THE HYMN OF THE PEARL
Translated from Syriac by Brian Colless
* I *
When as a little child I dwelt in my father's palace in my kingdom,
content I was with the luxury and riches of those who saw to my upbringing.
Then from our homeland the East, my parents sent me forth equipped;
from the riches in our treasure store they made me an abundant load;
large it was and yet so light I could carry it by myself:
there was gold from Beth-‘Ellâyê, silver from noble Gazak;
there were rubies from the Indies, agates from Beth-Kushân;
and they girded me with adamant, which pulverizes iron.
* II *
They took my shining robe away, which they in their love had made for me,
and likewise the scarlet toga, measured and woven to my stature.
A covenant they made with me, writing it on my heart lest it be forgotten:
If you will go down into Egypt and bring out a certain pearl,
the one in the midst of the ocean, hard by the hissing serpent,
then you shall wear your shining robe again, and the toga that goes over it,
and with your brother, our next in rank, you shall be heir in our kingdom.
* III *
I left the East and wended my way down, having two guardians with me,
for the journey was perilous and difficult, and I so young to set out on it.
I passed through the borders of Maishan, resort of the Orient's merchants;
I arrived in the land of Babylon, and entered the walls of Sarbug.
I went right down into Egypt, and my guides then parted from me.
I made my way straight to the serpent and lodged close by his lair,
waiting till he slumbered in sleep, when I would take my pearl from him.
* IV *
I was solitary and alone, a stranger to those I lived with.
Then one of my own kind, a freeman, someone from the East, I saw there,
a comely and gracious lad, a consecrated person, who joined me;
I made him my intimate friend, and took him as partner in my pursuits.
I warned him against the Egyptians, against joining with the unclean.
Yet I myself wore their manner of dress, lest they abhorred me
for coming from outside to take the pearl away,
and lest they stirred up the serpent against me.
But by some means or other they perceived I was not a fellow-countryman of theirs.
They dealt with me deceitfully; they gave me their food to taste.
* V *
I forgot I was a son of kings, and I served a king of theirs;
I forgot as well the pearl for which my parents had sent me.
With the heaviness of their foodstuffs, I sank deep into sleep.
But all the things that befell me my parents perceived, and they grieved over me.
Proclamation was made in our kingdom, that all should hasten to our gate,
the kings and princes of Parthia, and all the nobles of the East.
They drew up a plan for my sake, that I might not be left in Egypt;
and then they wrote a letter to me, and each noble signed his name to it.
* VI *
From your father, the king of kings, and your mother, mistress of the East,
and from your brother our second in rank, to you, our son in Egypt, greeting!
Awake and rise up from your sleep, and listen to the words of our letter.
Remember that you are a son of kings; look at your bondage to the one you now serve.
Call to mind the pearl, for which you were sent into Egypt.
Be mindful of your shining robe, and think of your splendid toga,
which you shall put on to adorn yourself, when your name is called in the honour roll,
when you and your brother our viceroy are together again in our kingdom.
* VII *
My letter was an epistle that the king sealed with his right hand,
to protect it from the wicked Babylonians and the cruel demons of Sarbug.
It flew in the form of an eagle, the king of all winged creatures;
it flew and alighted beside me, and became entirely speech.
At its voice and the sound of its rustling I started and rose from my sleep.
I took it up and kissed it, I broke its seal and read it;
in line with what was inscribed on my heart the words of my letter were written.
I remembered I was a son of kings; my free-born nature asserted itself.
I remembered too the pearl, for which I had been sent into Egypt.
So I commenced to work enchantments on the fearsome hissing serpent.
I hushed him and lulled him into slumber, pronouncing my father's name over him,
and the name of our second in rank, and of my mother, queen of the East.
I snatched up the pearl, and turned to go home to my father.
Their filthy abominable clothing I stripped off and left in their country;
I directed my course to bring me to the light of our homeland, the East.
* IX *
My letter, which was my awakener, I found ahead of me on the way;
and as with its voice it had woken me, so now with its light it was leading me.
Enwrapped in silk as it was, it shone before me with its form,
while with its voice and with its guidance, it encouraged me to make haste,
and with its love it drew me on.
I went on my way beyond Sarbug, and passed by Babylon on my left.
Then I came to Maishan the noble, that haven of the traffickers
which sits on the shore of the sea.
* X *
My shining robe which I had taken off, and my toga with which it was covered,
from the heights of Hyrcania my parents had sent to me there,
by the agency of their treasurers, whose honesty they could trust.
I had not remembered its fashion, having left it with my father in childhood;
suddenly, as I encountered the garment, it seemed like a mirror of myself.
I beheld its all in my own all, and I encountered my own all in it;
for though we were two in distinction we were still one, in one likeness.
* XI *
The treasurers too, who brought it to me, I saw in the very same way,
that they were two yet one in likeness, for one sign of the king was marked on both,
by his own hands, who returned through them my deposit and my wealth,
my bright ornamented robe, adorned with glorious colours,
with gold and beryls, with rubies and agates,
and the sardonyx of varied hues, it had also been fashioned on high;
and with stones of adamant its every seam was fastened;
and the image of the king of kings was all embroidered over it;
and like the sapphire jewel were its manifold colours.
* XII *
And now I saw that all over it impulses of knowledge were stirring,
and I saw it preparing itself to give forth utterance.
I heard the sound of its tones, as it murmured on its way down:
I am his who is diligent in doing, for whom I was brought up before my father;
truly I have been aware in myself that my size has been growing with his labours.
Moving in its regal manner it was giving itself completely to me,
and on the hands of its presenters, it was impatient for me to receive it.
For my part I was impelled by love to run to meet it and take it.
* XIII *
I stretched out my hand and accepted it; I decked myself out in its beauteous colours;
my toga with its lustrous colours I wrapped right around myself.
Thus clothed I made my way up to the gate of greeting and homage;
I bowed my head and made adoration to its sender, the splendour of my father;
for I had carried out his orders, and he had done what he had promised.
Standing at the gate of his princes, I mingled with his noblemen,
for he rejoiced and welcomed me back, and I was now with him in his kingdom.
With the voice of glorification all his servants were praising him;
he promised that I would again be brought with him to the gate of the king of kings,
and with my present and my pearl, I would appear with him before our king.
THE HYMN OF THE PEARL
The ancient poem conventionally known as The Song/Hymn of the Pearl (or Hymn of the Soul) is found in one of the Syriac manuscripts of the Acts of Thomas ("The Acts of Judas Thomas the Apostle"). The book is believed to date from the early part of the third century; it has been preserved in Syriac and Greek, and also many other languages. The Song of the Pearl is thought to have had an independent origin; it is known in Syriac and Greek.
Interpreters of the poem tend to characterize it as Gnostic. Thus, in 1897, A.A.
Bevan saw it as probably "a Bardesanist work", reflecting the Gnosticism of
Bardaisan of Edessa; Bevan thought that although "the religious conceptions
of the author are, in some respects, very closely akin to those of the early
Christians, he nowhere refers directly to the New Testament, nor does he
even allude to the historical facts on which Christianity is founded". G.
Bornkamm has described "The Hymn of the Pearl" as being "among the most
beautiful documents of Gnosticism which have come down to us. Clothed in a
fabulous narrative, the Gnostic Redeemer-myth unfolds in the poem in
singular purity and completeness, never confused by cosmic speculations;
here nothing points to a Christian origin". Bornkamm accepts the arguments
of G. Widengren (based on the numerous Persian loan-words in the Syriac
text) that the poem's background is in the Parthian empire, before the year
226. Bornkamm allows that the poem was known to the Manichees, but not
nccessarily that it is a Manichean composition about or by the prophet Mani.
Erwin Preuschen, who named it "Das Lied von der Erlösung" (The Song of
Redemption), saw it as Gnostic; but he also showed that parallels are in
fact to be found in the Bible, notably the "light load" carried by the
prince (I) and offered by Jesus (Mat. 11:30).
Working from this clue it will be argued here that the poem is an allegory
based simply on the teachings of the Christian Scriptures. The hypothesis is
that the poem is not Gnostic or Manichean or Mandean (even though it may
have been known in such circles, hence the striking similarities), but is
simply the teachings of the Apostles presented in parable form, modelled on
the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) and the pearl merchant (Mat. 13:45-46).
G. Quispel labels the poem Jewish-Christian and explains its symbolism
through The Gospel of Thomas, which is assumed to be Hebraic Christian and
originally composed in Aramaic. It would follow, then, that The Song of the
Pearl should also have close affinities with the New Testament Epistle (or
Letter) to the Hebrews, which is likewise a compendium of Jewish Christian
doctrine. Scholarly opinion is divided over the identity of the central
figure: is the prince the human soul, or the divine redeemer, or both? The
interpretation followed here is that the younger son is the Christian who
believes in Christ the Son of God and thus becomes a son of God (John 1:12),
and that the elder brother is Jesus Christ (Heb. 2: l0-l 5).
The context of the song is the apostle's imprisonment in India. To comfort
himself and his fellow-prisoners, Judas Thomas chants this hymn, though its
relevance to that situation is not clear. One possibility is that just as
the hero of the poem has been sent into Egypt to perform the task of
snatching a pearl from the clutches of a sea monster, so the apostle has
been sent into the equally benighted land of India to rescue souls from the
jaws of death. Notice that India is in fact mentioned in the poem, as a source of rubies.
A commonly held opinion on 'The Song of the Pearl' is that it portrays the
Gnostic redeemer myth: the hero-prince is the saviour who himself needs to
be saved ('the saved saviour'), but he is able to pass on his saving
knowledge (gnosis) to those who turn to him.
Nevertheless, it seems more appropriate to take the poem as referring to
Everyman, or more particularly everyone who comes to the knowledge of
Christ. On this interpretation it is a parable of the Christian way, a
'Pilgrim's Progress' from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City
However, a prime difficulty is that the poem begins with a descent from the
heavenly kingdom to the material world (symbolized by Persia and Egypt
respectively), and while this might fit the career of Christ (John 1:1-14),
it is not readily applicable to the origin of an ordinary human soul. The
preexistence of the soul is not a Biblical doctrine, although it gained
currency in Christian theology under the influence of Plato and the
Alexandrian theologian Origen. Even so, it is not necessary to see a prior
existence for the soul in this allegory, any more than in the parable of the
prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32); in each case the son leaves his father's home
and receives a splendid garment on his return. Given that 'those whom God
foreknew he also foreordained to be conformed to the image of his Son'
(Romans 8:29), and that 'God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the
world' (Ephesians 1:4), then the Christian can in some sense be seen as
already in the heavenly kingdom with the Father from the beginning, as
depicted in the poem and in the parable.
Assuming, then, that 'The Song of the Pearl' is an allegory of the
Christian's pilgrimage through life, an attempt will be made here to
identify its details with doctrines and persons in the Christian Scriptures.
The Acts of Judas Thomas tells the story of the missionary labours of the Apostle Thomas (Doubting Thomas, Didymus, “Twin”) in India. Whether Saint Thomas ever went to India is not certain, but the tradition in India itself is very strong. As noted earlier, the poem appears at a point in the tale where the Apostle Thomas is in prison, and, like the Apostles Paul and Barnabas in a similar situation, he sings a hymn.
No longer a 'doubting Thomas' but one who accepts Jesus as Lord and God (John 20:24-28), Thomas the apostle is sent by Jesus to the East, to the Iranian and Indian realms. The New Testament gives no hint of what Thomas did after making his avowal of the sovereignty and divinity of Christ, but these apocryphal Acts purport to fill this gap; and the indigenous churches of India have long maintained the tradition of his martyrdom in their land.
The Syriac Christian ascetic ideal is exemplified in the protagonist of the Acts of Thomas. He is seen going about doing good; healing the sick; driving out demons; giving alms to the poor; imparting instruction; above all it is observed that he engages in frequent fasting and praying, eats only bread and salt, drinks only water, and wears only one garment. At a wedding feast for a princess he refuses to eat or drink, but he preaches that those who follow Christ will receive the food and drink of light and life. The bridal pair are urged to preserve themselves from the 'filthy intercourse' of their marriage bed, and to prepare themselves for 'the true wedding feast' with the celestial Bridegroom, at which they will be 'numbered with those who enter into the bridal chamber'. It is not Judas Thomas himself who admonishes the couple here, but 'our Lord in the likeness of Judas', who says to them, 'I am not Judas, but I am the brother of Judas'.
The idea of being a brother of Christ and being one with him takes us into the mystical realm, and likewise the image of entering the bridal chamber, whereby the believer's soul is seen as the beloved of the Bridegroom. The notion of the believer's kinship with the Son of the King of kings is brought out exquisitely in this poem.
The hero of the poem lives as a child in his father's luxurious palace (I). The kingdom is clearly the Persian or Parthian empire, established on 'the heights of Hyrcania' (X), representing the kingdom of 'our Father in Heaven' (Matthew 6:9-10), which is especially concerned with children (Mat. 19:14; Luke 18:16).
The father is 'the King of kings' (VI, XI), the Iranian emperor in his 'homeland the East' (I), ruler over the realm of light (VIII, 'the light of our home, the East'). Likewise God, 'the King of kings and Lord of lords, ... dwells in unapproachable light' (1 Timothy 6:16). This idea of God dwelling in a cloud of glory and in unapproachable light will feature prominently in later Syriac mysticism .
The elder brother (II) is identifiable as Jesus, 'the firstborn among many brothers' (Romans 8:29). He is also 'viceroy' (VI) and 'second in rank' to the king (II,VI,VIII), and he is hailed as 'the splendour of my father' (XIII); and it is Christ who is seated 'at the right hand of the Majesty on high' as 'the effulgence of his glory' (Hebrews 1:3; cp. John of Dalyatha, a Syriac mystic, who speaks of 'Christ the splendour of the Father'). Jesus Christ also appears as the prince's companion in Egypt (IV), as will be shown below.
The mother is 'Queen of the East' (VIII) or 'Mistress of the East' (VI), who works with the father on the upbringing of the child (I, II, V, X). In the early Syriac Christian world-view the Divine Mother was the Holy Spirit of God. This stems from the fact that the Aramaic or Syriac word for 'spirit' (rukh) is of feminine gender; in the Syriac versions of the Bible, 'the Spirit herself bears witness with our spirit that we are sons of God' (Romans 8:17). This femininity of the Holy Spirit (also called the 'Spirit of Holiness' in Syriac) has generated some remarkable images of suckling at divine breasts (John of Dalyatha, Gregory Bar Hebraeus). In the Song of the Pearl, the Spirit also appears in a male guise as the Paraklete, represented by an eagle (VII); on this subject more will be said below.
The younger son enjoys the great wealth possessed by his parents (I). On the spiritual plane this would refer to the riches of God's grace: 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly regions..., has destined us to sonship... according to the riches of his grace, which he has lavished upon us' (Ephesians 1:3-8). From his parents' treasury the child is given some of these riches to take with him on his perilous journey (I); these would be spiritual gifts, 'gifts bestowed by God' (1 Corinthians. 2:12). These treasures are presumably for his support (gold, silver, rubies, agates) and strengthening (adamant): 'the Father... grant that you be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your being, out of the riches of his glory' (Ephesians 3:14-17). The girding with adamant is reminiscent of God making the forehead of the prophet Ezekiel 'like adamant, harder than flint' to enable him to confront his adversaries (Ezekiel 3:9). The equipping of the lad is analogous to putting on 'the whole armour of God, in order to be able to stand against the wiles of the Devil' (Ephesians 6:10-17).
The load that the child carries is light and easy to bear (I). In fact the words for 'load' and 'light' here are the same as in Matthew 11:30 in the Syriac New Testament, where Jesus speaks of his yoke being easy and his burden light.
The parents make a covenant with the lad and write its words on his heart (II), a counterpart to the new covenant with God, to be inscribed on the hearts of the people of God so that they would not forget it (Jeremiah 31:31-34; 2 Corinthians 3:2-6; Hebrews 10:15-16). The stipulation of the agreement is that the prince should acquire a pearl in Egypt. The boy is to receive a reward for the performance of this task; thus he will be 'laying up treasure' for himself, not on earth but 'in heaven, where moth and weevil do not spoil' (Matthew 6:19-21). The destructive 'moth' is relevant here because the reward is a specially tailored shining robe and a scarlet toga (II, VI, X, XI, XIII). There is no actual word for 'robe' in the text, simply one word meaning 'shining thing' (zahitha); but it is obviously something that is worn as a garment. It is a widely attested practice that kings give presents of fine clothing to faithful servants, and this is reflected in Isaiah 61, where the Lord declares that he will 'faithfully give their recompense and make an everlasting covenant with them', he who clothes with 'the robe of righteousness' and 'the garments of salvation' (8,10). Peter tells his readers of 'an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven' for them (1 Peter 1:4). Christian martyrs are given 'a white robe' (Revelation 6:11). Jesus affirms that in the end 'the righteous shall shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their Father' (Matthew 13:43), a picture to be compared with the pearl-hero returning to his father's palace, wearing his glistening robe and his lustrous toga (II, XIII).
The child is required to go down into Egypt. In Biblical theology Egypt had been viewed, from the time of the Exodus onwards, as a place of bondage (Exodus 2:23,13:3) and death (Exodus 12:29-30); and when the child arrives there, he does indeed fall into bondage under an Egyptian king (V, VI) and into a death-like sleep (V). Egypt would represent the world; 'friendship with the world is enmity with God' (James 4:4), and one should keep oneself 'untarnished by the world' (James 1:27). Speaking of his followers, Jesus says that 'the world has hated them because they are not of the world' (John 17:14); the boy in the poem is concerned about being hated by the Egyptians as a stranger and an outsider (IV); the ancient heroes of faith were likewise 'foreigners and exiles on the earth' (Hebrews 11:13; cp. 1 Peter 2:11).
In Egypt the prince is to confront a hissing serpent (II, III, VIII); the obvious Biblical counterpart is 'the great dragon, that ancient serpent, who is called Devil and Satan' (Revelation 12:9). The serpent is 'in the midst of the ocean' (II), and of the many Bible references to sea monsters, one seems very pertinent: 'Behold I am against you, Pharaoh, king of Egypt, the great dragon lying in the midst of his streams' (Ezekiel 29:3).
Having established the identity of the King of kings as God the Father, the Queen of the East as the Holy Spirit, the elder son as Jesus Christ, and the younger son as 'Christian' setting out on his pilgrimage-quest, we now seek to identify the other characters.
The child is accompanied on his journey to Egypt by two guardians (III). The concept of 'guardian angels' can be invoked here, as found in the saying of Jesus on not despising 'little ones', for 'in heaven their angels continually behold the face of my heavenly father' (Matthew 18:10). Angels are 'ministering spirits' for those 'who are to inherit salvation' (Hebrews 1:14). In this instance the two guardians might be the two archangels named in the Bible: Gabriel (Daniel 9:21, Luke 1:19); and Michael, who fights for the people of God (Daniel 10:21, 12:1), 'contending with the Devil' (Jude 9) and 'fighting against the dragon' (Revelation 12:7).
After the pearl has been won from the serpent, the shining robe is brought by two treasurers (X-XI). These seem to be distinguished from the two guardians, as special trustworthy treasurers (X), 'two yet one in likeness, for one sign of the king was marked on both' (XI), who were commissioned to deliver the 'bright ornamented robe'. At the transfiguration of Jesus, when 'his garments became white as light', Moses and Elijah were in attendance (Matthew 17:1-8); and they were perhaps 'the two witnesses', who are 'the two olive trees and the two lampstands standing before the Lord of the earth', and who confront the Beast from the abyss (Revelation 11). Alternatively, since the term 'treasurer' (gezabra) is used by Ephrem as a title for Christ himself and also for bishops, it is possible that the picture here is of the baptized neophyte being welcomed into the church by his Lord and his bishop, or by Christ and the Spirit of Christ.
On arriving in Egypt, the child encounters a free-born person, a fellow-countryman from the East (IV), who is described as 'a consecrated person', literally 'a son of unction', from the Syriac root (m-sh-kh) which produces the word Messiah ('anointed'), translated into Greek as Christ (Khristos). The Epistle to the Hebrews has some enlightening points here: 'God has anointed you with an anointing of gladness over your fellows' (Heb 1:9, quoting Psalm 45:7 , with reference to Jesus 'the Son'; note that the word for 'fellows' in the Syriac version is the same as for 'partner' in the poem). This enigmatic figure would thus be Jesus the Christ, with whom the believer is united: 'a consecrated person, who came and joined me' (IV).
In the New Testament, Jesus at least goes to Egypt in his birth story (Matthew 2:14-15); and here in the poem Christ would be in 'Egypt', the material world, performing his work of salvation for his brethren: 'Here am I, and the children that God has given me' (Hebrews 2:13, Is 8:18); 'since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same nature, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, namely the Devil' (Hebrew 2:14, and here the Syriac term for 'share' is the same as in 'a partner to share in my pursuits'). Further, 'he had to be made like his brethren in everything, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest...; because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted' (Hebrews 2:17-18). The mention of 'high priest' reminds us that the same writer compares Jesus with a priest-king named Malkisedeq (Melchizedek, Genesis 14:17-20; Hebrews 7:1-10), who appears mysteriously and then disappears from the scene, as does this enigmatic figure in the poem (IV).
The hero gives his companion an admonition (or should it be the other way round?) 'against the Egyptians, against joining with the unclean' (IV). Similarly, the Hebrew Christians are warned against 'falling away from the living God' through 'an evil unbelieving heart', for if they are to 'share in Christ', they must 'exhort one another every day' not to be 'hardened by the deceitfulness of sin', as happened to the Israelites who had lived in Egypt (Hebrews 3:12-18). A typical apostolic exhortation runs: 'Be aware of this, that no immoral or impure person... has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God;... do not associate with them' (Ephesians 5:5-7).
If the 'consecrated person' ('son of unction') is the earthly counterpart of the heavenly Christ, elsewhere presented as the second in rank to the king, and elder brother of the prince (II, VI), then the younger brother's failure to recognize him might be explained by cases of people being unable to recognize Jesus after his resurrection (John 20:14, Luke 24:16), or simply by John's assertion that 'the true light that enlightens everyone ... was in the world,... and the world did not know him' (John 1:9-10).
At this stage of the narrative (IV-V) the young prince certainly becomes a man of 'the world', adopting the food and dress of the Egyptians. The Israelites of the Exodus had a hankering for Egyptian foods (Exodus 16:3) and customs (Exodus 32:1-6), which led them astray. Moreover, Moses warned them that when they were settled in Canaan and had plenty to eat, they might 'forget Yahweh, their God who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage' (Deuteronomy 8:12-14). During the apostasy of 'the golden calf', they 'sat down to eat and drink, and then rose up to play' (Exodus 32:6, 1 Corinthians 10:7).
For his part, the pearl prince falls into an oblivious sleep and into bondage to a Pharaoh (V-VI); he forgets his royal parents, as Israel forgot 'the Rock that begot' him and 'the God who gave birth' to him (Deuteronomy 32:18). While people sleep the enemy does his evil work in the dark (Mt 13:25), and the sleeping prince needs the Apostle's exhortations: 'Do not be conformed to this world ('age'), but be transformed, by the renewing of your mind' (Romans 12:2), and 'it is now time for you to wake out of sleep' (13:11).
Everything that happened to the prince was 'perceived' by the king and queen, and they 'grieved' for him (V). The term translated 'grieved' (Syriac khash) is used in the New Testament for 'suffered', particularly of the passion of Christ (Hebrews 2:9,18; 1 Peter 2:23; Luke 22:15). The parents' awareness signifies the omniscience of God: 'God knows everything' (1 John 3:20). What is more, 'the Lord knows how to save from tribulation those who revere him' (2 Peter 2:9). The parents drew up a plan and sent their son something to rouse him from his death-like sleep, along these lines: 'Awaken your heart to righteousness and do not sin' (1 Corinthians 15:34, Syriac version; Greek 'sober up').
The instrument of awakening is a letter of reminder from the father, the mother, and the brother (V, VI, VII, IX). Compare the Apostle Peter's statement: 'This is now the second letter that I have written to you, beloved, in both of which I have aroused your sincere mind by way of reminder' (2 Peter 3:1); the reminder is of the predictions of the prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour, through the Apostles (3:2). In his first epistle Peter speaks of the prophets foretelling the grace that would come to Christians (1 Peter1:10), and the Gospel coming 'through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things that angels desire to look into' (1:12). The prophets, apostles, and angels might be related to 'the kings and princes of Parthia, and all the nobles of the East', who took part in the preparation of the letter for the prince (V). The letter would be the Bible, transmitted by the Holy Spirit.
The coming of the letter as a bird, bringing a reminder of sonship, is reminiscent of the descent of the Spirit of God, 'as a dove', at the baptism of Jesus, and the heavenly voice saying 'This is my beloved son' (Mt 3:16-17). This would imply that we should look for baptism as well as the Holy Spirit at this point in the hymn. Accordingly, given that the letter was the prince's awakener (IX), that at the sound of its voice he rose from his sleep (VII), that it awoke him with its voice and led him with its light (IX), then what is believed to be an early baptismal formula (Ephesians 5:14) offers a baptism connection for the letter of awakening and illuminating: 'Awake, you sleeper, rise up from the dead, and the Christ will give you light (or: will shine upon you)'. This occurs as a quotation in a context where Christians are described as formerly being 'darkness' but now being 'light in the Lord' and walking as 'children of light' (Ephesians 5:8), and being 'called to the one hope of your calling: one Lord, one faith, one baptism' (Ephesians 4:4-6).
This idea of calling has a counterpart in the call to return: the son is commanded to remember his mission and to return to the kingdom of his father (VI); in response he 'snatched up the pearl and turned to go home', like the prodigal son in the parable (Luke 15:17-18). This summons compares with calling 'sinners to repentance' (Luke 4:32): 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near' (Mt 3:2,4:17); 'Repent and be baptized' (Acts 2:38).
Another possible pointer to baptism is the invocation over 'the fearsome hissing serpent', to put him to sleep (VIII). This seems to correspond to the baptismal formula 'in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit' (Mt 28:19; and also Acts of Thomas par. 27, 49, 121, 132, 157). No other order but Father, Son, and Spirit seems possible or permissible, and that is what is found at this point in the poem: 'the name of my father..., and the name of our second in rank, and of my mother the queen of the East' (VIII). Notice, however, that in the letter of awakening, the order is father, mother, brother (VI), which is a more natural sequence; and since the prescribed order of the baptismal formula is found in the invocation over the serpent, at the point of awaking and grasping the pearl, it is reasonable to suspect another connection with baptism in this incident.
If the serpent is 'in the midst of the ocean' (II), then it would be necessary to enter the water in order to snatch the pearl (VIII); the sea would then represent the waters of baptism. If his body is thus 'washed with pure water' and his heart 'sprinkled clean from an evil conscience', then the prince is in a state of 'full assurance of faith' (Hebrews 10:22). And if he now desires to return home he must be 'cleansed by the washing of water with the word' (Ephesians 5:26), for 'unless one is born of water and the Spirit one cannot enter the kingdom of God' (John 3:5).
Coming out of the waters of baptism means being reborn. Hearing the summons of his awakening letter, the hero feels his freedom or 'freeborn nature' asserting itself, and he remembers his royal birth (VIII). This is Paul's concept of being 'called to freedom' (Galatians 5:13; cp. 5:1), 'the glorious freedom of the children of God' (Romans 8:21). Paul also says that 'where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom' (2 Corinthians 3:17).
In the Johannine writings of the New Testament 'the Spirit is there to bear witness, because the Spirit is the truth' (l Jn 5:7), and 'you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free' (Jn 8:32); 'the Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth' (John 16:13); 'the Advocate whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth' (John 15:26) 'will teach you everything and remind you of everything I say to you' (John 14:26). This role of reminding is likewise the function of the letter: 'remember ... call to mind... be mindful' (VI); 'I remembered...' (VIII). The prince finds that the testimony of the letter tallies with what is written on his own heart; and it is 'the Spirit' that 'bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God' (Romans 8:16).
At the baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit took the form of a dove (Matthew 3:16), a feminine word in both Greek and Syriac; here it is an eagle, 'the king of all winged creatures' (VII), a masculine figure. This may be because the Advocate or Paraklete is deemed to be masculine in the New Testament (in Greek and Syriac alike). Thus in the Syriac Bible we see: 'The Paraklete, the Spirit of holiness, he who is being sent by my Father in heaven' (John 14:26).
The seal placed on the letter by the right hand of the king, for protection against Babylonians and demons (VII), may mean the sign of the cross, or the gift of the Holy Spirit: 'He has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee' (2 Corinthians 1:22); and 'you who have heard the word of truth... were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, the guarantee of our inheritance' (Ephesians 1:13-14),'the Holy Spirit in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption' (Ephesians 4:30).
The letter is first the prince's awakener and then his guide, drawing him on with love (IX). A passage in Galatians 5 has such a role for the Holy Spirit: 'You were called to freedom' and 'love' (13), therefore 'walk in the Spirit' (16) and 'be led by the Spirit' (18), for 'the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace...' (22), and 'those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires' (24). The awakened hero kisses the letter when it arrives, giving it the Christian 'kiss of love' (1 Peter 5:14). In this regard Evagrios Pontikos (a fourth-century monk who had an enormous influence in the Syriac world) may help us to establish the symbolic significance of the pearl and the shining robe; Evagrios says that 'faith is the beginning of love, but the end (goal) of love is knowledge of God'.
The pearl certainly symbolizes faith in the pearl songs among Saint Ephrem's Hymns on Faith. 'In you', he says to the pearl, 'faith is depicted in types and symbols' (Hymn 5.2). The contest with the serpent for the precious pearl (VIII) may therefore be compared with the following injunction: 'Fight the good fight of faith and take hold of eternal life, to which you were called...' (1 Timothy 6:12). This refers in fact to victory over the passions and the things of the world, as with the Apostle John: anyone who 'is born of God overcomes the world, and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith' (1 John 5:4), in the context of 'the love of God' (5:1-3) and 'the Spirit as the witness' (5:7). The pearl of the poem might thus be not only the 'one very precious pearl' of the parable of the Kingdom (Mt 13:46), but also the 'one faith' of Paul's 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism' (Eph 4:5).
The saying of Evagrios on love, faith, and knowledge (cited above) leads us to suspect that the heavenly robe might represent knowledge of God. In fact the robe not only shines but it also grows and has 'impulses of knowledge ' stirring all over it', perhaps in line with Daniel 12:3-4: 'The wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament ..., and knowledge shall increase'. The robe also radiates love (XII), and the Apostle Peter urges Christians to add to their faith a number of virtues, including knowledge and love, and more especially 'the knowledge of the one who called us to (or: by) his own glory and excellence, whereby he has granted us his precious and very great promises, and through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature' (2 Peter 1:3-8). The 'precious and very great things promised' (1:4) and the 'abounding' virtues (1:8) might be represented by the precious stones and manifold colours with which the celestial garment was adorned and embroiodered (XI).
Taking the pearl (VIII) means receiving faith, and accepting the robe (XIII) means receiving knowledge, resulting in the attainment of 'the unity of faith and of knowledge of the son (or: Son) of God' (Ephesians 4:13), which constitutes 'perfect manhood', beyond 'childhood' and subjection to people's deceitful wiles (Ephesians 4:13-14). Similarly, the prince, the son of the king (I, VIII), is no longer a child (I) or the young wayfarer (III) with whom the worldly Egyptians 'dealt deceitfully' (IV).
The prince describes his robe as his 'deposit and wealth' (XI). This word deposit is used thus in the New Testament: 'I know in whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to preserve my deposit for me for that day' (2 Timothy 1:12, and 14).
'Their filthy abominable clothing I stripped off', says the prince, after seizing the pearl (VIII). The removal of the Egyptian garb goes with Paul's admonition: 'Put off your old human nature ('the old person'), corrupted by deceitful passion ..., and put on your new nature ('the new person'), created after the likeness of God' (Eph 4:22,24). This last phrase leads on to an explanation of another aspect of the robe, namely 'the image of the king of kings' that it bore (XI).
'You have put off the old nature ('person') with its practices and have put on the new one, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator', the Apostle affirms (Col 3:9-10), and 'Christ is all and is in all', he adds (3:11). All this is reminiscent of the robe as a mirror with an image: 'it seemed like a mirror of myself; I beheld its all in my own all, and I too encountered my own all in it; for though we were two in distinction we were still one, in one likeness' (X). Certainly the reference to the new nature 'renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator' (Colossians 3:10) equates with the 'impulses of knowledge' on the robe (XII) and 'the image of the king of kings' embroidered over it (XI). Paul also declares; 'Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust (Adam), we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one (Christ)' (l Corinthians 15:49); moreover, 'we all reflect the glory of the Lord as in a mirror and are being transformed into his image' (2 Corinthians 3:18). A connection between a mirror and knowledge of God is made when Paul says, with reference to speaking and thinking like a child because of imperfect knowledge: 'We now see in a mirror dimly, but eventually face to face' (1 Corinthians 13:12); this will be the experience of the prince when he is reunited with his father the king (XIII). The 'mirror' passage in the Epistle of James is worth noting here: 'If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror... and forgets what he is like; ... but a doer of action shall be blessed in his doing' (James 1:22-25). This may throw light on the enigmatic speech of the robe itself: 'I am his who is diligent in doing... and my size has been growing with his labours' (XII).
This growth of the robe (XIII) might be connected with the injunction to 'grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour' (2 Peter 3:18). The descent of the shining garment (XII) may be compared with a statement of James: 'Every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the lights' (of heaven) (James 1:17). This gift is sent by the prince's 'parents' from 'the heights' (X), but also by Christ: 'the splendour of my father... had sent it to me' (XIII).
The original promise to the prince was: 'with your brother... you shall be heir in our kingdom' (II, VI). Throughout the final scene (XIII) the elder brother appears as the splendour of the father, who welcomes him home (it is not the father himself, as commentators usually assume; the prince will be escorted into the presence of the king by his elder brother, at the end of the poem). In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the 'Son' whom God 'appointed as heir of all things' is 'the effulgence of his glory' (1:2-3). He is 'superior to angels' (1:4), and therefore 'all God's angels worship him' (1:6); these would be the servants who sing the praises of the viceroy, the elder brother (XIII). Jesus Christ is 'the light of the world' (Jn 1:9, 8:12, 9:5); and 'the light of the knowledge of the glory of God' is 'in the face of Jesus Christ' (2 Cor 4:6); thus, as 'the splendour of the father' he provides the shining robe for the prince (XIII). Another aspect of donning the robe can be seen here: it means 'putting on the armour of light' (Romans 13:12), which is equivalent to 'putting on the Lord Jesus Christ' (13:14), and also being 'conformed to the image of his son, the first born among many brothers' (8:29).
The king of kings had kept his promise: together with the mother (the Holy Spirit) and the brother (Christ the Son) he had said, 'you shall be heir with your brother in our kingdom' (II,VI), and the young prince was now 'with him (the splendor of the father) in his kingdom' and 'would appear with him' before the king (XIII). The God who is King of kings says: 'He who conquers shall have this inheritance, and I will be his God and he shall be my son' (Revelation 21:8). To Abraham he had made 'a promise' and 'an oath' (Hebrews 6:13,17), and likewise to 'the heirs of the promise ' (6:17), 'those who through faith (symbolized by the pearl) and patience inherit the promises' (6:12), and 'enter into the inner chamber' of the sanctuary, the dwelling place of God (6:19). Notice that Christ, 'the prince and perfecter of faith', who has 'endured the cross' and 'taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God' (Hebrews 12:2), is empowered to bestow the inheritance on his brothers: 'Come, you who are my Father's blest ones, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world' (Matthew 25:34), and this is the role played by him at the end of the poem (XIII).
'I had carried out his commands' (literally 'I had done his commandments'), says the prince (XIII), with reference to his elder brother, who had been party to the covenant (VI). In the New Testament there are allusions to 'keeping' the commandments of Christ (John 14:21,15:10; l John 2:4), but also two references to 'doing' his commandments: 'Blessed are they who do his commandments' (Syriac version; or: 'who wash their robes') so that they may enter into the city by the gates' (Revelation 22:14); and 'Whoever shall do and teach (them) shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven' (Matthew 5:19).
The eagle letter had promised that when the prince returned victorious his name would be read in the honour roll, literally 'the book of the valiant' (VI). This record would relate to the notion of those who are 'enrolled in heaven' (Hebrews 12:23) or 'written in the book of life' (Revelation 21:27, 20:11-15; Philippians 4:3); they alone could enter 'the holy city, the new Jerusalem' (Revelation 21:2,27).
The three gate references fit into the familiar oriental picture: 'The king sat in the gate (of Jerusalem)... and all the people came before the king' (2 Samuel 19:8). The hero's arrival at an assembly of princes and nobles and servants would correspond to the following scene: 'You have come to Mount Sion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the myriads of angels, to the festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous people made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling' (Hebrews 12:22-24). The celestial city of the King of kings is illuminated by the glory of God, with the Lamb of God as its Lamp (Revelation 21:22); the city has twelve gates, and each portal is one pearl (21:21).
'And with my present and my pearl I would appear with him before our king', the poem concludes (XIII). The 'present' is presumably the robe and the toga presented to the prince. The Syriac term for 'present' is qurbana, found as 'Corban' in English Bibles (Mark 7:11). In the Syriac Bible it means 'an offering', either a present (made to the temple and the priests, Matthew 5:23, 8:4) or an oblation (Hebrews 10:10,14). In the latter case it refers to 'the offering of the body of Jesus Christ' (10:10); and 'when he had offered one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,... for by one offering he has perfected for ever those who are sanctified' (10:12,14). The prince's 'present' may accordingly have a connection with the atoning death of Christ.
The scarlet toga can be interpreted in this light. Translaters have invariably used the word 'purple' in preference to 'scarlet', possibly because of 'scarlet woman' insinuations in the word. Nevertheless, 'scarlet' and 'purple' are distinguishable in Syriac, notably in the picture of 'a woman sitting on a scarlet beast', she being 'arrayed in purple and scarlet' (Revelation 17:3-4), and also 'bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls' (17:4), all of which have good connotations in the Song of the Pearl (I, II, XI). The rendering 'scarlet toga' is therefore faithful and appropriate. Although there is a disagreement over whether Jesus in his Passion wore a 'scarlet robe' (Matthew 27:28) or a 'purple garment' (John 19:2), it is conceivable that Matthew's 'scarlet robe' is the model for the prince's 'scarlet toga' (II), which would then be a symbol of the Passion of Christ and the Atonement, 'an eternal redemption' secured 'once and for all', not with 'the blood of goats and calves but his own blood' (Hebrews 9:12). This connection is reinforced in the context of the words just quoted, with reference to 'the covenant', bearing in mind that in the poem the scarlet toga is bound up with the covenant (II): 'When every commandment of the law had been declared to the people by Moses, he took the blood... and scarlet wool...' (Hebrews 9:19); and Christ 'is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance' (9:15). It would appear, therefore, that the 'scarlet toga' is related to the 'scarlet wool' of the old covenant (Leviticus 14:4; Numbers 19:6) and the 'scarlet robe' of the new (Matthew 27:28), and ultimately the 'blood of the new covenant, shed for many for the remission of sins' (Matthew 26:28). These last words come from the instituting of the Holy Communion, and if a reference to the Eucharist is sought in the poem, then it may be found in the fact that in the Syriac churches qurbana ('offering') signifies the Eucharistic oblation, and marganitha ('pearl') means a morsel of the Eucharistic bread.
The prince's 'present' (XIII) consists of his shining robe and scarlet toga, the latter representing the 'one offering' of Christ, the 'one sacrifice for sins' (Heb 10:10-14). It is remarkable how the main themes of the poem converge in this same passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews (10:10-23). Thus, the writer speaks of 'the covenant' written on hearts and minds (10:16), as with the prince's covenant (II). Further, it is affirmed that the One 'who promised is faithful' (10:23); and the prince acknowledges that his royal brother 'had done what he had promised' (XIII). The writer also declares that 'through the blood of Jesus' the brethren can 'enter with confidence into the sanctuary' (10:19), led by the Priest-King who is 'over the house of God' (10:21); and the prince is to be conducted by his elder brother 'to the gate of the king of kings' and into the presence of the king (XIII). Finally, the author tells his readers to 'draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith' (10:22). The pearl of faith and the gift of redemption (the scarlet toga) occur together here, since the term 'draw near' is from the same root as qurbana, and it has the connotation of bringing an offering to God. The consummation is achieved: the one offering (the sacrificial death of the Redeemer) and the one pearl (the perfected faith of the believer) combine to provide access to the divine presence, and also to produce a solution to the problem of the meaning of the poem.
The Song of the Pearl is thus 'mystical' in the sense of 'allegorical', but is it mystical as in mysticism? Whether the author intended it or not, the structure of the poem is analogous to the typical mystical framework of three stages: purgation (I-VIII), illumination (IX-XII), and unification (XIII). On this view, the protagonist departs for the desert (symbolized by Egypt) and becomes a solitary (IV), a monk. He undergoes purgation from corruption and sin, being washed in the sea when he dives for the pearl (implied not stated). Illumination comes with the shining robe (X-XI). Unification with God takes place when the son is reunited with the king (XIII). As in Dante's Divine Comedy, the hero descends to an Inferno, the realm of Satan (III-V), from which he passes through a Purgatorio of instruction and catharsis (VI-VIII), and achieves enlightenment and entry into a Paradiso (IX-XIII), where the beatific vision is attained (XIII). Dante's poem has four intended levels of meaning: firstly literal or historical, secondly allegorical or spiritual, thirdly tropological or moral, fourthly anagogical or mystical.
Dante put historical and political overtones into his great allegorical trilogy: the question of Church and State, and the role of the Holy Roman Empire. In the Syriac poem it is clearly the Iranian empire that provides the background.
On the fourth level, we have already seen some similarities between certain details of The Song of the Pearl and teachings of the Syriac mystics. The fact that it has only survived in one Syriac manuscript might suggest that it was not widely known in the Syriac churches, but this could be merely accidental. There was also a Greek version which was accorded an explanatory paraphrase by Niketas of Thessalonika, in the eleventh century, and this certainly shows that the pearl poem moved westwards into the Grecian realm, as did the writings of some of the Syriac mystics (notably Pseudo-Dionysios, Pseudo-Makarios, Isaac of Nineveh, and John of Dalyatha).
It presents an opposite point of view to that found in the ancient Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe, where Egypt is the realm of light and life, and the home to which the hero longed to return. In The Song of the Pearl it is Iran in the East which is the desired goal, and Egypt is presented as the place of darkness and death.
Brian Edric Colless PhD ThD
See also my shorter article on the meaning of the poem (cryptcracker blog):
Selected studies of the poem (none of which follow my line of interpretation):
G.R.S. Mead http://www.gnosis.org/library/hymnpearl.htm
Barbara Thiering http://www.pesherofchrist.infinitesoulutions.com/index4.html
Fereira, Johan, The hymn of the pearl. The Syriac and Greek texts with introduction, translations, and notes. (Early Christian Studies, 3.) Sydney: St Pauls Publications) Pp. x+131.