GOSPEL OF THE EGYPTIANS
Two rather fragmentary versions of the Gospel of the Egyptians are found in the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY, the one appearing as the second tractate in Codex III and the other as the second piece in Codex IV. In their present form, they derive from the same Greek original of the document, each version possibly depending on an earlier, variant Coptic translation. Both copies are written in the Sahidic dialect of Coptic, with some orthographic and syntactic variations in the text of Codex III that have been explained as either preclassical features of the dialect (Bohlig and Wisse, 1975) or influences from the Mesokemic dialect (Bellet, 1978, pp. 44-65). These Coptic versions of the Gospel of the Egyptians exhibit no discernible connection with the text of the same name that is known reliably only from references and quotations preserved by Clement of Alexandria (Schneemelcher, 1963-1965, Vol. 1, pp. 166-78).
The proper title of the work is The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit, an indicator that the work originated outside of Christian circles. In fact, it has been argued persuasively that because of the way Christian colorations are introduced in the text, they are to be thought of as additions made by an editor with Christian interests (Hedrick, 1981).
While the Christian touches are light and late, the strength of the connections with Seth is solid. Indeed, it is possible that the association of names between Seth, son of Adam, and the Egyptian god Seth has led to the naming of the work The Gospel of the Egyptians, since, as Bohlig and Wisse have noted, during the Hellenistic age considerable efforts were made to improve the image of the deity Seth in Egypt. Moreover, the use of the term “gospel” in the colophon probably does not refer to its added Christian features but rather to the fact that the treatise chronicles Seth’s role in the drama of salvation, much as the New Testament Gospels speak of the ministry of Jesus (Bohlig and Wisse, 1975). For instance, the work relates Seth’s premortal origin as son of Adamas, his stature as an important celestial personality, the origin of his posterity, their preservation by heavenly powers appointed for this purpose, and his descent into the world as the living Jesus.
The work itself divides rather neatly into four main sections, a fact that may illustrate the separate origin of the traditions embedded within them. The first and longest has to do with the origin of the celestial realm that begins in the silent world of light, with the “Great Invisible Spirit,” who is the “incorruptible Father” and the “Mother, the virginal Barbelon,” emanating from themselves a trinity of powers, namely, “the Father, the Mother (and) the Son.” By the end of the creative process, some forty aeons or emanations have come forth, not the least of whom is “the great incorruptible Seth, the son of the incorruptible man Adamas.”
The second segment treats the need for Seth’s salvific activity, which is to counteract the evil efforts of Saklas, the god of this world, who seeks to enslave the divine seed of Seth. The third division consists apparently of two hymns of five strophes each, thus presumably exhibiting an origin independent of that of the rest of the tractate (Bohlig and Wisse, 1975). The last portion consists of the notation that Seth authored the work and was responsible for hiding it on the mountain named Charaxio and the colophon, which provides not only the titles assigned to the tractate but also the name of the scribe (Bellet, 1978).
The document clearly comes from the world of so-called Sethian gnosticism, possibly exhibiting an earlier form of that movement than is represented, for instance, in the THREE STELES OF SETH or in the SECOND TREATISE OF THE GREAT SETH. While one may be tempted to postulate that this text was composed outside of Egypt, there seems no compelling reason to hold such a view, even when it is understood that the title Gospel of the Egyptians is secondary.
This gospel was known only from the following patristic quotations:
Clement of Alexandria.
Late century II.
From Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 3.6:
Τη Σαλωμη ο κυριος πυνθανομενη· Μεχρι ποτε θανατος ισχυσει, ουχ ως κακου του βιου οντος και της κτισεως πονηρας· Μεχρις αν, ειπεν, υμεις αι γυναικες τικτετε· αλλ ως την ακολουθιαν την φυσικην διδασκων. γενεσαι γαρ παντως επεται και φθορα.
Salome inquired: Until when will death be strong? The Lord said, not as if life were bad or the creation evil, but [rather] as teaching the natural sequence: As long as you women give birth. For in all ways birth is followed by corruption.
From Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 3.9:
Οι δε αντιτασσομενοι τη κτισει του θεου δια της ευφημου εγκρατειας κακεινα λεγουσι τα προς Σαλωμην ειρημενα, ων προτερον εμνησθημεν· φερεται δε, οιμαι, εν τω κατ Αιγυπτιους ευαγγελιω. φασι γαρ οτι αυτος ειπεν ο σωτηρ· Ηλθον καταλυσαι τα εργα της θηλειας. θηλειας μεν της επιθυμιας, εργα δε γεννησιν και φθοραν.
But those who order themselves against the creation of God on account of the euphemism of Encratism also say those things that were said to Salome, of which we first made mention. And it is extant, I suppose, in the gospel according to the Egyptians. For they say that the savior himself said: I came to abolish the works of the female. What are of the female are desires, but the works are birth and corruption.
A bit further on in the same passage Clement writes:
Οθεν εικοτως, περι συντελειας μηνυσατος του λογου, η Σαλωμη φησι· Μεχρι τινος οι ανθρωποι αποθανουνται; ανθρωπον δε καλει η γραφη διχως, τον τι φαινομενον και την ψυχην· παλιν τε αυ τον σωζομενον και τον μη. και θανατος ψυχης η αμαρτια λεγεται. διο και παρατετηρημενως αποκρινεται ο κυριος· Μεχρις αν τικτωσιν αι γυναικες, τουτεστι μεχρις αν αι επιθυμιαι ενεργωσι.
Whence reasonably, after the word had told about the consummation, Salome says: Until when will men die? But the scripture calls him man in two ways, the one that is apparent and the soul, and again that being saved and that not being saved. And sin is said to be the death of the soul. And in keeping with this the Lord answers: As long as women give birth, that is, as long as desires are at work.
Then, a little later again, he writes:
Τι δε ουχι και τα εξης των προς Σαλωμην ειρημενων επιφερουσιν οι παντα μαλλον η τω κατα την αληθιαν ευαγγελικω στοιχησαντες κανονι; φαμενης γαρ αυτης· Καλως ουν εποιησα μη τεκουσα, ως ου δεοντως της γενεσεως παραλαμβανομενης, αμειβεται λεγων ο κυριος· Πασαν φαγε βοτανην, την δε πικριαν εχουσαν μη φαγης.
But those who [prefer] all things rather than to conform to the evangelical rule according to the truth, why do they not quote the things that follow those said to Salome? For when she says: I did well, then, in not giving birth, as if not accepting childbirth as fitting, the Lord responds saying: Eat every plant, but do not eat the one that has bitterness.
From Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 3.13:
Δια τουτο τοι ο Κασσιανος φησι· Πυνθανομενης της Σαλωμης ποτε γνωσθησεται τα περι ων ηρετο, εφη ο κυριος· Οταν το της αισχυνης ενδυμα πατησητε, και οταν γενηται τα δυο εν, και το αρρεν μετα της θηλειας, ουτε αρρεν ουτε θηλυ. πρωτον μεν ουν εν τοις παραδιδομενοις ημιν τετταρσιν ευαγγελιοις ουκ εχομεν το ρητον, αλλ εν τω κατ Αιγυπτιους.
On account of this Cassianus says: When Salome inquired when the things about which she had asked would be known, the Lord said: When you have trampled the garment of shame, and when the two become one, and the male with the female, neither male nor female. First, then, we do not have this word in the four gospels delivered to us, but in that according to the Egyptians.
This quotation bears a striking resemblance to 2 Clement 12.2:
Επερωτηθεις γαρ αυτος ο κυριος υπο τινος ποτε ηξει αυτου η βασιλεια, ειπεν· Οταν εσται τα δυο εν, και το εξω ως το εσω, και το αρσεν μετα της θηλειας, ουτε αρσεν ουτε θηλυ.
For, when the Lord was asked by someone when his kingdom would come, he said: When the two shall be one, and the outside as the inside, and the male with the female, neither male nor female.
From Clement of Alexandria, Excerpts from Theodotus 67:
Και οταν ο σωτηρ προς Σαλωμην λεγη· Μεχρι τοτε ειναι θανατον αχρις αν αι γυναικες τικτωσιν, ου την γενεσιν κακιζων ελεγεν, αναγκαιων ουσαν δια την σωτηριαν των πιστευοντων.
And when the savior says to Salome: There shall be death as long as women give birth, he did not say this to make childbirth bad, it being one of the things necessary on account of the salvation of those who believe.
Early century III.
Ειναι δε φασι την ψυχην δυσευρετον πανυ και δυσκατανοητον· ου γαρ μενει επι σχηματος ουδε μορφης της αυτης παντοτε, ουδε παθους ενος, ινα τις αυτην η τυπω ειπη η ουσια καταληψεται.
And they say that the soul is unfindable and unknowable; for it remains neither upon the same scheme or form always nor in one passive [state], that one might speak of it by a type or comprehend it in being.
Τας δε εξαλλαγας ταυτας τας ποικιλας εν τω επιγραφομενω κατ Αιγυπτιους ευαγγελιω κειμενας εχουσιν. απορουσιν ουν, καθαπερ οι αλλοι παντες των εθνων ανθρωποι, ποτερον ποτε εκ του προοντος εστιν, εκ του αυτογενους, η εκ του εκκεχυμενου χαους.
But they have these various changes set down in the gospel inscribed according to the Egyptians. They are therefore in doubt, just as all the other men of the gentiles, whether it is at all from the pre-being, from the self-born, or from the poured-out chaos.
Early century III.
From Origen, Homily on Luke 1.1:
Ecclesia quator habet evangelia, haeresis plurima, e quibus quoddam scribitur secundum Aegyptios, aliud iuxta duodecim apostolos. ausus fuit et Basilides scribere evangelium et suo illud nomine titulare.
The church has four gospels, heresy many, from among which a certain one is written according to the Egyptians, another according to the twelve apostles. Even Basilides dared to write a gospel and to entitle it by his own name.
Late century IV.
From Epiphanius, Panarion 62:
Την δε πασαν αυτων πλανην, και την πλανης αυτων δυναμιν, εχουσιν εξ αποκρυφων τινων, μαλιστα απο του καλουμενου Αιγυπτιου ευαγγιλιου, ω τινες το ονομα επεθεντο τουτο. εν αυτω γαρ πολλα τοιαυτα ως εν παραβυστω μυστηριωδως εκ προσωπου του σωτηρος αναφερεται, ως αυτου δηλουτος τοις μαθηταις τον αυτον ειναι πατερα, τον αυτον ειναι υιον, τον αυτον ειναι αγιον πνευμα.
But their whole deception, and the whole power of their deception, they have from certain apocryphal [writings], especially from the gospel called Egyptian, upon which some place this name. For in it many such things are quoted mysteriously, as if in a corner, as if from the person of the savior, such as when he makes clear to the disciples that he himself is the father, that he himself is the son, and that he himself is the holy spirit.
- Bellet, P. “The Colophon of the Gospel of the Egyptians: Concessus and Macarius of Nag Hammadi.” In Nag Hammadi and Gnosis, ed. R. M. Wilson, pp. 44-65. Nag Hammadi Studies 14. Leiden, 1978.
- Bohlig, A. “Die himmlische Welt nach dem Ägypterevangelium von Nag Hammadi.” Le Muséon 80 (1967):5-26, 365-77.
- Bohlig, A., and F. Wisse. Nag Hammadi Codices III, 2 and IV, 2: The Gospel of the Egyptians. Nag Hammadi Studies 4. Leiden, 1975.
- Doresse, J. “‘Le Livre sacré du grand esprit invisible’ ou “L’Evangile des Egyptiens’: Texte copte edité, traduit et commenté d’après la Codex I de Nag’a-Hammadi/Khenoboskion.” Journal Asiatique 254 (1966):317-435, and 256 (1968):289-386.
- Hedrick, C. W. “Christian Motifs in the Gospel of the Egyptians: Method and Motive.” Novum Testamentum 23 (1981):242-60. Schneemelcher, W. “The Gospel of the Egyptians.” In New
- Testament Apocrypha, ed. E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher, 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1963-1965.
- Wilson, R. M. “The Gospel of the Egyptians.” In Studia Patristica 14, ed. R. M. Wilson, pp. 243-50. Texte und Untersuchungen 117. Berlin, 1976.
- . “One Text, Four Translations: Some Reflections on the Nag Hammadi Gospel of the Egyptians.” In Gnosis: Festschrift für Hans Jonas, ed. R. M. Wilson, pp. 441-48. Göttingen, 1978.