top of page

The Book of Jannes and Jambres

Apocryphon of Jannes and Jambres (Mambres)

The Book of Jannes and Jambres

The Apocryphon of Jannes and Jambres (also called the Book of Jannes and Jambres) is a Greek text composed between the first and third centuries CE, probably in Roman Egypt. It's an account, allegedly written by one of Pharaoh's officials,  of the legendary ancient Egyptian sorcerers, Jannes and Jambres. It relates the story of two brothers, Jannes and Jambres, sons of Balaam, son of Petephres, priest of Apis. They lived near Memphis. Today, it's mainly classified among the apocrypha of the Old Testament.

No complete text of the book of Jannes and Jambres exists. Only a few fragments have survived, four Greek fragmentary manuscripts on papyrus and fragmentary translations in Latin, Old English and Ethiopian on parchment. It's also known through literary references. The earliest reference to the text goes back to Origen (c. 250), who argued that a passage in the New Testament ( specifically, 2 Timothy 3:8) was based on this text.

According to the Jewish Targum of Jonathan and the Talmud, Jannes and Jambres are the traditional names, drawn from Jewish literature, of the two magicians whom Moses opposed in Exodus 7:11-12. According to the biblical account, Jannes and Jambres are the two men who were known to be sorcerers capable of turning their staffs into snakes, as Moses did. Many legends, mainly Jewish, are written about them:

► They were the two sons of Balaam. 

  • "And when they had gone Pharaoh sent for Balaam the magician and to Jannes and Jambres his sons, and to all the magicians and conjurors and counsellors which belonged to the king, and they all came and sat before the king." The Book of Jasher, chap. 79:27

► They were drowned in the Red Sea, or killed with their father by Phineas. 

► St. Macarius visited their tomb, which was filled with demons, from which he obtained permission to enter and look around. He found a bronze vessel hanging on an iron chain in a well and much worn by time, as well as a number of dried up pomegranates (Palladius, Hist. Lausiaca).

When the brothers' mother dreams that a cypress tree is cut down in her paradise, Jannes tells her not to speak of it, although he understands its meaning. After a supernatural being cuts down the cypress tree, a human being unidentified in the fragmentary text, but believed to be Moses, warns Jannes that within three years he will afflict Egypt, as predicted by the strange event. In response, Jannes surrounds the garden with a wall and sets up a guard. His opponents predicted his death, as well as that of his brother and his mother, for having built an "evil wall". Jannès and Jambrès debate about sexual morality. And they agree that marriage must be suppressed. Jannes invites the wise men of Egypt to visit his little fortified paradise and to sit under an apple tree. During their stay, a storm and an earthquake damage the trees in the garden. In his library, Jannes tries to understand the meaning of these events. There he's confronted by four messengers sent by "the Lord of the earth and the Master of the universe", who will take him to Hades. Out of pity, the men extend his stay on Earth for a determined period of time. While discussing marriage with friends, Jannes is summoned to the palace of Memphis to oppose Moses and Aaron. He equals their exploits but is struck down by an illness. As he leaves, he informs Pharaoh that the power of Moses is of divine origin. On his return home, he sees celestial omens that announce the imminent fall of the forces of evil. He's summoned to Memphis to be judged and entrusts his mother to the good care of his friends. Jannes appoints Jambres as his successor and gives him a secret document. He warns him not to accompany the Egyptian army when they will march against the Hebrews.

The apostle Paul compares these sorcerers who opposed Moses before Pharaoh to the false preachers who will arise from within the Church to oppose the true teaching of the Gospel.

  • 2 Timothy 3:8-9 "Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so also these men oppose the truth. They are depraved in mind and disqualified from the faith. But they will not advance much further. For just like Jannes and Jambres, their folly will be plain to everyone."

Greek Fragments

Fragment 1

The king summoned all his servants, both the wise men and the magicians. After seven days, he was walking about his house and saw that one of the apple trees had flourished and the branches were already providing shade. When he had become aware of this, he ordered one of his magicians, Jannes, to sit under the apple tree.

While Jannes was seated underneath the tree, there was a great earthquake and from heaven came the sound of thunder and a streak of lightning, causing some of the branches of the tree to break off. When Jannes saw what had just occurred, he ran into the library to get his magical tools. When he returned, two people appeared near the tree. Both were clothed in white robes, with the two having their own magical tools. One of the men turned to Jannes and stated that the Lord of the earth and the Overseer of the universe has sent us to lead you away to Hades. From now on Jannes, you will be a companion of the dead. You shall forever be pitied. Then the two men in white said, let there be granted to you, fourteen days in your house and after that the angel of death shall come for you.

When Jannes' brother, Jambres, knew what had transpired, he sent for their mother to join them. When she arrived on the scene, Jannes explained what had just occurred. He said to his mother and brother, "I shall send for you, my mother, and you, my brother, when it is time." He also said to Jambres that Jambres should attend to their mother and to heed her faithfully. Then he approached her and kissed her, fighting back the tears until she had left. He then took leave of his friends, having urged them all to take carafe his mother for him. Then he took his brother with him to Memphis.

While on their journey to Memphis, Jannes handed Jambres a book. He said, "Brother, I am passing this document to you. Keep it secret, and take heed so as not to go forth on the day when the king marches out with the grandees of Egypt against the people of the Hebrews. And also make sure you do not accompany the king on his siege." Then Jannes stated that when I become ill and my soul is being taken, the God from heaven has defeated us. Make sure you summon our mother to me before I perish.

Seven days later, while in Memphis, the brothers were enjoying themselves at a wedding. Jannes stated during this wedding, "Men and brothers, after I took up the position against a certain Hebrew." But before he could finish speaking, emissaries came from the king's palace stating, "come quickly and oppose Moses, the Hebrew, who is performing wonders to the amazement of all."

When Jannes arrived in the palace, he opposed Moses and his brother, Aaron, by doing everything they had done. Then, the fatal disease struck him on the spot, and with a painful ulcer he went to the hedra. After a while, Jannes sent word to the king, that this active power is of the Hebrew God. He said he was unable to defeat this power, and he was on his death bed.

Jannes then called his brother and urged him not to grieve for him because it could be hazardous to him. All our possessions cannot protect us against this power. make ready for the spirit of death to come for me, and after it has come, try to summon me through my spirit. Morning was now approaching and all things being observed, Jannes made an inquiry at what hour did Jambres see the setting of the sun. Then he said, "such is a generation of lying lips and deceitful hearts of the hour of my death. Come and see how it takes," but Jambres said nothing and did not move.

After this occurred, the king of Egypt planned on pursuing the people of the Hebrews, who were now leaving Egypt. The people of Egypt were weeping in this time of sorrow, but Jambres did not. He remembered the oath which he swore to his brother. When Jannes said to him, a hundred thousand people, hundred foals, hundred camels, could not keep these events from happening. Jambres heard a noise and heard Jannes speak from his bed. Jannes told Jambres that he could not keep Jannes from perishing because Jannes' whole body had been agitated since he opposed Moses.

When Jannes heard of the king's plans, he encouraged all his other friends, just like he did his brother. Then his mother arrived, crying out, "my poor son, Jannes, how is he." When his mother viewed her son, she was amazed at how Jannes appeared. Jannes preferred that his mother would have not seen him like this. His mother approached him so she could kiss him, but he turned away from her. He said to her, "stay back, on account of the fever. I am unable to move and I am in much pain." Then his mother uttered to him, "what can I do for you my son." He replied, "you took the trouble to come and see me in my awful condition, and I am thankful for that. I will go to my grave happy that I was able to see you one last time before I perish." His mother then told him, "I saw the dead and no one resembled you, child. Lie here and you shall be saved." Then his mother realized that Jannes' appearance had been utterly changed, her son was a corpse. His tongue and lips were not moving, Jannes, her son, and Jambres' brother was dead.

Jambres and his mother sat there weeping over their departed loved one. Jambres stated that, "I have been deprived my brother's presence and all the money or possessions could not replace him." The Jambres realized that the spirit of death had not only taken his brother, but also took his mother from this world. He took them both to the tomb of his brother. After having performed the complete funeral rites, he abandoned his mother and brother forever.

Jambres then returned to the apple tree with Jannes' magical books and tools. He performed necromancy and brought up from the netherworld his brother's soul. The soul of Jannes said to his brother, "I your brother did not die unjustly, but indeed justly, and the judgment will go against me. Since I was more clever than all the clever magicians, and opposed the two brothers, Moses and Aaron, who performed great signs and wonders. As a result, I died and was brought from among the living to the netherworld, where there is great burning and the pit of perdition, whence no ascent is possible. Make sure you do good in you life to your children and friends; for in the netherworld, no good exists, only gloom and darkness. After you will have died and entered the netherworld, your abode will be two cubits wide and four cubits long. Those who do not do evil do not enter the netherworld, they are taken to a more pleasant and beautiful place by the Hebrew God.

The sons of Egypt, on account of their actions in life, will be descending to the netherworld also. There is no forgiveness for the actions our people have done to the Hebrews. For the gates of heaven are not for the dumb and evil. We were unable to keep away from corruption in our lives, for Moses knew that we shall descend to Hades when we perish. Our limbs are full of darkness, and hence we are burning in hell, and there is nothing anyone can do.

We, who worshiped idols and carved images, came to destruction with our idols, for neither the idols nor their worshipers does God the king of the earth love. In Hades, no one, not even the kings of Egypt can avoid the wretched one. For those who practiced sorcery, committed perjury, and other sinful actions of the like, would end up here. Not even a king excels, has equality in Hades. For everyone who opposes the God of the earth, the mighty one, cannot avoid the torture of hell. Nothing we do can protect us now from the wrath of the Hebrew God, we are all doomed for the way we lived our lives.

Fragment 2

‘And he (Jannes) said [to him,] “Jambres, [I hand over to you] a document [Ab] [and] keep it in secret and [take care not to come out] on the day on which [the king] and the chiefs of [Egypt] come out [to pursue] the people [of the Hebrews nor to go along] with them, [but plan to be unwell and save your own] soul [from death] and from [the destruction of the Egyptians which the god] of the heavens [will carry out according to his word on behalf of the children of the Hebrews whom the Egyptians caused to die in the river. And when the] time of [my] death [comes], go [every day to] our mother [and send me] letters, and when [the three years are completed,] tell her, ‘The king [commanded] him [to remain] for another [three years’, so that our] mother [will not] go [to Memphis and find out that I have] died. [But if she compels you to say,] say, ‘He is [impure] and cannot [be seen until] he is purified’ ”. 

And sending word [from Memphis,] he convened [all] the [chiefs of] Egypt [and said to] them, [“I am giving away my] daughter to [my] brother [Ba] in marriage and I am celebrating the [wedding for] seven days. And you will rejoice together with us, dear brothers. [And] after the days, I depart from you [to Hades”. 

And after making merry for the] seven [days of the wedding, Jannes instructed his] brother [Jambres concerning his] children [and concerning his wife] and mother [not to neglect her] nor [to abandon] her [for one hour lest she be pained, but to go to her every day. And when he had] completed [his speech], ambassadors were present [from the king,] saying, “Come quickly [and oppose] Moses the Hebrew: [for he is] making [signs] so that everyone is amazed”. 

[And] Jannes, [having come] to the  king [Pharaoh,] opposed Moses and his [brother] Aaron, doing as many things as they [were doing.] But [when] his death neared, tormented by a bad sore in his bottom and not finding a bottom remedy, he sent word to the king, saying, “This is God’s miracle that is operating for them. Therefore I, wishing to oppose the [power of God,] depart to death”. [And] 

Jannes called his brother again [and] entreated him concerning his mother [Bb] not to pain her: “But remember that she took a risk in life in giving birth to us. Do not then be occupied about money [and] forget our mother. Get ready …” (…) and [after getting] a little [breath … his] brother … and … 

Jannes … said, “Such indeed (is) the … and not … giving to … for the morrow …, and the … being observed … (Jannes) questioned (Jambres): “Of what kind [is] the hour now [around the] setting of [this] star?” 

And he (Jambres) replied, [“The last.” And he (Jannes)] said, “Such indeed (is) the hour of sinful and deceitful hearts, which do not remember the hour of death”. 

And he (Jannes) said to him (Jambres), “Come out and see how great (a part) is left of the day”. And he (Jambres) said to him (Jannes), “None”. 

And Jannes said, “So great indeed (is) the [day] of every woman who will turn away from [the] bed of her own husband and have intercourse with another, Jambres [my] brother. Now …” ’

Ethiopic Fragments

Fragment 1RA

This is yours. [And a se]cret you should keep (it). Take care that you do not go out on the day the king and all the nobles of Egypt go out in order to pursue the people of the Hebrews! Do not go out together with them! consider yourself sick and save your soul from death and from the destruction of Egypt. The God of Heaven will act according to word on behalf of the children of the Hebrews, whom the Egyptians caused to perish in the river (cf. Exod 1:22). And when the time (for) me to die is nigh, daily go always to my mother. And you should send to me letters like this from. And when three years are completed, tell her that the king commanded me to remain (for) another three years, so that she shall not come to and not learn that I died. And if she (has) gained mastery (over) you, tell her ‘He is unclean and he will not be able to show himself to anyone at all until he is cleansed’.” ‘And sending (out) from , Iyānnēs summoned all the nobles of Egypt, and he said to them, “I am giving my daughter to my brother in marriage. I shall do (this) for seven days. And you will rejoice with us, men, our friends. And after a hundred days I will be lost from you into Sheol.” 

And making merry during the seven days of the wedding, Iyānnēs instructed Iyānbrēs about his children and about his wife and about his mother, that he should neither neglect nor abandon her even one hour lest she be grieved, and that he should visit her daily. 

And finishing this speech to him, arrived from the king, saying, “Quickly come so that you might oppose the Hebrews, for they are doing signs and wonders so that everyone is amazed and marvels.” And reaching the king, opposed Moses and Aaron (cf. 2 Tim 3:8), doing signs like they were doing. But then death arrived (and) took hold (of him). Tormented with a pain in the bottom and being unable to find a cure, he sent to the king and he said, “(It is) the hand of God (cf. Exod 7:5, 8:15)! And behold, I am perishing!” 

And Iyānnēs cried out to his brother , and he pleaded to him about his mother, that he not sadden her: “Remember that in her life she endured giving birth to us! And let yourself neither accumulate wealth nor forget your mother. And prepare for …” 

Fragment 2RA

"… That he (could) carry water in a bucket (which fits) in its mouth 15 (units) in measure, and an ax of iron (weighing) 600,000 talents. But later even he died! ‘Where are Amān and Bārān, the giants who devoured men like locusts and wild animals and cattle and birds? They drank (cf. 1 En. 7:4– 5) and despoiled the Orient because they (could) not be satisfied. 

However, Bapares, their father, lifting a stone of a thousand talents, threw it by his own strength into the height(s) of heaven. And noontime descended, and he ran that same day 250,000 stadia and returned before the sun set. And where is he? Did he not die? Even he and his wife and his children died! 

Where is Aqāmās, whose eyes were huge? Did he not, while they were sleeping, with his belly raised up mountains? And since the dust storm was drawn out, it placed in his eyes 4,200 pieces, but it did not concern him, for heavy his eyes. And did not even he die? 

Where is the great Aklu, the gigantic? When walking, from the weight of his steps, 20 cubits (of earth) adhered to his feet. And when therefore it happened one time (that) he drank water from the river, it decreased the water (by) five cubits. Did not even he die? 

Where is the great Akaryās, the gigantic, who walked in the depths of the Banṭes(a) Sea and the water reached (only) up to his breasts? To this one (belonged) footsteps of 500,000 cubits, and, because of his wife’s adultery, he killed 103 giants. And this one killed [ ]sa[ ]s the gigantic and cast his body into the Great Sea. But afterwards even he died!

Where is Yotāmār, son of Māriket, who in his intelligence understood the hours and minutes of the day and of the night, and the months of the years, and the signs given? And much (else) he investigated. Did not even he die? 

Where is Ayās, the great and mighty, the marvelous, the gigantic, who left the eastern frontier running and …?"

In the Roman edition of the works of Ephraem Syrus (ii. p. 405), in the middle of the Syriac Testament of Ephraem the following fragment is suddenly inserted, which has no connection with its context. Following is the fragment translated from the Latin version.

"In the time of Moses the magicians rose up against the son of Amram: but the finger of God overcame them, as they themselves also confessed.

"The righteousness of God smote the wicked men with an evil sore, that even against their will they might proclaim the truth: for the Truth is wont to bear patiently until deceivers repent: but when they are puffed up and think themselves safe, then are they cast down into the pit.

"For when Moses was sent to bring the people out of Egypt, at the bidding of Pharaoh's Lord he came to Pharaoh and told him the command of God. When Pharaoh heard it he was driven to rage and fury and turned to blasphemy; and when the matter was published throughout the city and was come to the ears of the nobles of those parts, some said: It is the command of God and must be obeyed at all costs.

"But the King, when he saw Moses, feared, and began to feel the punishment that hung over him.

"Is there any that does not fear at the sight of the Lord? or who would not tremble at beholding God? So Pharaoh feared Moses, because he was the god of Pharaoh.

"The whole multitude of the magicians of Egypt hasted together to see a new marvel, for in the face of Moses was the angel of fire and wind, surpassing the brightness of the sun and of lightning, so that whoever fixed his eyes on him took him for a god; but they who heard his voice—for he was stammering and stuttered—despised and contemned him as a man. And one affirmed that he was come down from heaven: another set him wholly at naught: for, said he, if there were any great thing in him, surely he would have healed himself.

"Now Moses, as you have heard, knew the tongue of that country well; bred up in the house of Pharaoh, he had drunk in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, as the Apostle witnesses to us of him. And though he were not aware of it himself, yet he had the Holy Spirit dwelling in him, from whom he had learned all that had happened from Adam even to his own days, and was not ignorant of what the magicians were plotting against him.

"So Pharaoh called together all the magicians and their disciples and spoke to them of Moses thus: It is now time that whatever power you have you should put forth for the common good. When war is upon us there is need of mighty men, and the skill of physicians appears then when diseases are rife. Throughout all the world the people will laugh at us with great disgrace of our name if we are overcome by this stammering stutterer. Be therefore strong in conflict till we bear off victory: contend valiantly till we triumph. There is no man who knows not our name or extols you not as workers of wonders: we (ye?) have been wont to be helpers even of Kings when war came upon them. If then they see us made a laughing-stock to a stammerer, much more shall we be despised by all other men. Up then, put on a manly spirit, and go forth to battle like heroes of renown, that we may gain an eternal name; and so all who hear of it may be smitten with fear and not dare to resist our people. And though I excel in royal dignity, yet I uphold the common cause with you. To all of us there will be like honour or like shame.

"The magicians, stirred by these words, as if made drunk with wine, promised seas and mountains to Pharaoh King of Egypt. The sun, said they, shall not again rise to lighten Egypt before the son of Amram has ceased to live. What time thou, O King, takest quiet slumber in thy bed, then shalt thou hear that Moses has been punished by a shameful death. And this, indeed, we account as nothing: it is child' s play. Come then, enter thy chamber and climb up upon thy bed and sleep: for the death of Moses is at the doors, and he shall not, believe us, see another day.

"Thus the magicians left Pharaoh. And he, believing their words, could not sleep for his impatience, looking for the dawn of day: nor, had he slept, could he rest without the coming of the same images to him in his slumber.

"But they, practicing their arts, called up devils and sent them against Moses. The evil spirits rushed in hosts upon the holy man: but the power of God and the prayer of the righteous one drove them back as the storm scattered the fire and the wind the smoke. So did the demons fly from the face of Moses as the conquered flee in battle before the victors, and thieves turn their backs when they hear the voices of the watchmen approaching.

"As light dispels darkness, so did Moses drive away the wicked ones. Headlong they returned to the magicians by whom they had been hired; and, said they: We lose our labor against this man, for he is stronger than we, and we cannot get near to the border of the place where he dwells.

"Meanwhile the day dawned, and Pharaoh anxiously expected that what the magicians had promised him, of the death of Moses, should have been fulfilled. But when the appointed time was past, and there came none to tell the tidings he desired, the King called the magicians and spake thus to them: Why, said he, hath the matter fallen out otherwise than as you promised? for you said, Moses shall not see another day after this.

"The magicians said to him: Have patience a little: the man's death is indeed near, but we can do nothing in haste, O King, and this day allows it not, for to-day it is new moon: when the moon begins to wane, then shall the life of Moses fail.

"This was the cause they pretended to him, until the appointed hour should come to Moses: but the King received their words gladly, being subject to the same errors as they.

"The magicians therefore set to work: they took somewhat of the hairs and garments of Moses, and made an image of him, and laid it up in a tomb, and set evil demons against it. Immediately the demons came, and the princes of them: Satan was ready with his hosts, all of them in divers forms, to destroy Moses.

"They ran against him in a troop. But when they lifted up their eyes to the holy prophet and saw him encompassed by a host of angels, like as it was once with Elisha, they could not bear the look of him, much less attack him, and all together they fled away in confusion with cries and howlings.

"This thing brought the magicians to perplexity. They turned therefore to other means to save their name and not be found guilty of deceit and lying before the King. Accordingly they took a cup full of wine and by their enchantments compelled vipers and dragons to spue their venom into it; and when it was ready they gave the cup to Moses, that he might drink it and burst asunder. Take, said they, this wine which the King of Egypt sends thee, and drink it, for to this pinnacle of honour he will have thee raised, as he hath long ago desired; and this wine itself is like the desire of the King, for it is old, and by reason of length of time is become muddy and dark.

"At this Moses smiled, and took the cup and signed it in the name of God and drank the wine without any hurt. But that they might know that their deceit was not hidden from him, he turned to them and said: Come, tell the King, who hath sent me to drink wine mingled with the poison of serpents, that none of these things do any hurt to the servants of God.

"Thus far concerning Moses and the Magicians."

bottom of page