The Sethian System According to the Nag Hammadi Manuscripts

Hans-Martin Schenke

A large number of the Gnostic writings found at Nag Hammadi are, according to commonly held opinion, of distinctively Sethian character. But what is "Sethian"? What are the characteristics of Sethian Gnosis? What is the nature of Sethianism? Obviously a writing that circulates under the name of Seth need not thereby be really Sethian; this is shown by The Second Logos of the Great Seth (NHC VII,2), a text that clearly bears that mark of Christian Gnosis and whose Greek subscript title (which is apparently secondary), is completely misleading, for there is absolutely no mention of Seth, explicitly or implicitly, in this text. Not even the person who calls him- or her-self one must necessarily be a Sethian; much less one to whom the heresiologists of the church have attributed the name ‘Sethian.’ Thus, for example, the teaching of the so-called Sethians of Hippolytus (Ref. V.19-22) (apparently represented according to the Paraphrase of Seth cited in Hipp. Ref. V.22) is no more Sethian in character than the Gnosis of the parallel text, The Paraphrase of Seth (NHC VII,1). For a text with such a content the title ‘Paraphrase of Shem’ is better suited, or at least not as badly suited, as ‘Paraphrase of Seth.’ Generally speaking, the heresiologists give us little that might be of help for the definition of Sethianism. Actually the only sort of starting point in this area is offered by the brief characterization of Sethians found in Epiphanius, Pan. 39 (compare also 40.7.1-5) together with the parallels in Ps.-Tertullian (Adv. omn. haer. 2) and Philastrius (haer. 3). Judged by these passages, and above all by their content itself, the following Nag Hammadi texts, insofar as they have come to my attention, can be diagnosed with certainty as being more or less Sethian, and may provide the basis for any scientific inquiry into what is Sethian:

All these texts are closely related to one another, and all of them represent or presuppose one and the same Gnostic system, with various points of view, in more or less purity, or more or less contaminated by motifs from other systems, whether in full vitality or in a form already weakened by multiplication of system elements and further attenuations. And it is precisely this system uniting all these texts that proves to be typically Sethian.

The system is founded upon what we must understand as a fundamental teaching of Sethianism: the belief of these Gnostics that they were the seed of Seth, that is, the physical and at the same time pneumatic (spiritual) posterity of Seth. As children of Seth, they are fusei swzomenoi (physei sozomenoi; saved by nature). And to this concept belongs, properly and immediately, the concept of the heavenly/earthly or earthly/heavenly Seth as the Gnostic redeemer, as is especially clear in the Gospel of the Egyptians. This Sethian soteriology, however, can also appear in such a form that the real redeemer is the heavenly/earthly Adamas who makes use of his heavenly/earthly son Seth as a means to salvation. That is, for example, the conception found in the first stele of the Three Steles of Seth. A further specifically Sethian superstructure to this concept is the introduction of the four Aeons and Light-Givers of the Autogenes: Harmozel, Oroiael, Daveithe, Eleleth. What is notoriously Sethian about them is precisely the fact that they represent the heavenly places of rest for Adam, Seth, and the seed of Seth. The Autogenes himself is a member of a heavenly triad of gods that is repeatedly mentioned in all these writings; he is the divine son of the primeval Father and his consort Barbelo. And so this triad as well can be counted among the specifically Sethian features. With the conception of the heavenly triad the Sethians could easily connect the concept of the god called "Human Being" (Anthropos) in its first form. And it is below the four lights that, according to our group of texts, the realm of the presumptuous demiurge Ialdabaoth is to be found. But both the conception of the god called "Human Being" and the corresponding locus communis of Ialdabaoth’s presumption and consequent punishment is also found in systems of an entirely other structure, and thus should not be invoked as a specifically Sethian element. But probably there belongs in Sethian Gnosis a particular kind of speculation about history, a division of the past into periods, a doctrine of universal epochs. The idea that the demiurge Ialdabaoth tried to annihilate the seed of Seth through the flood (all in vain), the notion that it was the children of Seth who, as inhabitants of the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, were threatened with the fiery judgment of Ialdabaoth, but were saved by intercessors from the world of light, does not occur in our circle of texts by sheer accident.

The elements and structures exposited above and recognized as belonging to the Sethian system are already more or less familiar in themselves; but in their motivation and the way they cohere with one another they become considerably more lucid for us when we seize the opportunity to observe the texts of our dossier synoptically. We want to direct our attention to this circumstance as concerns two previously insoluble riddles, which have now been solved of their own accord.

First Riddle (as propounded for the reader, e.g., by the Apocryphon of John): What is the seed of Seth and the third Aeon of the illuminator Daveithe, and how did it come to be there? The answer appears from a comparison of the Gospel of the Egyptians 56.4-21 with the Apocalypse of Adam 75.17-27. In the Gospel of the Egyptians 56.4-21 it says: "Then from that place there came forth ….Plesithea….the Virgin, She who has four breasts, bringing fruit from the spring of Gomorrah and from Sodom, that is the fruit of the spring of Gomorrah that dwells in it (sc. the city of Sodom?). …. He (Seth) received these his seed from She who has four breasts, the Virgin. He placed it (the seed) with him into the third great light Daveithe." And in the Apocalypse of Adam 75.17-27 one reads, after the description of the demiurge’s judgment of fire upon the Sethians: "And great luminous clouds will come forth (from the great aeons); and upon them there will come Abrasax, Sablo, and Gamaliel; and they will save those men from the fire and the wrath and will translate them to a place above the angels and the sovereign domains of the powers." Now one needs only to know the additional fact from the Gospel of the Egyptians 52.19-53.1 that Gamaliel, Gabriel, Samlo, and Abrasax are sometimes representatives of the illuminators Harmozel or Oroiael or Daveithe or Eleleth, and then the presupposition of the texts is clear: the seed of Seth in the third Aeon are, as it were, primeval Sethians, a Gnostically conceived race of heroes in the days of yore, which after its provisional delivery from the cataclysm had taken possession of the land of Sodom and Gomorrah, but as a consequence of the demiurge’s fiery judgment upon this land had finally been removed from the world below and snatched up to precisely this realm of heaven. But why, precisely, in the third Aeons? Here we come to the:

2nd Riddle: Why does it happen in the Hypostasis of the Archons 140.33-141.13 that in response to the cry of Norea only the fourth illuminator Eleleth comes to her aid and comes to instruct her own self and her posterity about true Gnosis? This circumstance only makes sense if he is the being, indeed the Savior, responsible for the posterity of Norea, that is, the somehow historical Sethians whose descent is thought to stretch down to the present day, just as the illuminator Daveithe could then be thought of as the being responsible for the primeval Sethians. Accordingly then the fourth Aeon would be the Paradise of the historical Sethians into which they all gradually enter until the end of the world; and it is in precisely this sense that we should have to understand the relevant passages of our group of texts (e.g., Apocryphon of John 36.7-15; Gospel of the Egyptians 65.20-22).

From this, however, one can further conclude that the four Sethian Aeons, as their names actually indicate, correspond to four distinct universal epochs, that they are the heavenly Paradises of four different universal epochs, and that the four illuminators Harmozel, Oroiael, Daveithe, and Eleleth accordingly actually are, or originally once were, the four stars or planets, each of which governs a season of the universal year. That is, the four Aeons and illuminators actually belong in a contiguous sequence and not in subordination, even though Sethian speculation also conceived of them in the latter manner. For this reason, as for the word illuminator = fwsthr, one should perhaps leave open the question whether the remarkable expression for ‘Savior’ fwsthr, which is also met outside our group of texts (e.g. also in the Letter of Peter to Philip [NHC VIII,2]) was not originally at home in Sethian Gnosis.

That speculation about historical epochs belongs to the essence of Sethian Gnosis is reflected in a very curious motif found in our group of texts, the idea of the three-fold coming of the Savior (Gospel of the Egyptians 63.4-8 [said of Seth]; Apocalypse of Adam 76.8-17 [said of the Phoster, behind whom however Seth himself is probably masked]; Apocryphon of John NHC II 30.11-31.25 [in the self-revelation of the Pronoia]; Trimorphic Protennoia; compare also the Hypostasis of the Archons 144.27-31; Pistis Sophia [GCS 45] 108.37ff). This three-fold coming, a particular concrete instance of the principle of ongoing revelation, belongs somehow within the framework of four universal epochs. Probably what is meant is that at various times the Savior enters anew into the three ages following that of Adam (the age of Seth, the age of the primeval Sethians, the age of the historical Sethians) in order to pass through them for the sake of saving revelation. As ages of the Coming one thinks primarily of the beginning of the second, third, and fourth Aeons, respectively. But there is also a reference to another concrete manifestation of this principle, in which the defining limits of the epochs are the cataclysm, the judgment by fire, the condemnation of Jesus (Gospel of the Egyptians 63.4-8). Moreover, a three-fold sojourning of the race of the Sethians in also mentioned as such, namely Gospel of the Egyptians 60.25-61: "That is the great unchangeable race that was brought low (and) going through three worlds (arrived) in the (present) world." In this perspective the three worlds are, probably the Aeon of Adam, Aeon of Seth, and the Aeon of the primeval Sethians.

Our group of texts attests to us the Sethian system, as we said, in various forms, inter alia in Christian and non-Christian form, i.e. in Christianized and the original non-Christian form. The Sethians therefore were originally a pre-Christian Gnostic movement. The witnesses to such a non-Christian form of the Sethian system are the Three Steles of Seth and the Oracles of Zostrianos, of which the form (3StelSeth) is in many respects much the more important of the two. The Three Steles contains an invocation of the heavenly Triad: the first is directed to the Autogenes (autogenh"), the second to the Barbelo, the third to the divine primal father. And the Autogenes invoked in the first stele is none other than the heavenly Adamas himself. That is to say, the form of the son in the Sethian Triad of deities was originally the heavenly Adamas.

In many texts (ApocJohn NHC II 8.34f.; 3StelSeth; Zostrianos; Melchizedek), this man Adam further bears the puzzling name Pigeradamas (pigeradamas). It is immediately clear from the synopsis of the ApocJohn that Pigeradamas is identical with Adamas (adamas). The additional element in the name ought then to have no other function than to characterize this Adamas specially as a heavenly being. A corresponding designation can be found in the untitled work from NH II, viz. 156.23: Adamas etoyaab (adamas etouaab). On this analogy ought one to conceive of Pigeradamas as a Coptic word which through corruption has become a terminus technicus and which renders the phrase o ier adama" (p-iger-adamas)? Moreover this Adam might originally have been identical with the "Child" (palou) (Zostr.; the so-called Unbekanntes altgnostisches Werk [GCS 45] 338, 39) or with the Thrice-Male-Child (Drei-Männer-Kind) (this, in my opinion, is the meaning of the expression pSomNt Nhoout nalou that occurs in the Gospel of the Egyptians and in Zostrianos [compare NTS 16, 1969/70, 197]); correspondingly then the expression "Kindeskind" or "Child of the Child" (palou Mpalou [GosEgyptians; Zostr.; Pistis Sophia]) would originally have been a description of Seth.

Now if in other (Christian) forms of the Sethian system Christ appears as the Autogenes, and the Autogenes is distinguished from the heavenly Adamas, as e.g., in the ApocJohn and the Gospel of the Egyptians, that represents precisely a secondary alteration. That this is the case can be recognized clearly from the fact that in these Christianized forms Christ and Adamas are rather clearly in competition with one another as inhabitants of the first Aeon. And with that we have already leveled our sights upon one of the two essential modifications (we need merely to observe the same phenomena from the other direction) through which with relative ease the Sethian system could be Christianized and was Christianized. The other modification (along with the identification of the Autogenes with Christ) is the ensuing fusion, in the corresponding passages, of Seth as the Savior of his own sojourning through the Aeons with Jesus, i.e. the conception of Jesus as a manifestation of Seth.

Synoptic examination of the Sethian Nag Hammadi texts opens before us a perhaps still further-reaching perspective on the development of Sethian Gnosis. Here the key question is how it might have happened that for a certain group of people precisely Seth came to be the hero of Gnosis, why essentially pagan oriental Gnostics should have felt a particular interest in Seth is not easy to see. And indeed even Seth in his positive aspect provided the Gnostic no stimulus to embody the revolutionary impulse towards the reevaluation of all values in a corresponding doctrine. On the other hand, it seems as well that Judaism of the time, in all its manifestations, shows no special interest in this figure of its tradition. And it provides then grounds to suppose that the lack of interest expressed by Judaism in the figure Seth is only the other side of a particular coin, for it was the Samaritans who had requisitioned this figure for their own particular needs. Compare, e.g., Damascus Document VII.20f in this perspective, and also the fact that, as J. Bowman has noted, in the esoteric Samaritan tradition Seth is the favorite son of Adam and Eve from whom the chain of the children of light born in the image of God leads down to Moses. Can one regard the figure of Seth as principal witness of Gnosis is a certain analogy to the figure of James the brother of the Lord in precisely this function? Indeed James could have become a hero of Gnosis simply and only through Jewish Christians, for whom James was already the authority par excellence, having fallen into the vortex of the Gnostic movement and simply taken their hero with them: for them James remained the source and authority for what they believed, however great was the metamorphosis this belief expressed.

Now if one realizes that the Three Steles of Seth make themselves out to have been discovered and transmitted by Dositheos ("The revelation of Dositheos concerning the three steles of Seth, the father of the living race that does not waver and which he transmitted to the elect just as they stood written in that place" [118.10-19]), we have therewith for the first time direct testimony for a relationship between Sethian Gnosis and Samaritanism. For the above-mentioned Dositheos can hardly be any other than the famous and legendary sect founder known from the literature, whom many anti-heretical writings of the Church had already connected with the origin of Gnosis. Accordingly then we must leave open the possibility that the Sethian movement of Gnosis could have arisen inside the Samaritan sect of the Dositheans (in itself not Gnostic), when a part of this sect became caught up in the international Gnosis movement and was dragged along with it, so that then (in a certain way automatically) both the mythical and the legendary, historical heroes, both Seth and Dositheos, changed from the principal witnesses of Samaritanism to principal witnesses of the new variety of Gnosis that has arisen through his metamorphosis.