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March 7, 2013

Coptic dulphin

Figure 1: A lovely Coptic dolphin, 4th or 5th century (tapestry-woven panel in the V&A Museum, London, Museum no. 1302-1888).

The Mysteries of Saint John the Apostle and Holy Virgin is one of the manuscripts of the Edfû Codices (Brit. Mus. MS. Oriental, No. 7026). Wallis Budge published its Sahidic Coptic text with an English translation in his Coptic Apocrypha. The document is curious and interesting, and makes a great leap of imagination but it contains material which tell us what the Copts of the Classic Period[1] thought or had in mind about life, death and afterlife. The Mysteries of Saint John opens with the following passage:

And it came to pass that when the Saviour had risen from the dead, He came on to the Mount of Olives, and sat down. And He made a cloud to envelop all the countries wherein were the Apostles, and it gathered them together into the presence of the Saviour upon the Mount of Olives. And John answered and said unto the Saviour, ‘My Lord, behold Thou didst say unto me: Thou art My beloved one, and thou hast found grace before Me. Now therefore, my Lord, I wish Thee to take me into heaven, and shew me all [the mysteries] so that I may know them. And the Saviour made answer and said unto him, ‘John, enquire thou of Me fully, and I on My part will hide nothing from thee. Rise up, and let us pray to My Father, Who is blessed, and He shall hear us.’ Then the Saviour and the Apostle [John] rose up, and He prayed a long, blessed prayer. And when He had said the Amen, the heavens moved away upon this side and on that, and they opened out one beyond the other even to the seventh heaven. And behold, a great Cherubim came out from heaven, and the whole place shone with bright light, and the whole of his body was full of eyes, and flashes of lightning shot out from him.[2]

Christ then addresses the Cherubim,[3] “I tell thee to take My beloved John into heaven. And thou shalt explain unto him every question which he shall ask thee.”[4] The Cherubim immediately lifts up John upon his wing of light, bearing him up unto heaven. There John receives a tour round, and he asks the Cherubim many fascinating questions about, interalia, the stars, the waters, the wheat plant, the dew, angle of famine (angel of wrath), the tree of knowledge from which Adam ate, Adam’s condition before and after the fall, etc.; and the Cherubim patiently explains to him. One of the intriguing questions is related to animals, and whether they possess souls and if their souls are like men’s souls immortal and accountable after death for what they have done on earth:

And I [John] said unto the Cherubim, ‘Is the matter of which man is fashioned more excellent than that of the beasts?’ The Cheubim said unto me, ‘Yes. Now when men die, each one of them is taken to the place of which he is worthy, but so far as beasts as concerned, whether they die, or whether they live, their place is the earth.’

And I said unto the Cherubim, ‘Are there souls in them?’ He said unto me, ‘Every created thing hath a soul in it. Now, therefore, the soul of every created thing is its blood.’ And I said unto the Cherubim, ‘Will they then be punished, or will rest be given unto them?’ He said unto me, ‘Let it not be that rest be not given unto them, and let them suffer not; but man is a being who can suffer, and can enjoy rest.’[5]

Animals, as the Cherubim explains to Saint John, have souls but they don’t have afterlife after they die. Only man is immortal and can enjoy everlasting rest after death or suffer pain, everyone according to his acts on earth. The Cherubim does not give a direct answer to John if man’s matter from which he is fashioned is more excellent or less than that of the beasts. This is irrelevant: animals have souls and one can surmise from this they have life and feelings. They are worthy but they are not accountable because one can say they do not have knowledge of good and evil. They will live on earth and die and that’s the end of it – they have no afterlife. As for man, the “extinguished candle” fate does not await him: his soul survives death, and he must give account of his deeds. As in another translation of the text by Budge himself, “Let oblivion be theirs [the beasts’], and let them suffer not; but a man is a being who can both suffer pain and enjoy rest.”[6]

It is interesting that the Cherubim says the soul of every created thing is its blood. This is a reflection of Leviticus 17:14, “the blood of it is for the life thereof”.[7]

[1] The period before the Arab occupied Egypt in AD 641.

[2] The Mysteries of Saint John the Apostle and Holy Virgin in Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt by Wallis Budge (London, 1913); pp. 241-242.

[3] As Budge explains, it should be Cherub, which is the singular for Cherubim. I will use Cherubim though in my article, but the reader must know we are talking here about a single Cherub.

[4] The Mysteries of Saint John; p. 242.

[5] Ibid; p. 256.

[6] See text given in E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Tales and Romances: Pagan, Christian and Muslim (London, T. Butterworth Ltd., 1931).

[7] “For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off.” KJV.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mina permalink
    March 13, 2013 9:19 pm

    I wonder what implications this has on pre-Fall death of animals? Were animals “immortal” in a sense that they never killed or preyed on each other and never died, getting their sustenance from plants? Or were they part of a larger ecosystem of natural life and natural death, wherein Adam was separated from such into paradise until he sinned? Many people have appealed to Patristics to show forth a “consensus” from most of the fathers that pre-Fall animals were immortal. But with this Coptic manuscript, one can assume it shouldn’t matter what the state of pre-Fall animals are, since they neither suffer nor enjoy salvation, but cease to exist and decompose into the earth in this “cycle” of life and death.

    It would be interesting to see if any Coptic manuscripts talk about pre-Fall conditions of the world. Of course, one has to keep in mind, none of the ancients had the type of scientific method and advancement we have today.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      March 13, 2013 11:34 pm

      All intetesting questions. Did death enter into the animal kingdom on consequence of man’s sins, or were they programmed to die anyway naturally (extinquished candle death) even before man’s fall?

      Some old Coptic manuscript may tell us what ancient Copts thought about that. Also, we may find an answer to your final question.



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