- his opinion on this odd form.

Quack said he could not say, speaking from an etymological perspective, where this came from, even assuming its validity as a form.

I had just opened my mouth to speak when Böhlig switched the focus to the next line of Coptic. I let it pass until that had been finished, then I began to speak, saying, "Wenn wir --" ("If we --")

"Wir haben keine Zeit mehr" ("We have no more time"), he announced.

I glanced at my watch, seeing that the minute hand had already moved a minute or two past 11:00, but I determined to speak anyway: "Ich habe eine Antwort für dieser Problem mit 'ker-hote'" ("I have an answer for this problem with 'ker-hote'"), I announced. "Es ist eine Ausnahme. Wenn es kein 'definite Artikel' gibt, dann kann man dieser Constuctus benutzen, in der erste Präsent." ("It is an exception. When there is no 'definite article,' then one can use this Construct form in the first present.")

For a moment, now, Böhlig grew silent. Then, "Ja . . . ja, das is möglich. Wenn es kein bestimmte Artikel gibt, dann könnte es sein . . ." ("Yes . . . yes, that is possible. When there is no definite article, then that could be . . .")

Nobody else spoke, but everybody knew that I had come out on top.
I wrote more about what then transpired, but I'll spare you and simply summarize. Professor Böhlig was much more polite after that and offered to help me with my German. Also, some of the other participants afterwards informed me that my German, while not perfect, had been passable enough, but that Böhlig simply had not been able to hear well enough to make out what I was saying. I could forgive him that, for he was over 80 years old. He probably had not heard the others give me 'permission' to switch to English.

However, I do still wonder why -- at the moment of that jarring event -- no one spoke up on my behalf. The Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng once remarked in his own seminar that Germans lack civic courage. I don't know if that was the reason in this case. Probably not. Most likely, the others simply felt too much respect for Böhlig to explain to him that his hearing was poor.

By the way -- just in case anyone is interested -- the grammatical point at stake in the Coptic discussion was the application of Jernstedt's Rule, which states that in Coptic, an infinitive cannot be used in the Construct form for the first present verbal conjugation. The expression "ker-hote" (from "er-hote," i.e., "to become afraid," with the second person singular pronoun "k" prefixed, thus "you become afraid") uses the infinitive in the Construct form, but this is acceptable because compound verbs are an exception to Jernstedt's Rule (unless the compound verb occurs with the definite article on the noun or if the nominal element is a part of the body, e.g., foot, hand, etc., in which case, it follows Jernstedt's Rule).

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At 12:10 PM, Blogger DanielRichter3 said...

Hello hello Jeffery,
How's your summer been? Philadelphia's treated me well, and I'm leaving for Paris in a month. I've been reading all the things I wanted to read but lacked the time during my studies. Every once in a while, I miss grad school. Then I remember how nice it is to read whatever happens to strike me as the right book to read on a given day, and to put the damn thing down if I decide I want to move on to other things. I've been seeing someone for a little over two months now. She accepts and even seems to get a kick out of my eccentricities, prefers chardonnay, and makes up stories about pumpkin seeds who want to become pumpkins.
I hope you're doing great over there. Let me know if you'll be in Europe from October to April- I'll have 5 weeks of paid vacation, and will be doing some traveling.

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hello, Daniel. You'll soon have your siblings singing "Daniel is travelling tonight on a plane . . ."

But you won't be headed for Spain.

I'm glad to hear of your romantic bliss. Two whole months! Sounds serious.

I doubt that I'll make it to Europe anytime soon, but if you fly this way . . .

Thanks for visiting. I have to run.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dearly beloved nephew Jeffery:
I have read with great interest and deepest sympathy this and your previous blog detailing some of your travails. I know how you felt, because I also shared some of these emotions in the "attacks" on my stories previously related here on your blogspot:
JARRING EVENT - "I fought my urge to launch a verbal attack"...Yes, I also fought such an emotion, but my maturity and kindness forbade me.
"I remained angry that no one had risen to my defense"....this feeling was also mine, and the only thing that made it bearable was wonderful Jeanie with the light brown hair. So I was victorious in this trial.
"I could forgive him {because of his age}"....Perhaps the most difficult of all, since Mr. Gypsy Scholar is still youthful, and slightly green behind the ears, but again my gentle nature prevailed.
"I still wonder why--at that jarring moment--no one spoke up in my behalf." Thankfully, there was Jeanie, and once nephew Bill.
Where were you, JK????

"Because of this incident, as well as some professional discourtesies on my friend's part...our friendship did not survive."
I did consider disowning, but my sweet and generous nature again prevailed.
"I learned to try to become more generous, because many people are not."
Yes, dear nephew, there are many, and one in particular has failed in that regard....but keep trying.
I still have hopes for you.

At 4:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, my wall clock says 4:10 in the morning, and I've just started my coffee, so you woke up early enough in the morning to catch me unawares. After reading your brief comment on the previous blog, I had expected some words of wisdom.

And you didn't disappoint.

I especially benefitted from learning how young I still am, so young that I am even "green behind the ears." That must be prenatal because I've never heard that one can be green there. Must be before the gills even develop (and disappear) as "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny."

Just kidding about that last point. I know, of course, that Ernst Haeckel was wrong.

At any rate, you'll be pleased if surprised to hear of my complimentary words for my dear uncle -- the same one who wanted to disown me -- if you can persuade your son James to relate them to you.

Good luck with that...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gay & I have also had some jarring experiences in years past. Some by close relatives, and some by supposedly "Christian brothers and sisters." We have had to vent our feelings about these to each other, and sometimes you have to do that in some way for relief.
I thought that after you had done this on your blogs, I could either wallow in sympathy with you, or bring in a little light humor. They say a good laugh can do as much good as medicine sometimes.
I don't know what you said to James...maybe I'll hint for him to clue me in.

At 6:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, as your son James noted, both of us seem to enjoy the banter.

Don't worry (as if you did), I once again took your remarks in the spirit that you intended them -- as a dagger to the heart!

Nah, just kidding.

Anyway, I'm not looking for sympathy. Nor am I bent on venting, though perhaps some of that occurs. Rather, I am simply trying to make sense of my life and how I got to where I am.

That's not always pleasant to recall, and I can imagine that some of those about whom I have written might not find the reports pleasant, but I don't write this blog to offend people (much to your surprise, perhaps), so I've tried to be fair.

If I wanted to vent, I'd say a lot more about current events in my life . . . but that would probably give the course of my life a turn for the worse.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This blog is starting to grow whiskers, but one more comment:
At about the age of 45 years, I took a look at my life, my early dreams and aspirations, my hopes of success.
I then realized I had not even begun to accomplish them.
I had to come to grips with my position in life.
Gay & I now agree that our accomplishment in life was to provide our three boys with opportunities we never had, and enourage them to set goals in life.
In that area, at least, we have succeeded, as they are doing well.
We have reached the place of accepting our lot in life, and being essentially satisfied with the way things have turned out.
We feel the good Lord has blessed us with other than material things.

At 7:51 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, that's pretty much how I look at things. My kids will go on to things that I lacked the opportunity to do.

Jeffery Hodges

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