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The Gnostic Society Library

Thrice-Greatest Hermes - Volume 2

by G.R.S. Mead



This treatise has no precise title, for, as we have already seen in treating of the make-up of the Corpus, the traditional title, “Of Hermes to Tat, the General Sermon,” found in all the MSS., cannot apply to our

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tractate, which is addressed to Asclepius, and from which Stobæus quotes under the general title, “Of Hermes, from the [Sermons] to Asclepius.”

The supposition, however, that Sermon (II.) has dropped out from the parent copy of our Corpus, owing to the loss of one or more quires or quaternions, explains those phenomena so admirably, that it has only to be brought forward, as it has been by Reitzenstein, to carry conviction.

It is a curious fact, however, that Stobæus starts his quotations from this treatise precisely with the same words with which our text begins; nevertheless these words plunge us so immediately into a secondary subject, that Reitzenstein thinks there may have been a more general introduction which Johannes may very well have omitted.

That, however, the lost pages of our Corpus should have contained such an introduction, broken at precisely the very same point to a word, would seem to be a coincidence the reverse of probable; nevertheless the treatise itself purports to be a very formal one, for we learn from the concluding words (§ 17) that it was intended to be “An Introduction to the Gnosis (προγνωσία) of the Nature of All Things.”

We are, therefore, driven to conclude that, in spite of a most improbable coincidence, the beginning may have been lost, and that we have therefore to regret the loss not only of the whole of the “General Sermon” to Tat, but also of the introduction to the “Introduction to the Gnosis” addressed to Asclepius, and therewith, in all probability, some precious indications of how “Tat” and “Asclepius” are to be precisely defined.

Parthey’s conflated title (p. 19) from the MSS., and Stobæus, “Of Hermes the Thrice-greatest, the General Sermon to Asclepius,” must therefore be definitely

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abandoned, and, in lieu of the lost general title, we must be content with the simple heading, “To Asclepius.”


The subject is that of the Fullness of Being or the Plenum of things. Space is a Plenum,—the fundamental concept of modern scientific speculation.

Asclepius, however, must guard himself against the confusion of Space with God; for God is not Space, but Cause thereof,—the True Transcendency of “that which can contain all things” (§ 6).

“In Him we move.” “All that is moved is moved in what is stable,” or “in Him who stands” (ἐν ἑστῶτι); where it is to be noticed that the term, “He who stands,” is found in Philo, and is made much of in Gnostic tradition, especially in the so-called Simonian Gnosis, for in The Great Announcement, from which Hippolytus has preserved some passages, the Logos is called “He who stands” or “He who has stood, stands and will stand.” 1 This is the aspect of the Reason of things that holds and compacts all together, the Stock or Pillar of Immobility, the opposite aspect being that of the Separator or Divider; the two together forming the Cross of Manifestation, the resolution of the Sphere of Sameness.

The World-Soul is in perpetual motion; this perpetual motion is ordered and reduced to a cosmos and harmony of motion by the introduction into it, by means of the Reason, of the root-forms of motion (mentioned in the Timæus and elsewhere);—up, down; right, left; front, back; in, out; round,—and no-motion.

All bodies are essentially inert; it is the soul that moves them, either immediately or mediately (§ 9).

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What the precise meaning of § 10 may be I cannot say; the tradition of the original text was variable, showing that the copyists had difficulty with it. As, however, the doctrine throughout is that of a Plenum (as, indeed, it is elsewhere in the Trismegistic writings), I can only suppose that the instructor of “Asclepius” was endeavouring to clinch his point by arguing that the only Void was the “is-not” or non-being; now as nonbeing cannot possibly “exist,” there can be no such thing as Void.


That, then, in which “the All doth move,” in which all things “live and move and have their being,” is the Bodiless; in other words, the Mind or Reason of God, the Logos,—who, as Philo tells us, is the Place of God,—that is, Infinite Space itself, the Container of all things, the very Spouse of Deity. Spouse or Son, it matters not; that in which all moves and lives and breathes is Wisdom, Good and Truth, the Æon of æons, Light of light, Life of life, the Archetype of Soul itself (§ 12).


“God, then, is not Spirit,” 1 much less “a spirit,” 2 “but Cause that Spirit is”; for God is “Good alone.” Therefore: “Call not thou aught else Good.”

And now let us turn to F. C. Conybeare’s important criticism of Matt. xix. 17 = Mk. x. 18 = Lk. xviii. 19, in the first number of The Hibbert Journal3 where he

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brings forward very strong evidence that the original reading was: “Call thou me not Good; One only is Good, God the Father,”—a reading known to Marcion, the Clementine Homilies, Athanasius, Didymus, Tatian, and Origen (the two last inferentially).

If we compare this with our text, “Call not thou, therefore, aught else Good, for thou would’st impious be; nor any thing at all at any time call Good but God alone,” and “He is Good alone and nothing else,”—we cannot fail to be struck with the precise similarity of the phrasing and blend of ideas.

If, further, we take this in connection with the still more striking contrast, “God is not Spirit,” with the Johannine “God is Spirit,” we might at first sight almost persuade ourselves that our treatise had these Christian declarations immediately in mind. But the general phenomena of similarity of diction and idea of the Trismegistic literature with those of the New Testament documents is so much more satisfactorily explained by the fact that both literatures use mainly the common Hellenistic theological phrases of the time, that we need not distress ourselves with any suggestions either of plagiarism or of direct controversy.

Doubtless the declaration, “God is Spirit,” was a commonplace among the religio-philosophical circles of the time, and Hermes is here simply refining on a common idea. The reading, “Call thou not me Good,” which appears to have been preserved mainly in Gnostic tradition, may also as easily have come from a similar general idea that the One and Only One was Good alone.

It is, moreover, of special interest to notice that the second clause of the Marcionite reading runs: “There is one [only] Good, God the Father,” while in our

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treatise the two names of God are given as Good and Father; and so we read (§ 16): “God, then, is Good, and Good is God”; and immediately after (§ 17): “The other name of God is Father.” 1

Striking however, as are those coincidences, we are nevertheless wholly unpersuaded that there was any immediate literary contact between those two sets of Scripture. All that can be said is that their literary similarities are due to a common theological language and their many points of contact in ideas to a generally common atmosphere of theological conceptions.


Again, the doctrine of the duty to beget children (§ 17) seems at first sight to be an interpolation by a Jewish editor, the Jews holding that “he who is without a wife is half a man.” We must, however, remember that the Egyptian priests were married, and that the rule with them, as with the Pythagoreans, was that a man should first of all discharge his duty to society and live the “practical,” “political” or “social” life, before retiring into the life of contemplation. He must first beget children, not only that the race might be continued, but also that bodies might be supplied by parents devoted to the ideal of the religious or philosophic life, so that advanced souls might find birth in favourable conditions, and so the Order be continued.

This also is the ancient rule laid down by the Manu of the Āryan Hindus in the Mānava Dharma Shāstra. The duties of the householder station of life (Gṛihastha āshrama) must first be performed, before the parents can retire to the contemplative life (Vānaprastha

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āshrama). In special cases, however, exceptions could be made.

It may then be that Asclepius stands for those pupils who were still living the married life.

The scribe of the thirteenth century, Codex B. (Parisinus, 1220), has laconically written on the margin of this paragraph the single word “nonsense” (φλυαρία); he was presumably a monk.


70:1 R., p. 305, also makes a brief reference to this.

71:1 Cf. Joh. iv. 24: “πνεῦμα ὁ Θεός.”

71:2 As the A.V. has it erroneously.

71:3 See his article, “Three Early Doctrinal Modifications of the Text of the Gospels,” in The Hibbert Journal (Oct. 1902), pp. 98-113. J. R. Wilkinson’s few remarks (H. J., Ap. 1903, pp. 575, 576) on Conybeare’s criticism of this synoptic passage do not seem to me to be of any weight.

73:1 Cf. the expression, “God, Father and the Good,” C. H., x. (xi.) 1.

Next: III. (IV.) The Sacred Sermon