Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

Masonic, Occult and Esoteric Online Library

Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead

The Akhmim Codex

WE have now to lay before our readers what little information is at present available with regard to the latest find in Gnosticism. Ten years ago, Dr. Carl Schmidt informed me that he had hopes of bringing out a work on the subject (including presumably a text and translation) in some two years; but unfortunately his anxiously-awaited labours have not yet seen the light. We are, therefore, entirely dependent upon the report of the important communication made by him to the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences (Kgl. preuss. Acad. d. Wissenschaften) published in the Transactions, and dated July 16th, 1896.

Schmidt's communication, entitled A "Pre-irenæic Gnostic Original Work in Coptic" ("Ein vorirenaeisches gnostisches Original-werk in koptischer Sprache"), proves the enormous importance of the happy discovery. His paper is of course exceedingly technical and learned, but the following summary will give the reader a general idea of a subject which at present can only appeal to a very limited number of specialists, but which ought in time to be familiar to all serious students of Christian theosophy.

In January, 1896, Dr. Rheinhardt procured at Cairo, from a dealer of antiquities from Akhmim, The MS. and its Contents.this precious papyrus MS., which he asserted had been discovered by a fellah in a niche in a wall. The MS. is now in the Berlin Egyptian Museum, each leaf being carefully protected with glass.

Unfortunately the MS. is not entirely perfect; it contained originally seventy-one leaves--six of which are now missing; each page contains about eighteen to twenty-two lines. The writing is of extraordinary beauty, and points to the fifth century.

After a short preface, the MS. bears the superscription Gospel according to Mary, and on p. 77 the subscription Apocryphon of John; immediately on the same page follows the title Wisdom of Jesus Christ, and on p. 128 the same subscription; the next page begins without a title, but at the end of the MS. we find the subscription Acts of Peter.

The MS. therefore contains three distinct treatises, The Gospel of Mary and The Apocryphon of John being the same piece.

The Gospel of Mary.The first work begins with the words: "Now it came to pass on one of these days, when John the brother of James--the sons of Zebedee--had gone up to the temple, that a Pharisee, named Ananias (?), came unto him and said unto him: 'Where is thy Master, that thou dost not follow him?' He said unto him: 'From whence He came thither is He gone (?).' The Pharisee said unto him: 'With deceit hath the Nazaræan deceived you, for he hath . . . you and made away with the tradition of your fathers.' When I heard this I went away from the temple to the mountain unto a solitary place, and was exceedingly sorrowful in heart and said: 'How now was the Saviour chosen; and wherefore was He sent to the world by His Father who sent Him; and who is His Father; and what is the formation of that æon to which we shall go?'"

While he is sunk in these thoughts, the heavens open, and the Lord appears to him and to the disciples, in order to resolve his doubts. The Saviour then leaves them, and again they are sorrowful and weep. They said: "How can we go to the heathen and preach the gospel of the kingdom of the Son of Man? If they have not received Him, how will they receive us?"

Then Mary arose, and, having embraced them all, spake unto her brethren: "Weep not, and be not sorrowful, nor doubt, for His grace will be with you all and will overshadow you. Let us rather praise His goodness that he hath prepared us, and made us to be men."

Peter requests her to proclaim what the Lord had revealed to her, thus acknowledging the great distinction which the Lord had always permitted her above all women. Thereupon she begins the narrative of an appearance of the Lord in a dream; unfortunately some pages are here missing.

Hardly has she finished, when Andrew rises, and says that he cannot believe that the Lord has given such novel teachings. Peter also rejects her testimony and chides her. And Mary in tears says unto him: "Peter, of what dost thou think? Believest thou that I have imagined this only in myself, or lied as to the Lord?"

And now Levi comes forward to help Mary, and chides Peter as an eternal quarreller. How the dispute went on we cannot determine, as two pages are missing. On p. 21 a new episode begins and continues to the end of the first treatise without a break.

The Lord appears again to John, and John immediately repairs to his fellow-disciples and relates what the Saviour had revealed unto him.

Schmidt suggests that the original title was The Apocalypse or Revelation, and not The Apocryphon of John.

The Wisdom of Jesus Christ.The book of the Wisdom of Jesus Christ begins with the words: "After His resurrection from the dead His twelve disciples and seven women disciples had gone into Galilee to the mount which . . . . for they were in doubt as to the hypostasis of the All . . . . as to the mysteries and holy economy. Then did the Saviour appear unto them not in His prior form but in the invisible spirit. His form was that of a great angel of light, His substance indescribable, and He was not clothed in flesh that dieth, but in pure, perfect flesh, as He taught us on the mountain in Galilee which was called . . . He said: 'Peace be unto you; My peace I give unto you.'" And they were all astonished and were afraid.

And the Lord bids them lay all their questions before Him; and the several disciples bring forward their doubts and receive the desired replies.

The Acts of Peter are likewise of Gnostic origin, and belong to the great group of apocryphal stories of the Apostles. This third document treats of an episode from the healing-wonders of Peter.

Irenæus Quotes from the Gospel of Mary.The importance of the whole MS. is, not only that it hands down to us three hitherto unknown Gnostic writings, but especially that it gives us a work which was known to Irenæus, our first important "authority" on Gnosticism among the Fathers a work from which he made extracts, but without giving the sources of his information or quoting the title of the book. This work is The Gospel of Mary.

Irenæus begins the last section of his first Book (29-31) with the words: "And besides these, from among those whom we have before mentioned as followers of Simon, a multitude of Barbelo-Gnostics hath arisen, and they have shown themselves as mushrooms from the ground."

In cap. 29 he treats mostly of a group of so-called Barbelo-Gnostics, with regard to whom he gives the contents of one of the books they used, a teaching which we do not find put forward by either the earlier or later hæresiarchs. Theodoret (I. 13) among the rest of the Refutators alone knows of this teaching, and he simply copies Irenæus.

This source is our Gospel of Mary; and we can now for the first time control Irenæus point by point, and see how little the Church Father succeeded or could succeed in reproducing the exceedingly complicated systems of the Gnostic schools. A few examples will be sufficient to establish this point abundantly.

Irenæus begins his exposition with these words: "Some of them suppose a certain never-ageing An Examination of his Statements.Æon in a Virginal Spirit, whom they name Barbelo. Where they say is a certain unnameable Father."

This "Father of All" is characterized in our new document (p. 22) as the Invisible; as Pure The Father.Light, in which no one can see with mortal eyes; as Spirit, for no one can imagine how He is formed; the Everlasting, the Unspeakable; the Unnameable, for no one existed before Him to give Him a name. Of Him it is said: "He thinketh His Image alone and beholdeth it in the Water of Pure Light which surroundeth Him. And His Thought energized and revealed herself, and stood before Him in the Light-spark; which is the Power which existed before the All, which Power hath revealed itself; which is the perfect Forethought of the All; the Light, the Likeness of the Light, the Image of the The Mother.Invisible; that is, the perfect Power, the Barbelo, the Æon perfect in glory--glorifying Him, because she hath manifested herself in Him and thinketh Him. She is the first Thought, his Image; she becometh the First Man; that is, the Virginal Spirit, she of the triple Manhood, the triple-powered one, the triple-named, triple-born; the Æon which ages not, the Man-woman, who hath come forth from His Forethought."

According to this, the "Father of the All" stands at the head of the system, the "Invisible." After Him comes His "Image," that is, the "Barbelo," the "perfect Power," the "unageing Æon" of Irenæus.

By thinking of His Image, His Thought reveals herself in the Light-spark, that is, in Barbelo.

Irenæus gives all this in a short, incomprehensible abstract as follows: "And that He was fain to manifest Himself to the same Barbelo. And that Thought came forth and stood before Him, and asked for Foreknowledge."

Our text then proceeds: "And Barbelo besought The Pentad.Him to give unto her Foreknowledge. He nodded, and when He had thus nodded assent, Foreknowledge manifested herself and stood with Thought, that is Forethought, and glorified the Invisible and the perfect Power, the Barbelo, for that through her she had come into existence.

"Again this Power besought that Incorruptibility be given unto her. He nodded, and when He had thus nodded assent, Incorruptibility manifested herself and stood with Thought and Foreknowledge, glorifying the Invisible and Barbelo, in that through her she had come into existence.

"For their sakes she besought that Everlasting Life be given them. He nodded, and when He had thus nodded assent, Everlasting Life manifested herself, and they stood and glorified Him and Barbelo, because through her they had come into existence in the manifestation of the Invisible Spirit.

"This is the pentad of the Æons of the Father, that is, the First Man, the Image of the Invisible; that is, Barbelo, and Thought, and Foreknowledge, and Incorruptibility and Life Everlasting."

At the request of Barbelo, also, the Invisible causes to come forth after Thought the three following feminine Æons, according to Irenæus; "Thought asked for Foreknowledge; Foreknowledge also having come forth, again upon their petition came forth Incorruptibility; then afterwards Life Eternal; in whom Barbelo rejoicing, and looking forth into the greatness, and delighted with her conception, generated into it a Light like unto it; her they affirm to be the beginning of the enlightening and generation of all things; and that the Father seeing this Light anointed it with His goodness to make it perfect; and this they say is the Christ."

The Decad.In this passage without doubt Irenæus had before his eyes the words: "He is the decad of the Æons, that is, He is the Father of the ingenerable Father. Barbelo gazed into Him fixedly . . . and she gave birth to a blessed Light-spark. Nor doth it differ from her in greatness. This is the Alone-begotten, who hath manifested himself in the Father, the self-generated God, the first-born Son of the All, the pure Light-spirit. Now the Invisible Spirit rejoiced over the Light, which had come into existence, which had first of all manifested itself in the first Power--that is, His Forethought--in Barbelo. And He anointed him with His goodness, that he might be made perfect."

This Alone-begotten is consequently identical with the Light or the Christ. Irenæus offers us here no enlightenment, and further on he only gives us the sentence: Therefore the First Angel, who stands near the Alone-begotten," etc.

The Alone-begotten asks for Mind to be given him; when this has been done, he praises, as Mind, the Father and Barbelo.

Irenæus continues: "And this, they say, is Christ; who again requests, as they say, that Mind may be given to help him; and then came forth Mind; and after these the Father sends forth the Word."

In this place Irenæus has omitted a stage and quite forgotten the third male Æon, namely, Will. Our MS. gives us the following:

"The Invisible Spirit willed to energize. His Will energized and revealed itself and stood with the Mind and the Light praising Him. The Word followed the Will, for through the Word hath Christ created all things."

With this the upper Ogdoad is shut off from the Decad, the lower æon proceeding from separate pairs. The Christ.Next we have the Self-begotten from Thought, the Word, of whom it is written: "Whom He hath honoured with great honour, because he came forth from His first Thought. The Invisible hath set him as God over the All. The True God gave him all powers, and made the Truth that is in Him subject unto him, that he might think out the All."

Irenæus reproduces this as follows: "Then afterwards, of Mind and the Word, they say, was sent forth the Self-begotten, to represent the Great Light, and that he was highly honoured, and all things made subject unto him. And the Truth was sent out also with him, and that there is a conjunction of the Self-begotten and Truth."

(It is impossible at present to attempt to analyze the system from the above fragments; it may, however, be suggested that the treatise is here exposing the three root-phases, or moments of emanation, of the Pleroma, or ideal world: (a) the In-generable, (b) the Self-generable, and (c) the Generable--the Father, the Logos, the All. The Gnosis, however, is more elaborate than any other known system, and its idealistic intuitions of primal processes know no limits.)

From the Light of the Christ and the Incorruptible proceed forth four great Lights to surround the Self-begotten. Their names are Harmozel, Oroiael, Daveithe and Eleleth. From Will and Everlasting Life proceed four others: Charis, Synesis, Aisthesis and Phronesis. Irenæus writes:

"And from the Light which is Christ, and Incorruptibility, four Luminaries were sent forth to surround the Self-begotten; and that from Will again and Life Everlasting, four such emanations were sent forth to minister under the four Luminaries, which they call Grace (Charis), Free-will (Thelesis), Understanding (Synesis), and Prudence (Phronesis). And that Charis for her part was conjoined with the great and first Luminary; and this they will have to be the Saviour, and call him Harmogen; and Thelesis with the second, whom also they call Raguel; and Synesis with the third, whom they name David; and Phronesis with the fourth, whom they name Eleleth."

This passage is of interest in many ways. We learn the correct names; we notice that three of them (Eleleth, Daveithe, Oroiael) are also to be found in the Codex Brucianus, and thus we establish the relation of this important Codex with the first piece in our MS.

The Egyptian Origin of the Treatise.These proofs are sufficient to establish the point that The Gospel of Mary was composed before A.D. 180, and that the Greek original, from which the Coptic translation was made, was earlier than Irenæus. In the opinion of Dr. Schmidt, the work originated in Egypt. The School which used it was the same as that designated by Irenæus as the Barbelo-Gnostics, or, as they usually called themselves, simply the Gnostics; this School was further subdivided into many single denominations, whose names and teachings Epiphanius has given us in detail. Among them were circulated many books under the name of Mary; thus Epiphanius (Hær., xxvi. 8) speaks of The Questions of Mary, both The Great and The Little, and even in xii. of The Genealogy of Mary. Celsus had previously also met with this School, and perhaps was acquainted with our work, for he informs us that some heretics derive their origin from Mary and Martha, and gives the well-known diagram of the so-called Ophites. Yet more; our original work shows us that Irenæus "copied" from our book only up to a certain place; and in I. 30, he used a second work of the same School which had fallen into his hands.

So far Dr. Schmidt, whose interesting communication is followed by a note of Professor Harnack. Harnack gives his opinion as follows:

"This find is of the first importance to primitive Church history; not only because we have one The Opinion of Harnack.(or perhaps three) original Gnostic works of the second century--(is the Wisdom of Jesus Christ possibly the famous work of Valentinus?)--but kind fate has also added to our debt that Irenæus has quoted from one of the three treatises. We are thus for the first time in a position to control by the original the presentation of a Gnostic system as rendered by the Church Father. The result of this examination shows, as we might have expected, that owing to omissions, and because no effort was made to understand his opponents, the sense of the by no means absurd speculations of the Gnostics has been ruined by the Church Father. Another fact--which can only with the greatest difficulty be extracted from the writings of their opponents--is that the system treats of a psychological process within the first principle, which the Gnostics desired to unfold. Tertullian certainly says once (Adv. Valent., iv.): 'Ptolemæus, the pupil of Valentinus, split up the names and numbers of the æons into personified "substances," external to deity, whereas Valentinus himself had included these in the very summit of the godhead as the impressions of sensation and feeling'--but which of the Church Fathers has given himself the trouble thus to understand the speculations of Valentinus and of the other Gnostics?

"According to Hippolytus (Philos., vi. 42), the followers of the Gnostic Marcus complained of the misrepresentation of their teaching by Irenæus; the followers of our newly discovered book could also have complained of the incomprehensible fashion in which Irenæus had represented their teachings.

"Thus, we had previously known a Gnostic work which probably originated in Egypt in the second century, only through an epitome of it by a Gallic bishop about the year 185, and now we find it again in a Coptic translation of the fifth century--verily a paradoxical method of transmission!"

If, however, the last chapters of Book I. of Irenæus are copied from the lost Syntagma of Justin or some other earlier work, as the best critics have previously maintained, then the original of our new document has a considerably earlier date than Schmidt or Harnack assign to it in the above Transaction.

The student of Gnosticism will at once perceive that the importance of the new find cannot be over-estimated. The Importance of the MS.The new documents throw light not only on the Codex Brucianus, but also on the system of the Pistis Sophia. We have now these three original sources on which to base our study of Gnostic theosophy; and there is hope that at last something may be done to rescue the views of the best Gnostic doctors from obscurity, and from the environment of pious refutation in which they have been previously smothered. The task of the sympathetic student should now be to find appropriate terms for the technicalities of the Gnosis, place the various orders of ideas in their proper relation, and show that the method of the Gnosis, which looked at the problems of cosmogony and anthropogony from above, may be as reasonable in its proper domain as are the methods of modern scientific research, which regard such problems entirely from below. We should not forget that men like Valentinus were theosophists, engaged on precisely the same studies as their brethren the world over. The greatest cosmogonies of the world are of the same nature as Gnostic cosmogenesis, and a study of these will convince us of the similarity of source. Gnostic anthropogenesis has many points of similarity with general theosophical ideas, and Gnostic psychology is in a great measure borne out by recent research. The Gnostic technical terms are no more difficult of comprehension than those found in other theosophical writers; and there is an exact parallel between the varying use made of such terms by different writers on the Gnosis and the misrepresentation of the views of the Gnostics by the Church Fathers, and the various meanings given to like terms by other theosophical writers and the misrepresentation of such writers by their critics. The Gnostics were themselves partly to blame for their obscurity, and the Church Fathers were partly to blame for their misrepresentation. In brief, the same standard of criticism has to be applied to the writings of the Gnostics as the discriminating student has to apply to all such literature. It is true that to-day we speak openly of many things that the Gnostics wrapped up in symbol and myth; nevertheless our real knowledge on such subjects is not so very far in advance of the great doctors of the Gnosis as we are inclined to imagine; now, as then, there are only a few who really know what they are writing about, while the rest copy, compare, adapt, and speculate.



Masonic Publishing Company

Purchase This Title

Browse Titles
"If I have seen further than
others, it is by standing
upon the shoulders of giants."


Comasonic Logo

Co-Masonry, Co-Freemasonry, Women's Freemasonry, Men and Women, Mixed Masonry

Copyright © 1975-2024 Universal Co-Masonry, The American Federation of Human Rights, Inc. All Rights Reserved.