The Coptic version of Asclepius 21-29 is the eighth tractate from Codex VI of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY, and occurs immediately after a scribal note (VI, 65.8-14) concerning the selection and copying of Hermetic discourses. Although it is untitled in the Coptic manuscript, Asclepius 21-29 is assigned its present title because it is an excerpt from the long Hermetic treatise Asclepius (or, Perfect Discourse) previously known in Latin translation and brief quotations in Greek. This Coptic translation functions as the concluding tractate in a codex that contains three such Hermetic texts: the DISCOURSE ON THE EIGHTH AND NINTH (VI, 6), THE PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING (VI, 7), and Asclepius.
Asclepius assumes the typical form for a Hermetic tractate by presenting a dialogue between a teacher or mystagogue, Hermes Trismegistus (“Thrice-greatest” Hermes), and his pupil or initiate, Asclepius. The Coptic tractate opens with Trismegistus drawing a comparison between the Hermetic mystery and sexual intercourse. In both cases the persons involved strengthen each other by utilizing words and actions in secret.
Most people, Trismegistus continues, do not understand these profound realities, since the masses are impious, wicked, and ignorant. Those of the pious minority, however, embrace the learning (episteme) and knowledge (gnosis) that have been sent by God (66.24-26), and thus such mortal humans become good and immortal—that is, they become divine. In fact, says Trismegistus, “Humans become better than the gods, since (the) gods are immortal, but humans alone are both immortal and mortal” (68.1-6).
After a query from Asclepius about idols, there follows an apocalypse (70.3-74.7) with Egyptian and Jewish affinities: Trismegistus focuses the discussion upon Egypt, which he characterizes as the “image of heaven” (70.4-5), the “temple of the world” (70.9-10), the “school of religion” (71.33). Nevertheless, he declares to Asclepius and two additional initiates (cf. 72.30-31: “O Tat [from “Thoth”], Asclepius, and Ammon”), this “divine Egypt” (71.29) will be forsaken by the gods; the gods will flee from Egypt and foreigners will lord it over Egypt instead, so that “the country which was more pious than all countries will become impious” (70.30-33).
With vivid apocalyptic imagery Trismegistus describes the horrors and evils that will befall Egypt and the whole world, until at last God the creator will culminate his opposition to disorder and error by bringing about the restoration of the cosmos, “the birth of the world” (74.6-7). The tractate concludes with Trismegistus depicting the final fate of the individual: the soul will separate from the body, face the Great Daimon designated as “overseer (episkopos) and judge (dikastes) over the souls of humans” (76.24-26), and go to its appropriate reward or punishment.
Asclepius 21-29 can be classified as a fourth-century Coptic translation of an earlier Greek text. Although the Greek text of Asclepius presumably had a fairly complex redactional history, apparently it was known (cf. Lactantius, Divinae institutiones 7.18.3-5) in roughly its present form by about A.D. 300, and hence may be dated prior to that time.
- Dirkse, P. A., and D. M. Parrott. “Asclepius 21-29 (VI, 8),” 300-307. In The Nag Hammadi Library in English. San Francisco, 1977.
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- Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices: Codex VI. Leiden, 1972.
- Krause, M. “Ägyptisches Gedankengut in der Apokalypse des Asclepius.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Supplement 1 (1969):48-57.
- Krause, M., and P. Labib. Gnostische und hermetische Schriften aus Codex II und Codex VI, pp. 59-62;187-206. Abhandlungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts Kairo, Coptic Series 2. Glückstadt, 1971.
- Mahé, J. Hermès en Haute-Égypte: Les textes hermétiques de Nag Hammadi et leurs paralléles grecs et latins, 2 vols. Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi, section Textes 3. Quebec, 1978.
- Tröger, K. “Die hermetische Gnosis.” In Gnosis und Neues Testament, ed. K.-W. Tröger. Berlin, 1973.
MARVIN W. MEYER