The Vision of Theophilus

Following is a translation by Alphonse Mingana of the Third Book of an apocryphal history of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. This book is typically referred to (somewhat imprecisely) as The Vision of Theophilus, for the discourse of the Virgin to Theophilus comprises the majority of this book. The translation and original Syriac text are found in Mingana’s Woodbrooke Studies, volume 3, a pdf of which is available here, for those interested in further introductory materials, annotations, and the Syriac text. (The same volume, as a bonus, includes the text and translation of the Syriac Apocalypse of Peter.) Of chief interest in the Vision is the description of the troubled journey of the Holy Family into Egypt, escaping King Herod.

This book is obviously in its origins closely connected with the most important shrine associated with the travels of the Holy Family in Egypt, the Monastery of the Holy Virgin at al-Muharraq, near the mountains of Qusqam, near the town of al-Qusiya in Upper Egypt, 48 km north of Assyut. The church there is (so the narrative and Coptic tradition uphold) the first church in the world, consecrated by the risen Lord, where the first Divine Liturgy in the world was celebrated by the miraculously transported Peter and the Apostles, with the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Salome (Mary’s cousin who accompanied the Holy Family into Egypt) also present. The Vision is actually something of a foundation story for the church and monastery there, rather than strictly an account of the Holy Family’s travels throughout Egypt. The church is built upon the ruins of an ancient house that the Holy Family is said to have stayed in for six months, the longest duration of any of their traditional stops, and traditionally the southernmost (although there is also the Monastery of the Holy Virgin further south at Durunka, the position of which is harmonized through its being the place where the Holy Family waited in a cave to embark on a boat sailing down the Nile on their way back to the Holy Land.).

The narrative is complicated. The Theophilus of the title is Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria (+412). The account is a first-person account of some event of Theophilus’ tenure, including a visit to the monastery during which he is granted a vision of the Virgin Mary, who then relates (in first person) her and her Son’s connection with the monastery. The entire narrative is then said to have been actually written down by Cyril of Alexandria (+ 444) himself! But there is no doubt that while the narrative demonstrates traditions of definite antiquity it does not date so far back as St Cyril! Mingana would attribute the work to Kyriakos, Bishop of Bahnasa (Oxyrrhynchus), who wrote in the early fifteenth century.

While there are many aspects of the Vision of Theophilus which do not align with Eastern Orthodox tradition regarding the Holy Family (and which will certainly be all the more entirely bizarre to western Christians) the work itself is still a rather beautiful expression of piety. For more information on the traditions related to the Holy Family in Egypt, see this post in which I give short descriptions of a number of excellent books on the subject. Enjoy a seasonally apropos reading originating from a land closer to the sunrise!

Again the third Book (containing) the flight (according to) the vision shown to Theophilus, Patriarch of the great city of Alexandria, concerning the arrival of our Lady Mary, Mother of God, in the land of Egypt, and concerning the house which she and her beloved Son Jesus Christ inhabited in the holy mountain of Ḳusḳam, on account of their great fear of King Herod.

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