Pistis Sophia

[p. xxviii]


before we arrive at the last clause. Nevertheless, this is just what the reader meets with in this work. The sentences are so entangled with incidental and complicated propositions, that often, indeed very often, the Coptic translator has lost the thread, so to say, and made main propositions out of incidental clauses. . . . The one thing that it conclusively proves is that the book was originally written in a learned

Amelineau makes rather too much of the abstruse nature of the subject; for, though many passages are transcendental or mystical, nevertheless the whole is conceived in a narrative or descriptive style. There is no attempt at philosophical argument, no really involved logical propositions. We may then take it as sufficiently established that Greek originals underlay the whole contents of the Askew Codex. It is on this basis at any rate that rests every methodical attempt which has hitherto been made to determine the most probable place and date of origin and to discover the school or circle to which the P.S. miscellany can be referred.

Amid much else that is uncertain no one has questioned that the immediate place of origin must be sought in an Egyptian environment. In other words, the ‘Books’ of the miscellany were all composed or compiled in Egypt, though where precisely it is impossible to conjecture. But the clearly Egyptian elements are not the more numerous; moreover, they do not seem to be the most fundamental, but are blended with, or

[p. xxix]

rather superimposed upon, others which clearly did not originate in Egypt.

The date of composition is a difficult problem, and is bound up with the more puzzling question of the sect to which the P.S. literature should be ascribed. There is as yet no certainty; it is a matter of cumulative probabilities at best.

The earlier view ascribed the P.S. to Valentinus, who died probably about the middle of the, or a decade later, or alternatively to an adherent of the Valentinian school. We may call it the 2nd-century theory. A succession of scholars were of this opinion, among whom may be mentioned Woide, Jablonski, La Croze, Dulaurier, Schwartze, Renan, Revillout, Usener and Amelineau. This earlier view can hardly be said to have been supported by any great show of detailed argument, except by the French Egyptologist and Coptic scholar Amelineau, who was its most stalwart supporter. Seven years prior to his translation of P.S. in 1895, Amelineau devoted 156 pp. of a voluminous essay (Bib. 19), in which he sought to prove the Egyptian origins of Gnosticism–a general thesis which can hardly be maintained in the light of more recent research,–to a comparison of the system of Valentinus with that of the P.S.

Meantime in Germany, shortly after the appearance of Schwartze’s Latin version in 1851, the careful analysis of the system of the P.S. by Kostlin in 1854 gave rise to or confirmed another view. It abandoned the Valentinian origin, and pronounced generally in favour of what may be

[p. xxx]

called an ‘Ophitic’ derivation. Kostlin placed the date of the P.S. in the 1st half of the 3rd century, and Lipsius (Bib. 15) and Jacobi (Bib. 17) accepted his finding. We may call this alternative general view the 3rd-century theory.

In 1891 Harnack, accepting Kostlin’s analysis of the system, attacked the problem from another point of view, basing himself chiefly on the use of scripture, as shown in the quotations from the O.T. and N.T., and on the place of the doctrinal ideas and stage of the sacramental practices in the general history of the development of Christian dogma and rites. He pointed out also one or two other vague indications, such as a reference to persecution, from which he concluded that it was written at a date when the Christians were ‘lawfully’ persecuted. These considerations led him to assign the most probable date of composition to the 2nd half of the 3rd century. Schmidt in 1892 accepted this judgment, with the modification, however, that Div. iv. belonged to an older stratum of the literature, and should therefore be placed in the 1st half of the century. This general view has been widely adopted as the more probable. In Germany it has been accepted by such well-known specialists as Bousset, Preuschen and Liechtenhan; and in France by De Faye. Among English scholars may be mentioned chiefly E. F. Scott, Scott-Moncrieff and Moffat.

thinks it necessary first of

The only recent attempt to return to the earlier 2nd-century view is that of Legge in 1915 (Bib. 57), who roundly plumps for Valentinus as the author. In order to do this he

[p. xxxi]

all to get out of the way Harnack’s parallels in P.S. with the fourth gospel. They may just as well, he contends, be compilations from the synoptics. One clear parallel only can be adduced, and this may be due to a common source. I am not convinced by this criticism; nor do I think it germane to Legge’s general contention, for it is precisely in Valentinian circles that the fourth gospel first emerges in history. In the Introduction to the first edition of the present work I registered my adhesion to the Valentinian hypothesis, but, as I now think, somewhat too precipitously. On general grounds the 3rd-century theory seems to me now the more probable; but, even if Harnack’s arguments as a whole hold, I see no decisive reason why the P.S. may not equally well fall within the 1st half as within the 2nd half of the century.

The question of the sect or even grouping to the P.S. literature should be assigned is still more difficult. To call it ‘Ophitic’ is nebulous at best. Ophitism in Gnosticism is ill-defined, if not chaotic, owing to the confusing indications of the Church Fathers. They called Ophitic or classed as Ophitic very different sects who never used the name for themselves. It ought to mean people either who worshipped the serpent or in whose symbolism or mythology the serpent played the most characteristic or dominant role. But most of what we are told of the views and doctrines of circles directly referred to under this opprobrious designation (as it is clearly intended to be by the heresiologists) and

[p. xxxii]

of those brought into close connection with them, has not the slightest reference to what by hypothesis should have been their chief cult-symbol. Sed et serpens is conspicuous by its absence. All that we can legitimately say is that along this confused line of heredity we have to push back our researches in any endeavour to discover the earliest developments of Gnosticism in Christian circles. These took place unquestionably first on Syrian ground, and doubtless had already a long heredity behind them, former phases of syncretism, blendings of Babylonian, Persian, Semitic and other elements. The ‘Ophitic’ elements in P.S. are of Syrian origin, but developed on Egyptian soil. If there is also a slight Hellenistic tinging, it is not of a philosophizing nature.

Can we, however, find any indications in the P.S. which might be thought to direct us whither to search in the jumble of sects which the chief heresiological Fathers bring into an ‘Ophitic’ connection? There are three vague pointers: (1) Philip is declared pre-eminently (chh. 22, 42) to be the scribe of all the deeds and discourses of the Saviour, but with him are associated Thomas and Matthew (ch. 43); (2) in Div. iii. Mary Magdalene stands forth as the chief questioner, no less than 39 of the 42 questions being put in her mouth; (3) in Div. iv. a foul act of obscene sorcery is condemned as the most heinous of all sins (ch. 147).

Now, Epiphanius (writing about 374-377 A.D.) groups together certain sects under the names

[p. xxxiii]

setting. Mary questions apart, is alone with Jesus. She is not with the rest of the

[paragraph continues] Nicolaitans, Gnostics, Ophites, Cainites, Sethians and Archontics; these possessed a rich apocalyptic literature. Among the titles of their books reference is made to a Gospel of Philip (Haer. xxvi. 13) and Questions of Mary, both The Great and The Little (ib. 8). A quotation is given from the former, and several from the latter. But in both cases they are of an obscene nature and have clearly nothing whatever to do with P.S. in any way. It is true that the more abundant quotations are from The Great Questions, and this has led Harnack and others to assume that The Little Questions may have been of a different and even ascetic character. But Epiphanius classes the two writings together without distinction; and even if the title Questions of Mary could be legitimately given to part of the contents of P.S., surely these would be more appropriately styled The Great and not The Little Questions? Finally, the document from which Epiphanius quotes belongs to a different type of

disciples, as in the P.S.

In describing these sects Epiphanius repeatedly dwells on certain unspeakably foul

rites and practices which he would have us believe were widely spread among them. P.S. condemns with even greater severity a similar obscene abomination, introducing this stern reprobation with the solemn words, the only instance of such an outbreak in the whole narrative: “Jesus was wroth with the world in that hour and said unto The libertinist Sects of Epiphanius.

[p. xxxiv] [paragraph continues] Thomas: ‘Amen, I say unto you: This sin is more heinous than all sins and all iniquities.'” There is, however, no indication that in the experience of the writers of the P.S. such a practice was widespread; on the contrary, it would seem for them to have been a rare occurrence–indeed, the most horrible thing of which they had ever heard. If Epiphanius is to be relied on here, it is vain to look for the Gnostics of the P.S. in such an environment. But Epiphanius has no great reputation for accuracy in general, and it is very difficult to believe in such widespread iniquity of so loathsome a nature. In any case he is writing at a later date. Liechtenhan’s hypothesis (Bib. 41), that a certain common body of literature was rewritten–on the one hand to serve libertinist propensities, and on the other in the interest of ascetic tendencies,–though more or less accepted by Harnack, seems to me to be too facile a generalization to meet the special difficulty with which we are confronted. Epiphanius in his youth had certain unfortunate experiences with the adherents of a libertinist sect in Egypt, and the moral shock it gave him seems to have warped his judgment as a historian in this part of his work; it led him to collect every scrap of evidence of obscenity he could lay hands on and every gross scandal that had come to his ears, and freely to generalize therefrom.

Into relation with the above-mentioned Epiphanian group of names Schmidt brings the ascetic Severians; these, according to our heresiologist (xlv.), still in his own day maintained a

[p. xxxv]

miserable existence in the upper Thebaid. To them S. would specifically refer the P.S. But, in my opinion, it is very difficult indeed to fit in what Epiphanius tells us so sketchily of these people, however skilfully it is analyzed, with the main doctrines and practices in the P.S.

With nothing but Patristic indications before us, no matter what pains are taken to submit them to microscopic critical inspection, it seems impossible to place the P.S. precisely. But our Codex does not stand in isolation as the only directly known Christian Gnostic document–that is to say, as coming straight from the hands of the Gnostics themselves, though by way of translation. We have first of all the two MSS. of the Bruce Codex in the Bodleian, Oxford. One of these, The Book of the Great Logos according to the Mystery, is closely connected with the literature from which the P.S. miscellany is excerpted, especially with Div. iv. We can say with a high degree of confidence that it belonged to the same tradition, though whether to an earlier or later stratum is not quite decided. There are, however, no indications in it which will further help us as to date or name of sect. The second MS., a lofty apocalypse, which unfortunately bears no title, is of another line of tradition or type of interest. Schmidt, in the Introduction to his translation (p. xxvi, Bib. 45), thinks he can refer it with certainty to the Sethian-Archontic group, placing it in the 1st half of the 3rd century, in-stead of, as previously (Bib. 28), in the last quarter of the 2nd. His reason for this change

[p. xxxvi]

of view may be seen from the following observations, which introduce us to the third extant, but unpublished, collection of Coptic Gnostic works.

Reinhardt at Cairo from a dealer in antiquities from Akhmim, and is now in the safe

On July 16, 1896, Schmidt surprised and delighted students of Gnosticism by reporting, at a sitting of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, on the contents of a precious Coptic Gnostic Codex which had in January of the same year been procured by Dr

custody of the Berlin Egyptian Museum (Sitzungsberichte d. k. p. Akad. d. Wissensch. zu

Berlin, xxxvi). This notice and a more detailed study of one of the treatises by S. in 1907 (Bib. 47) give us all the information we possess so far concerning this very important Codex. In 1900 I summarized S.’s first notice in the first edition of my Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (pp. 579-592). The Codex consists mainly of three original Greek Gnostic works in Coptic translation: (1) The Gospel of Mary; (2) The Apocryphon of John; (3) The Wisdom of Jesus Christ. At the end there is an extract from The Acts of Peter, which are also of Gnostic origin, setting forth an episode from the healing wonders of the Apostle.

The Gospel of Mary relates visions of John and Mary Magdalene, but Schmidt gives us none of their contents. He is equally reserved as to the contents of The Wisdom of Jesus Christ, giving only the introduction. After the resurrection the twelve disciples and seven women-disciples

[p. xxxvii]

of Jesus go into Galilee to a certain mountain (as in Div. iv. of P.S.). To them Jesus appears as a great angel of light and bids them lay all their questions before him. The disciples bring forward their questions and receive the desired replies. Schmidt must have told Harnack more about the contents, for in an appendix to the report, the latter ventures on the suggestion that it may possibly be found that this treatise is the lost book of Valentinus referred to under the title of Wisdom.

It is the second treatise, The Apocryphon of John, to which S. devotes most of his attention in both the papers to which we are referring, the titles of which are respectively, ‘A Pre-irenaeic Gnostic Original Work in Coptic’ and ‘Irenaeus and his Source in Adv. Haer. i. 29,’ S. proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the Greek original of this Gnostic apocryphon lay before Irenaeus (c. 190 A.D.), and that the Church Father’s method of quotation and summarizing is, to say the least of it, misleading, for it practically makes nonsense of what is by no means absurd. The treatise tells us much of interest concerning the part played by Barbelo, ‘the perfect Power,’ ‘the Aeon perfect in glory’; the system is of the philosophized type and by no means inconsistent. Hitherto the clumsy treatment of it by Irenaeus has been generally referred to as descriptive of the tenets of the Barbelo-Gnostics, and to them Scott (Bib. 54) and Moffat (Bib. 58) have sought variously to ascribe the P.S. These Gnostics are brought by Irenaeus into a confused relationship with

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