Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

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Fragments of a Faith Forgotten

By G.R.S. Mead

The Askew and Bruce Codices

Sempiterna Lux! Nec divitias nec honores peto; me modo Divinæ Lucis radio illumines!

                 From An Essay of Transmigration in Defence of Pythagoras (London, 1692).

Some Greek Original Works in Coptic Translation
So far we have endeavoured to recover some fragments of flotsam and jetsam from the pitiful wreck of the Gnosis, wrought by the hands of its bitterest foes, the orthodox Church Fathers; we will now try to give the reader some rough idea of the contents of some Gnostic treatises, which have been preserved to us in Coptic translation by the hands of its friends.

We have to consider the contents of three precious documents known as the Askew, Bruce, and Akhmim Codices, the last of which was only discovered in 1896. We shall reserve the Akhmim Codex for later notice, since little is so far known of it, and so give our immediate attention to the Askew and Bruce Codices.

The Askew Codex was bought by the British Museum from the heirs of Dr. Askew at the The Askew Codex.end of the last century (presumably a little prior to 1785). The MS. is written on vellum in Greek uncials, in the Upper Egyptian dialect, and is not in roll but in book-form. It consists of 346 quarto pages, and for the most part is in an excellent state of preservation; a few leaves only are missing. The Codex is a copy and not an original; and the original was a translation from the Greek. The general contents consist of a treatise to which custom has given the name Pistis Sophia, owing to a heading in the middle of the general narrative, added by another hand. The treatise has no superscription or subscription, and though there is a long incident in it dealing with the passion and redemption of the Sophia, other parts of equal length might just as well be called The Questions of Mary, as Harnack has suggested, and Matter long prior to him. The Codex also contains a short inset and a lengthy appendix entitled Extracts from the Books of the Saviour. For a further description I must refer the reader to the Introduction of my translation.

The Bruce CodexThe Bruce Codex was brought to England from Upper Egypt in 1769 by the famous Scottish traveller Bruce, and bequeathed to the care of the Bodleian Library, Oxford. It is written on papyrus, in Greek cursive characters, in the Upper Egyptian dialect, and consists of seventy-eight leaves, in book-form. Its leaves are in a most terrible state of disorder and dilapidation, and many are missing. A scientific examination of the Codex reveals the fact that it consists of two distinct MSS., containing the remains of at least two distinct Gnostic works and some fragments. The superior MS., of better material and finer handwriting, contains a treatise of great sublimity, but without a title, the first and last pages being lost. The other MS. contains fragments of at least two separate books, and preserves the title The Book of the Great Logos according to the Mystery. This is taken by Schmidt to be the general title, and to comprise two parts which he calls respectively the First and Second Book, of Ieou.

The contents of these treatises are of such a marvellous and complex nature, that I despair of the general reader any adequate conception of them. The student may, however, form some idea of the task by reading my translation of the Pistis Sophia treatise and the Extracts from the Books of the Saviour; but even this will give him no adequate conception of the complexity of the contents of the Codex Brucianus, of which, unfortunately, there is as yet no English translation.

In 1891 Amélineau published a text and French translation of the Bruce Codex with a brief introduction; but his text was based on Woide's copy of the Codex made a century ago, and the French savant had no idea that he was dealing with two distinct MSS., whose leaves were jumbled up in inextricable confusion.

In 1892 Dr. Carl Schmidt, having with admirable patience collated the copies of the Codex made by Schwartze and Woide with the original at Oxford, and with still greater acumen and industry separated the two MSS. and placed their respective leaves in order, published a critical text, with a German translation and a voluminous commentary.

In the following résumé, with regard to the Codex The Difficulty of the Subject.Brucianus, I shall follow Schmidt's translation and not Amélineau's. Schmidt is by far the most competent authority in the field, and no praise is too high a tribute to pay this most distinguished Coptic scholar for his unwearied patience. I have before me a rough translation of the whole of Schmidt's voluminous work, and have spared no pains to make myself acquainted with his labours; but, even with his help, I feel as yet a very tyro in the Gnosticism revealed in these treatises. For, though Schmidt throws light on many points, innumerable problems are still left untouched; in fact, with all his admirable scholarship and infinite research, he is entirely baffled on just those very points which seem to have been of greatest interest to the composers or compilers of these Gnostic documents.

When, in 1896, I published a translation of the Pistis Sophia I had intended to follow it up with a commentary; but I speedily found that in spite of the years of work I had already given to Gnosticism, there were still many years of labour before me, ere I could satisfy myself that I was competent to essay the task in any really satisfactory fashion; I have accordingly reserved that task for the future. Meantime, in the present short sketches nothing more is attempted than a very tentative summary, so that the general reader may obtain some notion of the contents of our Coptic Gnostic treatises; my only excuse for breaking silence being that there is absolutely nothing as yet in English on the contents of the Bruce Codex.

We will, then, first of all attempt a summary of the contents of the so-called Pistis Sophia Programme.treatise; then a summary of the Extracts from the Books of the Saviour, inserted in and following after this treatise in the Askew Codex. This will be followed by a summary of the fragments contained in the inferior MS. of the Bruce Codex. I shall venture, however, to transpose Schmidt's main order, and place what he calls The Second Book of Ieou before what he calls The First, for the general subjects of his first group of fragments seem to me to follow the subjects of his second, rather than the contrary. It is quite true that the beginning of his second division starts on the verso of the papyrus leaf, the recto of which contains the end of the other; but this only assures us the correct position of two adjacent fragments. That the numerous other fragments are always arranged in their proper sequence is by no means quite certain, though I frankly confess I so far see no more satisfactory ordering of the chaos myself.

That we have among these fragments part of the original contents of The Books of Ieou mentioned in the Pistis Sophia seems highly probable, but that we can assign our fragments definitely to Books I. and II. is not so certain. The whole will therefore in our summary stand under the general title, The Book of the Great Logos according to the Mystery, without further distinction, including both the introductory matter and also the leaves surrounded by a border, which Schmidt adds as an appendix. But it must be understood that this is a tentative arrangement. There may be several treatises to which the fragments of the inferior MS. of the Bruce Codex ought to be assigned for anything we know to the contrary.

This will be followed by the fragments of the untitled treatise contained in the superior MS.

The purpose that has guided me in this general arrangement is, as far as possible, to place the contents of these Coptic translations roughly in such a sequence that the reader may be led from lower to higher grades of the Gnosis. I am perfectly aware that higher mysteries (the three Spaces of the Inheritance) are spoken of and explained in the Pistis Sophia treatise than in the rest of the matter, but they are not revealed. In The Book of the Great Logos and in the Extracts from the Books of the Saviour some of the mysteries are given, and the disciples are made to see face to face. I therefore place the summary of the Pistis first, though it was probably composed last.



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