Documents for the Study of the Gospels

By David R. Cartlidge; David L. Dungan | Go to book overview

PREFACES
The Sacred History of Asklepios

Introduction: Sometime during the second century A.D. an unknown author in Memphis, Egypt, undertook to translate an ancient Egyptian sacred scroll into Greek. Apparently, the sacred history had to do with the Egyptian healing God Imouthes, whom the Greeks identified with Asklepios. This Imouthes differed from most Egyptian deities in that he was part human, part divine; i. e., his father was the God Ptah, but he had a human mother. The original spelling of his name was Imhotep, and he was the famous Grand Vizier, architect and physician of Pharoah Zoser (c. 2700 B.C.).

The fragment given here is all that exists of this book, i.e., its preface. The king Nectaneibis mentioned at the outset was a king well-known to the Greeks, having been the last independent ruler of Egypt (c. 380–363 B.C.).

Who the “I” of the third paragraph was is unknown. However, he apparently had found a very ancient scroll and the “mighty miracles” described in it seemed to him to be similar to those performed by the Greek God Asklepios. Consequently, he desired to translate—or rather to paraphrase—its contents to the glory of Asklepios. It is for this reason that he prefaces his translation with a personal experience of healings by Asklepios to authenticate his spiritual preparedness to undertake this great task.

The selection is of prime importance for several reasons. First, many terms familiar to us from early Christian literature are also found here: kerygma, divine scripture, holy book, prophecy, myth, etc. Secondly, this is a rare case of a translation of a sacred scripture into a foreign tongue (although one might well ask which religion, Egyptian or Greek, is really being “proclaimed”). Third, this shows quite vividly how this kind of task was approached at least by this man—he had to be certain he was inspired, and, once he had satisfied himself of this, he unhesitatingly passed on to the reader the evidence of his divine inspiration. Fourth, it is obvious that what he was “translating” into Greek was in fact a much abbreviated, stylistically improved paraphrase of the original, and not at all a slavish translation. In other words, it was clearly part of his idea of “divine inspiration” to depart from the original wording whenever and wherever considerations of simplicity and clarity required it— always under the guidance of Asklepios himself, of course. The author clearly thought he was getting across the gist of the original, and that was his primary consideration. One might recall at this point Josephus’ monumental job of abbreviating and paraphrasing the Hebrew scripture in his Antiquities of the Jews (though probably he was not translating). Again, if Damis’s notebooks actually existed, Philostratus had something of the same task in boiling them

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