One of the most endearing writings found in early Christianity is known as the “Hymn of the Pearl.” This text has immediate appeal to readers of all levels and resonates a beautiful message of a soul’s journey from a premortal home, through mortality, and back to heavenly parents. To this extent, the poem can be seen as an early Christian counterpart to the early Latter-day Saint hymn “O My Father.”
The Hymn of the Pearl is quoted1 in an apocryphal work entitled The Acts of the Apostle Thomas, probably named after Didymus Judas Thomas,2 the same Thomas who doubted Christ’s resurrection. Many manuscripts of the Acts survive, but only two contain the Hymn of the Pearl; one is a Syriac version and the other is in Greek.3 The original text of the hymn appears to have been written in Syriac, probably in the first or second century A.D.4
In The Acts of Thomas, we find Thomas imprisoned in India,5 imploring the Lord for deliverance. When he finishes praying for himself and for the other prisoners, he sits down and begins to recite the Hymn of the Pearl. The hymn tells of the journey of a soul through a treacherous kingdom in order to recover a sacred pearl and to return with it to awaiting parents. The whole poem is spoken by the soul in the first-person singular, making it beautifully personal. The composition begins with the soul as a young boy in his primeval childhood, being nurtured in the royal house of his parents, the King of Kings and the Queen of the East. One day his parents instruct him that he is to leave home and his glittering robe and garments and take a journey down into Egypt to find there a pearl guarded by a terrible serpent. The parents covenant with him that, if he recovers the pearl and returns home with it, he will be allowed to put his glorious robes back on and will be made an heir in the kingdom together with his oldest brother, the second in command. Accordingly, he leaves home with a bundle of provisions prepared for him, and with a pair of guides, he makes his way for Egypt.
He is left on his own just outside of Egypt, and he decides to head straight for the serpent, because, if he can catch it asleep, he can easily snatch the pearl away and accomplish his mission. Outside the den he settles in, waiting for the serpent to fall asleep, and while there, encounters a young man from his homeland, whom he takes in as a partner and companion and whom he warns about the wickedness of the Egyptians. He also decides to dress himself in Egyptian clothes in order to blend in with them lest they recognize him as a foreigner and call the serpent against him. The Egyptians, however, detect him and trick him into eating their food. The food has the effect of a drug, making him forget who he is and that he is on a mission; soon he is serving the king of Egypt.
Meanwhile, his parents and oldest brother see his plight and in council decide that they must write a letter commanding him to wake up and to remember that he is a son of royalty and that he is on a sacred mission. All the nobles of the kingdom sign the letter, the king seals it with his right hand, and it is sent. The letter reaches the boy, wakes him up from his sleep, and reminds him of his origin and his purpose. Determined to fulfill his mission, he puts the serpent to sleep by invoking the name of his father, his mother, and his elder brother. He seizes the pearl, sheds the filthy clothes of the Egyptians, and makes a journey back to his home in the East. As he approaches his home, his beautiful robe and garments are sent out to him, and after dressing himself in them, he reenters the home of his parents with the pearl. There he is lovingly received and made an heir to the kingdom together with the eldest brother.
LDS readers can immediately sense the potential significance of the Hymn of the Pearl since many of its elements are consistent with fundamental LDS precepts. In addition to the obvious symbols are some subtle ones, and these symbols have caught the attention of several scholars. For example, Hugh Nibley has outlined possible LDS interpretations for many parts of this text.6 Nibley sees the hymn as the reflection of a ritual journey of the soul, a journey of “deliverance from the dark prison of this world and of the underworld.”7 Accordingly, the main character in the hymn is the redeemed soul, probably of a typical good Christian, retelling the story of personal salvation and deliverance. Especially intriguing to Nibley is the bundle of treasures given to the soul before the soul leaves its premortal existence.8 In his view, the treasures are “the treasures of wisdom” or the knowledge of ordinances, especially those of the temple,9 and the garment left behind symbolizes the premortal glory of the soul and the robe of the priesthood.10
The soul travels down through Babel and into Egypt, which represent the materialistic world and “spiritual Sodom,” or the telestial world.11 The pearl that the soul must find there is in fact the soul itself, “rescued and returned from the depths.”12 The serpent guarding the pearl embodies all obstacles that would impede progress and spiritual growth. The Egyptian food that puts the soul to sleep could have various LDS interpretations, such as sin or pride; Nibley, however, favors the view that it represents the false philosophies of men.13
Concerning the robe sent to the soul as it returns home, Nibley wishes to see this encounter in a ritual sense, although the text is problematical and hence most translations of this passage are obscure. Nibley emphasizes the point that the text clearly involves a message “whispered,” although “all the translators are puzzled by the context.”14 Passing through this stage, the soul is received back to its heavenly family, where it receives the promised rewards. Significantly, the hymn mentions not only the soul’s father, the King of Kings, but also the soul’s mother, the Queen of the East, along with the elder brother and second in command, who together send the letter from the heavenly home to the sleeping soul.
While the hymn lends itself well to an LDS interpretation, one needs to be aware of the problems in such an understanding as well. The text has puzzled many scholars, who have placed it in various contexts, including pre-Christian gnosticism, Syrian Christianity, Iranian or Egyptian religion, Hellenistic miracle stories, or Greek worship of Helios in Syria.15 For example, the hymn contains many common gnostic elements,16 and thus some of its symbolism is difficult to accommodate within an LDS framework. For instance, difficulties arise when one recognizes that the pearl was already in place in Egypt before the king’s son was sent to retrieve it. Under Gnosticism this is easily explained: The pearl is not the soul of the main character, but rather a lost soul needing to be freed by a savior, the king’s son. But in freeing the pearl, the king’s son himself must be freed when he eats the food of the Egyptians. The hymn, then, becomes a story with two levels: one of a lost soul saved and another of a savior saved. While the idea of a “savior saved” was common in Gnosticism,17 it opposes LDS belief. Second, the “dirty garment” of the Egyptians should probably be understood to represent the mortal body.18 Gnosticism, like the hymn, viewed the body as “filthy,” something to be overcome and “left behind,” quite the opposite of LDS doctrine.
Moreover, although the hymn can clearly be viewed as a general parable of salvation or of the freeing of a soul lost in the world and its return to its heavenly parents, the identities of the characters remain subject to various interpretations. The main character may be either the soul of a good Christian or of a savior. Some see the soul as the Savior, as does Jonas: “We can confidently take the King’s Son to be the Savior, a definite divine figure, and not just the personification of the human soul in general,”19 while others have noted that it could be both: “Whether this . . . is the soul or a redeemer does not make much difference as in both cases we are dealing with a phenomenon of the deity saving itself. Thus the hymn is explained as a classic example of the gnostic ‘redeemed redeemer.’”20 A simpler explanation emerges from the plain recognition that the soul is not the same person as the elder brother, the second in command, but still has its own divine potential. Following the view that “the younger son is the Christian who believes in Christ the Son of God and thus becomes a son of God (John 1:12), and that the elder brother is Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:10–15),” Colless argues for an entirely Christian interpretation of the hymn as presenting “the teaching of the Apostles . . . in parable form, modelled on the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) and the pearl merchant (Matt. 13:45–46).”21
The meanings of some of its further elements seem obvious enough; others are more obscure. The house of the soul’s father is clearly the heavenly home, and the King of Kings is God the Father.22 It is also well accepted that Egypt represents the material world, since this is a common image both in Gnosticism and Christianity,23 and likewise, the serpent is either the ruler of the material world or the presence of evil in the material world. The main issues of dispute among the scholars are over the meaning of the letter, the robe and garment, and the pearl; on these points there is little consensus. The pearl may represent “the sparkle of light emprisoned in this world or the soul lying in the darkness of the human body.”24 Others see in it “the individual’s ‘capacity for growth . . . even in an alien environment; the goal of this growth is realizing the full capacities of the personality.’”25 Another interesting view is that “to fetch the one pearl means partaking in the kingdom.”26 Klijn determines this by comparing the pearl in the hymn to the pearl of Matthew 13:46, but then he adds, “It appears that the pearl can not be considered to have one general meaning. Every thing related with the heavenly world can be compared with the pearl.”27 Finally, the sacred ritual meaning that Nibley has suggested opens the possibility of yet further meanings for the garment, the robe, the instruction carried by a messenger, and a pearl of exaltation.
Readers may easily agree or disagree with any of the interpretations suggested here or elsewhere in the scholarly commentaries, but on one feature of the hymn all would agree, namely its simple beauty and appeal: “The immediate charm of this tale is such that it affects the reader prior to all analysis of meaning. The mystery of its message speaks with its own force, which almost seems to dispense with the need for detailed interpretation.”28
The hymn is available in a variety of translations.29 Some are simplified retellings of the hymn,30 but the better ones adhere to the original texts, especially the Syriac. Bevan gives a translation based solely on the Syriac text and presents it side by side with the Syriac.31 Others translate the Syriac text and show variations in the Greek. Among these are the classic translation by M. R. James,32 a beautiful translation by Hans Jonas,33 and a very readable translation by Werner Foerster and R. McL. Wilson.34 Another, the Bentley Layton translation, translates only the Greek text but gives ample footnotes to show variances from the Syriac.35 One of the more interesting translations is an attempt by Burkitt to render the Syriac in English hexameter verse—an ambitious and largely successful endeavor.36 A full translation of the hymn has not been previously published in LDS sources. We reproduce here, by permission, the Oxford translation of Foerster and Wilson.37
Hymn of the Pearl
[Passages in angle brackets <> are explanatory expansions from the Syriac version.]
When I was a speechless infant in my father’s palaces, resting in the ease and luxury of those who reared me, my parents provided me with means of support38 and sent me out from the East, our homeland. From the wealth of their treasuries they put together a pack, large and light, such that I could carry it alone.39 The pack from above consists of gold and unminted silver from the great treasures, of chalcedony stones from India and of pearls from the land of the Cushites. And they armed me with diamond <which scratches iron>. And they took off from me the suit40 encrusted with stones and shot with gold, which they had made in their love for me, and the robe of yellow colour to match my height.41 And they made an agreement with me, engraving it upon my mind that I should not forget it,42 and said: “If you go down to Egypt and fetch from there the single pearl which is there beside the devouring dragon, you shall (again) put on the suit encrusted with stones and the robe which goes over it; and with your brother, our second,43 become an heir in our kingdom.”
I came from the East by a hard and terrible way with two guides, for I had no experience for travelling that way. And I came also along the border-lands of Mesene, where there is the hostel of the oriental merchants, and reached the land of the Babylonians <and entered the walls of Sarbug>. But when I came to Egypt, the two guides who had travelled with me left me, and I made straight for the dragon and waited near his lair, watching for him to doze and fall asleep so that I might take away my pearl. And I was alone and foreign in appearance, and I looked strange even to my own (household companions).44 But there I saw one who was related to me,45 from the East, one who was free, a graceful and handsome boy, a son of noblemen.46 He came and associated with me, and I had him as my companion, making him both friend and partner in my journey. And I urged him to be on his guard against the Egyptians and the society of those impure men. But I put on their clothes, so that I might not appear foreign, as one from abroad, in order that I might get the pearl, and so that the Egyptians should not wake up the dragon against me.
But I do not know how they discovered that I was not from their land. But they cunningly devised a trap for me, and I tasted their food. I ceased to know that I was a king’s son, and I served their king. I forgot the pearl for which my parents had sent me, and under the weight of their food I sank into deep sleep.
But as I suffered these things my parents also observed it and were sorry for me. And a proclamation was made in our kingdom that everyone should come to our gates. And the kings of Parthia and the potentates47 and the great ones of the East took a decision about me that I should not remain in Egypt. They wrote me (a letter) and the mighty ones each signed it: “From the father, the king of kings, and the mother who possesses the East, and the brother who is the second beside us, to our son in Egypt, greetings. Get up and sober up out of your sleep,48 and listen to the words of this letter. Remember that you are a king’s son. You have come under a servile yoke. Think of your suit shot with gold; think of the pearl on account of which you were sent to Egypt, so that your name may be mentioned in the book of the valiant, and you may be an heir with your brother in our kingdom.”49
And the king sealed (the letter) because of the wicked,50 the children of Babylon, and the tyrannical demons of Sarbug. It flew in form of an eagle, the king of all birds. <It flew and landed by me and became entirely speech.> And at the sound and sight of it I started up from sleep, took (it), kissed (it) tenderly, and read. And it had written in it just what was written down in my heart. And immediately I remembered that I was a son of kings, and my freedom longed for its kind.51 And I remembered also the pearl for which I had been dispatched to Egypt. I began to charm the terrible dragon with spells and put him to sleep by uttering the name of my father <the names of our second (son)52 and of my mother, the queen of the East>. I stole the pearl, took it away, and returned to my parents.53 And I took off the dirty garment and left it behind in their country. And at once I directed my course towards the light of the homeland in the East. And I found on the way (the letter) that had roused me. And this, just as it had by its sound raised me up when I slept, also showed me the way by the light (shining) from it; for the royal (letter) of silk stuff was before my eyes.54 And with love guiding and drawing me, I went past Sarbug. Leaving Babylon on the left I reached great Mesene, which lies on the coast.
<My parents sent me by their treasurers my shining suit and my long robe.> And I did not remember (any more) my brightness.55 For when I was still a child and quite young I had left it behind in my father’s palaces. And suddenly I saw the suit which resembled (me) as it were in a mirror, and I spied my whole self in it, and I knew and saw myself through it; for we were partially separated from each other, though we were from the same, and again we are one through one form.56 Not only (so), but I saw also the treasurers themselves who carried the suit as two, yet one form was present upon both, one royal sign in both.57 They had wealth and riches in hand, and they gave me precious things,58 the gorgeous suit which had been skilfully worked in bright colours with gold and precious stones and pearls of brilliant hues. They were fastened above. And the image of the king of kings (was) fully present through the whole (suit).59 Sapphire stones were set appropriately above.
I saw moreover that movements of knowledge were emitted by the whole, and that it was ready to utter speech. I heard it speak: “I am (the property) of him who is bravest of all men, for whose sake I was engraved by the father himself.” And I myself noticed <my stature, which increased in accordance with its impulse>.60 And all the royal movements extended to me. It made haste, straining towards him who should take it from his hand. And love roused me to rush to meet him and receive it. And I reached out, <adorned myself with the beauty of its colours,> and drew my brilliant garment entirely over me.
But when I had put (it) on I was lifted up to the gate of acknowledgement and worship. And I bowed my head and acknowledged the radiance of the father who had sent this to me; for I had done what had been commanded, and he likewise, what he had promised. And in the gates of the palace I mingled with those of his dominion. And he rejoiced over me and received me with him in the palace. And all his subjects sing with pleasant voices. And he promised me that I would also be sent with him to the gates of the king, so that with my gifts and my pearl I might together with him appear before the king.61