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September 7, 2017

Mikhail Nesterov, The Hermit - The Culturium

The Hermit by the Russian artist Mikhail Nesterov, 1889

In the interesting Coptic Apocalypse of Paul, which E. A. Wallis Budge published in his huge volume, Miscellaneous Coptic Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt,[1] in London, 1915,[2] there is a lovely section about those Christians who are simple-minded and illiterate, and regarded by the world as fools, inept and useless. To the Coptic mind these have a special position with God.

The Apocalypse of Paul forms part of the Coptic manuscript, Oriental, No. 7023, which is kept at the British Library.[3] The copy was made in the second half of the tenth century. It describes a journey made by Saint Paul the Apostle through heaven and hell, guided by an angel.[4] At the end of the journey, St. Paul was brought by the angel down to Mount Olives, in Jerusalem, where the Apostles gathered together. St. Paul tells the Apostles of his journey, and the Apostles command St. Mark[5] and St. Timothy[6] to write down the story for the benefit of others.

When the angel took St. Paul to the Third Heaven, the city of Christ, the latter found that it was built of gold, and had 12 walls made of precious stones, each wall is more beautiful than the previous one. At the twelfth wall, the most beautiful of all, in the City of Christ, the angel showed him certain thrones of gold at that wall, and on top of the thrones were crowns of glory. St. Paul asked the angel about those who would sit on these thrones and wear these crowns, and the angel explained. In the tongue of St. Paul as in the Coptic text, and as translated by Budge, the story goes as follows:

“And, …, I saw certain thrones of gold which were set about in divers places, and there were crowns of glory lying on the top of the thrones. And I looked and I saw the Twelfth Wall, and I saw the thrones, the magnificence of which I cannot possibly describe. And I said unto the angel, ‘My lord, who are they who shall sit in this place on these thrones?’ And the angel said unto me, ‘They are the inept and useless men, and the simple-minded, who make themselves to be foolish for God’s sake. They are those who know very little indeed of the Scriptures and the Psalms, in fact nothing except the passages which they hear from the Scriptures through men of God; nevertheless they perform many religious labours, their hearts being right with God.’

And the righteous who are within the city of the Christ marvel, saying, ‘Look and see these ignorant folk who have no knowledge of the Scriptures, and how they have received this great honour from God because of their foolishness!’”[7]

The Saintly Fool has always been venerated in Coptic culture, and Coptic literature gives evidence of this. The Apocalypse of Paul is only one example of the many literature works that talks about the saintly fools of Christ. These Christians, often living a life of a hermit, and although illiterate and could not read or write, and therefore have limited knowledge of the Scriptures, are simple in mind, strong in faith and pure in heart. And although the world despises them, and passes them as fools, inept and useless, they are highly regarded by God.

The fascination with these Fools of Christ is not confined to the Copts.[8] The great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, wrote, in 1885,[9] a lovely short story about this type of fools, The Three Hermits. I would strongly recommend to my readers that they read Tolstoy’s story, which you can find here.


[1] Budge talks about The Apocalypse of Paul in his Preface, pp. xxi-xxiv; Description of the Manuscript, pp. lix-lxi; Summary, pp. clxii-clxxiii; Coptic Text, pp. 534-574; English Translation, pp. 1043-1084.

[2] A previous version, in two volumes, was printed in the previous year.

[3] The manuscript contains also, The Discourse which was pronounced on the holy Archangel Raphael by Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the day of the Commemoration of the Saint. This Discourse is also published by Budge in the same volume.

[4] The Apocalypse of Paul, a work of romance genre, must have been the work of the Coptic writer’s imagination, having been triggered by the Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “I know a man in Christ [Paul himself] who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” (2 Corinthians 12:2–4)

[5] St. Mark, the disciple of Peter, and the founder of the Coptic Church of Alexandria.

[6] St. Timothy, the disciple of St. Paul.

[7] Miscellaneous Coptic Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, pp. 1055-6.

[8] The Apocalypse of Paul, in addition to the Coptic text (Sahidic), it exists in Greek, Syriac and Latin versions. The Coptic version seems to be the original.

[9] It was published though in 1886.

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