About one-quarter of a Coptic version of the Sentences of Sextus, a collection of almost 500 wisdom sayings drawn largely from pagan sources and thinly by a second-century editor, appears in the scattered folios of Codex XII of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY (NHC XII, 1.15-16 and 27-34; Sextus 158-80 and 307-397). James M. Robinson (1972, 1973, 1977) believes that this codex once contained the whole of the Sentences and that the missing segments were lost or destroyed shortly after their discovery in 1945.

What survives of the Coptic version is typical of the entire collection and indicates why the Sentences held a special attraction for Christian monks during the period and later. The ideal person is the “wise man” or “philosopher” (equated by the Christian editor with the person of true faith, Sextus 171a, etc.). Such an individual possesses what God possesses (310) and to do good as God does good (176). It is this person who is free (309), self- sufficient (334), in harmony with life’s circumstances (385), and disturbed neither by thoughts of death (323) nor by onslaughts of tyrants (363b-64).

This emphasis on wisdom leads readily to the very Hellenic viewpoint that reason is “the essence of humanity” (315). Indeed, to know this inner self is to know God (394). Allied with this is a pervasive body-soul dichotomy; the body is the soul’s “garment” (346) or even its “fetters” (322). Yet suicide is forbidden (321). The wise man will neither cling to his body nor consider it a disability (320), but will learn to make proper use of it (335). This principle underlies both the “mild asceticism” of the Sentences (e.g., marriage and the possession of goods are allowed if used properly) and the pervasive concern found in it for correct ethical behavior in this world (Edwards and Wild, 1981). The surviving Coptic portions, for example, emphasize for the needy (330, etc.); the careful use of speech (157-71b), especially speech about God (350-68); and the necessity of conforming actions to words (172-80).

The moderate dualism of the Sentences makes it clear that this was not a Gnostic composition. In fact, the presence of this document (and certain others) in the Nag Hammadi corpus may indicate that these manuscripts were not a “Coptic Gnostic library” as such but were the possession of Egyptian monks, perhaps followers of PACHOMIUS, who valued them for their emphasis on asceticism (Wisse, 1978; cf. Krause, 1978). The discovery of this Coptic version of the Sentences, now the earliest known of the versions, provides further evidence for the close association of this wisdom text with Egypt and, possibly, the monastic movement, an association previously attested by ORIGEN’s use of the work in the early third century and by the interest in it evinced by Jerome and Rufinus, Latin churchmen deeply involved with Egyptian MONASTICISM.

Textually the Coptic manuscript supports the traditional ordering of the sayings found in the Vatican Greek manuscript and in the translation by Rufinus and adopted by modern editors. Redactional additions are rare and the number of textual variants is not large. Interestingly, many of these show agreement with the chief Syriac witness. Despite much redactional overlay and a different order for the sayings in the Syriac, the two versions probably derive from closely related Greek sources (Edwards and Wild, 1981).


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