Yesterday was a sad day for me and for biblical/early Christianity scholarship. Marvin Meyer passed away, the victim of melanoma. He could not have been old – maybe in his early 60s. He was a superb scholar and one of the most generous, affable, energetic, personable scholars you would ever hope to find. Marvin was the Griset Professor of Bible and Christian Studies at Chapman University and Director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute
I knew about Marvin’s work for many years before I met him. He was some years older than me and was well established in the field before I showed up on the scene. I think the first work of his I used was his translation of Coptic Magical Texts. Coptic is an ancient Egyptian language, in which a large number of important works were translated in antiquity; in many instances, these translations are the only forms of the text that we have available. This is true of these magical texts that we have, which are fascinating and of real importance for scholars of ancient religion – in part because it is virtually impossible to differentiate between what we call religion and what we call magic. Scholars for many, many years, of course, have tried to differentiate between them, but the attempts to do so almost always fail. (You will sometimes hear that magic attempts to manipulate the divine realm but religion humbly makes requests of it; or that magic is allegedly “guaranteed” to work and religion relies on the beneficence of the deities; or… well, you hear all sorts of related things. But when pushed, none of it actually appears to be true). (Magic, instead, is the kind of religion that the establishment not agree with and doesn’t buy into. It is the “Other person’s” religion!)
The best access to how ancient people used magic is through their ancient magic texts (incantations and the like). But it’s hard to have access to this material if you don’t read the original languages. Marvin’s translation of the Coptic magical texts was a real boon.
He was especially an expert on the Gnostic Gospels as discovered near Nag Hammadi and elsewhere. Just a few years ago he published an English translation of all the materials discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945, a fresh, vibrant translation called The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. It is one of the two complete translations in English; I highly recommend it.
I got to know Marvin only about ten years ago. We knew of each other’s work, but really had never had any contact. We met at a professional meeting and immediately liked each other. A couple of years later our paths were to cross in a more serious way. When National Geographic was deciding whether to invest some serious money ($2 million or so) in the newly discovered Gospel of Judas, they asked if I would be willing to help authenticate it. That’s another long story. It wasn’t really my field of expertise, but they were insistent and flew me to Geneva with other experts to give them a judgment and to explain how, if authentic, it would be significant for understanding early Christianity (this last bit was to be my contribution).
After National Geographic decided to go ahead with publishing the Gospel and publicizing it, they asked Marvin to be the English translator. He came up with a terrific translation (again, it was Coptic). Then he, I, and several others wrote essays on different aspects of the Gospel, and National Geographic published the essays, along with the translation, in a book simply called The Gospel of Judas. It is still available and worth looking at, for anyone interested in early Christianity and the non-canonical Gospels and Gnosticism and, well, and all related topics. Marvin’s essay showed conclusively that the Gospel of Judas was to be understood as a “Sethian Gnostic” work; Sethian Gnosticism was a kind of “classical” form of Gnostic belief and practice.
Marvin was a fireball; a strong personality who was always enthusiastic, and interesting, and interested. I didn’t know he was ill, and his death has come as a really shock. I really thought he would be around for another twenty years. None of us knows when we’ll go, of course, and so it is best always to be ready, to leave nothing done that we really want to have done. Marvin seems to have lived a good, full life as a scholar, a translator, a professor, and a human being. But I will miss him and we will all miss not learning more from his scholarship.