Pistis Sophia

Pistis Sophia, by G.R.S. Mead, [1921], at sacred-texts.com



By G. R. S. Mead.

London: J. M. Watkins


Biographical data: G. R. S. (George Robert Stow) Mead [1863-1933]

This text is in the public domain in the United States because it was published prior

Scanned, proofed, and formatted at sacred-texts.com, June 2005, by John Bruno Hare. to 1923.

Even the greatest of sinners, if he repent, shall inherit the kingdom



IN the Introduction (pp. xxxv f.) to the first edition (1896), the translator wrote: “In presenting the following translation to the English-reading public, I may say that

reason that the translation of a translation must needs be but an apology for a

I should not have ventured on such an undertaking if any Coptic scholar had undertaken the task, or I had heard that such a task was contemplated. In a matter of so great difficulty every possible liability to error should be eliminated, and it stands to

first-hand version. Nevertheless I am not without predecessors. The Coptic MS. itself is in the first place a translation, so that even Coptic scholars must give us the version of a translation. I am persuaded also that the anonymous and very imperfect French translation (1856) in the Appendix to Migne’s Dictionnaire des Apocryphes (vol. i.) is made from Schwartze’s Latin version (1851) and not from the Coptic text. C. W. King in The Gnostics and their Remains (2nd ed., 1887) has also translated a number of pages of the Pistis Sophia from Schwartze. Some three or four years ago Mr. Nutt, King’s publisher, sent out a notice proposing the publication of the whole of King’s translation,

[p. xviii]

but the project fell through. Last year (1895) I offered to edit this translation of King’s, but was informed that the literary legatee of the deceased scholar was of the opinion that it would be unfair to his memory to publish a MS. that was in so incomplete a condition.

“In 1890 I had already translated Schwartze’s Latin version into English and published pages 1 to 252, with comments, notes, etc., in magazine-form from April 1890 to April 1891. But I hesitated to put it forward in book-form, and should not have done so, but for the appearance of Amelineau’s French translation in 1895. I then went over the whole again and checked it by Amelineau’s version. I was further induced to venture on this undertaking, because the narrative, though dealing with mystical and therefore obscure subjects, is in itself exceedingly simple, and therefore mistakes cannot so readily creep in as into a difficult philosophical work. I, therefore, present my translation with all hesitation, but at the same time think that the English public, which is steadily increasing its interest in mysticism and allied subjects, will be better satisfied with half a loaf than with no bread.”

A quarter of a century has rolled away; much water has flowed under the bridges of scholarly research whence the general stream of Gnosticism has been surveyed with greater accuracy, and much good work been done on the special subject of the Coptic Gnostic documents. Though the first edition of this book was quickly exhausted and many requests were made for a second, I

[p. xix]

had hitherto refused to accede to this demand, still hoping that some English Coptic scholar would take the matter in hand. Indeed, at one time I was in high expectation that this would be achieved. Shortly before the War a friend, whom I had interested in the work, completed a version of the fine Untitled Apocalypse of the Bruce Codex, and was next to have attempted a translation of the P.S. But pressing interests and activities of a totally different nature connected with the War and its aftermath have absorbed all my friend’s energies, and the version of the P.S. has been definitely abandoned. Nor can I hear of any other project of translation. This being the case, and as the utility of even a translation of a translation is evidenced by the keen demand for the volume in the second-hand market, I have at last decided to repeat my venture.

Nevertheless a reprint of the first edition was not to be thought of. Introduction and translation needed revision in the light of twenty-five years’ further study of the work of specialists. To this end the most valuable help, not to speak of his long labours on the allied documents, is afforded by Carl Schmidt’s admirable German translation of the P.S. (1905).

Schwartze’s Latin translation was good for its date (1851), and scholars still quote it to-day; Amelineau’s French rendering (1895) was somewhat of an improvement; but Schmidt’s version is unquestionably the best. I have therefore revised my prior Englishing from the former

[p. xx]

preferred him for consistency in phrasing. In my humble opinion it will be long before

two by the finer work of the latter. Schmidt is exceedingly careful throughout, and not only have I taken his decision where Schwartze and Amelineau differ, but have generally

we have a better rendering than that of this ripe Coptic scholar.

But not only has the Translation been thoroughly revised; the Introduction has been entirely rewritten and the Annotated Bibliography corrected and brought up to date. The second edition is practically a new book.

The Schwartze-Petermann marginal pagination, which is the usual scheme of reference, and which in the first edition was shown in brackets in the text, is now indicated at the side of the page. I have also adopted Schmidt’s division into chapters as an additional convenience for more general reference, and have numbered the verses of the Psalms and of the Odes of Solomon for easier comparison with the Repentances and Songs of Sophia. It should, of course, be understood that the detailed paragraphing does not exist in the original, which runs on for the most part monotonously without break.

July 1921.

Pistis Sophia, by G.R.S. Mead, [1921], at sacred-texts.com [p. xxi]


THE unique MS. of the Coptic Gnostic document commonly called ‘Pistis Sophia’ was bought by the British Museum in 1785 from the heirs of Dr. Askew, and is now catalogued as MS. Add. 5114. The title on the back of the modern binding is ‘Piste Sophia Coptice.’ On top of the first page of the MS. is the signature ‘A. Askew, M.D.’ On the first page of the binding is the following note, probably in the hand of Woide, the most famous Coptic scholar of those days and Librarian of the Museum:

“Codex dialecti Superioris Aegypti, quam Sahidicam seu Thebaidicam votant, cujus titulus exstat pagina 115: Pmeh snaou ntomos ntpiste Sophia–Tomos secundus fidelis Sapientiae–deest pagina 337-344.”

The title ‘Piste Sophia’ is incorrect. Nowhere is this form found in the very numerous instances of the name in the text, and the hastily suggested ’emendation’ of Dulaurier and Renan to read ‘Piste Sophia’ thoughout has perforce received no support.

Woide, in a letter to Michaelis (Bibliography, 4), says that Askew bought the MS. from a book-seller (apparently in London); its previous

[p. xxii]

history is unknown. Crum informs us in an official description (Bib. 46, p. 173) that at the end of a copy in the B.M. of the sale-catalogue of Askew’s MSS. is the entry: ‘Coptic MS. L10. 10. 0.,’ and that this refers presumably to our Codex–a good bargain indeed!

The best descriptions of the MS. are by Schmidt (Introd. to his Trans., Bib. 45, pp. xi f.), and Crum (l.c.). The Codex is of parchment and contains 178 leaves = 356 pages 4to (8 3/4 x 6 1/2 in.). The writing is in two columns of from 30 to 34 lines each. There are 23 quires in all; but the first has only 12 and the last 8 pages, of which the last page is left blank. It is, as a whole, in an exceptionally well-preserved state, only 8 leaves being missing (see ch. 143, end).

other peculiarities. These scribes must have been contemporaries and divided the task

The writing as a whole is the work of two scribes, whose entirely different hands are very clearly distinguishable. The first (MS. pp. 1-22, 196-354) wrote a fine, careful, old uncial, and the second (MS. pp. 23-195) in comparison a careless, clumsy hand with signs of shakiness which S. thinks might suggest the writing of an old man. They used different inks and different methods both of paging and correction, not to speak of

of copying fairly equally between them. So far Crum and Schmidt are in complete agreement; they differ only as to the handwriting of a note on MS. p. 114, col. 2, of the superscription on p. 115 and of the last page (see pp. 105, 106 and 325 of Trans.).

[p. xxiii]

From an external point of view the contents fall into 4 main Divisions, generally referred to as Books i.-iv.

The first extends to the end of ch. 62, where in the MS. more than a column and a half has been left blank, and a short, but entirely irrelevant, extract has been copied on to the second column, presumably from some other book of the general allied literature.

There is no title, either superscription or subscription, to this Div. Why the second scribe left a blank here in his copying is a puzzle, for the text which follows on MS.

p. 115 runs straight on without a break of subject or incident.

The next page is headed ‘The Second Book (or Section) of Pistis Sophia.’ Crum assigns this superscription to the second hand, and the short extract on the second column of the preceding page to the first. But Schmidt thinks that both are later additions by another hand, and this is borne out both by the colour of the ink and also by the very important fact that the older Coptic MSS. have the title at the end and not at the beginning of a volume, conserving the habit of the ancient roll-form. And as a matter of fact we find at the bottom of MS. p. 233, col. 1, the subscription: ‘A Portion of the Books (or Texts) of the Saviour’ (see end of ch. 100).

There follows a short piece on the Gnosis of the Ineffable (ch. 101), which is without any setting and entirely breaks the order of sequence of ideas and is the end of a larger whole. It is clearly an extract from another ‘Book.’

[p. xxiv]

After this again with ch. 102 we have a very distinct change of subject, though not of setting, from the ending of ii., so that, in my opinion, it is difficult to regard it as an immediate continuation. Later, at ch. 126, occurs another abrupt change of subject, though not of setting, preceded by a lacuna in the text. At the end of ch. 135 (bottom of MS. p. 318, col. 1) we have again the subscription: ‘A Portion of the Books of the Saviour.’

The last piece has no title, either superscription or subscription. From the change of setting in its introduction and the nature of its contents it is generally assigned to an earlier phase of the literature. Here again a complete change of subject occurs with ch. 144, after a lacuna of 8 leaves. Finally, on the last page is an appendix, somewhat in the style of the Mark-conclusion, beginning quite abruptly in the middle of a sentence and presumably part of a larger whole. The contents, measurements and writing make it almost certain that it formed no part of the original copy. At the very end two lines surrounded by ornamentation are erased. These may have contained the names of the owner or scribes, or possibly a general subscript title.

From the above indications and from a detailed study of the contents it is evident that, though the episode of the adventures of Pistis Sophia, her repentances and songs and their solutions (chh. 30-64), occupy much space, it is by no means the principal theme of the collection; it is rather an incident. The blundering heading of a

[p. xxv]

later scribe, ‘The Second Book of Pistis Sophia,’ some two-thirds of the way through this episode, has misled earlier scholars and set up the bad habit of referring to the whole document as the ‘Pistis Sophia’–a habit it is now too late to change. If there is any general title to be derived from the MS. itself, it should be rather ‘A Portion’ or ‘Portions of the Books of the Saviour.’ Whether this title can be made to cover Div.

iv. is an open question. In any case we have before us extracts from a more extensive

a single consistent work. It is very difficult, therefore, to distinguish the contents

literature which belonged to the same group, and of which there were at least two strata. The contents of the Askew Codex are thus a collection or a miscellany, and not

by any consistent nomenclature. I have followed the usual custom of calling the whole ‘Pistis Sophia,’ and let Divv. i. and ii. stand as Books i. and ii., as is usually done, though this is clearly improper, judged from the point of view of contents. Thereafter I have distinguished the extracts in Div. iii. as being from two different ‘Books’ (apart from the short insertion at the beginning), and again those in Div. iv. as being from two different ‘Books,’ these ‘Books’ meaning simply subdivisions of or excerpts from larger wholes.

It seems highly probable that our scribes did not do the extracting themselves, but found it already done in the copy which lay before them.

The date of our MS. is undecided, owing to the difficulty of making exact judgments in [p. xxvi] [paragraph continues] Coptic paleography. The general view assigns it with Schmidt to the 5th century. It may be noted that Woide (Bib. 3) assigned it to the 4th, and Crum seems to agree with him. Hyvernat (Bib. 21) suggests the 6th, and Wright (Bib. 16) the 7th. Amelineau (Bib. 35) goes to a ridiculous extreme by placing it in the 9th or 10th century, but his too radical views have been severely criticized.

The Coptic of the P.S. is in pure Sahidic–that is, the dialect of Upper

Egypt,–preserving many features of antiquity. It is, however, clearly not the original language in which the extracts were written. These, like the rest of the extant Coptic Gnostic documents, were originally composed in Greek. This is shown by the very large number of Greek words, not only names, but substantives, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and even conjunctions, left untranslated, on well-nigh every page, and this applies to the O.T. and N.T. quotations equally with the rest. The Schwartze-Petermann Latin version preserves every Greek word throughout untranslated, and Schmidt’s German translation invariably adds them in brackets. In the P.S. a large number of abstract qualificative general names of exalted super-aeonic orders is given, such as ‘Unapproachables,’ ‘Uncontainables,’ which could not possibly be native to Coptic diction. In a number of passages again, where the translator had difficulty, he slavishly follows the Greek construction. Frequently also he gives alternative renderings. The fact of translation from the Greek is well-nigh universally

[p. xxvii]

acknowledged; and indeed we now possess decisive objective proof, for one of the documents in the Berlin Codex, which presents identical linguistic phenomena, lay before Irenaeus in its Greek original form (Bib. 47). Nevertheless Granger (Bib. 44) and Scott-Moncrieff (Bib. 56) have questioned this fact of translation, and quite recently Rendel Harris (Bib. 60), after accepting the general consensus of opinion (Bib. 49), has changed his mind and thinks that the matter should be reinvestigated. None of these scholars, however, has set forth any objective grounds for his opinion. It is difficult to believe that any one who has laboured through the versions line by line and word by word can have the slightest doubt on the matter. The whole style of the work is foreign to the Coptic idiom, as may be seen from Amelineau’s Introduction to his French version (Bib. 35), where he writes (p. x): “Whoever has any knowledge of the Coptic language knows that this idiom is foreign to long sentences; that it is a tongue eminently analytic and by no means synthetic; that its sentences are composed of small clauses exceedingly precise, and almost independent of each other. Of course all Coptic authors are not equally easy, some of them are even exceedingly difficult to understand; but this much is certain, that never under any circumstances in Coptic do we come across those periods with complicated incidental sentences, of three or four different clauses, whose elements are synthetically united together so that the sense of the entire sentence cannot be grasped

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