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Excerpt from the Perfect Discourse (Asclepius 21-29)

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Estimated Range of Dating: 250-300 A.D.

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Jean-Pierre Mahé writes (The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, pp. 425-426):

The eighth tractate of Nag Hammadi Codex VI derives from a teaching of Hermes Trismegistus to his main disciples Asclepius, Tat, and Ammon (72,30). Only small fragments of the Greek original, whose title was Perfect Discourse, have been preserved. The Latin Asclepius, sometimes attributed to Apuleius, provides us with a complete version of the work. However, a comparison of all the extant evidence proves that the Coptic is a fairly accurate translation from the Greek, whereas the Latin is a rather free adaptation.

The Coptic Excerpt from the Perfect Discourse contains the central elements of the dialogue (Asclepius 21-29), with a vibrant eulogy to Egypt. More than any other Hermetic writing, this text raises the question of the links between Alexandrian culture and old Egyptian literature and civilization. We cannot fully explain the prediction of Tismegistus concerning Egypt and its gods by simply looking for hints in the historical events of the third century CE. In fact, the text revives a literary genre that appeared as early as the first intermediate period (2190-2070 BCE). The Lamentations of Ipou-our, from that period, is not exactly a prediction. It deplores the present misfortune of Egypt and recalls the happiness of the old days. It concludes by describing an appeasement, which is less a prophecy than a wish. Nevertheless, its evocation of foreign invasions, slaughters, inversion of moral values, and exaltation of traditional piety are rather close to our Hermetic oracle.

Later on, about 2000 BCE, Neferty's Prediction pretends to foretell to Snefru, the father of Kheops, the disturbances of the first intermediate period and the successful reign of Amenemhat I. As in the Perfect Discourse, the text has two parts: it anticipates a catastrophe and the gradual restoration of order. Through foreign invasions, human disorder brings about cosmic disasters. The Demotic Chronicle of the third century BCE comments upon several oracles concerning the last Egyptian pharaohs as well as Persian and Macedonian invaders. Just like the Hermetic writer of the Perfect Discourse (74,7-11), the chronicler refers to astral necessity to account for the rebirth of Egypt after foreign domination.

Shortly after the victorious campaigns of Ptolemy III (246-231 BCE), who had brought back to Egypt the statues of the gods captured by the Persians, the Oracle of the Lamb offers what is intended as a prediction of these events to King Bocchoris (722-716 BCE). Likewise, in the Perfect Discourse, Hermes foretells to his disciples (75,27-33) the retreat of the gods and the foundation of the Alexandrian shrines.

About 130 BCE, the Greek Oracle of the Potter - a cryptic name of Khnum, the ancestral god of the Hermetic Good Genius - deals with the same themes as Trismegistus: withdrawal of the gods, foreign wars, omnipresence of death, return of Egypt to the desert, horrible crimes, perversion of values, cosmic perturbations, and final restoration of order. Just as in the Oracle of the Potter, the prediction of Trismegistus in the Perfect Discourse contains an invocation to Egypt (70,36) and an allusion to "a city that is in a corner of Egypt" (75,28-29), which is sure to be Alexandria.

However, when the Hermetic dialogue was written in the late third century, Egypt had been open to foreign cultural influences for several centuries. Thus, although our text is quite different from Jewish apocalyptic, the mention of "wicked angels" leading men into evil deeds (73,5-12) may well be an echo of the book of Enoch. Moreover, the Hermetic author of the Perfect Discourse revisits the Egyptian myth of successive births of the cosmos in the light of Greek physics and philosophy. The harmonious functioning of the universe demands a balanced sharing of the four elements. Whenever some disorder brings about the overabundance of fire or water, human beings become victims either of drought or flood. In spit of the Nile's protection, Egypt undergoes such calamities (73,32) until the demiurge restores his previous creation (74,1).

Furthermore, the judgment of the soul and its journey in the underworld are well known in pharaonic literature. But Trismegistus portrays aerial hells that are nothing like the Egyptian underworld. He adapts Plato's myths of the great beyond (Gorgias 524d; Phaedo 107d; Republic X, 614a) to cosmological ideas of his time concerning the heavenly spheres and the various obstacles that may thwart the ascent of the soul toward the uppermost dwellings of blessedness. Thus, despite authentic and quite distinctive Egyptian colors, the Perfect Discourse also displays cultural features of the Hellenistic and Roman period.

Birger A. Pearson writes, "The extended apocalypse on the fate of Egypt is of special interest. It has been argued that the foreigners referred to, who established a new law, are the Christians, who have overturned the native beliefs of the Egyptians. That is unlikely, for the Perfect Discourse is attested already in the early fourth century, before the legalization of Christianity and before its establishment in the Empire by Constantine. The apocalypse shows some influence from Stoic notions of cosmic cycles. The world's destruction in a conflagration is followed by a new cycle in which the world is restored and given a new beginning. But more to the point is the influence reflected in it of apocalypses composed in Upper Egypt in which the establishment of the city of Alexandria and Greek reule by the Macedonian Ptolemies are vigorously attacked. Those Egyptian apocalypses contain prophecies of the evils that will come to Egypt with foreign rule, and the eventual restoration of native kingship. ... Asclepius, the 'Perfect Discourse,' was probably composed in Upper Egypt in the late third century. The excerpt in Codex VI was probably translated into Coptic sometime in the fourth century." (Ancient Gnosticism, p. 289)

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Kirby, Peter. "Excerpt from the Perfect Discourse (Asclepius 21-29)." Early Christian Writings. <>.