Freemasonry In France: A Brief History

Masonic history has been (and still is) the area of predilection for inducements or hasty generalizations, made more hazardous by passionate allegiances, including the eternal conspiracy theory. Conspirators are definitely everywhere. The alleged Freemason plot comes to us from Abbé Barruel whose work consisted of asserting (more than truly establishing) that the French Revolution had been a process organized for decades in lodges and clubs, especially Jacobin, in order to allow the liberal bourgeoisie to seize power.

There is some basis to this intuition, but it must be examined through the small end of the telescope, if only to give some solid arguments to this entirely sensible idea which deserves to have its rational character and historical foundations demonstrated.

Freemasonry was introduced in France in 1725. The founders were three Catholic Jacobites with flowery names, exiles from their own country – Derwentwater, MacLeane and O’Héguerty.

At its beginnings in France, the movement was an almost exclusively Parisian even and even an event of the “Left Bank,” and was born and developed in the district dominated by the Maurist abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, that cosmopolitan district, where lived most of the foreigners to the capital. The meeting of the first Saint-Thomas Lodge took place at an English caterer’s, in the rue des Boucheries, in the Faubourg Saint-Germain; and the first known members were mostly emigrants.

The history of the beginnings of French masonry quickly becomes that of its divisions. Ideological diversification took place within this Parisian setting, around 1732. Very quickly, personalities from London set up Anglican rite lodges: the history of French masonry would be played out for a few years on this original duality.

After 1732, there arose ateliers, under the great lodge of England, whose spirit contrasted with that of the first Masonic houses of Jacobite origin. From its first beginnings, French Freemasonry encountered politics. The reason is not difficult to understand. Founded and animated by Jacobites, the first Saint-Thomas Lodge (the lodge of the grand master), could not but be suspect by the Grand Lodge of London, for it sought to create a rival masonry on the continent. Hence the recognition granted in 1732 by the Grand Lodge of England to Saint Thomas No. 2, which included the Duke of Picquigny, governor of Picardy; M. Chauvelin, State Councilor and former Intendant of Amiens; the poet Gresset, the marquises of Locmaria and Armentières; Mr. Davy de La Fautrière, adviser to parliament and former member of the Club de l’Entresol, who rubbed shoulders with a silversmith named Le Breton. If the left bank provided shelter for the first assizes of the order, soon enough, it became customary to hold meetings either on the right bank, in the hotels of Soissons and Gèvres – famous gaming houses in Paris – or outside the city walls, in some cabaret in the suburbs, at La Courtille or at the Quai de la Râpée.

Worried about the growth of predominantly Jacobite masonry and which therefore was hostile to the Hanoverian monarchy, the Grand Lodge of London created rival lodges. At the end of 1735 or 1736, a third lodge (of Louis d’Argent) was born in rue de Bussy, where the British Ambassador, Montesquieu, the Count of Saint-Florentin, Secretary of State, the Duke of Kingston met. It had for master the Duke of Aumont and for Worshipful Master, a painter and restorer of paintings, by the name of Collins, of English origin, who organized the new rite. A little later, in 1736, the lodge of Coustos-Villeroy was born (which had links with the Protestant bank) whose northern note was strongly marked – it included Germans and Scandinavians who outnumbered the French. Its most active and influential member was an English subject, Goustaud or Coustos, a goldsmith by trade, descendant of French Huguenots who had emigrated after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

Paris therefore had four lodges at the end of 1736.

In 1737, Freemasonry, which had enjoyed rapid favor, particularly in high society, established itself in Lorraine with the new court, which gathered there around King Stanislas in 1737. Without being strictly certain, the affiliation of the king is infinitely probable and this Masonic affiliation coexisted without apparent inconvenience with the spirit of the Enlightenment and a religiosity with very emotional forms. You could call it syncretism.

There was thus very early a double current among the freemasons of France: the “Gallican” current, Catholic and anti-Hanoverian, and the “Anglican” current, of a democratic and Protestant tendency. This reformed and liberal tendency ended up supplanting the Catholic and Jacobite elements which, however, survived in the provinces, in particular at the court of Lunéville, thanks to the tenacious actions of three persons: Dominique O’Héguerty, Louis de Tressan and the abbot, François-Vincent-Marc de Beauvau-Craon, Primate of Lorraine.

Many of these noble-lineage Masons, often flanked by an enterprising commoner who was the real animator, did not go beyond snobbery. The Goustaud-Villeroy lodge maintained that the order was not an order of chivalry, but of society; and that although several lords and princes were happy to be in it, any man of probity could be admitted without wearing the “sword.”

The nobility was found more in the Scottish rite, with its glorification of the Christian knight, according to a very hierarchical ceremonial, and with all its traditions and its outlook. This explains the permanence of the two Masonic obedience. One according to the Jacobite rite, esoteric and chivalrous, refuge of an aristocracy still attached to its past splendor. The other, the Hanoverian rite, rationalist, liberal and anti-Roman, welcoming to the big bourgeoisie admiring the Enlightenment. The first developed in societies that remained both seigneurial and Catholic, such as that of Lorraine; the second, naturally, found its chosen ground in Paris.

How did they develop in the rest of France? It is up to historians to respond to that; and this is undoubtedly enlightening in the French regions and the differences in resistance.

These associations were then secret, in the sense of being unofficial and private. To the notion of association, the Masonic practice of the time added those of leisure, pleasure, agreement and spontaneous sociality (outside the State and traditional hierarchies) – all notions that cut across and transcended orders and classes. Put into practice, they had every chance of attracting everybody; and there were many, including those forms of sociability which fulfilled more or less avowed and expected egalitarian aspirations. Relations were based on the principle of equality between men as individuals; and the internal hierarchy of lodges was independent of the hierarchies of the surrounding society. According to historian Ran Halévy, Masonic lodges were thus at the origins of democratic sociability. We can certainly believe that.

It was not until 1737 that the existence of Freemasonry was revealed to a still small public, and at the same time as the political orientation of the movement was revealed. Before that date, the police gazettes made no mention of it. No more than that of London, the French government, could not ignore the activity of the lodges. Its attitude was quite embarrassed. The all-powerful Cardinal de Fleury, who narrowly prevented Louis XV’s initiation into the mysteries of the order, very much warned against Freemasonry. He was behind the police searches carried out in 1737, which brought to light rather suddenly the existence and activity of the Parisian lodges. The police confined themselves to harassment – they bothered a few accomplices, innkeepers who had hosted lodges, but they were careful not to prosecute influential Masons or dignitaries, which would have raised a considerable scandal, affecting the entourage of the king. It was difficult to question or arrest princes, dukes and peers, knights of the Order of the Holy Spirit, a Minister of State (Marshal d’Estrées), two Secretaries of State, not to mention magistrates, ecclesiastics, and so on.

On the eve of the Revolution, there were 650 lodges and some 35,000 affiliates, if not more. It was this new, predominantly Protestant Freemasonry that undoubtedly played a major role in the genesis of the Revolution. The revolutionary principle was at work there, all the more effective as it was more involuntary, implicit and discreet. From discretion to secrecy, there is only one step. The Grand Lodge was regulator until 1773. It was then that the Grand Orient took over. It emphasized the revolutionary trait, and therefore enforced it.

French freemasonry after 1773 was more clearly in contradiction with what remained of order in society – for instance that which traditionally embodied this order, in particular, the Church, which was often reproached for its tendency to recognize the authority of Caesar, and thus alienating the law of Jesus.

Faced with the event called “Revolution,” the “fourth estate,” that of the pen, was divided into two, regardless of rank, status, or fortune. But besides the means available to those who held state power, the fight of the Friends of the King was not fought on an equal footing and it was valued above all by the quality of a thought that asserted itself. It ended in a bloodbath. Those who left in time survived.

But it was easier to guillotine than extract the idea whose line of development (or survival) we can readily follow – from the Friends of the King to ultracism and legitimism, from legitimism to the moral order, from traditionalism to Action française. The continuity of such a current of though tests, in a way, the assertion of the Masonic conspiracy dear to Father Barruel, who had glimpsed a relationship that he was unable to explain and that serial history has begun to shed light on.

“Church of the Republic,” “Missionary of liberalism,” “School of equality” – all would gradually assert themselves as a true society within society.

There is hardly any chance that this history will find today the historical light which is necessary to understand how we went from a seemingly innocent association to a secret society, to a Church of the Republic, whose avowed aim today is to build a counter-Christianity – and therefore to destroy Catholicism.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.


The featured image shows the initiation of an apprentice Freemason, a colored engraving from ca. 1805, based on a French one of 1745.

We Have Two Memories

In the past, when ancient history was still being taught a little (in 6th grade, the part on great civilizations), our children learned of the worth of Egypt and Babylonia in the history of human adventure. Ancient Greece weighed heavily in these programs. The grand dame. We owe her a lot, not everything, but a lot. Little was known about Indian civilization. Their jumble of gods, it is true, would doubtless have panicked the schoolchildren: the teachers even more. Besides, with the two great ancestral lands alone, there was plenty to do, even before Sumer and the Epic of Gilgamesh were extolled. Above all, whether it is conscious or not matters little, this teaching around these various deities was accompanied by a questioning of the origin of civilizations: how they are born, how they die. With India, we must add: how they endure.

Having emerged and developed at the same time as the old ancestral lands of Mesopotamia and Egypt, this ancient civilization does not belong like them to a bygone past: the Indian adventure continues before our eyes. This durability, it owes to tradition. The literary texts on which all Indian conceptions are based were composed at a very ancient time, and transmitted orally for a surprisingly long period before being written. If alterations occurred, they manifested themselves very slowly; distorting an initial theme with flourishes, but retaining for millennia the trace of the initial theme. Buddhist texts also participate in this strange mania for an endlessly modulated motif, which explains a literature of overwhelming abundance, terribly repetitive and, let’s face it, deadly boring.

Our civilizations marked by writing have forgotten that before writing, we spoke. Philosophers would say in their learned (or curious) language that there is ontological pre-decision of speech over writing. Whether at the level of the individual, or at the level of an emerging society, all civilization has first of all an oral language, which it can fix in writing (or choose not to), grammar and tutti quanti. The birth of writing, we know thanks to Jean Bottero, is trivial, for accounting purposes – we need to calculate, record stocks, write a contract; it’s commercial recording. And then comes poetry, the ardent desire to constitute a romance of the people, the land, the kings. An ardent desire to last, therefore, to transmit. Because we have two memories, as the geneticist Pierre Grasset said. Culture must reprogram itself; hence the importance of this cultural memory, which increasingly depends on the written word.

But the written part of the transmission is analogously, as in the theater, the text. We transmit through practices, uses, doings, and know-how; and then also, in addition, through writing – which matters. Don’t get me wrong. But it is not the main thing.

We had a great orientalist university tradition, and in particular an Indianist tradition, which brought India into our episteme (with a lot of myopias and a few mirages). We also have had an anthropological tradition of Africanists who made known the gesture of the Dogons of Mali and the techniques of orality, of this African palaver which we must be careful not to speak ill of: it is a dimension of the “phatic” language. as much as instrumental.

Why is it so difficult for us to admit that the Gospels could have been spoken and recited? How come it is so difficult for us to admit that the Gospels could have been composed perfectly in Aramaic by Aramaeans, even though they are said to be crude people, except John? Simple people do not speak the language of culture; they do not speak Greek or Latin. How is it that it is impossible for us to come back to the question of these gospels supposedly written in Greek, despite the work of Jean Carmignac, Claude Tresmontant, and more recently, those of Pierre Perrier, Joseph Alichoran and Jean -François Froger? The work of Pierre Perrier in particular has made it possible to unearth this tradition of orality which comes to us from early Christianity. This obviously calls into question some dogmas that come from centuries of Protestant exegesis, from that critical historicism which is nothing but an apostasy shrouded in academic scientificity.

Coming from a Jewish religion, born in an eastern land, where Aramaic had been spoken for centuries, and where Hebrew was undoubtedly still spoken, Christ did not incarnate as a kind of an uneducated Aramaic man, among Aramaeans even more uneducated than he, from whom he chose men precisely for their ignorance, the supposed guarantor of an equally supposed humility, as certain ignorant priests tell us on Sundays in their astonishing homilies.

The language is not there first of all because men want to talk to each other and sign marriage or sales contracts. The language is there because there is speech; that is to say, the ultimate human fact. Language is there for man to enter the world of meaning and knowledge, starting with the knowledge of his own nature.

The Apostles were undoubtedly imperfect men; and their first imperfection was that they did not always fully understand what Rabbi Yeshuah was explaining to them, which from time to time made him nervous or at least insistent: “Do you understand what I am telling you?” Apparently, they did not fully understand these stories of the temple being His body; at least not until the Helper in charge of the rest of the company arrived.

Vedic India has transmitted for millennia texts it held to be sacred, the Vedas. A caste of Brahmins (people specialized in the management of the sacred word), assumed or arrogated to themselves the charge of the transmission of this revealed knowledge, transmitted orally; then fixed in writing, in Sanskrit say the specialists. On this point, we can believe them.

Thus, oral transmission did constitute a sort of monopoly of Indian and African civilizations, while the Christianized European world became incapable for all eternity of any memorization of texts considered important, so important that we too have specialists who are in charge of this sacred deposit and whose transmission comes from the Apostles. Yes, we too have a certain sense of Transmission.

Eastern Christians have the gospel in their hearts, memorized from childhood, through supporting each other with tonic-postural techniques and gestures linked to the bi-lateralization of the human body. The whole Bible is actually written in an oral style, intended to support this effort at memorization, something modern translations fail to capture and even carefully redact. In his time, Marcel Jousse had the intuition of these memorial gestures and had attempted a new anthropology. If it didn’t get the impact it deserved, it’s not just because of an unnecessarily complex formulation of these brilliant hunches. This is because the Himalayas of prejudice against our sacred texts, the legacy of two centuries of largely Protestant historicist exegesis, has continued to wreak havoc.

Eastern Christians knew the Gospel by heart, rooted in their very corporeality, with the language associated with it, the tongue of Christ. The ferocious hatred which persists against this heroic people, the last vestige of the divine Presence incarnate, through the spoken language and the kept traditions, invites us to take seriously the question of the Prince of this world. And their heroism makes the poverty of our lived and internalized Christianity all the more pathetic.

Our Christian children – those few that actually still go to catechism – have catechism books which begin with the great cycle of evolution from the primate cousin to the modern man, with the different stages that show how he gradually came to stand straight. How we were able to print this lamentable diagram on the first page – that should leave us speechless. And furious.

The question of evolution is obviously an intriguing affair. And it is arguably one of the most formidable questions about the chasm between the text of Genesis and the scientific fiction which accounts for our supposed evolution. The respective cemeteries of the history of science and that of philosophy are full of scientific fictions.

Children should be told that when faced with the question of the “historical” origin of man, we do not have and doubtless never will have a clear answer; and that it matters little to know that there is a very old skeleton that the stupid media hastens to proclaim “the first man.” A day will come when an even older skeleton will be found that will be claimed to be the prototype of humanity.

The answer that Genesis gives are the principles of intelligibility of our human nature that does not depend on time, since it comes from a creator God. Or that doesn’t just depend on the weather. Our horizon is not Covid 19, nor biological death that we wave before our eyes with great reinforcements of anxiety-provoking speeches. Our horizon is participation in Eternity – when history and creation will have entered into the fullness of what we call the “times.” Then we will see history as it really is – not an endless march of empires, a frightening succession of wars, of kingships, of dynasties, of destruction, of competing economies, of stories of pandemics, of techniques, great men and forgotten peoples – but like the march of Love, silent and yet royal.

Thomas Aquinas said that time is coextensive with Eternity. That’s a difficult concept. In the past, certain words, certain formulas were given to meditate in the night of intelligence – there, where a new light sparkles – that of the Helper who is waiting that we might enter it, during this dark night of our immortal soul – that we may hear and see what human language cannot teach us when it has become too poor or too arrogant. And that maybe which it wasn’t meant to teach us.

We have two memories, the cultural memory and the memory of Eternity. The one, singled out in one or more languages, in a country or a region, in a genealogy. It is precious and it is fragile. The other. carried by the history of Israel, and extended by 2000 years of Christianity and ecclesial history, in a Revelation that it is up to Christians to transmit, by way of all their living flesh, in all the languages of the world, because He who is its object is the living Word, the source of all living words.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.


The featured image shows, “Over Eternal Quiet,” by Isaac Levitan, painted in 1894.

Jean Doresse And The Gnostics

The Chenoboskion-Nag Hammadi manuscripts are leather-bound codices (papyri, that is), dating from the middle of the 4th century AD, and found in 1947, northwest of Luxor, by Egyptian peasants, and since then kept at the Coptic Museum of Cairo. These compromise twelve papyrus codices, plus the remains of a thirteenth, totaling nearly 1,300 pages and over fifty Coptic texts, most of them completely unknown. Only one of these codices was acquired by the Coptic Museum in Cairo, as early as October 1946; it was not until 1975 that the entire collection was assembled there.

The result of a fortuitous find, the discovery of Nag Hammadi early aroused the attention of both antique dealers in Egypt and the authorities of the Coptic Museum. It was not one of those theatrical finds, which officials, journalists and the curious flock to. As with the Desert Scrolls of Judah (commonly referred to as “the Qumran”), almost all episodes of this discovery were suppressed, and almost all details of the history and actual content of the manuscripts have long remained unknown to this day.

Be that as it may, a whole apocalyptic and Gnostic literature then emerged from the earth. The direct sources that were so sorely lacking in research were finally found.

The first Europeans to have knowledge of the discovery were French personalities or scientists. This discovery involved several things: the search for the manuscripts dispersed by the peasants who had exhumed them; field investigations to find out the location of the find; the first readings of the pages less damaged by time; the identification of the writings that came to light there and the first inventory. All of this was the work of Jean Doresse (1917-2007), the main witness to the first stages of this major event in the history of research.

After auditing the lectures of Henri Charles Puech (in the section of religious sciences of l’École pratique des Hautes Études), Doresse joined the CNRS in 1941 and became a research grant holder in October 1944. In September 1947, he found himself in Egypt, in order to carry out, as “excavator for the Louvre museum,” the first of five missions, financed by the Archaeological Excavations Commission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In October 1947 (he was thirty years old), he informed C.H. Puech of the existence of a papyrus volume,140 pages long and containing Gnostic writings in Coptic Sahidic (the current Codex III). Thus began an exchange of correspondence (which lasted until 1970) between the young researcher, who had privileged access to the manuscripts, and the recognized scholar who, although unable to read or translate the writings, was nevertheless best able to interpret them.

A scientific committee made up of various personalities was then created with a view to publication. It consisted of Doresse, of course, along with Togo Mina, curator of the Cairo Museum at the time of the discovery and who first recognized the importance of these manuscripts, Canon Drioton, renowned Egyptologist and director of the Antiquities Department of Egypt until 1952, Charles Henri Puech, arguably the best specialist in Gnosis and Manichaeism, and Walter Till, the specialist in the Berlin Codex. But bad luck of “an evil sort” (to use Doresse’s own words) would plague what concerned the acquisition and publication of these ancient documents. Two years in to the work, Togo Mina died in 1949; he was always hounded by the thought that these manuscripts would disappear from Egypt, and he thus made Doresse promise to protect them from the inevitable greed.

In 1958, Doresse published, Les livres secrets des gnostiques d’Egypte (The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics), the result of archaeological adventure with multiple twists and turns; the book went through several editions. According to Doresse, “the style [of the book] reflects the fever of the time when the characters involved in this find were still alive.” He presented the 44 unpublished Gnostic treatises, narrated the adventures of their discovery, the vicissitudes of their purchase by the Coptic Museum, and then he explained the unfortunate delays in their publication – revolutions and wars are not favorable times for archaeologists.

After gathering all the information provided by the heresiologists and quickly pinpointing the gist of the already known Gnostic treatises, he proposed a provisional classification of them into four categories: prophetic revelations; pseudepigraphic writings taking on the aspect of Christian writings; gospels of a Christianized gnosis; and finally, those treatises more or less close to hermetic writings. He summarized the content of each treatise, by first trying to identify it, often successfully, by way of the information provided by Irenaeus Epiphanes and the Philosophumena.

Doresse also spoke, in a veiled manner, in the introductions to each of the new editions, of the harmful consequences of this discovery for his own existence and his career. The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics was planned as a trilogy, the first volume of which was then titled, Introduction aux écrits gnostiques coptes découverts à Khénoboskion (Introduction to the Coptic Gnostic Writings Discovered at Chenoboskion), and published in Paris, in 1958. Two other volumes were planned. Doresse then outlined the main features of a Gnostic doctrine by taking up a suggestive study by Henri Charles Puech, la Gnose et le Temps (Gnosis and Time). From the start, Doresse understood that these texts from Chenoboskion, much more numerous and evocative than those of Qumran, had greater historical significance.

Like the Qumran manuscripts, they relate to an age which, for the development of human consciousness, remains the greatest. This is the moment when the individual found himself most intensely placed before the problems of personal destiny and the destiny of empires and civilizations, which he regarded as definitely established. The central moment for these ages is the Cross. We know this today, but that age was the first to say it – we were in the presence of a veritable library that attested to the existence of a Gnostic Church which maintained links with groups located in other regions.

Very quickly, Doresse formulated the hypothesis that in all likelihood these were documents from the library of the monastery of Saint Pachomius, hidden there at the end of the 4th century, after the prohibition on Gnostic literature by Athanasius of Alexandria, and by the decrees of Emperor Theodosius I.

The Gospel Of Thomas

Such a discovery was not without consequences. Gnostic studies were soon drawn into an ever-expanding whirlwind that was difficult to curb. The eye of the storm was the Gospel of Thomas.

The more or less Christian apocrypha, used by the sectarians of Chenoboskion, was then given the authority of well-known apostles: James, Thomas, Philip, Matthias, John and Peter. The content of these texts is often trivial, not fundamentally contradicting that of the canonical Gospels, but distorting Christian doctrine and deviating from it. In general, the Gnostics of Chenoboskion wanted to introduce into their doctrine a false Christianity by hatching so-called Gospels put under the names of the Apostles, or even by placing certain revelations in the mouth of the Savior. Basilides had also fabricated a compilation of this kind.

Among these adulterated Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas made a lot of noise and gave rise to many rumors, not always of good quality. Many newspapers of the time argued, on the strength of false, distorted, or misinterpreted news, that this was nothing less than a “fifth Gospel;” that it revealed “unknown facts” about the life of Christ; or that it seemed “almost certainly” translated from Aramaic.

C.H. Puech then pointed out, rather fittingly, that to speak of a “fifth Gospel” did not make much sense. If we believe this to be so, then we would have to exclude the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) whose authority and authenticity has been determined by the Church. Or, we would have to recognize all works of the evangelical type as “gospels,” whether or not they were canonical; and we would then be dealing with an abundance of extra-canonical texts. And in that case, why give only a fifth place to the Gospel according to Thomas, or reserve that spot just for him, rather than any other work of the same sort?

This Gospel of Thomas is, in fact, nothing more than a collection of one hundred and fourteen logia; but it is the largest collection ever transmitted of the “Sayings of Jesus,” or “Words” attributed to Jesus. After a short preamble of four and a half lines, (and which already contains the first logion), the text is just made up of a series of sentences or words independent of each other, mechanically juxtaposed, outside of any systematic narrative-frame, and most often introduced by the stereotypical formula: “Jesus said.” An exordium which itself seems fictitious (no doubt added afterwards) specifies that these are the secret words that Jesus the Living said and that Didyma Jude Thomas wrote. It is written in Sahidic Coptic, and dates possibly from the second half of the 3rd century or, according to other specialists, from the 5th century.

Complete and written with admirable care, the Gospel of Thomas is the second of seven writings in the collection, where it appears between the long version of John’s Apokryphon and another apocryphal piece, the Gospel According to Philip. It is “apocryphal;” in other words, an esoteric text, or which takes itself as such, and which claims to record hidden, secret words, namely, words of Jesus. It is also a pseudepigraphic work since, despite its title and its preamble, both obviously fictitious, the writing cannot be traced back to the apostle, Didymus Judas Thomas. Far from uncovering unknown aspects of the life of Jesus, it presents no historical or narrative character; nor does it contain any account. And, if it relates some act of Christ, it is in an exception and merely schematic. Apart from the few lines at the beginning, it is exclusively made up of a series of words attributed to Jesus and placed end to end. Not a single one of these Words has any chance of going back to an Aramaic prototype.

Indirect sources knew of the existence of this gospel, but what is said is very vague or confusing. According to a tradition reported in the Pistis Sophia, Jesus would have, after his resurrection, entrusted to Thomas, as well as to Philip and to Matthew (or rather, as Theodor Zahn conjectures, to Matthias), the charge of relating all his actions and to record all his words. The three apostles, or disciples, would be the three witnesses whose testimony, according to Deuteronomy 19:15, and the Gospel of Matthew, would be necessary for the establishment of the truth. Thus transformed, at the whim of the Gnostics, into those of essential intermediaries, if not exclusive guarantors, of the authentic transmission of the integral and hidden teaching of Christ, their names – one could imagine – must have served to legitimize the fundamentals of the Gospels.

The introductory lines of the Gospel of Thomas can also be read, exactly reproduced in Greek, on the back of a papyrus of the 3rd century, unearthed in 1903, namely, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus No. 654. The papyri of Nag Hammadi, in fact, have made it possible to complete and rectify the Oxyrhynchus texts.

But are both the 3rd century papyrus and the Gospel of Thomas inspired by the same tradition? This is the first important question. Another is even more crucial – are all the words of Jesus collected in this Gospel, or, at least, some of them, “authentic?” Can they be traced back to Christ himself? Origen asked himself this; and with regard to one of the Sayings in this collection, Saint Jerome had to admit that there could be “gold in this mud.”

Although refusing all canonical authority to the apocrypha because of the falsehood that abounds in them (propter multa falsa), Augustine recognized that we sometimes find “some truth” in there. Puech’s response is cautious. If there are strong reasons to be assured of the inauthenticity of many of these new Sayings, all that we can do about those ones that give us pause is to establish, by more or less fragile criteria, that it is not impossible to suppose them to come from the tradition – written or oral – of contemporary Christian communities or close to the apostolic age. But, from that to concluding that they go back to Jesus Himself is leap into the unknown, the unverifiable. The Christian Church is founded primarily on authority, as was the Synagogue. The truth is what was taught by the founder and which is binding on the believer. Hence the need to know what Jesus said and what his immediate disciples heard.

However, a good number of Manichean texts exhumed, either in Central Asia or in Fayum, cite Words of Jesus which are found exactly, or with some variations, in the Nag Hamadi Library. In particular, we have only to compare the beginning of the Letter of Foundation (Epistola Fundamenti) of Mani, and the prologue to the Gospel according to Thomas, as it is restored to us, to be convinced that the founder of Manichaeism knew the same writing and was inspired by it on occasion.

But to work on a text, you need a translation, and the translation of the Gospel of Thomas was slow to appear. Years passed and the editorial work still had not borne fruit. In 1959, Jean Doresse then published L’Evangile selon Thomas (The Gospel According to Thomas), Volume II of work that began with Les livres secrets des gnostiques d’Egypt (The Secret Books of the Egyptian Gnostics). This scholarly work of his provided researchers with a working text. Three other editions were published at the same time as the French edition: English, German and Dutch.

But by publishing this work, Doresse pulled the rug out from under Puech. The following year, Puech published a so-called “critical” edition with three other researchers, all well-known scholars. They were in such a hurry to publish that they did not wait to include with the text and its translation the critical commentary which they were preparing or claimed they were preparing. The stakes were indeed high as to which would be the preferred scholarly reference edition, cited in prestigious journals, along with the name of the editor or editors.

By this time, however, Jean Doresse had already moved on from all this, having understood that it was all needlessly contentious, and had begun work on Ethiopia.

International Greed And The End Of Certain French Research

The first editorial project was not brought to a halt by Togo Mina’s death in 1949, as Professor James M. Robinson claimed. Rather, the project was hijacked by international passions, in particular Anglo-Saxon, which also put an end to French research that had remained of Christian and Catholic inspiration.

In the early 1960s, the Director General of UNESCO, the Frenchman, René Maheu, concluded an agreement with Saroite Okasha, the Minister of Culture, and the National Council of the United Arab Republic, to publish a complete edition, edited by an international committee, chosen by Egypt and UNESCO. But when it became known that several of the selected texts were already the subject of a publication project, the UNESCO endeavor was reduced to a facsimile edition which, in turn, remained more or less dormant.

Progress was not made until 1966, with the first International Colloquium on the Origins of Gnosticism, organized in Messina, at the initiative of Professor Bianchi, and which came at the end of three years of preparation. At the Colloquium, held from April 13 to 18, 1966, sixty-four topics, all mimeographed and distributed three months earlier to all registered participants, were discussed at length.

During one week and in general assembly, ten areas of research were reviewed: the current state of Gnostic texts; the definition of Gnosticism; Gnosticism and Iran; Gnosticism and Mesopotamia; Gnosticism and Egypt; Gnosticism and Qumran; Gnosticism and Judaism; Gnosticism and Christianity; Gnosticism and Hellenism; Gnosticism and Buddhism. The result was a document, which was first submitted for discussion and then went to approval by the participants. Then it was published in Italian, French, English and German, with a series of proposals concerning the scientific use of the terms, “gnosis” and “Gnosticism:”

“Gnosticism” – a term of modern creation – defines a movement of thought centered on the notion of “knowledge” (in Greek, gnôsis) which developed in the Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. On the other hand, the term “gnosis” – whose use is attested since the 2nd century indicates universal tendencies of thought which has in common the notion of knowledge, from which, for example, also derive movements as diverse as the Kabbalah, Manichaeism or Mandaeism.

While relevant, this distinction is not widely accepted today. A pity, as it does reflect the historical reality of the great constructions restored by the Apologists; and it does make it possible to account for gnosis as an anthropological phenomenon – the same leaven making bread of different shapes, often bewildering, baked with adulterated flour, and in general, largely inedible.

The Colloquium, at least, gave occasion for direct contact with the vestiges of Egyptian monasticism: an immense religious domain, extending over twenty kilometers in length and which contains the ruins of a set of more than seven hundred monasteries and hermitages erected from the 4th to the 9th century. The delegates spent a day in Wadi Natrun and visited three of the four Coptic monasteries that remain in the Nitrian Desert. They were delighted that the monastery of Saint Macarius, reduced to six old monks by 1969, had then more than forty. What now remains, however, is a long way from the fifty convents, most of which founded in the 4th century, which covered the site, and attested to the flowering of Christianity, as well as to the destructive power of Islam.

In 1970, UNESCO and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture founded the International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices and appointed Professor James M. Robinson, an expert in religious sciences as secretary, which made it easy for him to supervise the project, in collaboration with the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont (California). The Facsimile Edition of the Nag-Hammadi Codices was then published by Brill, and Harper and Row, in 12 volumes, between 1972 and 1984. Robinson then edited the American edition of these texts, completed in 1995. He was then closely associated, as editor general, with the publication of another collection of manuscripts of great importance for the study of Judaism and Christian origins, that of the so-called “Qumran” texts.

In 1987 a new English edition was published by the scholar Bentley Layton (Harvard University), entitled, The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations. The volume included new translations of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts, and also extracts from heresiarch authors and other Gnostic texts.

UNESCO Takes Over

In 1973, a new project took shape, a French one, this time. Professor Jacques-É. Ménard made numerous visits to the theological faculty of the University of Laval, at the invitation of Professor Hervé Gagné. It was only a matter of translating and editing the texts of Nag Hammadi into French. He considers the Gospels to be a matter of literature. Administrative responsibility for the first Quebec team was entrusted to Hervé Gagné, and Jacques-É. Ménard was appointed as the first principal researcher and scientific director of the project (he did also form and lead a team in Strasbourg). Michel Roberge was appointed as the second principal researcher, with the task of leading the Quebec team. The list of company employees varied over the years, among them Louis Painchaud, Anne Pasquier, Paul-Hubert Poirier and Michel Roberge.

This joint project between France and Canada aimed to produce, in separate booklets, critical editions of each of the Coptic texts of Nag Hammadi and Berolinensis Gnosticus 8502, accompanied by original French translations, followed by commentaries, indexes and a general index to the entire collection. The delays were chronic, and in the opinion of the Quebec team the French contribution did not match their commitments. In France, Jean-Pierre Mahé, director of studies in the section of philological and historical sciences of the l’École pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, Annie Mahé, as well as Bernard Barc, of the Jean-Moulin University of Lyon were early collaborators. As well, there were Einar Thomassen from the University of Bergen, Jean-Marie Sevrin, from the Catholic University of Louvain, and John D. Turner from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Despite the delays, an international network was set up, with French, as well as Belgian, Swiss, German, Italian, Norwegian and American, researchers. More than ten Quebec researchers and as many foreign researchers, historians of religions, biblists, philologists, Hebrew scholars, linguists, or specialists in ancient Christian literature, contributed directly to the three sections of the collection, Coptic Library of Nag Hammadi, published jointly by the Presses de l’Université Laval and Peeters of Louvain.

As well, a team of German academics, located in the former GDR, and composed of Alexander Bohlig and Martin Krause, as well as New Testament specialists, Gesine Schenke, Hans-Martin Schenke and Hans-Gebhard Bethge, prepared a German translation of the texts, which appeared in 2001, under the aegis of the Humboldt University in Berlin. From 1977, Laval University worked on a French edition of these texts under the editorship of Louis Painchaud, in a collection intended for scholars, namely, le Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi (The Coptic Library of Nag Hammadi). It was not until 2007 that the Pléiade edition appeared, by Gallimard, under the editorship Jean-Pierre Mahé and Paul-Hubert Poirier.

But in 2008, there was a new publication, in French, in the form of small pamphlets authored by Professor James Robinson, in the Jardin des livres collection. The back cover blurb was oddly sensational:

In 1945, manuscripts (revolutionary for Christianity) resurfaced in Egypt, in Nag Hammadi. But since their discovery, a sort of veil has covered their content since only specialists and enthusiasts know them. However, their importance is capital, because they complete the four Gospels of Mark, John, Matthew and Luke. It took the film Stigmata and the book The Da Vinci Code for the world to discover the presence of Mary Magdalene with Christ. the Jardin des livres collection is very proud to finally publish the work of Professor James Robinson, the great world specialist.

The world was supposedly “discovering” the presence of Mary Magdalene with Christ… The world had been aware of the presence of Mary Magdalene for two thousand years already. The nature of this presence, of course, varies depending on whether it is discovered under a Christian or a Gnostic propensity.

Each booklet was preceded by a long introduction by Professor Robinson, who described, with great precision, the conditions of the discovery (which Doresse never described with such precision), and Robinson gave the framework of the research. Then more sensationalism, to say the least:

And it was precisely through the exclusion of these texts and others of the same kind that the Jewish and Christian canons were formed. The second reason is that these texts were probably considered sacred by their ancient users, on par with the canonical Scriptures, if not more so. The third, which we tend to forget, is that these texts come back to life in contemporary religious culture. The Bible and the texts of Nag Hammadi are inseparable like the inverse and the reverse of the same tradition…

This is how the idea arose that Christianity was in a way a “gnosis” which gained succeed, with the corollary that the Catholic Church carefully concealed the evidence by preventing access by the faithful to these marvelous texts which contain hidden splendors.

But undoubtedly more seriously, this orientation of research has buried real perspectives opened by Doresse and Puech on the links between Gnosticism and Manichaeism.

Gnosticism And Manichaeism

By the discovery of the Chenosbokion manuscripts, the image of founders and their great Revelations was entirely shaken: they were no longer named Valentinus and Basilides (Alexandrian Gnostics that the heresiological Fathers had fought), but Nicotheus, Zoroaster and Zostrianos, Seth and Adam. Unlike the two Hellenized Alexandrians, the men who claimed to confer on these texts a status of great revelation most often concealed themselves under prestigious names, while the others taught under their own name, and no doubt wanted to be founders of schools.

We must therefore admit two successive moments in the history of Gnosis and Gnosticisms, and which perhaps have no close links: a pre-Gnosis which did not know Christianity and is supported by great names of “initiates” (and called to a great future), and a Gnosis, which was later more closely linked to Christianity and less discreet because it assumed itself as a clear rival. Pre-Gnosis, which perhaps preceded Christianity, preferred to remain discrete and in the shadows. While this pre-Gnosis was dying out in Egypt, when Pachomius launched Coptic monasticism, the great Alexandrian Gnosticisms took off in Eurasia, where they would meet Manichaeism and perhaps even Mani or his first disciples. The Acts of Archelaus (a work dating from the first quarter of the 4th century) is one of the main Christian works directed against the Manicheans, in which the author evokes a controversy that opposed Mani himself with the bishop of Kashqar in Mesopotamia. After the presentation of these discussions, the bishop recounts the life of Mani as well as that of his writings and we find in this part of the text a very precise passage on the Persian doctrines to which Mani would have resorted, as did also the Gnostic Basilides, one of whose works the bishop quotes.

Essentially, most of the Chenoboskion manuscripts do not belong to the Gnostic currents known to the Apologetic Fathers but to a current called “Sethiianism,” named after one of the alleged editors:

What forms the primitive basis of the doctrine of our Gnostics of Chenoboslion seems to be this set of revelations of Zoroaster and Seth, initially independent of Christianity, which may have arisen from daring speculations on the Old Testament.

These Gnostics had taken, it seems, something from a very particular literature of which only scraps now remain: writings composed in Greek and placed under the names of the Magi Zoroaster, Ostanes, Hystaspes, writings inspired by Iranian beliefs. From this literature arose a number of increasingly confused traditions, where Zoroaster, on occasion, changed faces to identify with the prophet Seth, son of Adam, while his descendant Saoshyant, became a figure of Jesus. This would explain why the Gnostics put some of their now lost writings under the names of Zoroaster and Zostianos, as well as of Seth and Adam.

It should also be remembered that we do not know much for sure about this mythical Zoroaster and the religion he founded, except that it is a Mazdaism reformed by a great religious genius (between a mage and prophet) about whom little has been written but much fantasized. As for Manichaeism, it is the sect founded by Mani (215-276), and which took an impressive rise in all of Eurasia. Mani claimed to be at the same time Buddha, Jesus and Zoroaster. An astonishing religious personality, he drew his doctrine from the few teachings of Baptist sects then active in Mesopotamia, (including the Elcesaites, in which he was educated, and is regarded as a Gnostic sect), as well as from Iranian mythical elements, and all blended with a very large part, the most important, of Gnosis which he knew directly.

Doresse summed up this complex story as follows: one day Manichaeism (the doctrine of Mani) came; he assimilated the main elements of expiring Gnosticism thus continuing them; he then transmitted them with his own doctrines in the Middle Ages.

At the end of the second century, with its more or less hidden multiform sects, Gnosis contaminated the entire Mediterranean world. Manichaeism appeared at the time when the great Alexandrian Gnosticisms disappeared, or more exactly spread into Eurasia where they disappeared. In reality, they undoubtedly disappeared less than melted into Manichaeism, attesting to this trait which is peculiar to it, as to Buddhism; a formidable lability, a capacity to penetrate into any apparently foreign body and to find its place there. We know that Mani claimed to be the Buddha, Jesus and Zoroaster. He thus assumed in his modest person the totality of religious history in order to bring it to the fulfillment it calls for.

When and how, then, were Christian elements, some authentic, others fictitious and fabricated, added to the oldest writings? Because it was from such a meeting that gnosis was authentically and definitively born, and without doubt, it should be pointed out, the Alexandrian Gnosticisms of the 2nd century (Basilides, Valentinus, Isidore, Marcion). There are better questions to ask. Is the Gnostic current of Chenoboskion rooted directly in Christianity already established in the manner of the great Alexandrian Gnosticisms (Basilides, Valentinus, Isidore), which founded a community after their excommunication from the Church? Is it transplanted directly into a composite, syncretistic soil? Is it related to currents of Judaism or to a specific rabbinical current, which we now know to have developed what is called “gnosis?” So-called primitive Christianity, in other words, apostolic, was already quite consistent, but it had given rise to all kinds of comments, questions, and also counterfeits. These Gnostics were able to draw inspiration either from these counterfeits or from apostolic Christianity which they then transformed substantially for their own ends, by mixing in Iranized or Egyptianized apocalypses.

The literature of these Lower Egyptian Gnostics includes great apocalypses presented as though composed in earliest times and kept under the care of fantastical powers in holy and mysterious places. The setting often presents Christian or Judeo-Christian characteristics: the Temple forecourt, the Mount of Olives. Not only that but also a geography from Iranian traditions.

Did this prepare for the advent of Manichaeism? This was the hypothesis made by Paul Monceaux in 1913. It was fair, but it was formulated at a time when only indirect sources were available (the notices of the Fathers). The hypothesis fell into the oblivion of university research, the cellars of which are deep. Puech and Doresse gave it new vigor. It was, however, buried again, thus neutralizing all research on the links between Gnosticisms and Manichaeism and their development throughout Eurasia.

Alongside this hypothesis, was the idea of a Eurasian inculturation of Christianity, parallel to the first Hellenistic inculturation which also saw itself buried for the benefit of extravagances nourished by literature and cinematographic fictions.

Gnosis: The Archetype Of Excessive Noesis

According to the historian of religions Mircéa Eliade, one of the great common denominators of all religions (or invariants), is a nostalgia for origins.

All… Except Christianity.

Gnosis claims to achieve an archetype of noetic plenitude, founded among other things on the idea of unity: it is a question of going beyond – most often by abolishing – the bipolarities and dualisms in which man finds himself a prisoner, or in which he thinks he is a prisoner; the first of these dualisms is that of spirit and matter. Gnosis implies nostalgia for a primordial Time, for a first origin where the soul is generally conceived as a divine spark which has fallen into matter and which has retained the memory of this divine origin.

This idea originated in the foothills of the Himalayas, and it gave birth to the doctrines of ensomatosis. Of all the symbol-religious systems, gnosis is the one that most often has recourse to those doctrines, thanks to which man projects himself and his destiny on to the screen of a mythical time where he relives endlessly his fall into matter and his ascent to imagined celestial origins. Hence the pervasiveness of the ideas of the circle, of paradise, of the pleroma, of hierogamy by which the pneumatic joins its ontological and transcendental “I.” It is understandable that Neo-Platonism played a preponderant role in Gnostic doctrines. We can better understand the mistrust of Christian theology, Byzantine as well as Latin, for Platonic philosophy.

Even though it is based on erratic and misleading thought, “gnosis” nonetheless responds to a powerful human need: the desire for heaven. The major idea is that of an ascent to a Primordial Unity, which implies a soul journey through which man rediscovers his soul, therefore himself. All ascension literature proceeds from this chimerical aspiration.

In fact, Christianity is the best antidote to this illusion of an archetype of noetic fullness. It frees us from images of the circle, of the obsession with origins, and when it postulates the immortality of the soul, it cannot be a divine particle, but a participating rational breath. If we admit that gnosis is knowledge, we must bring to light the fundamental Gnostic intuition which constitutes the ultimate hinge of this senseless quest, and it is of the noetic type.

However, our noetics has a complex philosophical history, since it inherited jointly, but not in the same proportions, nor at the same historical moment, from Aristotle and Plato. It was not until Thomas Aquinas that the idea of the substantial union of soul and body, and therefore of a soul (“form of the body,” animating principle, understood as an entelechy) was developed and formulated precisely, as being endowed with all that is necessary to live; that is to say to know God. But obviously the equipment is damaged by sin and it must be restored. When, in the quarrel with Averroes, Thomas Aquinas “bursts the Avicennian ceiling,” as Etienne Gilson rightly put it, he understood that the doctrine of Averroes, inherited from Avicennian gnosis, contained a Gnostic ferment.

Conclusion

Saint Irenaeus had seen with ironic perspicacity the nature of this spiritual charlatanism: “Nothing hinders any other, in dealing with the same subject, to affix names after such a fashion as the following: There is a certain Proarche, royal, surpassing all thought, a power existing before every other substance, and extended into space in every direction. But along with it there exists a power which I term a Gourd; and along with this Gourd there exists a power which again I term Utter-Emptiness. This Gourd and Emptiness, since they are one, produced (and yet did not simply produce, so as to be apart from themselves) a fruit, everywhere visible, eatable, and delicious, which fruit-language calls a Cucumber. Along with this Cucumber exists a power of the same essence, which again I call a Melon. These powers, the Gourd, Utter-Emptiness, the Cucumber, and the Melon, brought forth the remaining multitude of the delirious melons of Valentinus.”

Of all the elements of which Gnosticism is composed, none seems very original. The metaphysics is Neo-Platonism, with images and musings from the East, memories of Syria or Babylon. The moral is that of the Gospel, but often misguided, with Stoic formulas and tints of cynicism. The theories and rites of salvation, except for a few features which come from the Greek mysteries, are adventurous developments of conceptions which can be traced from Saint Paul to Origen. As for the mythology of Gnosticism, it is made up especially of borrowings from the old religions of the East, and marks a return to polytheism. Progress, if you will, but progress in reverse. And it is probably this mixture of Christianity and paganism, of religion and philosophy, East and West, which brought success to the Gnostic sects.
Gnostic pride has remained proverbial. Tertullian relates that they frowned in a mysterious manner when they said of their doctrine: “Hoc altum est” (This is profound).

Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.


The featured image shows folio 32 of Nag Hammadi Codex II, with the ending of the Apocryphon of John, and the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas, ca. 4rth century.

Arab Science: Dispelling The Ambiguity

Introduction

In 1883, Ernest Renan gave a lecture at the Sorbonne entitled, “Islamism and Science” (later published by Calmann-Lévy). It was the rationalist credo of a man of science who was familiar with history. Above all, it had the merit and interest of calling attention to an ambiguity, which had not escaped the Semitizer that he was, and which is contained in these words: “Arab science, Muslim civilization, Muslim science”.

This ambiguity has never been dispelled, and it is urgent to do so. Ernest Renan can actually be used in doing so.

His observation is simple: From about the year 775 until about the middle of the thirteenth century, there can be no doubt that there were very distinguished scholars and thinkers in Muslim countries. From this assumption was constructed the idea of an “Arab science,” of a “Muslim civilization” (today named as, “Islam, cradle of civilization”), even of a “Muslim science.” The ambiguity, meanwhile, has far from disappeared.

The Prominent Role Of Persia And Eastern Christians

What happened from the Hegira to the year 775, in other words, during the reign of the first four caliphs? Of course, “Omar did not burn the library of Alexandria;” but the principle that he conquered the world is infinitely more destructive: it attacks scholarly research and the very work of the mind. There is nothing more foreign to what can be called the “philosophy of science” than the first century of Islam.

Under the first four caliphs, there were no intellectual movements of a secular character. Islam was, “in the moment of conquest,” as the orientalists of the 19th century put it euphemistically, that is largely occupied with conquering, dominating, sowing desolation and ravaging the old lands of civilization.

But around the year 750, Persia gained the upper hand. It saw the dynasty of the children of Abbas come to triumph over the children of the Beni-Omeyrra. In other words, Persia chose the Abbasids against the Umayyads. The center of Islam was transported to the Tigris-Euphrates region.

This is where the traces of one of the most brilliant civilizations that the East has known can be found: that of the Sassanid Persians, who defeated the Arsacid Parthians, and took up the torch from the Achaemenids, whose brilliant state had been destroyed by Alexander. This Sassanid civilization experienced its zenith under the reign of Khosrow I Anushirvan. All tradition recognizes him as a great king. He did not just try to merely continue and resume a tradition of art and industry that had flourished for centuries; rather, he added to it an intellectual endeavor of great openness. Driven from Constantinople, the Eastern part of Greek philosophy took refuge in Persia.

Khosrow had books translated from India, which he commanded his personal physician, Burzoe, to personally research. The Fables of Bidpaï constitute one of the sources of our fabulist, Jean de la Fontaine. But this book disappeared when the Muslim armies arrived on the Iranian plateau, when the river, according to tradition, ran black with the ink of books. It was only later that this book of wisdom was rediscovered and translated from Pahlavi (Middle Persian) into Arabic, as Kalila wa Dimna , by Ibn al-Muqaffa, a Persian zindiq who had converted to Islam.

Above all, Christians of all persuasions formed the largest part of the population, for by then Persia was largely Christianized. They were well-versed in Greek science and philosophy, and medicine was entirely in their hands. Bishops were logicians, geometers. Khusrow founded the Academy of Gundishapur, the first medical university, a kind of “Silicone Valley” of its day.

When the followers of Muhammad arrived on the Iranian plateau, they put a stop to all this development for a hundred years.

But a century later, the rise of the Abbasids was akin to a resurrection of the brilliance of Khusrow Anushirvan. The Abbasids were like resurrected Sassanids. Persian troops, Persian leaders were at the head of this revolution. The founders – Abul-Abbas and especially Mansur, surrounded themselves with Persians. The intimate advisers of the princes, the prime ministers, were the Barmakids, a family from ancient Persia, who had converted to Islam late and without conviction. Christians soon surrounded these little believing caliphs – and with a sort of exclusive privilege, became their first doctors. The city of Harran, which remained pagan, and which had kept all the scientific tradition of the Greeks (and no doubt Indian) antiquity, as well as Syriac, provided the new school with a considerable contingent of scholars – foreign to the new revealed religion – especially skilled astronomers.

Baghdad thus stood as the capital of this resurgent Persia. All the great surviving tradition of the Gundishapur school was transported there.

Greco-Sassanid Science

Certainly, the language of conquest cannot be supplanted, religion cannot be completely denied. But the spirit of this new civilization was essentially mixed: The Parsis, the Christians, won. The administration, (especially the police) was in Christian hands.

All of these brilliant caliphs were hardly Muslims, and if they externally practiced the religion of which they were leaders, their spirit was elsewhere. They sought out the learning of India, old Persia and Greece. From time to time, the pietists appeared, and the caliph of the moment sacrificed his unfaithful friends or free thinkers. Then the breath of independence took hold again and he called back his scholars and his companions of pleasure.

The fables of the One Thousand and One Nights have fixed the features of this civilization, a curious mixture of official rigor and concealed laxity, where the serious arts, like those of the joyful life, flourished, thanks to the protection of misguided rulers of a fanatic religion.

The Syrian Christian doctors, continuers of the last Greek schools, well versed in philosophy, mathematics, medicine and astronomy were then employed by the caliphs to translate into Arabic the encyclopedia of Aristotle, Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy – the entire body of Greek science, but also Syriac, and undoubtedly also Indian.

A few more active minds were beginning to speculate on the eternal mysteries, with Al-Kindi in the lead. They were called filsuf; today they say falsafa; and afterwards, this exotic word was taken up within Islam but with a negative connotation. But rationalism prospered there: a sort of philosophical society, “Brethren of Purity” began to publish a philosophical encyclopedia; Al Fârâbî and Avicenna emerged; chemistry continued its underground work.

Muslim Spain took up these studies after the East; the Jews bring an active component of the collaboration there. Men like Avempace, Abubacer, Averroes elevated philosophical thought in the twelfth century to new heights.

This great ensemble which is called “Arabic” is called so only because what it wrote was in Arabic – and again, it also passed through a powerful Syriac corpus, largely destroyed, deliberately, in order to erase the traces of any existence of this Eastern Christianity. In fact, this “Arab science” was above all Greco-Sassanid. And a deep Christian leaven was its ferment.

The Awakening Of Europe

Science should have reached the West through Byzantium. But on the one hand, the treasures that they did not read, the Byzantines did not deign to share, and on the other hand, between the Latin world and the Byzantine world, religious discussions had created a deep antipathy, reinforced by the crusade of 1204. What Europe could not get from the libraries of Constantinople, where the originals were located, she sought out in the often-mediocre translations of a language which did not lend itself to rendering Greek thought, with all its abstraction and its subtleties.

It was through the Syriac and Arabic translations of books on Greek science and philosophy that Europe received the leaven of ancient tradition, necessary for the blossoming of its genius. For Greek science to reach Europe, it had to pass through Syria, Baghdad, Cordoba and Toledo. A poorly translated Greek science was sought out in Spain.

By the time Averroès died in Morocco, lonely and abandoned, Europe was on the rise. But it was predominantly Latin in its culture, and it had no Hellenists. We would have to wait another three hundred years for a Lefèvre d´Etaples, or a Budé.

From 1130 to 1150, an active college of translators, established in Toledo under the patronage of Archbishop Raymond, translated the most important works of this “Greco-Sassanid science in the Arabic language” into Latin. From the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Arab Aristotle entered the University of Paris. He had earlier entered the orbis litterarum through Boethius, but Boethius was not able to translate anything more than the Organon.

From around 1275, two shifts appeared. The first saw the Muslim countries enter into a state of the steepest decline. The second saw Western Europe resolutely take the path of the scientific search for truth. By the time Averroes became famous in the Latin schools, he was entirely forgotten by his co-religionists.

After the year 1200, there was no longer a single renowned philosopher within Islam. From 1200, philosophy and science were abolished in Muslim countries: philosophical manuscripts were destroyed (they burned the books of Averroes). Astronomy alone was tolerated to determine the direction of prayer.

Then the Turks took hegemony of Islam and manifested a complete lack of philosophical and scientific spirit. Apart from a few rare exceptions, like Ibn-Khaldun, Islam no longer had a broad mind. It killed off science and philosophy in its midst. It also killed a lot of men, women, children; and when it didn’t kill them, it oppressed them.

Among all the philosophers and scholars, only one was Arab: Al-Kindi. All the others were Persians, Transoxians – people from Bokhara and Samarkand (in other words from Central Asia), and Spaniards – from Cordoba, Seville. They used Arabic because it was the language of the dominant who had imposed themselves. In the 14th and 15th centuries, historians or historiographers of Islam were compilers and translators of encyclopedists – they did not innovate. But this corpus would reach nascent orientalist science, through Antoine Galland, then stationed in Constantinople. And, above all, thanks to the compilation work of Barthelemy d´Herbelot, the author of the Bibliothèque orientale.

Giving Arabia credit for science and philosophy is like giving credit for Latin Christian literature, the Scholastics, the Renaissance, the science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to Rome, because it is written in Latin.

Arab Science Or Muslim Science?

This science was not Arab. But was it Muslim? No, because this movement was the joint work of Persians, Christians, Jews, Harannians, (inhabitants of Harran), Ismailis and Muslims (who inwardly revolted against their own religion). This great movement received nothing but curses from Orthodox Muslims: Mamun was damned by theologians (the misfortunes which afflicted his reign were regarded as punishments for his tolerance of doctrines foreign to Islam). It was not uncommon for those who cultivated these studies to be called sendiks or zendiks – they were beaten in the streets, their houses burned down, and often the authorities put them to death.

Islam had always persecuted science and philosophy. Then it ended up suffocating both.

We must therefore distinguish three periods. The first, from the Hegira to the 7th century, is a period of conquest and crimes. But also barely concealed disbelief. The first Arabs, who joined the movement hardly believed in the Prophet’s mission.

Second, from the 7th to the 12th century, Islam, undermined by sects and tempered by a species of Protestantism (mutazilism) was less organized and much less fanatic than it was in the second age yet to come, and the work of the mind succeeded in maintaining itself.

Third came the absolute reign of dogma, without any possible separation of the spiritual and the temporal.

In the first half of the Middle Ages (the second period), Islam supported philosophy because it could not prevent it, for the it was without cohesion, and thus poorly equipped for terror. The policing was in Christian hands and was mainly engaged in pursuing Alid intrigues.

When Islam gained truly believing masses, it stifled everything. But at the same time, it destroyed the salt of the earth and the leaven which makes the dough rise. It turned conquered countries into regions that were closed to the rational cultivation of the mind. For Islam, research was pointless, frivolous, godless; the science of nature was an offense against God; historical science applying to times before Islam might revive old errors – and applying science to Islam might lay bare the extent of its devastation and its power of destruction and desolation.

Anyone who yet maintains a little lucidity today cannot fail to see the current inferiority of Muslim countries: the decadence of governed states, the intellectual poverty of those who derive their culture and education from this religion alone, and the boundless contempt. for other religions, which then authorizes all persecutions, exactions and the worst crimes of our times. And then there is the treatment inflicted on women. Believing that God gives fortune and power to whomever he sees fit, Islam has the deepest contempt for education, for science, and for everything that makes up the European spirit.

Conclusion

To all appearances, the Muslim world has entered a sort of fourth period. On the one hand, it has a mass of believers who have never questioned their doctrine, and who more often than not know nothing about the Koran which is not translated into their language. On the other hand, it has an army of fanatics. An army, and not just a few intellectuals – determined to do battle with a Europe that for several centuries held the destiny of the world in its hands. But which no longer holds them.

Islam intends to establish the kingdom of Allah on earth, which involves converting all peoples, and bringing the whole world under its own Law, the law of submission and oppression.

Conversion to Islam removes all religious diversity in the world. But not only that – It eliminates ethnic diversity: the Berber, the Sudanese, the Circassian, the Afghan, the Malay, the Egyptian, the Nubian who have become Muslims are that no longer. They are Muslims. Persia alone was an exception. French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Swabian, Croatian who have become Muslims will no longer be all those. They will only be Muslims.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

(The original article in French was translated by N. Dass)


The featured image shows an imaginary debate between Averroes and Porphyry, from Monfredo de Monte Imperiali’s Liber de herbis, 14th century.

Aramaic: Lingua Franca Of The Ancient World

It is only in Heaven that we will see the truth about everything. On earth, it is impossible. So, even for Sacred Scripture, isn’t it sad to see all the differences in translation. If I had been a priest, I would have learned Hebrew and Greek, I would not have been satisfied with Latin, as I would have known the real text dictated by the Holy Spirit.
(Saint Therese of Lisieux, “The Last Interviews,” in the Yellow Book of Mother Agnès, August 4, 1897).

Thérèse of Lisieux is undoubtedly right, but to learn the language in which our Lord deigned to express himself, we must ask ourselves what that language was. Jesus could not ignore the Hebrew language, that of Revelation, but it was then no more than a liturgical language, what today we would call a “dead language.” The oral language, the language of communication, was Aramaic, the history of which begins with that of the men who brought it with them.

These Aramaeans were Semites who burst out of the desert to conquer the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and Syria. They went everywhere, settling, seizing supplies, creating little kingdoms.

Then arose Assyria, the empire of war, of force, of power – the “Hitlerites of the ancient world.” As soon as Assyria awakened, the various small Aramaic kingdoms disappeared, one after the other. But they left their language and their gods to the world.

This language, the Assyrians themselves would adopt. On several figurative documents concerning Aramaic origin, in particular on one of the frescoes of Til Barsip, we see depicted side-by-side an Assyrian scribe who writes on a tablet, and an Aramaic scribe who writes on a sheet of parchment or papyrus (13th century to the 9th century BC). But what the Assyrians instituted was not a properly Mesopotamian dialect of Aramaic but common Aramaic. Thus, a body of Aramaic scribes was officially constituted inside Assyrian administration.

In 632 BC, the Assyrians disappeared from the face of the earth. Then a new power arose – the Persians.

They were called the Achaemenids, among whom the prominent name is Darius the Great. With the Achaemenids, the Iranians became “the imperial race of Asia,” to use Roman Ghirshman’s phrase. In terms of political organization, Greece hardly arose beyond the polis – the State remained the City there. The Persians, for their part, developed an entity which, in its unity, encompassed countries of various races and cultures, united by the cogs of a vast administration. and above all else, these peoples were protected by a powerful army against foreign domination (especially against the persistent threat of nomads from the North and East). This empire, which remained a warrior one, was nevertheless driven by a desire for association rather than the thirst for domination, so characteristic of Assyria that always retained a powerful fascination.

The Achaemenids also made the linguistic choice of Aramaic, for reasons, no doubt, a little different than those which motivated the Assyrians; and it indeed seems to be a more conscious choice.

The use of cuneiform for writing Old Persian dates back at least to Teipses (as evidenced by the gold tablet of his son, Ariaramnes). At the time of the transformation of the small kingdom of Pars into empire, this language and this writing were only accessible to a minority of the ruling class. However, the rapidity of the formation of the Achaemenid Empire precluded the possibility of translating Persian into all languages. It was therefore necessary to choose an already existing language. But, also, by this time, Aramaic had spread throughout anterior Asia to western Iran. It was therefore Aramaic that the Persians adopted.

The Achaemenids had three other languages of culture, but it was this fourth language that they chose. Persia owes a great deal to the Kingdom of Urartu. From Urartu came the use of the breastplate. The Urartians transmitted their arts and techniques to the Iranians, as well as their strategy of conquest in their great symbols. According to Herodotus (III, 85), Darius obtained his crown thanks to his squire and his horse, just like King Rusa of Urartu. The traditions of the Urartian chancelleries were followed by the Persians: it is only in the Urartu texts that a royal inscription is divided into parts, so each one begins with “Thus spoke King X…,” which is found in the inscriptions of Achaemenid kings.

The most famous piece of Achaemenid glyptic belongs to Darius the Great. It is inscribed with his name and bears a text written in three languages. The use of cuneiform writing was not, however, completely abandoned, though it was reduced to stone inscriptions on monuments.

Thus, being already a lingua franca throughout the Near and Middle East, with the Achaemenids, Aramaic took on the status of an official language throughout Asia; and it remained in use, in particular in state affairs, from Egypt to India, where documents written in Aramaic have been found. If in Elam, one wrote in Elamite, and in Babylon in Babylonian, then all the Persian chancelleries used Aramaic.

The Achaemenid Persians also then were the enemy to be defeated, for Alexander the Great. The archives of the Achaemenid Empire were kept in Ecbatana (the Bible makes it clear), and the excavations at Persepolis and Suza confirm this. Alexander stored there all the treasures of the capitals looted during his campaigns.

This Hellenization, which is held to be the marvelous consequence of this lightning raid of unheard-of insolence, actually began long before, and rather peacefully. It was when the ancient kingdom of Urartu was formed (ca. 800 BC) that a slow expansion of the Greeks around the coasts of Asia Minor took place. Greek merchants had found on the Pontic coast iron, wax, linen, wool, precious metals, cinnabar, bronze, wood, furniture, fabrics, as well as Elamite and Median embroidery. Iran was not excluded from trade between Greece and the East. On the contrary, there was an Irano-Urartian koine, which then extended from the Oxus to the Ganges, and indisputably linked artistic traditions (some attest to the links between Crete and Iran), and therefore to techniques, in particular, metallurgy. And all interaction was probably not in one language.

Alexander’s conquest marked a pause in the development of Persian art (constant for seven centuries), as in all likelihood the use of Aramaic also marked a pause. But Alexander’s empire did not last. Thereafter, the Parthians came to the forefront of history, firmly determined to oust the Seleucid monarchy, one of the three monarchies that were heir to Alexander, and thus to reconquer Iran. They took a little over a century to accomplish all this. At the time of the Achaemenid Empire, the region where these Parthians settled existed under the name of the “Parthian satrapy.”

The Parthian Empire was born in a great expansion of the Iranian tribes of the steppes which spread to the four corners of the horizon, from the Black Sea with the Sarmatians, to the mouth of the Indus with the Saka, and from the Euphrates with the Parthians to eastern India with the Kushans. This vast area, despite the diversity of peoples and countries, climates and landscapes that it contained, became what René Grousset called, “outer Iran,” where a composite yet enduring civilization was established. Such was the Parthian element that founded, rebuilt, enriched, and stabilized civilization in this part of the world.

Much of Parthian history took place during the reigns of thirty-two kings, all of whom bore the same name, Arsaces; hence the Arsacid dynasty If they chose the path of Iranism, it was not only because they believed it more capable of supporting them in their fight against the Seleucids, then vis-a-vis the Romans who claimed to realize in their Eastern policy the imperialist conceptions of ‘Alexander the Great, but because the Parthians were more Iranian than Greek. It was not just a political choice, but a deep affinity. It was a conscious decision, not solely a political choice.

And for this reconquest and this refoundation, the Parthians relied on the language that the Achaemenids, of whom they considered themselves to be successors, had adopted before them, namely, Aramaic, which was also then made the language of the chancellery. The ostraca that have been found are either bilingual (Indo-Aramaic, or Greco-Aramaic), or only in Aramaic. This means that Aramaic extended as far as the Kushan empire and therefore Bactria, which had long been Hellenized (historians speak of the Greco-Bactrians).

Their empire lasted five centuries, and it was nurtured by an unprecedented event.

In 105, King Mithridates II received the first Chinese embassy in his capital of Hecatompylos. He concluded a commercial treaty with China, which guaranteed him monopoly on silk. The center of gravity of the Persian world now changed – from the banks of the Tigris, it moved towards Bactria and Sogdiana. Many cities were then transformed into merchant cities, provisioning and training the leaders of the caravans, including Palmyra, which was to be called to a singular destiny.

Thus, under the pax parthica, in the first century of our era, two men set out. One was called Bartholomew, the other Thomas. In the heart of Asia, where Iran was the cultural engine, but which had chosen the Semitic language of Aramaic, and within an empire which felt a particular sympathy for the Jewish world, these two men were to go far, even to the ends of the earth, to evangelize and to found churches.

The Word not only prepared His coming, He also prepared the conditions for the dissemination of His Message. And by learning the language in which our Lord deigned to speak, we can focus on understanding the role that that language has played in history in general and in that of Christians in particular.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

[The original article in French was translated by N. Dass]


The featured images shows “the Kandahar Sophystos Inscription,” ca. 260 BC, or later. It is a metrical, bilingual (Greek and Aramaic) inscription. The Greek acrostic down the side reads: “ΔΙΑ ΣΩΦΥΤΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΝΑΡΑΤΟΥ (Dia Sophytou tou Naratou): By Sophistos, son of Naratos.”