Easter holidays in Norway are associated with reading crime novels, to such an extent that the eloquent term “Påskekrim” has been coined! Although it is hard to ascertain the origins of the tradition, the way one can celebrate the coming of spring in the Norwegian latitudes is traditionally linked with a trip to a mountain cottage, where the options for leisure are rather restricted, although not at all lacking in pleasure!
We just came back from our own snowy Easter in the mountains of Hordaland, where the literature read was not unrelated to mysteries: “Mystery and Secrecy in the Nag Hammadi Collection and Other Ancient Literature: Ideas and Practices. Studies for Einar Thomassen at Sixty”, edited by Christian H. Bull, Liv Ingeborg Lied, and John D. Turner, and published this year by Brill.
We will not venture here into a detailed presentation of this Festschrift
, the quality of which is guaranteed both by the academic credentials of the contributors and by Thomassen himself, whose excellency in scholarly performance necessitates similar efforts and results from all who had the honor to honor him with this volume.
What we will attempt, however, is a contribution to Thomassen and to the works assembled in his Festschrift from a Medieval Nubian perspective. For there are five instances that the word “mystery” appears in the Christian literature discovered at sites of the Middle Nile Valley.
The first instance is the Old Nubian translation of the very evocative for the topic of the Festschrift phrase from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, 2:7:
“But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification”.
This is discussed in the volume in three instances, but it naturally occupies a pivotal place in the paper “Mystery and Secrecy in Paul” by B.A. Pearson, in pages 287-302.
There is no reason to turn to the Nubian text itself here. Gerald M.Browne’s philological analysis in page 36 of the Bibliorum Sacrorum Versio Palaeonubiana (Louvain 1994) is more than enough for those who wish to “hear” how the Nubians perceived the Pauline mission of the revelation of the mysteries of God to all humans.
But if we “hear” the conclusion of Pearson, we will soon apprehend an interesting coincidence. We quote from page 301: “For Paul, the ‘mystery’ hidden by God until now has to do with the redemptive crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, which is the heart of the gospel that Paul preaches”.
The coincidence, then, lies in the fact that the rest of the instances of the term “mystery” in Old Nubian literature comes from the so-called Stavros text, linked with the important Late Christian site of Serra East. The three passages are in page 3, line 8, page 5, lines 1-2 and 4-5, and page 7, lines 3-4.
Despite the editions by Griffith (“The Nubian Texts of the Christian Period”, Berlin 1913, pp. 41-53) and Browne (“Griffith’s Stavros Text”, Studia Papyrologica 22 (1983), pp. 75-119), these passages are worth analyzing a bit closer.
The first one, from page 3, lines 8-11:
A literal translation would be: “A mystery impossible to be told, that to us revealing he gave”.
In other words: “Jesus gave to us by revelation an ineffable mystery”.
In the syntax of this phrase two words stand out: “mystery” and “revelation”. The former is a sort of an extraposited object and the latter a verb set in the adjunctive. They are both linked with a process of telling and such an oral revelation in Nubia is inevitably related to the multilingual character of the Christian society in the medieval era. So, it is very interesting that the process of revealing is expressed by a Nubian verb
while the mystery itself is a loan word from the Greek vocabulary with the very common Nubian suffix -OY.
The first person plural of the indirect object (OYKA) refers to the Apostles who met Jesus on the Mount of Olives forty days before his Ascension, as is explained in the introduction of the work.
The next two instances come from the first question addressed to Jesus by Peter.
We are in page 5, lines 1-7, and the passage has been translated by Browne as follows:
“…you have revealed to us every mystery, and now reveal to us the mystery which we ask you”.
Finally, in the first four lines of page 7, the question is put straightforwardly by Peter:
“…cause us to know the mystery of your glorious cross”.
In these three phrases, the same two words are used both for the act of revealing the mystery and for the mystery itself. But when the discourse of Jesus, which follows and explains the mystery of the cross to the Apostles, is concluded in page 16, the Apostles exclaimed that they have “…heard that which is the message of the Savior…” (page 16, line 13 – page 17, line 2). Thus, the “mystery” expressed by the Greek term has now become a “message” expressed by a Nubian word:
Subsequently, from the end of the next page (18, line 12) until page 27, forty-seven phrases praise the power of the cross, for all to hear/read the “message” and learn the “mystery”. However, such literary works aim far from popularizing the Christian wisdom to all Christian folk, and it becomes intriguing to wonder whether there is any more secrets hidden behind a probably intentional choice of the number 47 in this listing of the powers of the cross.
In any case, it is rather clear that, in the process of the revelation of the mystery, the alterity of the divine truth can become accessible by all the congregation who attend the religious event in a Nubian church and hear or read the divine truth revealed in the local language.
Finally, the discoveries at Serra East again of an Old Nubian version of the pseudo-Chrysostomian In venerabilem crucem sermo (Browne 1984), and of another similar Coptic manuscript containing a sermon on the Cross by Cyril of Jerusalem (nowadays kept at the British Library, Or. 6799), as well as of a very similar Coptic text at the monastic site of Qasr el Wizz, exactly opposite the site of Serra East on the west bank of the Nile, have thrown light on Christian Nubian literacy in general; but more particularly, they bear eloquent testimonies of one of the least known aspects of the modes of propagation of the Christian faith to the ends of the Christian oecumene, namely the appropriation of Greek and Coptic literature by the Nubians of the medieval kingdoms in the Middle Nile Valley.