Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Traditions of Seth part II - Christian Traditions.


Seth in Christian Literature



Seth appears as figure of interest in both orthodox and Gnostic sources. The Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians, found among the Nag Hammadi codices, is a Christian-Gnostic text extrapolating on the figure of Seth.[1] Bohlig and Wisse, in their critical edition of the text in Brill’s edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices, note the possibility of the ancient Egyptian pantheon influencing the portrayal of Seth in the text. Bohlig and Wisse hypothesis that the Gnostic tendency to find an esoteric good in an exoteric evil figure.[2] There is possibility that Seth’s character in the Gospel of the Egyptian’s is meant to correspond to the Egyptian god Set/Seth, the traditionally evil god being reinterpreted by the third son of Adam.[3] Bohlig and Wisse appeal to evidence of attempts to rehabilitate Set among the Egyptian pantheon of gods in Egyptian magical texts and note that where Set was associated with sodomy in Egyptian religion, the seed of Seth are said to dwell in the “holy” city of Sodom.[4]
As Layton notes, the Gospel of the Egyptians recounts the standard Gnostic creation myth, expanding upon the role of the invisible spirit as progenitor of a separate Gnostic universe and the establishment of the Gnostic church.[5] The great Seth, the pre-existent savior, manifests in human history three times, culminating in Jesus’ adoption by Seth.[6] Seth of the Hebrew Bible appears as a son of the great Seth, the pre-existent savior. Earthly Seth’s primary role in the text is as the source of an incorruptible race of celestial origins. Adamas prays for a son who will become “the father of the immovable and incorruptible race and because of it the silence and the voice may appear and that because of it the dead aeon may raise itself so that it may dissolve.”[7] The Logos descends from the invisible spirit and begins the series of heavenly processions to the material world leading to the creation of the earthly Seth and his eventual progeny.[8] Seth is the product of a cosmic union; the great invisible Seth copulated with the earthly aeons of Sodom and Gomorrah, producing the incarnation of his seed.[9] Seth’s line is a link between the natural world and the supernatural world, directly produced by the emanations of the original invisible spirit.
            Seth is also seen as the guardian of sacred knowledge in the Gnostic tradition.
The Three Tablets of Seth purport to be the record of the great Patriarch’s witness to the Gnostic myth. Layton notes the notion of “tablets” or “steles” has the connotation of a gigantic stone slab set up in the city and containing public records. This imagery has immediate parallels to the Jewish tradition recorded by Josephus. Another Jewish legend concerning Seth’s transmission of primordial sacred knowledge is found in the Life of Adam and Eve. Eve instructs her surviving children to record all they have seen and heard of their parents’ lives for their future offspring. After Eve’s death, Seth commits himself to the task of constructing the tablets requested by Eve. Seth makes the tablets in both stone and clay to survive the various punishments God may send upon the earth. According to the Life of Adam and Eve, the arcane sacred knowledge passed on from Seth formed the basis of the Solomon’s wisdom.[10]
            The Secret Book of John briefly describes Seth as the product between Adam and his essence, Eve.[11] The Secret Book of John describes Seth as the result of a divine human union, the Mother having sent the Spirit down to awaken Adam’s essence in Eve. The end result is the text’s affirmation that Seth is the seed according to an eternal race.[12] The Hypostases of the Archons parallels the notion of Seth’s being produced by a human-divine union, going so far as to claim Seth is not the offspring of Eve, but of Eve’s spiritual and superior counterpart who had originally been present in Adam as a heavenly androgenen but fled when the lower material powers were preparing to corrupt Adam.[13] Throughout the surviving Sethian Gnostic texts the theme of Seth as the source of a separate (Gnostic) and quasi-divine race is apparent.[14] Another theme frequently explored by these same texts is Seth as an illuminator of secret knowledge. In the Apocalypse of Adam, Seth is portrayed as receiving revelations from his father Adam which he is then charged with passing on to his seed.[15] Seth’s role as a revelator of secret knowledge may also be depicted in the Three Steles of Seth, upon which Seth writes praises of the true God.
            Orthodox Christian speculation on the person of Seth was largely reserved to the Syrian church. Jurgen Tubach has presented a fine summary of the Syrian evidence in his article Seth and the Sethites in Early Syriac Literature. Ephrem’s commentary on Genesis attests to a tradition in which Seth and his seed originally lived in a region separate from the offspring of Cain. Seth had originally bound his descendents to a promise to never leave their dwelling. Eventually, Seth’s descendents break this promise, and enter the lands of Cain’s descendents, where, enticed by the inventions of Jubal and the produce of Jabal, eventually settle and marry with Cain’s descendents.[16] Ephrem identifies the sons of God as the descendents of Seth and the daughters of man as the descendents of Cain. Ephrem does not completely reject a literal interpretation of the Genesis 6 narrative. Ephrem attests to a belief in human beings of extraordinary size resulting from the sexual relations between the Sethite and Cainite lines. Ephrem interprets Cain’s line as having lived off of the food from “cursed” ground and therefore unable to acquire proper nutrition. Seth’s line, meanwhile, enjoyed better yield from the land and better nutrition. The sons of Seth possessed a natural physical prowess over the sons of Cain and pass this trait onto the progeny between the two lines.[17]
The Spelunca thesaurum, the Cave of Treasures, is ,according to Tubach, a compilation of early Syriac traditions concerning Seth predating the writings of Ephrem.[18] The Cave of Treasures describes Seth as perfect as Adam, which Tubach interprets as indicating that Adam’s likeness to God was passed on to Seth.[19] This description of Seth as possessing Adam’s likeness to God is then complicated by the affirmation that Seth and all of his descendents were giants.[20] Seth receives burial instructions from Adam as well as a warning to never marry into Cain’s line.[21] After Adam’s death and burial, the Cainites migrate to live on the plains and the Sethites migrate to a mountain adjacent to Eden where they live a life pleasing to God.[22] The Sethites engage in morning lauds, climbing to the summit of the mountain to sing with the angels of God.[23] Eventually, Seth’s descendents migrate down from the mountain to the plains inhabited by Cain’s line and are enticed into leaving their segregated life by the innovations of the Cainites.[24]


[1] Stroumsa and MacRae both note the centrality of the concept of the seed of Seth was one of the earliest elements in Gnostic mythology
[2] Bohlig and Wisse. The Gospel of the Egyptians. Nag Hammadi Codices. 35 Werkel has also advanced a similar view, Werkel “Die drei Stelen des Seth.”  It should be noted, however, that Pearson strongly critizes this view, noting that if Seth and the Egyptian God Set are meant to be identifiable in the Gnostic texts, there should have been some assimilation of Set’s tendencies unto the character of Seth.
[3] Bohlig and Wisse. 35
[4] Bohlig and Wisse. 35
[5] Layton. The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit. The Gnostic Scriptures. 101 The tractate concludes with an account of the Gnostic baptism and thus reception into the Gnostic church.
[6] Layton.
[7] The Gospel of the Egyptians. III:51:9-10
[8] The Gospel of the Egyptians. III:53:12-III:54:10
[9] The Gospel of the Egyptians. III:71:9
[10] Life of Adam and Eve. 51:3-7
[11] Secret Book of John 63:12-64:3
[12] Pearson. “Seth in Gnostic Literature.” 481
[13] Hypostases of the Archons 89,7. See also Luttikhuizen 215
[14] Peasron sees the concept of Seth as the progenitor of the Gnostic race as having affinity with Philo’s thought in De Post. Caini. “Again, commenting on the term ἕτερον σπέρμα in Gen 4:25, Philo says that Seth is the ‘seed of human virtues sown from God.’ For Philo, therefore, all virtuous men are of the race of Seth.”
[15] Apocalypse of Adam. 85:19-24 Pearson argues argues that this theme of Seth passing on secret knowledge to his seed is depicted in the Gospel of the Egyptians’ narrative of Seth hiding away a secret book atop a mountain. (III 68:1-3)
[16] Tubach, Jurgen. Seth in Early Syriac Literature. 190
[17] Tubach, Jurgen. Seth in Early Syriac Literature. 190
[18] Tubach, Jurgen. 194
[19] Tubach, Jurgen. 194
[20] Tubach, Jurgen. 194
[21] Tubach, Jurgen. 196
[22] Tubach, Jurgen. 196
[23] Tubach, Jurgen. 196
[24] Tubach, Jurgen. 197
copyright the author (2012)