Gnostics: The Hymn of the Pearl

Gnostics: The Hymn of the Pearl

In this and the next article we will explore the Gnostic heresy of the second century through “The Hymn of the Pearl” (The Hymn), a piece of Gnostic literature, and excerpts from Against Heresies by Irenaeus. First, I will identify the content of the Gnostic gospel in The Hymn; I will point out the elements of journey, slumber and awakening that trace the disruption and restoration of the original cosmic intention. Second, I will identify the plot elements and imagery in The Hymn that parallel the biblical gospel, and which suggest the appeal of Gnostic teachings in the second century church.  Then, in the next page I will outline some of Irenaeus’ arguments against the Gnostics’ teachings. Specifically, I will examine Irenaeus’ response to Gnostic attacks on the authority of apostolic teaching and scripture, and their claim to a secret oral tradition. I will also describe Irenaeus’ summary charge that the Gnostic teachings are highly inconsistent.

Gnostic Gospel in the Hymn of the Pearl

The three basic elements of the Gnostic “gospel,” as illustrated in The Hymn, may be summarized as follows: 1) the journey; 2) the slumber; and 3) the awakening. Verses 1-30 of The Hymn describe the first element of the Gnostic “gospel,” the journey. In this section the protagonist is sent out from the wealthy kingdom of his Father’s house (1, 2) to retrieve the One Pearl, which is “encircled by the snorting serpent” in Egypt (12, 13). So, the protagonist journeys to Egypt and settles near the serpent to wait for an opportune time to snatch the Pearl (16-22).
However, despite his best efforts at disguise (29-30), the protagonist is soon recognized as a foreigner, and becomes the object of soporific Egyptian hospitality. Our hero indulges in meat and drink (32), promptly forgets his mission and identity as king’s son (33-34), and drifts off to sleep “through the heaviness of their nourishment (35).” This slumber is the second element of the Gnostic “gospel,” whereby the original intent of the protagonist is thwarted. A tension is introduced to the story: how will the protagonist complete his course while sleeping so deeply?

This tension is resolved in the third portion of The Hymn, the awakening. Verses 36-48 describe how the nobles of the protagonist’s homeland compose a letter to awaken him, and to remind him of his mission. The letter travels to the protagonist’s side and rouses him from his slumber (51-53). Reading the letter and recalling his mission, the protagonist charms the serpent, snatches the Pearl, and sets out toward home (54-69). Upon arriving at his Father’s house, the protagonist joyfully enters the presence of the King of kings (72-105). This third part of the story is the actual “gospel” or good news: the mysterious letter restores the sleeping protagonist to his mission and allows him to complete his journey.

Similarities Between the Hymn and the Biblical Gospel

Within the gospel framework of The Hymn there are several plot elements and images that are similar to the biblical gospel. First, both narratives have a harmonious beginning. In the biblical beginning, the protagonists Adam and Eve are good creatures (Gen. 1.31), permitted to enjoy the bounty of God’s Garden, including fruit from the tree of life (Gen. 2.16). Similarly, in the beginning of The Hymn the protagonist is a delighted child in his Father’s wealthy and resplendent kingdom (1-2). Also, both sets of protagonists are given a mission: Adam and Eve to multiply and take stewardship over the earth (Gen. 1.28); The Hymn’s protagonist a journey to Egypt to reclaim the One Pearl (12). Common imagery includes the pearl, which recalls the parable of the pearl (Mt. 13.45-46).
Second, both narratives come to a point where the protagonists fall short of expectations. In the biblical narrative, Adam and Eve disobey God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3.6). As a result they are cast out of the garden and life becomes more difficult for them (Gen. 3.23, 3.15-19). In The Hymn, the protagonist falls into a slumber that waylays his mission, as previously described (32-35). In both stories the image of the adversary is a serpent (Gen. 3.1; HP 13, 21, 30, 58).

Third, both narratives have a divinely initiated plan of redemption. In the biblical gospel, God the Father sends His Son, Jesus Christ, to preach the good news of the kingdom of God and deliver humanity. In The Hymn, a letter is sent from the kingdom to awaken the sleeping protagonist and thereby restore him to his mission (36-63). In The Hymn the place of deliverance is Egypt (39, 42), which is a symbolic place of deliverance for Christians related to the Exodus. Superficially, the mode of deliverance is similar in both stories: the biblical gospel includes a verbal message to be embraced, and deliverance in The Hymn is by way of a letter that becomes “wholly speech (52).” Furthermore, the letter is sent from what appears to be a Trinitarian group, the King of Kings representing the biblical Father, the mother representing the Holy Spirit, and the brother representing the Son (41-42).

Fourth, both narratives consummate in a heavenly reunion of protagonist and king. The fulfillment of the biblical gospel is the return of Christ to gather His people and forever unite with them in heaven (John 14.1-4). Their bodies will be resurrected and glorified (1 Thess. 4.14-17), and lifted to eternal celebration (Rev. 7.9-17). Similarly, in The Hymn, the protagonist returns to his Father’s kingdom (102), is clothed in a glorious robe paralleling the resurrected body (72-97), and joyfully comes before the king in celebration (102-105).

Finally, a significant amount of imagery in The Hymn parallels the protagonist with the Christ of the biblical gospel. For example, the protagonist of The Hymn begins his journey in his Father’s kingdom (1-3), much as Christ, the Son of God, was part of the heavenly Trinity before taking up His earthly mission (Phil. 2.5-6). Both took off their robe of glory to pursue their mission (HP 9-10; Phil 2.7-8). Both completed their mission to overcome an adversary (HP 12-13, 57-58; Col. 2.15). Both returned from their mission to glory and a regal position in the kingdom (HP 14-15, 47-48, 97; Phil. 2.9-11).

In the next article I will describe Irenaeus’s attack—in his Against Heresies—on the sort of gnostic gospel articulated in the Hymn of the Pearl.

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