The Hymn of the Pearl

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (July, 2005)

The beautiful Hymn of the Pearl, previously obscured among the Apocrypha, is rightly becoming well loved as an expression of the finest spirituality. In the form of a parable, it captures the awareness of people who feel themselves to be alienated from ordinary contemporary society, yet know that there is a higher kind of humanity in which they can participate through their creative gifts.

The poem is found in the Syriac Acts of Thomas, which is not the same as the Gospel of Thomas in the Nag Hammadi Library, but in the same tradition. It is attributed to Judas Thomas the Apostle, who, as has been argued here (See "The Gospel of Thomas" in this section on this site) was the Thomas in the list of twelve apostles given the name "Twin" (Didymus) because his personal history made him an "Esau", the twin brother of "Jacob" of the biblical story. Esau lost his birthright, and so also did this "Esau". This man was a son of Herod the Great, who had been the heir but as a child was disinherited when it was discovered that his mother, Mariamme II, together with his maternal grandfather Simon Boethus the high priest, was involved in a plot to poison the king. In the Herodian system of the New Israel, under a new "Abraham" and "Isaac", the "Jacob" (the grandfather of Jesus) and the "Esau" (the Herod prince) were appointed bishops of the west and east respectively. Hence all the Thomas traditions associate him with the east.

The translation given here is from that of Hans Jonas, in his excellent book The Gnostic Religion (Boston, Beacon Press, 1958 and subsequent reprintings). He puts it in narrative form.
When I was a little child and dwelt in the kingdom of my Father's house and delighted in the wealth and splendor of those who raised me, my parents sent me forth from the East, our homeland, with provisions for the journey.....They took off from me the robe of glory which in their love they had made for me, and my purple mantle that was woven to conform exactly to my figure, and made a covenant with me, and wrote it in my heart that I might not forget it: "When you go down into Egypt and bring the One Pearl which lies in the middle of the sea which is encircled by the snorting serpent, you will put on again your robe of glory and your mantle over it and with your brother our next in rank be heir in our kingdom".
I left the East and took my way downwards, accompanied by two royal envoys, since the way was dangerous and hard and I was young for such a journey. I passed over the borders of Maishan, the gathering-place of the merchants of the East, and came into the land of Babel and entered within the walls of Sarbug. I went down into Egypt, and my companions parted from me. I went straightway to the serpent and settled down close by his inn until he should slumber and sleep so that I might take the Pearl from him. Since I was one and kept to myself, I was a stranger to my fellow-dwellers in the inn. Yet saw I there one of my race, a fair and well-favored youth, the son of kings (anointed ones). He came and attached himself to me, and I made him my trusted familiar to whom I imparted my mission. I warned him against the Egyptians and the contact with the unclean ones. Yet I clothed myself in their garments, lest they suspect me as one coming from without to take the Pearl and arouse the serpent against me. But through some cause they marked that I was not their countryman, and they ingratiated themselves with me, and mixed me drink with their cunning, and gave me to taste of their meat, and I forgot that I was a king's son and served their king. I forgot the Pearl for which my parents had sent me. Through the heaviness of their nourishment I sank into deep slumber.
All this that befell me, my parents marked, and they were grieved for me. It was proclaimed in our kingdom that all should come to our gates. And the kings and grandees of Parthia and all the nobles of the East wove a plan that I must not be left in Egypt. And they wrote a letter to me, and each of the great ones signed it with his name.
"From your father the King of Kings, and from your mother, mistress of the East, and from your brother our next in rank, to you our son in Egypt, greeting. Awake and rise up out of your sleep, and perceive the words of our letter. Remember that you are a king's son: behold whom you have served in bondage. Be mindful of the Pearl, for whose sake you have departed into Egypt. Remember your robe of glory, recall your splendid mantle, that you may put them on and deck yourself with them and your name be read in the book of heroes and you become with your brother, our deputy, heir in our kingdom."
[The letter flew through the air and alighted beside him. He read it and remembered who he was and why he had come there.]
I remembered that I was a son of kings, and that my freeborn soul desired its own kind. I remembered the Pearl for which I had been sent down to Egypt, and I began to enchant the terrible and snorting serpent. I charmed it to sleep by naming over it my Father's name, the name of our next in rank, and that of my mother, the queen of the East. I seized the Pearl, and turned to repair home to my Father. Their filthy and impure garment I put off, and left it behind in their land, and directed my way that I might come to the light of our homeland, the East.
My letter which had awakened me I found before me on my way; and as it had awakened me with its voice, so it guided me with its light that shone before me, and with its voice it encouraged my fear, and with its love it drew me on.
[His return journey corresponded to the stages of his descent.]
My robe of glory which I had put off and my mantle which went over it, my parents sent to meet me by their treasurers who were entrusted with it. Its splendor I had forgotten, having left it as a child in my Father's house. As I now beheld the robe, it seemed to me suddenly to become a mirror-image of myself: myself entire I saw in it, and it entire I saw in myself, that we were two in separateness, and yet again one in the sameness of our forms...And the image of the King of kings was depicted all over it....
[The robe is described in human terms, singing.]
And with its regal movements it pours itself wholly out to me, and from the hands of its bringers hastens that I may take it; and me too my love urged on to run towards it and to receive it. And I stretched towards it and took it and decked myself with the beauty of its colors. And I cast the royal mantle about my entire self. Clothed in it, I ascended to the gate of salutation and adoration. I bowed my head and adored the splendor of my Father who had sent it to me, whose commands I had fulfilled as he too had done what he promised... He received me joyfully, and I was with him in his kingdom, and all his servants praised him with organ voice, that he had promised that I should journey to the court of the King of kings and having brought my Pearl should appear together with him.