A further reference to the Borborites-Phibionites in the Codex Askewianus

A 4-5th c. Coptic manuscript now in the British Library (Ms. BL. Addit. 5114), acquired under unknown circumstances by a Dr Askew, contains a gnostic text which bears the title of the Pistis Sophia.  Another copy was found in a 5th century codex unearthed at Akhmim in 1896 also containing three other texts (now P.Berol. 8502).  The text of the Pistis Sophia was translated from the first copy by G.R.S Mead in the late 19th century.

In the Pistis Sophia, chapter 147, on p.381, l.6-20 of Schwartz’s edition (Copenhagen, 1925)[1] appears a condemnation of a Borborite practice recorded by Epiphanius.  It appears in a list of sins and penances to be endured in the afterlife.  Here is Mead’s translation.

Thomas said: “We have heard that there are some on the earth who take the male seed and the female monthly blood, and make it into a lentil porridge and eat it, |387. saying: ‘We have faith in Esau and Jacob.’ Is this then seemly or not?”

Jesus was wroth with the world in that hour [p. 322][ and said unto Thomas: “Amēn, I say: This sin is more heinous than all sins and iniquities. Such men will straightway be taken into the outer darkness and not be cast back anew into the sphere, but they shall perish, be destroyed in the outer darkness in a region where there is neither pity nor light, but howling and grinding of teeth. And all the souls which shall be brought into the outer darkness, will not be cast back anew, but will be destroyed and dissolved.”

Or as Tardieu puts it:

For the sacrilegious gnostic … there is neither instruction nor judgement; he is sent directly into the exterior darkness to be destroyed.

The ascetic gnostic does not care much for the libertine gnostic, it seems.

UPDATE (6/12/13): I have corrected some misunderstandings about the contents of the manuscript and added more detail, and a note about the Berlin copy.

  1. [1]I have been unable to access this.  My knowledge of it comes from Tardieu Michel. Conférence de M. Michel Tardieu. In: École pratique des hautes études, Section des sciences religieuses. Annuaire. Tome 87, 1978-1979. 1978. pp. 311-316.  Here.

Notes on the Askew codex

Not all gnostic literature comes to us from Nag Hammadi.  A series of codices in Coptic have leaked out of Egypt and onto the art market down the centuries.  One of these was the Codex Askewianus, as the older literature calls it.

On this item, the following information may be of use:[1]

The Askew codex, a volume of unknown provenance containing the texts of the Pistis Sophia treatises, was named after its first owner, A. Askew, a London doctor.  Askew was a collector of old manuscripts, and he bought the codex from a bookseller (probably in London) in 1772 [1].  After the death of Askew, the manuscript was bought by the British Museum.  A copy in the British Museum of the sale catalogue (1785) of Askew’s manuscripts contains the entry: “Coptic MS., £ 10.0.0.”  This reference was presumed by Crum to apply to the present document which appears in his catalogue as Add. 5114.[2]

1. J. G. Buhle, Literarische Briefwechsel von Johann David Michaelis, Leipzig 1794-6, vol. 3, p.69.
2. W. E. Crum, Catalogue of the Coptic Manuscripts in the British Museum, London, 1905, p.173.

Doubtless it emerged from the sands of Egypt, as other codices have done.  One wonders how it ended up in London.  The price is a considerable one, note: a curate around the same period could live (in poverty, admittedly) on £50 per annum, at least according to the novels of Jane Austen.

I was looking at some notes on this page, and came across the following footnote, alluding to the same source:

4. 1794. Buhle (J. G.). Literarischer Briefwechsel von Johann David Michaelis (Leipzig), 3 vols., 1794-96, iii. 69.

Under date 1773 there is a letter from Woide to Michaelis, in which the former says in reference to the [Pistis Sophia] Codex that Askew had picked it up by chance in a book-shop. There follows a description of the MS.

Now I confess that I never heard of Johann David Michaelis — he turns out to be an 18th century biblical scholar involved in orientalism –, but his letters are online at Google books.  Volume 3, page 69 may be found here.  The old fraktur letter forms are not easy to read, and the long-s is also deployed.  The relevant passage may be this (and please correct my errors):

Vermutlich ist dieses ein ahnliches Manuscr. [of those in the White Monastery]  Der herrn Dr Askew hat es zufalliger Weise in einem Buchladen gekauft.  Es is in 4º auf Pergamen geschrieben, und sehr stark gebraucht.  Es enthalt 354 Seiten, die mit Buchstaben numerirt sind.  Jede Seite hat zwei Columnen; und es fehlt an dem ganzen Buche nur ein Bogen S. 337-345….

I had hoped that we might get more, but this seems to be it. Sadly this gives us no more than we knew.  But how does C. A. Woide know this?  What is his authority for this statement?

The letter as a whole begins on p.20, and seems to consist of a very lengthy description of Bodleian Coptic manuscripts.

  1. [1]Carl Schmidt and Violet MacDermot, Pistis Sophia, The Coptic Gnostic Library, Brill, 1978, p. xi. Google Books Preview here.