The Hymn of the Pearl
One of the most elegant compositions of early Christianity, the “Hymn of the Pearl” is embedded in the third-century Acts of Thomas (see p. 122).1 Most scholars agree, however, that the hymn was composed by a different hand and at an earlier date. On the surface, it appears to be a simple folktale of a prince sent by his royal parents on a mission to snatch a pearl from the lair of a ravenous dragon in Egypt, only to arrive at his destination and forget his task and identity, needing a message from the royal court to be awakened from his torpor and reminded of who he is. He then seizes the pearl and returns to the glories of his father’s realm. The hymn may be something far more than a simple folk tale, however. Hints within the text itself—such as the “knowledge” (literally “gnosis”) connected with the prince’s heavenly garment (l. 88)—along with parallels to other literature, suggest that the story represents a Gnostic allegory of the incarnation of the soul, which enjoys a glorious heavenly existence (“my father’s palace”) from which it descends (to “Egypt”) to become entrapped in matter (“clothed myself in garments like theirs”). Forgetting whence it came, the soul eventually relearns its true nature from a divine emissary. When it awakens to its true identity (“son of kings”), it returns to its heavenly home where it receives the full knowledge of itself. If the “Hymn of the Pearl” was written in a Gnostic milieu, only later to be incorporated into the Acts of Thomas, it may have been composed sometime in the late second century.
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When I was a little child, in my fa ther’s palace, And enjoyed the wealth and luxury of those who nurtured me, My parents equipped me with provi
sions and sent me out from the East, our homeland. From the wealth of our treasury they gave me a great burden,
See further Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 39–41.
Translation by J. K. Elliott, Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 488–91; used with permission.