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March 9, 2016


Coptic animals

Frieze of Animals in Plant Scrolls from the 4th century, Egypt (Brooklyn Museum of Art)

In the Coptic Mysteries of St. John the Divine,[1] it is told that after the Saviour had risen from the dead, He came to the Mount of Olives and brought the Apostles into His presence. There, John said unto Christ: “My Lord, Thou didst say to me: ‘Thou are My beloved, and thou hast found grace before me.’ Now therefore, take me up into heaven, and show me everything, so that I may know [all mysteries].” And the Saviour said unto hum: “Ask Me fully and I will hide nothing from thee. Rise up, and let us pray to the Father, blessed be He! and He will hear us.”

Jesus then summons a Cherubim, and say: “I command thee to take My beloved John into heaven, and to explain to hum everything that he shall ask thee.” The Cherubim then takes John to the First and Seven Heavens, and explain to him the mysteries of water and wheat; informs him that the Archangel Michael makes supplication when water should come upon earth to make fruit abundant; shows him the Angel of Famine (Angel of Wrath) and the tree from which Adam ate; answers his questions about the stars, if God decrees ‘the course of man’s life from his mother’s womb’, and if animals have souls and what about their fate.

The whole manuscript, available in Sahidic Coptic, and going back to the first millennium, is interesting. To me it part of the romance genre of Coptic literature: some may discard it as apocryphal in nature but I revel in it as a beautiful piece of literature and learn from it what the Copts of olden days used to think in their popular mind. Though all intriguing, here, I would like to share with you only the Cherubim’s answers in respect of the animals for its lovely nature. Here is how the conversation went:

And I [John] asked the Cherubim: ‘Have the beasts souls?’ And he replied: ‘Every creature possesses a soul, and the soul of every creature is in the blood thereof.’ And I said to him: ‘Will the beasts be punished, or will oblivion be granted to them?’ And he said to me: ‘Let oblivion be theirs, and let them suffer not; but a man is a being who can both suffer pain and enjoy rest.’

Ecclesiastes 3:19 may tell us that animals have souls, and Leviticus 17:11 may tell us the soul of the creature is in the blood; but, to my knowledge, none in the scripture tells us about the destiny of animals. This Coptic manuscript answers the question by telling us that animals are not punished for their actions – instead oblivion is granted them: “Let oblivion be theirs, and let them suffer not,” as the Cherubim told St. John the Divine.

[1] Brit. Mus. MS. Oriental, No. 7026. Published and translated by Budge, Coptic Apocrypha (London, 1913).

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