What could the 12 heads of God refer to in the Questions of Bartholomew?

edited July 2019 in Random Issues
The Questions of Bartholomew are a once-widespread text, written between the first and fifth centuries in Greek, mostly likely in Egypt. It has surviving copies in Slavonic, Coptic, Latin, and Greek, and was the basis for a medieval Latin Church sermon. Fr. K. Parhomenko suggested it as a source for the discussions in the Orthodox Church's hymnography between people in Hades in connection with Christ's descent there.

The most confusing part for me in the Questions of Bartholomew is Jesus' reference in Chapter VI to the 12 heads of God. M.R. James' translation of Jesus' words to Bartholomew goes:
5. Woe unto him that sweareth by the head of God, yea woe (?) to him that sweareth falsely by him truly. For there are twelve heads of God the most high: for he is the truth, and in him is no lie, neither forswearing.

A Russian translation that probably uses different manuscripts, and which I have translated into English goes:
Alas, woe to the one who swears by the head of God, even if he doesn't swear a lie, but speaks the truth. For the High God has 12 heads. And He Himself is the Truth and there is no lie in Him and no oath-breaking. He descends and reveals to the whole world the Word of Truth.

The passage relates to Matthew 5:34-36, in which Jesus says: "But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black."

In ancient Apocalyptic literature, "heads" sometimes was a symbol for kingdoms, kings, or leaders. For example, in Daniel 7 a beast has four heads (eg. for the four kingdoms of Alexander the Great's empire), and in Revelation 13, the beast coming out of the sea has 7 heads.

Ancient Israel was made of 12 tribes that could be ascribed to 12 "heads" or forefathers, such as Judah, Benjamin and Reuben. Christ named 12 apostles to head the Church, which in different senses was considered Christ's "body" and the "New Israel".

In his essay "Jesus and the Twelve", Scot McKnight writes that in the Old Testament,
the predominant use of "twelve" is for the sons of Jacob / Israel ([Genesis] 35:22-26; Sir 44:23-45:1). The sense of the "twelve sons of Israel" as heads of the twelve tribes moves from a physical literality (the actual sons of Israel and a real tribal interest; see Gen 42:13, 32; 49:28; Tob 1:4; 4:12; 5:9-14; Add Esth 14:5) to a representation for the descendants (the twelve tribes) and hereditary representatives (twelve tribal princes/chieftains, and so on). So: Moses sets up an altar at the foot of Sinai with twelve pillars "for the twelve tribes of Israel" (Exod 24:4); Moses finds "chieftains" and "heads" (Num 1:5-16) who will help him take a census of the whole house of Israel (see 1:44); Moses sends twelve to reconnoiter the land that was promised to Israel (Deut 1:22-23); and upon entry into the land beyond the Jordan and after its reconstitution, the "twelve" play a major role (see Josh 4:2, 3, 8, 9, 20; 18:24; 19:15; 21:7, 40).

So my guess is that since "heads" commonly refers to kingdoms or leaders, and the hostile heads of the beasts in Daniel and Revelation refer to hostile foreign kingdoms or rulers, then the 12 "heads" of God would refer to kingdoms or rulers belonging to God. Since the heads of Israel are twelve patriarchs, and the 12 apostles were heads of the Church, Christ's "body", then the 12 apostles would metaphorically or spiritually be "heads" of Christ's "body", the Church. In Matthew 5, on which the passage in question must be based, Jesus tells the 12 apostles not to swear by their heads. A rule directed to the 12 apostles against swearing by their heads would fit with a rule against swearing by God's head that is justified by the concept of God having twelve "heads" (the apostles).


  • @Rako...You think we need to take it easy with all the non-canonical NT books. You are on a Coptic Orthodox Church affiliated forum. We care more about topics that concern the members of the Church. What you are providing here doesn't benefit the goal of the forum in any way. We have allowed you to post about this once, twice, 3 times, and a fourth. It's time to stop. 

    If you have any topics concerning the Church or the canonical books of the NT accepted by the official Christian churches, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, then please go ahead and do so. Other wise, i recommend taking your articles elsewhere. 
  • edited July 2019
    Dear Minatasgeel,
    I appreciate the heads-up. Thanks also for allowing me to ask about the three texts.

    Let me better explain myself. I find the early Christian texts from the time of the Apostles and those who knew them to be inspiring. Some of them were written by the mainstream Christian community in Egypt, so I wanted to ask you and your forum about what I didn't understand in them.

    The thread most clearly related to the Coptic Church was the one where I asked whether the Coptic Church has a special commemoration for the 3 Patriarchs on 28th of Mesora: http://tasbeha.org/community/discussion/16681/does-the-coptic-church-s-commemoration-of-abraham-isaac-and-jacob-have-special-features

    Basically the issue there is that the scholar John Fadden wrote: "The Coptic Church has a long history of celebrating the three patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – as a group on the 28th of Mesore (August 21)." But I couldn't find anything about this online. So I wanted to ask you in order to find out more about the Coptic Church's commemoration of them.

  • You have to consider that the writings you are referencing were not exactly "mainstream" if they are not part of the Canon of the NT that was held true in the Church of Alexandria. Gnosticism was a formidable sect in Upper Egypt and most of the writings you reference may link back to that library.

    Again, if they are not part of the Canon, they would have not lived on till now within the Church of Alexandria. The other thing also is that most of what you are mentioning is scholarly that doesn't necessarily hold any religious basis. Why would we, as a religious organization that is not devoted to academia would have any info to provide?! 
  • edited July 2019
    I appreciate your replies. It is nice writing with you. I understand what you mean about the texts not living on, and so I am not trying to hold you to answers about them. Maybe I should introduce myself in the Introductions to better explain my goals. Overall, I set out as a spiritual goal to read all the writings about Christianity from the time of the apostles and those who knew them. The writings are fascinating and inspiring for me. Only some things I did not understand. For example, I admit that I am an EO, not an OO, so I don't know the special practices of the OO churches. The passage saying that the Coptic Church still maintains a special commemoration for the three patriarchs was new to me and so I wanted to see if I could get more information about this. I don't mean to put you on the spot about it or the other issues by asking.
  • ok, you just answered the question i asked in the other thread!
    our beliefs are the same as the eastern orthodox churches.
    we have the same Bible and most of our church fathers are the same.
    for example, saint cyril, saint basil, saint john chrysostom and saint macarius are all major sources of understanding the Bible.
    we don't have any monophysite, nestorian or gnositic beliefs.

    if you would like specific egyptian orthodox christian writers, read all the writings of saint athanasius and saint antony and all 50 homilies of saint macarius (modern english translation coming out soon - will be announced on this forum) and then you will understand the coptic 'flavour' of orthodoxy.
  • Mabsoota,
    You listed important Egyptian Orthodox writers who are common to both our traditions. Egyptian Christian traditions have much that is rich spiritually. What a discovery of spiritual and cultural treasure it was to find such early Christian papyruses and codexes in modern times in Egypt that would have otherwise been lost. The Apocalypse of Peter comes to mind. It is considered a basis for Dante's famous Divine Comedy.

    I am also glad to find such an openness and positive attitude from Copts like yourself towards the EO Churches. I like the efforts of The Orthodoxy Cognate Page http://theorthodoxchurch.info/ to bring the churches together. Once I contributed a chapter to the author's recent book The Orthodox Dilemma about healing the split between the two churches. I invite you to read my review of his book here: http://ocpbooks.simplesite.com/421272827/4455024/posting/a-positive-movement-to-reconcile-the-eastern-orthodox-oriental-orthodox-churches
  • ok, but we don't read the apocalypse of peter. just as russian orthodox Christians don't consider tchaikofsky canonical.
  • Mabsoota,
    It's funny that you bring this up, because in his exploration of the Christian views on the afterlife, one recent Russian theologian's book (I think it was Bp. Hilarion) used apocryphal sources like the Shepherd of Hermas and Questions of Bartholomew, and in our parish (East Slavic heritage) and many others, we have some chanting that includes works by modern Russian composers like Tchaikofsky or Rachmaninoff. You are right in that the apocrypha are not so important like the Church fathers or Councils or Bible. But now and then pieces from them still show up. So I wanted to read them in order to get to know the sources from where these ideas are coming from.
  • what i and others are saying is that we read what is written by orthodox church fathers and avoid the other writings. it is easy to be confused and so we do not read the gnostic books. we don't merge polytheist or pantheist elements in our religion. we don't worship the angels and they don't worship us.
  • I appreciate your conversation with me and responses on the topics, Mabsoota. The discussion helped me sort out my questions alot.
  • thanks, i hope i did not come across too tough.
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