Hymn of the Pearl and the Shroud of Turin

thomas There is a wonderful early 3rd century text called the Acts of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas). Many scholars argue it is Gnostic and the Catholic Church has called it heretical. But that does not diminish its significance for historians. It is the legendary story — true, partly true or false — of the apostle Thomas’ (Judas Thomas or Thomas Judas Didymus) mission to India and his martyrdom. Authorship is often attributed to the Gnostic poet Bardesane of Edessa, perhaps as early as 216 CE).

Within the Acts of Thomas is an extraordinary Syriac poem, The Hymn of the Pearl, (also known as the Hymn of the Robe of Glory and the Hymn of the Soul). The poem is thought to be older than the Acts of Thomas. It is inserted in different places in different versions of the Acts found among early Greek and Syriac Christian traditions.

Within the Hymn of the Pearl there are a few lines of poetry that are intriguing. These lines, referred to as the “two images segment,” seem to have been inserted into the hymn. This is one common translation of those lines with optional interpretations (other translations appear after the fold):

Suddenly, I saw my image on my [burial] garment like in a mirror

Myself and myself through myself [or myself facing outward and inward]

As though divided, yet one likeness

Two images: but one likeness of the King [of kings]

pearl_26 What could these lines possibly mean? The poem does not offer a clue.

If we infer from the context of the poem that the first-person speaker of these lines is Jesus (contextually justifiable in a stylistic sense and not a literal sense) then these words might be a wonderful description of the Shroud of Turin, Jesus’ purported burial shroud.

On the shroud, we find two images: one facing outward and one facing inward, though the modern interpretation is usually expressed as a front and back image.

eusebius This hypothesis is reinforced by the Legend of Abgar, as related by Eusebius of Caesarea in the early 4th century. According to Eusebius, a cloth bearing an image of Jesus was brought to Edessa by the apostle Thomas or the disciple Thadeus (of the biblical 70).

The words, “like in a mirror,” are puzzling. Several interpretations have been suggested: 1) The image is a collimated image as is, indeed, a mirror. 2) The image is reversed left to right, also an attribute of an image in a mirror. 3) The image is life size. 4) The image on the shroud is a negative and this is a primitive attempt to describe negativity.

There is little question that the Hymn of the Pearl, originated in the Mesopotamian city of Edessa. And it was in Edessa, in 544 AD, that the Edessa Cloth was discovered — the cloth that we now know, from solid historical records, was a full burial cloth in which . . .

You can see [not only] the figure of a face, but [also] the figure of the whole body.

– The Codex Vossianus Latinus

The Rev. Albert Dreisbach, an Episcopal priest who studied the Shroud of Turin for many years asks us . . .

to ponder what these seemingly strange expressions might mean, if they do NOT have reference to the Turin Shroud . . .

Other Translations of the Hymn of the Pearl

Hans Jonas:

it seemed to me suddenly to become a mirror-image of myself: myself entire I saw in it, and it entire I saw in myself, that we were two in separateness, and yet again one in the sameness of our forms…And the image of the King of kings was depicted all over it.

 

M. R. James:

but suddenly, [when] I saw the garment made like unto me as it had been in a mirror.

And I beheld upon it all myself (or saw it wholly in myself) and I knew and saw myself through it,

that we were divided asunder, being of one; and again were one in one shape.

Yea, the treasurers also which brought me the garment

I beheld, that they were two, yet one shape was upon both, one royal sign was set upon both of them.

 

William Wright:

on a sudden, when I received it,
the garment seemed to me to become like a mirror of myself.

I saw it all in all,
and I to received all in it,

for we were two in distinction
and yet gain one in one likeness.

And the treasurers too,
who brought it to me, I saw in like manner

to be two (and yet) one likeness,
for one sign of the king was written on them (both),

 

Quaker scholar Hugh McGregor Ross:

But suddenly when I saw my garment reflected as in a mirror,

I perceived it was my whole Self as well,

and through it I recognized and saw myself.

For, though we derived from one and the same we were partially divided;

and then again we were One, with a single form.

 

Unknown Popular Translation:

But all in the moment I faced it
This robe seemed to me like a mirror,

And in it I saw my whole self
Moreover I faced myself facing into it.

For we were two together divided
Yet in one we stood in one likeness. 

 

For more information see Hymn of the Pearl and the Shroud of Turin

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