A few days ago, I discussed a bit about the mysterious Arabic manuscript of Abenephius, or the Rabbi Barachias Nephi, which the Renaissance polymath Athanasius Kircher claimed to have had in the 1630s. Suspicion has long lingered over the claim, especially since Kircher never let anyone see more than one page of the text, and his story about who wrote it and what it contained changed over time. When I discussed this the other day, I mentioned that Daniel Stolzenberg believes that the fragments of Abenephius quoted by Kircher in his three major works of Egyptology, Historia Obelisci Pamphilii (1650), Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652-1655), and Sphinx Mystagoga (1676), contain enough evidence of an Arab-Islamic origin (despite claims of Jewish authorship) that he believes the fragments to be the genuine remains of a lost medieval Arabic manuscript treating this history of the hieroglyphs and Egypt.
However, until now no one had ever collected and translated the fragments of Abenephius in order to evaluate whether this claim is correct. Frankly, it’s rather amazing that no one seems to have collected and critically evaluated these fragments in almost 400 years, and I guess that testifies to how ultimately useless they really are. I have now finished going through the three books and collecting and translating the direct quotations from Abenephius. I can’t guarantee that I found all of them—the books are, collectively, around 3,000 pages long—but I did my best to get all of them using the expedient of OCR key word searching because even I am not going to read 3,000 pages for something so obscure. After reading the quotes, however, I am less convinced than ever that the text represents anything related to the Arab-Islamic pyramid myth, or much of anything to do with Islamic Hermetic scholarship.
As I mentioned before, we have no conclusive way of judging whether the quotes in question are real, whether Kircher made them up, or whether they even came from the same book. However, if we take Kircher at his word, it looks like the book is something other than Stolzenberg thought. It also seems—and I stress that this is based on my admittedly incomplete knowledge of Renaissance publication of Byzantine texts—that there is at least a chance that the fragments reflect material that wasn’t yet published in the West at the time, suggesting an authentic source. This surprised me a bit since, frankly, my first impression is that the texts were fake since very little is original to them.
Let’s start with the traces that seem to have the strongest Arab-Islamic influence. The fragments allude to the legend that Hermes built copper statues at the source of the Nile. One fragment reports that Hermes was the first to trace the Nile beyond upper Egypt. Another identifies Hermes with Enoch and Idris, the Islamic prophet. Since Idris is an Islamic figure, the reference is rather clearly of Islamic origin. Finally, Abenephius uses a distinctly Arabic phrase for obelisks—the Needles of Pharaoh. In all three cases, though, the references are superficial and seem more like cross-cultural borrowing than distinctive hallmarks of a text composed in an Arab-Islamic cultural milieu, much like known Christian texts from the region in that era.
Instead, the surviving fragments are closer akin to Judeo-Christian and Classical sources than to anything Islamic. One fragment speaks of “Sauthis,” the pharaoh who raised obelisks, wrote a sacred book, and was a friend of God, etc. It is a close paraphrase of Julius Africanus’ and Eusebius’ accounts of Manetho’s description of Suphis (Khufu) who raised the Great Pyramid and wrote a sacred book and stood against the polytheistic pantheon, etc. It is so clearly derivative of Manetho that it stands out against Arabic literature, which lacked a direct adaptation of Manetho, for the most part.
Similarly, the centerpiece of evidence for the connection between Abenephius and Arabi-Islamic lore is the fragment in which Hermes raises obelisks and inscribes the sciences on them. This is very close to the legend, first recorded by the Persian astrologer Abu Ma‘shar, that Hermes foresaw the Flood and inscribed the sciences on the walls of Egyptian temples. But in reality, the Abenephius fragment has two clear Antique precedents that are much closer than anything in Arab-Islamic lore.
Here is Abenephius: “Hermes was the first who erected these columns, which they call the needles of Pharaoh, and on these he inscribed the sciences which he had discovered.” In the Kore Kosmou, a Hermetic text of around 100 CE first published in the West in the editio princeps of Stobaeus in 1575, Hermes gives a similar, if not entirely identical, order: “They shall read,” Hermes said, “my mystic writings, and dividing them into two parts, they shall keep certain of them, and inscribe upon columns and obelisks those which may be useful to man” (trans. Anna Kingsford and Edward Maitland). Similarly, an apocryphal text passing under the name of Manetho quite clearly gives us the same story. This text circulated in late Roman times and was undoubtedly known to Hellenized Egyptian writers of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, just as it was known to George Syncellus, who preserved it around 800 CE:
It remains, therefore, to make certain extracts concerning the dynasties of the Egyptians, from the writings of Manetho the Sebennyte, the high priest of the idolatrous temple of Egypt in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus. These, according to his own account, he copied from the inscriptions which were engraved in the sacred dialect, and hieroglyphic characters, upon the columns set up in the Seriadic land, by Thoth, the first Hermes; and after the deluge, translated from the sacred dialect into the Greek tongue in hieroglyphic characters: and committed to writing in books, and deposited by Agathodaemon, the son of the second Hermes, the father of Tat, in the temple-shrines of Egypt. (Chronicle 41, trans. I. P. Cory, adapted)
Here we have Hermes setting up obelisks (“columns” – Greek: stelai) and inscribing sacred wisdom onto them. According to Zosimus of Panoplis, the wisdom of Hermes was nothing less than the science of alchemy.
In short, the Abenephius fragment is quite close to Syncellus’ version of Pseudo-Manetho. But Syncellus wasn’t known in the West until 1652, while Kircher had the Abenephius text before the editio princeps was published. We know that the Christian chronographer Panodorus used the pseudo-Manetho texts in his chronology, one that also referred to fallen angels and Watchers building ancient Egyptian wonders, and it is Panodorus who gave us the Arab-Islamic pyramid myth by influencing Abu Ma‘shar.
We might say that because Abenephius contains material that was known in the East but not in the West at the time that Kircher wrote, it would seem like the text is genuine, but we can’t discount the idea that the Kore Kosmou stands behind it, and that text as known in the West from 1575. Additionally, it would probably be important to find out when the phrase “Mercurii columnae” (Pillars of Hermes) to describe obelisks first came into use. It looks like it was after Kircher, but I’m not sure. The tradition can be found as far back as Iambilichus’ De Mysteriis (1.1-2), where the Tablets of Hermes, often thought to be obelisks, are said to be the primordial origin of philosophy. Porphyry made mention of the same in critiquing Iambilichus.
Some additional fragments give the Biblical history of Egypt, but since Pseudo-Clement’s Recognitions already had that story in fourth century, nothing much can be gleaned from these except that the Abenephius fragments contain the version known to Jewish and Christian authors, without the embellishments found in Islamic accounts such as the Akhbar al-zaman. Fragments on Judaica are clearly not of Islamic extraction and speak toward the original identification of Abenephius as a rabbi. The identification with the Jewish patriarch Joseph with Osiris-Apis is a genuine bit of Jewish lore and is attested in the midrash. The Byzantine Suda offers the same identification, and Tertullian and the Late Antique Christian writer Rufinus both identified Joseph with Serapis, and thus by extension Apis.
The majority of the fragments that Kircher preserves are unusual efforts to interpret the hieroglyphs. As Stolzenberg himself noted that many of these identify hieroglyphs with specific concepts in exactly the same way that the Classical author Horapollo did, it really looks like we have the remains of a commentary and/or translation of Horapollo in which the author corrected, amended, or criticized Horapollo’s fanciful ideas.
In short, my inclination now is to say that Kircher actually did have a book from a (possibly) Jewish-Egyptian source, and it was probably a compendium and commentary on the history of Egypt and the hieroglyphs, incorporating references to other authors and a range of opinions, accounting for the contradictory fragments. The author was clearly familiar with the Islamic milieu of Egypt, and he made reference to some of its claims, much as the medieval Egyptian Christian author Abu Al-Makarim did in describing the myth of Hermes, Idris, and the pyramids in the twelfth century. The infuriating thing, however, is that there is that there is virtually nothing in the text that a determined forger couldn’t have done. The strongest evidence against forgery is simply the fact that it was done poorly, and a forger who wanted to suggest an Egyptian origin for the text would likely have used more color from real Arab-Islamic sources.
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