What is the significance of the Hymn of the Pearl?
The Hymn of the Pearl, an epic Syriac poem, is certainly the most intriguing early evidence that the Shroud of Turin was known in the third century in Edessa, and probably elsewhere. A few poetic lines, the two images segment within the poem, are clearly lines from apocryphal early church literature.
This hymn is found today within a 3rd century text called the Acts of Thomas (not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas). Many scholars suggest that it is a Gnostic text. Indeed, the Catholic Church has declared it heretical. But that does not diminish significance for historians.
The Hymn of the Pearl is a legendary account—true, partly true or false—of the apostle Thomas’ (Judas Thomas or Thomas Judas Didymus) mission to India and his martyrdom. Authorship is often attributed to the Gnostic poet Bardesane of Edessa, perhaps as early as A.D. 216).
The hymn, itself, is thought by many scholars to be older than the Acts of Thomas. It is found in different places in different Greek and Syriac versions of the Acts.
It should be noted that the poem is in the first person as a matter of literary style. The risen Christ is describing his burial garment:
Suddenly, I saw my image on my garment like in a
Myself and myself through myself [or myself facing outward and inward]
As though divided, yet one likeness
Two images: but one likeness of the King [of kings in some translations]
If you look at a photograph of the shroud you see two full size images of a man, one in which the image is facing outward and one inward. In more modern terms we describe these as front-side and back-side images, or ventral and dorsal images. They are, indeed, as in a mirror as they are full size and seemingly perpendicular to the surface. Those words, “as though divided, yet one likeness,” resonate with the two separate image that meet at the top of the head.
The Notion of Mirrors
Mirrors, as we know them today, did not exist but the concept was understood. Mirrors at the time of the Roman Empire and well into the medieval era were simply pieces of highly polished stone or metal such as copper or silver; or they were still pools of water. Full length mirrors were rare. But it was understood that they reversed an image—what was on the left seemed to be on the right. Was the phrase, “saw my image on my garment like in a mirror,” an attempt to say that lighter and darker tones were reversed, as is the case with a negative? There is no way to know what the author intended. At best, we are speculating.
There perhaps is another interpretation for the reference to a mirror-like image. Though Greco-Roman statues were highly detailed and superbly realistic, portraiture, of either the face or a whole body, was not. It wasn’t until the European Renaissance, particularly among the Italian and Dutch masters, that the human form was represented realistically on canvas and other flat surfaces. But mirrors, even mirrors in antiquity provided photo-realistic images. Is this what Bardesane of Edessa meant?
- Are there other interpretations for the Hymn of the Pearl?
- Translation by Quaker scholar Hugh McGregor Ross
- Translation by William Wright
- Translation by M. R. James
- Translation by Hans Jonas
- Popular Anonymous Translation