Meet Your Professor: Dylan Burns

In Meet Your Professor we will introduce you to the new teachers of seminars and courses at NOSTER. In this first episode, we introduce dr. Dylan Burns (UvA), who will teach a course on the Coptic language.

How did you get to where you are today, academically? What path did you walk?

I studied Japanese in high school and was mainly interested in East Asian history and culture, but when I went to college I fell in love with Plato and, entirely unexpectedly, the wild and wooly world of early Christianity. I wound up writing a BA thesis on ritual practice (theurgy) in the philosophy of the fifth-century Neoplatonist thinker Proclus the Successor. I continued my studies at the University of Amsterdam, where I earned my MA in 2004.

During this time, I became interested in the Coptic Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian city of Nag Hammadi in 1945, a topic which became my principal object of research during my doctoral studies at Yale University (Ph.D. 2011). I held postdocs at the faculty of theology at the University of Copenhagen and the Egyptological faculties of Leipzig University and the Free University of Berlin. Since 2021 I am an Assistant Professor (universitair docent) of the History of Esotericism in Late Antiquity. So, in terms of departments and disciplines, my path has always been a sort of convoluted one—walking back and forth between religious studies, classics (and especially classical philosophy), and Egyptology, as well as the worlds of North American and European scholarship. Yet with regards to what I was always interested in doing—religion and philosophy in Mediterranean late antiquity, especially Gnosticism and later Platonism—it’s been pretty consistent.

What kind of research do/did you do and why? Which result do you remember the most?

I am a specialist in the study of the Nag Hammadi Codices, a hoard of 13 ancient Christian manuscripts written in Coptic that were discovered in 1945. These codices contain the most important primary sources pertaining to the phenomenon of ancient Gnosticism, including the most famous of the ‘Gnostic Gospels,’ such as the Gospel of Thomas. My research focuses on the relationship of the Nag Hammadi texts to ancient Greek philosophy.

I’ve explored many aspects of the Nag Hammadi texts, but a particularly memorable foray is an article that I published in 2015 on the Paraphrase of Shem. This is one of the best-preserved texts from Nag Hammadi, but scholars really struggled to make sense of it, because it describes the origin of the cosmos and its underlying elements in a very distinctive way that is not paralleled by the other Nag Hammadi texts. A lot of its early interpreters thought it was a corrupt or even simply incoherent text. Reading it in Coptic, I realized that its metaphors—describing the world as coming about through a mixture of light, darkness, and spirit, and a mixture of fire, air, and water, all moving and crashing about and producing heat, aridity, and humidity—reminded me a lot of an alchemical cosmogony that I had read in a BA class back in the old days. With some digging, I found that the confusing metaphors that the Paraphrase of Shem uses to describe the origin of things can be understood quite easily in terms of contemporary Greco-Egyptian alchemical practices. It was exciting to take a piece of evidence that seemed obscure and find a way to make it intelligible – solving a mystery.

Which themes will you cover in your module at NOSTER?

My NOSTER module is an introduction to the Coptic, the youngest phase of the Egyptian language, which was in active use in Egypt from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries CE. It continues to be used in the liturgies of the Egyptian Orthodox church. The class will cover basic Coptic vocabulary, morphology, and grammar. A student who takes the course will obtain the basic reading skills used to read the New Testament in the classical Sahidic dialect, and to begin to explore Coptic texts that are more advanced, such as Gnostic, monastic, or Manichaean literature, as well as non-literary (documentary, magical, liturgical, etc.) texts.

Why is your module at NOSTER so fun/interesting? What appeals to the participants in the module?

Coptic is an immensely interesting and aesthetically pleasing language. It has relatively restricted morphology (unlike, say, Greek or Finnish), but its grammar is pliable and plenty expressive. Coptic syntax is also very logical. One of my teachers once likened learning Coptic to studying geometry—one thing follows from the other, and the next, and so forth. In terms of style, like German or Japanese, it has a lot of range—Coptic can be very gentle, and very beautiful, but also heavy or brutal. Ca. 40% of Coptic vocabulary is loaned from Greek, which to me is a lovely dusting of spice on the flavour of its Egyptian.

What advice would you like to give to young researchers in religious studies/theology?

Languages, languages, languages!