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Division III ? A Comparative Study of the Gospel of John and the Second Treatise of the Great Seth
Katherine Thiel was awarded the bachelor of arts degree by Hampshire College on May 19, 2007?two decades after she had initially planned.
Thiel entered Hampshire in the fall of 1982, but before completing her degree took a leave of absence that extended far longer than expected, until she began to think of herself as an "all but Division III" alumna.
Thiel held a range of jobs, including time spent as a volunteer in El Salvador, where she taught health to individuals who then taught others. Returning to the United States, she accepted a clerical position with an environmental consulting firm. She developed a network of close colleagues, a group who eventually formed their own firm, Valley Environmental Services, based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. The successful consulting company specializes in wetlands consulting, and co-owner Thiel manages its business operations.
A few years ago she attended Family and Friends and Alumni Homecoming Weekend at Hampshire, hoping to see old friends. Among those with whom she talked was Herb Bernstein, professor of physics and an early academic advisor for her. "I dropped by to chat with Herb," she said, "and he immediately encouraged me to return and finish my degree. I had thought about it through the years, but it was just the right moment for me."
In fall 2005 she enrolled once again as a Hampshire student, balancing her studies with her responsibilities as a business owner. Among courses she took were Dangerous Books, co-taught by Professor of Literature and Critical Theory Mary Russo and Associate Professor of History Jim Wald, and The Literature of Religious Awakening, co-taught by Professor of Humanities Bob Meagher and Professor of Comparative Literature Alan Hodder.
For her Division III, or senior project, working with faculty mentors Hodder and Meagher, she chose to write a thesis comparing a canonical gospel with a text that early church fathers had deemed heretical. "I wanted to assert that it is important to read the Nag Hammadi texts alongside the canonical gospel texts," she explained. "You can read texts labeled heretical and get a richer understanding of early Christian times."
The daughter of two Presbyterian ministers, Thiel has always been interested in religious studies. During recovery from an illness, she had, like much of America, read Dan Brown's page-turner novel, The Da Vinci Code. It prompted her to read other, more scholarly books for greater understanding of early church history, eventually leading her to the Gnostic texts discovered near the town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. Found as 12 leather-bound papyrus manuscripts written in Coptic and sealed in a jar, the Nag Hammadi texts contain non-canonical accounts of the life of Jesus and his followers.
As part of her Division III research, she read across the bulk of the Nag Hammadi texts until she discovered and "got excited about" the Second Treatise of the Great Seth. She chose to write an analytical thesis comparing Seth to the Gospel of John, observing that both texts stress the importance of love.
"Seth was the third son of Adam," Thiel said, "with legend stating that Jesus is the incarnation of Seth. There is even a European folk story that asserts that when Adam died Seth put a seed in his mouth, and from that seed grew the cross on which Jesus was crucified."
The early selection of the Christian canon and the deeming of certain texts as heretical "reflects someone's opinion," Thiel notes. "There are lots of discrepancies in the four canonical gospels, and there are similarities in them to ?heretical' texts. It has enriched my life to read the Nag Hammadi texts, which contain a host of interesting information."
She also did extensive reading in secondary sources, but found that she truly enjoys reading the primary texts and struggling to draw out meaning. She plans to continue reading primary texts by attending divinity school, hoping to enroll in fall 2008 after she has worked out the necessary details around her business obligations.
Of the experience of returning to college as a nontraditional student and completing her bachelor's degree at age 44, Thiel said: "Hampshire is awesome?back then and now. It's full of helpful, kind people."