‘Mysteries of John the Apostle, the Holy Virgin’: Reflection of Ancient Traditions in the Coptic Narrative

Publication type Article
Status Approved
The State Hermitage Museum
Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Address: Saint Petersburg, Dvortsovaya Embankment, 34; Saint Petersburg, Dvortsovaya Embankment, 18

The present article deals with the analysis of a range of excerpts from a Coptic literary text known as the ‘Mysteries of John the Apostle, the Holy Virgin’. The distinctive feature of the textual themes and elements discussed is that they refer to Ancient Egyptian traditions, thus making a connection of indigenous pagan perceptions with the newly established Christian culture.


KeywordsCoptic literature, John the Apostle, mysteries, allusions, Ancient Egyptian themes and elements of the narrative
Number of characters17126
100 rub.
When subscribing to an article or issue, the user can download PDF, evaluate the publication or contact the author. Need to register.
Размещенный ниже текст является ознакомительной версией и может не соответствовать печатной
1 A fascinating Coptic literary text narrating about the heavenly journey of John the Apostle is extant as a copy of the 11th century – a manuscript from the British Library (BL Or. 7026)1. It starts with a rather long and elaborate title which for the sake of convenience can be restricted to the first main words defining the main topic: ‘Mysteries of John the Apostle, the Holy Virgin2’. The current text tells about the ascent to the heaven of John the Apostle who was taken there by the Cherub and was told about some mysteries. 1. In 1913 editio princeps of the composition was issued by Wallis Budge and for a long time since then it has been the only edition of transcription and translation published right from the primary source, while a range of subsequent translations (Erbetta 1969, Alcock 2013, Smagina 2015) were based on that very first edition of the Coptic text by Budge. Therefore, a significant part of what has come to be my MA thesis was devoted to making a new updated translation (with apparatus) and a commentary of the text using the original manuscript. I am very grateful to Prof. Jacques van der Vliet and the staff of the British Library for putting at my disposal the scans of the manuscript for reading purposes. The passages of Coptic text and their translation emerge hereafter as they are given in the MA thesis of the author.

2. ‘The (holy) virgin’ as a common appellation of John the Apostle appears in the Panarion by Epiphanius (Court 2000, 151) and also in the Coptic ‘Investiture of the Archangel Michael’ (p. K_D: Müller 1962, 28) which shares a range of phraseological and compositional similarities with the ‘Mysteries of John the Apostle, the Holy Virgin’ (Hagen 2010, 352).
2 Despite the initial and final setting in the Mount of Olives as well as New Testament figures: the apostles, Jesus Christ and Archangel Michael, the narrative includes an amalgam of themes and elements that come from different cultural backgrounds. In particular, the distinctive feature is the existence of allusions to Ancient Egyptian culture reflected throughout the whole text3. 3. In the introduction to the translation and the commentary of the text given by Eugenia Smagina there is a statement concerning much more common features of the current text with biblical material rather than Ancient Egyptian images and ideas (Smagina 2015, 97). Without a doubt, the text includes a fair amount of references to biblical elements and themes, but one cannot deny the reflection of ancient traditions as well. The author herself mentions the latter (Smagina 2015, 99, notes 11, 12; 101, note 25), in particular, giving references to Wallis Budge (Smagina 2015, 99, note 12; 101, note 25) when it comes to interpreting some episodes which are also discussed in the present paper.
3 In one of the episodes in the beginning of the narrative the Cherub tells about the regime of inundation and its interconnection with fertility, thus recalling one of the most important natural processes in the life of Egyptians since ancient times – the annual Nile flood. It was the Nile which brought the waters and the fertile silt indispensable for irrigation and growing crops. According to Wallis Budge, the representation of the Father who regulates the water supply with his feet, as it is mentioned in the text, corresponds to the image of Osiris in the papyrus of Hunefer4. Describing one of vignettes of the papyrus, Wallis Budge states that the god is depicted sitting on the throne above waters5. However, this appears to be the minor, if not the only example featuring Osiris, since similar vignettes on other papyri with the spell 125 from the Book of the Dead do not have any precise mention or an image of water beneath the seat of the god. Nevertheless, Osiris was definitely linked to the concept of fertility6 and also made an efflux that came along with the flood7. The latter feature was once described by Plutarch in his work ‘On Isis and Osiris’: ‘Not only the Nile, but every form of moisture they call simply the effusion of Osiris (Ὀσίριδος ἀπορροὴν)8. 4. Budge 1913, lxvii.

5. Budge 1899, 7, facsimiles, n. 5.

6. Wilkinson 2003, 118, 120.

7. For instance, in the Book of the Dead, spell 149 (Allen 1974, 146).

8. Is. et Os. 365B, translated by Babbitt 1936, 87:36.
4 A more explicit reference to the divine feet set on the water is attested on the Famine stela from Sehel Island. In column 9 of the stela the god Khnum is mentioned and his feet are said to be ‘resting on the flood’: Tb.tj=f wAH(.w) m mHj9. Khnum worshipped in the area of Aswan, was connected with the Nile and was considered to be the controller of the inundation10. 9. Lichtheim 2006b, 97, col. 9; Barguet 1953, pl. III, col. 9.

10. Wilkinson 2003, 194–195.
5 One more fascinating sample of iconography with the water under the feet of a god can be observed on the second pylon of the Karnak temple. As the previously mentioned Osiris seating on the throne with the flood beneath, this is the only example that shows Amun-Re in a similar way11. Apart from the depiction of water right under the throne and the feet of Amun-Re there is the ankh-was scepter in the god’s left hand with the streams of water surrounding the pole. The latter is very characteristic, since ankh-was combination often denoted the flood12. In the prayer by the Great Ennead addressed to Amun-Re both the flowing scepter and the water below are mentioned: anx wAc dmD(.w) m xfa=k prj mw Xr rd.wj=k ‘Ankh (and) was are united in his fist, the water comes out under his feet’. As Marc Gabolde, the author of the paper dealing with this intriguing relief, suggests, the abovementioned image of Amun-Re can be considered as reflection of the local Theban tradition that presupposed the connection of the superior god with a sacred sight at Medinet Habu – a so-called ‘Djeme hill’ at the foot of which the annual flood began by filling the basins nearby13. 11. Gabolde 1995, fig. 1, 2.

12. Gabolde 1995, 236.

13. Gabolde 1995, 245–246, 248–255.
6 Alternatively, the inundation as such was associated with the god Hapy. It is he who also makes the flood appear under his feet as it is said in the Greco-Roman inscriptions of Edfu and Esna temples14. Thus, a whole range of textual and iconographic examples gives an impression that a common idea of divine being under whose feet the water emerges was preserved through ages and even found its way into the new realm of Christian literature. 14. Gabolde 1995, 238.
7 As for the god Hapy, he is also venerated as a universal god15 in the great Nile hymn, thus corresponding to the role of the Father in the Coptic text. Moreover, the statement in one of the copies of the hymn: iAd.t=f pw hAj.j p.t ‘It is his dew that descends from the sky’16 matches with the similar passages of the ‘Mysteries of John the Apostle, the Holy Virgin’ concerning the dew that is sent from the sky down to the earth. The hymn also mentions the drawbacks resulting from insufficient / ‘sluggish’ (wsf) and abundant / ‘too heavy’ (dns) level of water17. The negative outcome of the latter – a famine is also noted by John: ou9 rompe on 9te pmoou Rnoq nte pxebwwn 15. van der Plas 2001, 143; Lichtheim 2006a, 206.

16. oGolenischeff 4470: strophe I, 8 (van der Plas 1986b, 15).

17. See strophes II, 5–6; IX, 3–4 (van der Plas 1986a, 24–25, 131; van der Plas 1986b, 22–23, 86–87).
8 The final part of the great Nile hymn represents the invocation to Hapy to come and to be green (the colour of water before the inundation18). In the ‘Mysteries of John the Apostle, the Holy Virgin’ the prayers to send the water to the world are addressed to the Father by Archangel Michael who acts as a mediator between the superior divine force and the people. Archangel Michael is also mentioned asking to raise the waters of the Nile and praying for the dew and rain in the ‘Encomium of Eustathius on St. Michael’ which is cited by John Court who in turn refers to the publication of this text by Wallis Budge19. 18. van der Plas 2001, 144.

19. Court 2000, 153–154.

1. Смагина, Е.Б. 2015: Мистерии Иоанна, апостола и святого девственника (предисл., пер. и примеч. Е. Б. Смагина). Вестник ПСТГУ III:5 (45), 97–110.

2. Хамидов, А.А. Основные типы взаимодействия культур. В сб: Проблема культурного взаимодействия: история и современность (по материалам международной научно-практической конференции «Проблемы культурного взаимодействия в современном мире» 26–27 мая 2016 г., Москва, МГИК). М., 59–67.

3. Alcock, A. 2013 The Mysteries of John. Published online:

4. Allen, T.G. 1974: The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day: Ideas of the Ancient Egyptians concerning the Hereafter as Expressed in Their Own Terms. (Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 37). Chicago.

5. Babbitt, F.C. 1936: Plutarch?s Moralia. Vol. V. 351C-?438E. London?-Cambridge, MA.

6. Barguet, P. 1953: La st8le de la famine 0 S9hel. (Institut franc?ais d?arche?ologie orientale. Biblioth8que d? 9tude, 24). Le Caire.

7. Brenton, L.C.L. 1844: The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, according to the Vatican Text, Translated into English: with the Principal Various Readings of the Alexandrian Copy, and a Table of Comparative Chronology. Vol. I. Genesis?-Chronicles II. London.

8. Budge, E.A.W. 1899: The Book of the Dead: Facsimiles of the Papyri of Hunefer, ?nhai, ?er2sher and Netchemet with Supplementary Text from the Papyrus of Nu. London.

9. Budge, E.A.W. 1913: Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt. London.

10. Clagett, M. 1995: Ancient Egyptian Science. Vol. II. Calendars, Clocks, and Astronomy. Philadelphia.

11. Court, J.M. 2000: The Book of Revelation and the Johannine Apocalyptic Tradition. (Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, 190). Sheffield.

12. Dijk, J. van 1995: Myth and Mythmaking in Ancient Egypt. In: J.M. Sasson (ed.), Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Vol. III. New York?-London etc., 1697?-1709.

13. Erbetta, M. 1969. Gli apocrifi del Nuovo Testamento. Vol. III. Lettere e apocalissi: versione e commento. Turin.

14. Erman, A., Grapow, H. 1955: Wцrterbuch der aegyptischen Sprache. Bd I V. Berlin.

15. Evelyn White, H. G. 1973: The Monasteries of the Wadi ?n Natru?n. Part I. New Coptic Texts from the Monastery of Saint Macarius. New York.

16. Gabolde, M. 1995: L?inondation sous les pieds d?Amon. Bulletin de l?institut fran7ais d?arch9ologie orientale 95, 235?-258.

17. Hagen, J. L. 2010: Ein anderer Kontext fLr die Berliner und Stra/burger ?Evangelienfragmente?. Das ?Evavgelium des ErlFsers? und andere ?Apostelevangelien? in der koptischen Literatur. In: J. Frey, Jens SchrFter (ed.), Jesus in apokryphen EvangelienLberlieferungen. TLbingen, 339?-371.

18. Hornung, E. 1999: The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. Translated by D. Lorton. Ithaca?-London.

19. Leitz, C. 2002: Lexikon der дgyptischen Gцtter und Gцtterbezeichnungen. Bd I VII. Leuven Paris Dudley, MA.

20. Lichtheim, M. 2006a: Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. I. The Old and Middle Kingdoms. Berkeley-?Los Angeles-?London.

21. Lichtheim, M. 2006b: Ancient Egyptian Literature. Vol. III. The Late Period. Berkeley?-Los Angeles-?London.

22. Maravelia, A.-A. 2006: Les astres dans les textes religieux en gypte antique et dans les hymnes orphiques. (BAR International Series, 1527). Oxford.

23. MLller, C. D. G. 1962: Die BLcher der Einsetzung der Erzengel Michael und Gabriel. (Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 225, Scriptores Coptici 31). Leuven.

24. Plas, D. van der 1986a: L? hymne 0 la crue du Nil. Vol. I. Traduction et commentaire. (Egyptologische uitgaven, IV, 1). Leiden.

25. Plas, D. van der 1986b: L? hymne 0 la crue du Nil. Vol. II. Pre?sentation du texte. Texte synoptique. Planches. (Egyptologische uitgaven, IV, 2). Leiden.

26. Plas, D. van der 2001: Nile Hymns. In: D.B. Redford (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. II. Oxford etc., 143-?145.

27. Troupeau, G. 1988: Une version arabe du Testament d? Adam. In: R.G. Coquin (ed.), Me?langes Antoine Guillaumont. Contributions a? l? e?tude des christianismes orientaux. (Cahiers d? Orientalisme, 20). Gene?ve, 3?14.

28. Wells, R.A. 2001: Astronomy. In: D.B. Redford (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Vol. I. Oxford etc., 145?-151.

29. Wilkinson, R.H. 2003: The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. New York.

30. Wilson, J. A. 1948: The Oath in Ancient Egypt. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 7 (3), 129?-156.

Система Orphus