Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead


LET us now turn to Egypt and cast a glance on the vista which has to be surveyed, before the outlines of this part of the background of the Gnosis can be filled in.

In spite of her reserve and immeasurable contempt for the upstart Greek genius, Egypt had, even in the The wisdom of Egypt.times of the earliest Ptolemies, given of her wisdom to Greece. There had been an enormous activity of translation of records and documents, the origin of which is associated with the name of Manetho. It is very probable that Plutarch in his treatise on the Mysteries of Isis drew the bulk of his information from Manetho, and it is very evident that the doctrines therein set forward as the traditional wisdom of Egypt have innumerable points of contact with the Greek Trismegistic literature, those mystic and theosophic treatises which formed the manuals of instruction in the inner Hermetic schools, mystic communities which handed on the wisdom-tradition of Thoth, or Tehuti, the God of Wisdom, whose name, as Jamblichus tells us, was "common to all priests," that is to say, was the source of inspiration of the wisdom-tradition in all its branches.

The Greeks, finding in their own Hermes some points of similarity with the characteristics of Tehuti, called him by that name, with the added title Trismegistus, or Thrice-greatest, because of his great wisdom. That the contents, though not the form, of the oldest treatises of this Trismegistic literature were largely Egyptian is further evidenced by Jamblichus in his treatise on the Mysteries of the Egyptians and Chaldæans.

Along these lines of contact between Egypt and Greece we can proceed to inspect the Egyptian wisdom on its own soil, and find in it many doctrines fully developed which without this investigation we should have considered as entirely indigenous to purely Christian soil. Indeed, in the Trismegistic literature we find a number of the distinctive doctrines of Gnostic Christianity but without the historic Christ; and all of these doctrines are seen to have existed for thousands of years previously in direct Egyptian tradition--especially the doctrines of the Logos, of the Saviour and Virgin Mother, of the second birth and final union with God.

But as in the case of Greece, so in the case of The Blendings of Tradition.Egypt, within the Egyptian tradition itself there are all manners of conflation of doctrines, of syncretism and blendings, not only in the external popular cults but also in the inner traditions.

To take a single instance, there was a strong Semitic blend dating from the line of the Hyksos (2000-1500 B.C.). At that time Seth, perchance identical with the title of the Supreme in the tongue of the Semitic conquerors, was a name of great honour. It was identified with Sothis, Sirius, the guardian star of Egypt, the Siriadic Land; and the Mysteries of Seth were doubtless blended in some fashion with those of Osiris. After the hated Hyksos were expelled it is true that Seth or Set was gradually identified with Typhon, the opponent of Osiris, the Logos; but this no more affects the real doctrines of the Mysteries of Seth, than the fact that the Iranian Aryans used the name Daevos to designate evil entities, destroyed the beneficent nature of the Devas of the Indo-Aryans; it simply registers a rivalry of cult and race and points to a previous epoch when there was intimate contact between the races and their religions. Equally so the Christian use of the term Demon does not dispose of the fact that the Daimones of the Greeks were beneficent beings; witness the Daimon of Socrates "who prevented him if he were about to do anything not rightly."

The ancient close political relations between Chaldæa and Egypt disclosed by archæological research, and the later Persian conquest of Egypt, must also have discovered points of contact in the domain of religion, especially in the Mystery-traditions, and future researches in the many hitherto unworked fields of Egyptology will doubtless throw fresh light on the mixed heredity of religion in Egypt, which is perhaps even more complicated than that of the cults of Greece.

In any case we cannot but feel the sublimity of many of the conceptions of the inner religion of Egypt, in spite of our present inability to classify them in a satisfactory manner. The vast and mysterious background of the cults of Egypt, the sonorous phrases and grandiose titles which we sift out from the present unintelligibility of myth and symbol, persuade us that there was something great working within, and we find the innermost strivings of the mystics devoted to the "Birth of Horus," a shadowing forth of that greatest of all mysteries, the spiritual birth of man, whence man becomes a god and a son of the Father.

The Egyptians themselves, according to Greek writers, looked back to a time when their initiated The Mystic Communities.priesthood was in possession of greater wisdom than was theirs in later times; they confess that they had fallen away from this high standard and had lost the key to much of their knowledge. Nevertheless the desire for wisdom was still strong in many of the nation, and Egypt was ever one of the most religious countries of the world. Thus we find the Jew Philo, in writing of the wisdom-lovers about A?. 25, declaring that "this natural class of men is to be found in many parts of the inhabited world, both the Grecian and non-Grecian world, sharing in the perfect good. In Egypt there are crowds of them in every province, or nome as they call it, and especially round Alexandria."

These wisdom-lovers Philo calls by the common name of Therapeuts, either because they professed The art of healing superior to that in ordinary use, for they healed souls as well as bodies, or because they were servants of God. He describes one of their communities, which evidently belonged to the circle of mystic Judaism; but the many other communities he mentions were also devoted to the same ends, their members were strenuous searchers after wisdom and devoted practisers of the holy life. These secret brotherhoods left no records; they kept themselves apart from the world, and the world knew them not. But it is just these communities which were the immediate links in the chain of heredity of the Gnosis.

We must, therefore, make the most we can of what Philo has to tell us of these Healers; in order to do this thoroughly, it would of course be necessary to search through the whole of his voluminous works and submit the material thus collected to a critical examination--a task outside the scope of these short sketches. But as the matter is of vital importance, we cannot refrain from presenting the reader with

a translation of the main source in Philo's writings from which we derive our information. But before giving this translation it is necessary to prefix a few words by way of introduction.

The appearance in 1895 of Conybeare's admirable edition of the text of Philo's famous treatise The Earliest Christians of Eusebius.On the Contemplative Life has at length set one of the ingeniously inverted pyramids of the origins squarely on its base again.

The full title of this important work is: Philo about the Contemplative Life, or the Fourth Book of the Treatise concerning the Virtues,--critically edited with a defence of its genuineness by Fred C. Conybeare, M.A. (Oxford, 1895). This book contains a most excellent bibliography of works relating to the subject.

The survival of the voluminous works of Philo through the neglect and vandalism of the Dark and Middle Ages is owing to the fact that Eusebius, in his efforts to construct history without materials, eagerly seized upon Philo's description of the externals of the Therapeut order, and boldly declared it to be the earliest Christian Church of Alexandria.

This view remained unchallenged until the rise of Protestantism, and was only then called in question because the Papal party rested their defence of the antiquity of Christian monkdom on this famous treatise.

For three centuries the whole of the batteries of Protestant scholarship have been turned on this main position of the Roman and Greek Churches. For if the treatise were genuine, then the earliest Church was a community of rigid ascetics, men and women; monkdom, the bête noire of Protestantism, was coëval with the origins.

These three centuries of attack have finally evolved a theory, which, on its perfection by Grätz, The Pseudo-Philo theory.Nicolas, and Lucius, has been accepted by nearly all our leading Protestant scholars, and is claimed to have demolished the objectionable document for ever. According to this theory, "the Therapeutæ are still Christians, as they were for Eusebius; but no longer of a primitive cast. For the ascription of the work to Philo is declared to be false, and the ascetics described therein to be in reality monks of about the year 300 A.D.; within a few years of which date the treatise is assumed to have been forged" (op. cit., p. vi.).

The consequence is that every recent Protestant Church history, dictionary, and encyclopedia, when treating of the Therapeuts, is plentifully besprinkled with references to the ingenious invention, called the "Pseudo-Philo."

This pyramid of the origins was kept propped upon its apex until 1895, when Conybeare's work Its Death-blow.was published, and all the props knocked from under it. Strange to say, it was then and only then that a critical text of this so violently attacked treatise was placed in our hands. At last all the MSS. and versions have been collated. With relentless persistence Conybeare has marshalled his Testimonia, and with admirable patience paralleled every distinctive phrase and technical expression with voluminous citations from the rest of Philo's works, of which there is so "prevalent and regrettable an ignorance." To this he has added an extensive Excursus on the Philonean authorship of the tract. If Philo did not write the De Vita Contemplativa then every canon of literary criticism is a delusion; the evidence adduced by the sometime Fellow of University College for the authenticity of the treatise is irresistible. We have thus a new departure in Philonean research.

The danger to certain orthodox presumptions which a thorough study of the rest of Philo's works would threaten, is evidenced by the concluding paragraph of Conybeare's preface, where he writes:

"It is barely credible, and somewhat of a reproach to Oxford as a place of learning, that not a single line of Philo, nor any work bearing specially on him, is recommended to be read by students in our Honour School of Theology; and that, although this most spiritual of authors is by the admission, tacit or express, of a long line of Catholic teachers, from Eusebius and Ambrose in the fourth century down to Bull and Döllinger in modern times, the father not only of Christian exegesis, but also, to a great extent, of Christian dogmatics" (op. cit., p. x.).

It is thus established that the De Vita Contemplativa is a genuine Philonean tract. As to its date, we An Interesting Question of Date.are confronted with some difficulties; but the expert opinion of Conybeare assures us that "every reperusal of the works of Philo confirms my feeling that the D.U.C. is one of his earliest works" (op. cit., p. 276). Now as Philo was born about the year 30 B.C., the date of the treatise may be roughly ascribed to the first quarter of the first century. ("About the year 22 or 23"--op. cit., p. 290). The question naturally arises: At such a date, can the Therapeuts of Philo be identified with the earliest Christian Church of Alexandria? If the accepted dates of the origins are correct, the answer must be emphatically, No. If, on the contrary, the accepted dates are incorrect, then a vast problem is opened up, of the first importance for the origins of the Christian faith. Be this as it may, the contents of the D.V.C. are of immense importance and interest as affording us a glimpse into those mysterious communities in which Christians for so many centuries recognized their forerunners. The Therapeuts were not Christians; Philo knows absolutely nothing of Christianity in any possible sense in which the word is used to-day. Who, then, were they? The answer to this question demands an entire reformulation of the accepted history of the origins.

The treatise bears in some MSS. the superscription, The Title and Context."The Suppliants, or Concerning the Virtues, Book IV., or Concerning the Virtue of the Suppliants, Book IV." By "Suppliant" Philo tells us, he means "one who has fled to God and taken refuge with Him." (De Sac. Ab. et C., i. 186, 33). It is highly probable that our tract formed part of the fourth book of Philo's voluminous work De Legatione, fragments only of which have survived.

"Time and Christian editors have truncated the De Legatione in a threefold way. Firstly, a good part of the second book has been removed, perhaps because it ran counter to Christian tradition concerning Pontius Pilate. Secondly, the entire fourth book was removed, as forming a whole by itself; and the first part of it has been lost, all except the scrap on the Essenes which Eusebius has preserved to us in the Præparatio Evangelica; while the account of the Therapeutæ was put by itself and preserved as a separate book. . . Thirdly, the palinode which formed the fifth book has been lost" (op. cit., p. 284).

But to the tractate itself.



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