Notes upon the modern history of the “Bruce codex”

A correspondent kindly sent me a copy of a rather interesting recent paper on the “Bruce codex”, which deserves the attention of many more people than it is likely to get.[1]  The article author apparently lives in Canada, but for some reason has published in French, a language better known in Europe than in North America.  Furthermore, the PDF that reached me is locked, which means that the electronic text can’t simply be pasted into Google Translate, to get a quick idea of the contents.  Barriers of these kinds are unnecessary.

But the article is rather splendid. The author, Eric Cregheur, has tracked down some fascinating new evidence about the codex and its origins.

But what is the Bruce codex?  It’s a Coptic manuscript which was acquired by the Scottish explorer James Bruce in 1762 during a journey to Ethiopia in the 18th century.  It is today in the Bodleian library in Oxford, where it bears the shelfmark Bruce 96.  It contains gnostic texts, the two books of Jeu and a further mutilated text of the same kind.

When Bruce returned to London, his account of his travels was met with incredulity, and he was widely suspected of being a charlatan.  Among the anecdotes of Horace Walpole, printed in 1800 as the Walpoliana, we find the following well-known statement:

Bruce’s Travels,

Bruce’s book is both dull and dear. We join in clubs of five, each pays a guinea, draw lots who shall have it first, and the last to keep it for his patience.

Bruce’s overbearing manner has raised enmity and prejudices; and he did wrong in retailing the most wonderful parts of his book in companies. A story may be credible when attcnded with circumstances, which seems false if detached.

I was present in a large company at dinner, when Bruce was talking away. Some one asked him what musical instruments are used in Abyssinia. Bruce hesitated, not being prepared for the question, and at last said, “I think I saw one lyre there.” George Selwyn whispered his next man, “Yes; and there is one less since he left the country.”[2]

Walpole’s opinion may have been softened by his editor.  For in a letter of 1789 he writes frankly:

Mrs. Piozzi, I hear, has two volumes of Dr. Johnson’s letters ready for publication. Bruce is printing his Travels; which I suppose will prove that his narratives were fabulous, as he will scarce repeat them by the press. These, and two more volumes of Mr. Gibbon’s History, are all the literary news I know.[3]

By 1842 we read however:

The name of Bruce ought not to be passed by without a tribute to the injured memory of one whose zeal was rewarded with reproach and disbelief! How easy is the part of a sceptic! What a slight effort, yet what an air of superiority, and appearance of learning, attend the expression of a doubt! Bruce had been provokingly enterprising. Many of his readers were incredulous, because he had done what they, in the plenitude of their wisdom, conceived impossible; and mapy of those most violent in their censures had neither sufficient experience or knowledge of the subject to hazard an opinion. Envy prompted some, and fashion more, to speak of Bruce’s narrative as a tale of wonder, or a pure invention; and those who had never read his work fearlessly pronounced a censure to which others were known to assent. But it is gratifying to find that the more mature investigations of the present day have vindicated the character of this distinguished traveller; and it is to be hoped that his name will henceforward continue to be attached to the interesting monument above alluded to, as a memorial of his diligence under the most unfavourable circumstances, and as a token of his veracity. And so shall the name of Bruce be honoured in his tomb.[4]

What we want to know, however, is where did this Coptic codex come from?  Now that we know about the Nag Hammadi collection, and the Gospel of Judas, and other papyrus codices, it would be useful to know more of the source for the book.

Cregheur assembles a number of witnesses; not merely Bruce himself, but also Woide, who copied the manuscript for publication, and a certain J. R. Forster, all of whom describe the codex, all indicating that it came from Thebes, modern Luxor.  In a letter to J.D. Michaelis published in 1796, Forster writes:

Ich habe kürzlich bey Herrn Bruce einen alten koptischen Codex auf wirklichem Papyrus geschrieben gesehen. Er ist im Sahidischen Dialecte, ziemlich alt, und der Inhalt gnostisch. Er ward bey Theben aus den Ruinen in seiner Gegenwart ausgegraben. Herr Hof-Pred. Woide hat von ihm Erlaubnitz erhalten, den Codex abzuschreiben, um wenigstens die Wôrter fürs Sahidische Lexicon zu gebrauchen; denn der Inhalt ist gar nicht interessant.

I have recently seen with Mr Bruce an old Coptic codex written on real papyrus.  It is in the Sahidic dialect, quite old, and the content is gnostic.  It was excavated from the ruins at Thebes in his presence.  Dr Woide has received a commission from him to transcribe the codex, in order to use at least the words for the Sahidic lexicon, since the content is not very interesting.[5]

Anyone who looks at the Michaelis volume will admire Dr C.’s persistence in even reading the name of Bruce on that page!

After sifting all the data, Cregheur concludes:

Our witnesses allow us to sketch the early history of Bruce codex. It was acquired by James Bruce between 7 and 17 January 1769, at or near Thebes, after had been exhumed from ruins, supposedly in the presence of Bruce. We do not know what happened to the manuscript after it was purchased by Bruce. It could have been immediately sent to Europe, been left in Egypt to be recovered later by its owner, or accompanied him throughout his expedition.

In the state in which it was purchased by Bruce in 1769, the manuscript was large, very readable, had a leather cover reinforced with cartonnage, and was probably already incomplete. Perhaps some leaves were already disordered, separated from each other and mutilated. This state of affairs probably worsened due to the manipulation of the codex in the seven years which separate the acquisition of the manuscript by Bruce from the reproduction by Woide. The leather cover could also have been removed in this interval, perhaps by Bruce himself, but pieces of cartonnage still remained when Alexander Murray Bruce made an inventory of manuscripts in the early nineteenth century. That’s about all we can learn from Bruce codex for the period when it was in the hands of its purchaser.  It should only be added that Bruce offered his manuscripts in the British Museum for a sum £ 25,000, an offer that was declined.

This is a fine paper, making something solid out of snippets of literary gossip.  While we always knew that the Bruce codex was from Thebes, the statement that it came “from the ruins” is new.

  1. [1]Eric Cregheur, “Pour une nouvelle histoire de la découverte et de l’état primitif du codex Bruce (1769-1794)”, in: Journal of Coptic Studies 16 (2014).
  2. [2]Walpoliana, (1800), p.101.
  3. [3]Horace Walpole, The Correspondence of Horace Walpole, with George Montagu, Esq. … 1770-1779, p.389.
  4. [4]J.G. Wilkinson, Manners and customs of the Ancient Egyptians, vol. 2 (1842), p.231 
  5. [5]Literarischer Briefwechsel von Johann David Michaelis, vol.3, 1796, p.386.

The Borborites-Phibionites in the “books of Jeu”

I have already mentioned a passage in the Pistis Sophia, found in the codex Askewianus, that refers to Borborite practices.

But there is also a reference in the texts known as the “Books of Jeu” (the name is modern), in the so-called Bruce codex.  This was obtained by the Scottish traveller James Bruce ca. 1769, who bought it at Medinet Habu near Luxor in Egypt while on his journey to Ethiopia.  It is today in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, where it has the shelfmark Ms. Bruce 9.  It has suffered damage since it arrived there, and a transcription by C. G. Woide is of great value, as preserving a number of leaves now lost.

The Bruce codex contains two works, to which the first editor, Schmidt, gave the name of the First and Second books of Jeu, plus an untitled work.  Schmidt presumed that a reference in the Pistis Sophia to “two books of Jeu” referred to these books.  The actual title found in the manuscript at the end of the “first book” is The book of the Great Logos corresponding to Mysteries.  No other title is present in the manuscript.[1]

These works were probably composed in the first half of the third century AD.[2]

In the Second book of Jeu, chapter 43,[3] it says:

43. But when he [Jesus] had finished saying these things, he said to them once more: “These mysteries which I shall give to you, guard them and do not given them to any man except he is worthy of them. Do not give them to father, or mother or brother, or sister, or relative, or for food or for drink, or for a woman, or for gold, or for silver, or for anything at all of this world. Guard them and do not give them to anyone at all for the sake of the goods of this whole world. Do not give them to any woman or to any man who is in any faith of these 72 archons, or who serves them. Neither give them to those who serve the eight powers of the great archon, who are those who eat the menstrual blood of their impurity and the semen of men, saying : “We have known the knowledge of truth, and we pray to the true God.” However, their God is wicked.

Emphasis mine.  Note the reference to the the cultists talking about “knowledge of truth”, i.e. gnosis.  Did they call themselves Gnostics, we might ask?

  1. [1]V. Macdermot, p.xi-xii.
  2. [2]Stephen Benko, “The libertine gnostic sect of the  Phibionites according to Epiphanius”, Vigiliae Christianae 21 (1967), 113.
  3. [3]V. Macdermot, “The books of Jeu and the untitled text in the Bruce codex”, Nag Hammadi Studies XIII (1978), p.100.