The Lost Pearl in “Timothy’s Apology for Christianity”

In 781 A.D., there was a discussion between Patriarch Timothy I, and Mahdi, the third of the Abbassid Caliphs at Baghdad. 41de67tkwll

Excerpt from Timothy’s Apology for Christianity. You can read the rest of it HERE.

“O our victorious King, in this world we are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of people, and all become aware of its existence, every one would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one of a stone or of a bit of earth, but every one will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those men who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch his hand towards the light, which alone can show what every one has in hand. He who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.

“In this same way we children of men are in this perishable world as in darkness. The pearl of the true faith fell in the midst of all of us, and it is undoubtedly in the hand of one of us, while all of us believe that we possess the precious object. In the world to come, however, the darkness of mortality passes, and the fog of ignorance dissolves, since it is the true and the real light to which the fog of ignorance is absolutely foreign. In it the possessors of the pearl will rejoice, be happy and pleased, and the possessors of mere pieces of stone will weep, sigh, and shed tears, as we said above.”

And our victorious King said: “The possessors of the pearl are not known in this world, O Catholicos.”—And I answered: “They are partially known, O our victorious King.”—And our victorious and very wise King said: “What do you mean by partially known, and by what are they known as such?”—And I answered: “By good works, O our victorious King, and pious deeds, and by the wonders and miracles that God performs through those who possess the true faith. As the lustre of a pearl is somewhat visible even in the darkness of the night, so also the rays of the true faith shine to some extent even in the darkness and the fog of the present world. God indeed has not left the pure pearl of the faith completely without testimony and evidence, first in the prophets and then in the Gospel. He first confirmed the true faith in Him through Moses, once by means of the prodigies and miracles that He wrought in Egypt, and another time when He divided the waters of the Red Sea into two and allowed the Israelites to cross it safely, but drowned the Egyptians in its depths. He also split and divided the Jordan into two through Joshua, son of Nun, and allowed the Israelites to cross it without any harm to themselves, and tied the sun and the moon to their own places until the Jewish people were well avenged upon their enemies. He acted in the same way through the prophets who rose in different generations, viz.: through David, Elijah, and Elisha.

And our victorious King said: “We have hope in God that we are the possessors of this pearl, and that we hold it in our hands.”— And I replied: “Amen, O King. But may God grant us that we too may share it with you, and rejoice in the shining and beaming |90 lustre of the pearl! God has placed the pearl of His faith before all of us like the shining rays of the sun, and every one who wishes can enjoy the light of the sun.

This passage seems valuable today in ways that were, perhaps, less true just a few years ago.

  1.  The scenario comes closer to today than in the last several hundred years in terms of the relationship between church and government.  Timothy as Patriarch of the Eastern Syrian church was leader of a Christian group that was at the mercy of a non-Christian political entity. Up until the World Wars, the majority of Christians lived in lands that were predominantly led by Christians. Prior to World War I, in fact, there was still a certain amount of belief in Christendom. A majority of Christians today live in lands that are either dominated by a hostile or at least unsympathetic religious majority, or a secularized (often a civil secular religion) government. This is not, necessarily, bad. Christianity seems to have always been at its best when it is not a wielder of power. I personally think this is true of all religions. This conversation shows Patriarch Timothy as thoughtful, respectful, and honest with the caliph— even expressing admiration for the other faith in terms that most of us would have difficulty accepting today. It is hardly surprising, I think, that up until the mid-20th century, the dominant groups in converting Muslims to Christianity were not Protestants or Catholics, but those of the Orthodox faiths.
  2. The parable clarifies, in some ways, much in a challenging topic today. Many people argue as to whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Those who say “No” are often thought close-minded, and those who say “Yes” are often viewed as heretical. The parable of the lost pearl provides an answer of sorts. First, both groups are SEEKING to worship the same God, much like the people in the story are seeking the same pearl. Second, however, is that both seeking the same pearl is not the same as both attaining it. Of course, this doesn’t solve things totally. If one says that the two religions are the same since they seek the same God… this opens the door for viewing many many religions as the same, since so many seek the God who is the great creator of all things. To say then that there is sameness due to this one similarity is neither rare nor, perhaps, even important. On the other hand, if you argue that the uniqueness of the pearl limits promotes exclusivity of the true faith, one must also face the fact that it may divide even more than we want. No two people, Christian or otherwise, completely picture God the same, and none see God truly as He is. As such, one might argue that no one truly has this pearl. This is part of the reason for the confusion today. Still, the parable I think points more to the idea that our faiths differ, ans so our Gods differ.
  3. This pearl has considerable relevance in this age we describe as “post-modern.” Post-modernism can involve the belief in no absolutes… no metanarrative, no objective reality. This parable, or at least its explanation denies this. There is true faith and untrue faiths. On the other hand, it affirms one aspect of post-modernism. Doubt is not a rejection of faith. In fact, doubt is normal and healthy, since we are limited in this present world to be groping for truth in the (semi-) dark.To me the parable gives not only a better picture of faith and doubt for a post-modern age, but a clearer picture in most any age.

2 thoughts on “The Lost Pearl in “Timothy’s Apology for Christianity”

  1. Pingback: Parable of the Lost Pearl (Reprise) – MMM — Munson Mission Musings

  2. Pingback: Missions History of the East– Can These Bones Live? – MMM — Munson Mission Musings

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