A parchment fragment of Agrippa Castor “Against Basilides”?

A correspondent writes to tell me that there is a 5th century parchment item in the Bodleian Library in Oxford – a fragment from Egypt, of course – listed in the catalogue here, which the cataloguer attributes to Agrippa Castor:

Shelfmark:  MS. Gr. th. g. 3 (P)
Summary Catalogue no:  31812
Summary of contents: Theological controversy with B (? part of Agrippa Castor’s lost refutation of Basileides).
Language: Greek
Origin: Egyptian
Date: 5th century (?)
Material: parchment

This is very interesting, and I could wish that the parchment was online.

Agrippa Castor wrote around 135 AD against the 24 books of the gnostic Basilides.  Unfortunately all his work is lost, and we know about him only from Eusebius (HE IV, c.7), Jerome (De Viris Illustribus c. 21), and Theodoret (Haereticarum Fabularum Compendium I, c.4, PG 349C).  The Eusebius is as follows:

5. But as there were at that time a great many members of the Church who were fighting for the truth and defending apostolic and ecclesiastical doctrine with uncommon eloquence, so there were some also that furnished posterity through their writings with means of defense against the heresies to which we have referred.

6. Of these there has come down to us a most powerful refutation of Basilides by Agrippa Castor, one of the most renowned writers of that day, which shows the terrible imposture of the man.

7. While exposing his mysteries he says that Basilides wrote twenty-four books upon the Gospel, and that he invented prophets for himself named Barcabbas and Barcoph, and others that had no existence, and that he gave them barbarous names in order to amaze those who marvel at such things; that he taught also that the eating of meat offered to idols and the unguarded renunciation of the faith in times of persecution were matters of indifference; and that he enjoined upon his followers, like Pythagoras, a silence of five years.

8. Other similar things the above-mentioned writer has recorded concerning Basilides, and has ably exposed the error of his heresy.

Jerome writes as follows:

Agrippa surnamed Castor, a man of great learning, wrote a strong refutation of the twenty-four volumes which Basilides the heretic had written against the Gospel, disclosing all his mysteries and enumerating the prophets Barcabbas and Barchob and all the other barbarous names which terrify the hearers, and his most high God Abraxas. whose name was supposed to contain the year according to the reckoning of the Greeks. Basilides died at Alexandria in the reign of Hadrian, and from him the Gnostic sects arose. In this tempestuous time also, Cochebas leader of the Jewish faction put Christians to death with various tortures.

Theodoret writes:

And Basilides also had prophets, Barcabas and Barcoph and some others equally barbarian. And he formed other most abominable myths from these which I have not included because of the damage to those who will happen upon them.

And Isidore, the son of Basilides, with a certain addition, strengthened the mythology of [his] father. And Agrippa, surnamed Castor, Irenaeus, Clement’s Stromata and Origen struggled against these, while contending for the truth.[1]

Catalogues of fragments are not a reliable guide to the contents.  No doubt the fragment utters some anti-gnostic sentiments, perhaps mentions Basilides; and it would be most interesting to see it!

  1. [1]Glenn Melvin Cope, An analysis of the heresiological method of Theodoret of Cyrus in the “Haereticarum fabularum compendium”, thesis, Catholic University of America, 1990; p.92.

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.

Theodoret on the Borborites / Phibionites

Epiphanius of Salamis devotes a section of his Panarion to the Borborites or Phibionites, a bunch of libertine gnostics of a pretty disgusting kind.  But few will know that Theodoret also mentions this group, in his Compendium haereticarum fabularum book 1, chapter 13.  The English translation of this is itself little known.[1] Let’s hear what Theodoret has to say.

Chapter 13: Concerning the Barbelioti,[50] that is to say the Borboriani.

The pollution of those called Barbelioti, that is to say, Borboriani, or Naasenes, or Stratiotici,[51] or Phemioniti, sprouted from the seeds of Valentinus. For they set forth a certain Aeon who continues indestructible in virginal spirit, which they call Barbeloth; and Barbeloth asked for Prognosis from him. But after Prognosis came forth, then, asking again, Aphtharsia came forth, then Zoe Aionios. And they say that after Barbeloth was rejoicing, she became pregnant and bore Phos.

They said that Phos, having been anointed by the perfection of the spirit[52] , was called Christ. Again this Christ asked for Nous, and he received (it). And the Father added also Logos. Then Ennoia and Logos, Aphtharsia and Christ, Zoe Aionios and Thelema, Nous and Prognosis were joined in pairs.  Again they said that Autogenes was emanated from Ennoia and Logos, and with him Aletheia, and again there was another pair from Autogenes and Aletheia. And why is it necessary to speak of the other emanations, (namely) those from Phos and Aphtharsia? Because the myth is long, and, in addition to the impiety, it is unpleasant.

And they had put upon them also the Hebrew names, trying to astound those more simple. And they said that Autogenes emanated a perfect and true man, whom they call Adamas. He emanated with him a yoke-mate: Perfect-Knowledge. Hence, again, (they said that) the mother, father and son were manifested. A Tree grew from Anthropos and Gnosis; and this they also called Gnosis.

But they say that the Holy Spirit emanated from the first Angel, whom they term Sophia and Prunicus.  This one, they say, desired a husband, [and] and she begot Work, in which was Ignorance and Arrogance.  And they called this Work Protarchon and they say that he is the maker of creation.

Now [they say that] this one, having coupled with Arrogance, begat Evil and the [various] categories of this. Therefore, these things I have narrated summarily, passing over the immensity of the fiction. So who is thrice-unhappy as to their mystical rites as to wish to utter orally the things that they have performed? For all the things done as divine works by those men transcend every immoral conception and every abominable thought. And to speak the name is sufficient to hint at their all-abominable adventure. For the Borboriani were so called because of this.

50.  See: Irenaeus, Adv. Her. 1.29-30; The Apocryphon of John; and Epiphanius, Pan. 25.2-5; 26.1-19. For further references see: Dizionario Patristico e di Antichita Cristiane, ed. A. di Berardino, Roma 1983, vol. 1, 474-5; W.Foerster, Gnosis: A selection of gnostic texts, tr. R. McWilson, 2 vols., Oxford, 1972-74, pp. 100-120; R. Haardt, Gnosis: Character and Testimony, tr. J.F. Hendry, Brill 1971, pp. 66-69.
51.   Epiphanius,  Pan. 25.2.
52.  Irenaeus, Adv. Her. 1.29.1, states this was done by the Father.

The obvious question is to what extent Theodoret is relying on Epiphanius, and therefore not independent of him.  To evaluate this, we need to see what Epiphanius has to say.

  1. [1]Glenn M. Cope, An analysis of the heresiological method of Theodoret of Cyrus in the ‘Haereticarum Fabularum Compendium’, (Diss.) Catholic University of America, 1990.  The title of the thesis gives no clue that an English translation of all five books is contained therein.