Second Treatise of Great Seth

Nag Hammadi CodicesThe Second Treatise of the Great Seth is one of the “G/gnostic” texts found at the Nag Hammadi Library in Egypt.[1] Generally dated in the third century by scholars, the name and origin of this text remain a mystery,[2] though it has been speculated that the name Seth originated from the son of Adam and Eve from Genesis 4.[3] In this treatise, the gnostic Christ is speaking to the “perfect and incorruptible” ones and describing a true understanding of his life story, crucifixion, relationship to the Father, and his teaching. This document contains both elements of both a pro-Gnostic message and an anti-Christian message, as Christians are said to proclaim the teachings of a dead man while persecuting the true gnostic church. While gnosticism is an oft discussed phenomena of late antiquity and the early Christian age, there remains a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty as to what gnosticism actually was, perhaps mostly because the Christian apologists and writers of the gnostic age did not discuss the actual theology of their opponents aside from what was wrong with it.[4] In this text, Christ seems to be advocating a form of mind-body dualism that seems to be fairly pervasive among certain branches of gnosticism in the early Christian era. It is important to note that most scholars have failed to place this specific gnostic text within any specific genre of gnostic literature, further evidence of the uncertainty of its origin and writing.[5]

In The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, a rather dismal view of ‘common’ Christianity is held. There is reference made to common Christians as being “vain in ignorance” and like “unreasoning beasts.”[6] Proto-orthodox Christians, modern Jews, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, the Prophets, and even John the Baptist are seen as worshiping not the true God that Christ revealed, but instead an inferior deity, here referred to as “Hebdomad.”[7] Within the gnostic worldview presented, Yahweh (Hebdomad) is a malevolent and perhaps even non-omnipotent deity who thinks that he is stronger than Christ.[8] However, Christ’s Father, the Ultimate God of the universe and every other gnostic deity, is greater than Yahweh and sent Christ to reveal the true way to salvation and enlighten humanity. In reading this text, there doesn’t seem to be much explicit commentary on the “proto” orthodox Christian church, though it seems that we can infer common Christianity held a much higher view of the physical world than the gnostic writing this text. Should it be understood that Christianity had become ‘worldly’ at the time of this writing? Perhaps, but given the nature of gnosticism, it seems that more likely that orthodox Christianity held that physical reality and the physical body are of worth and importance in addition to the spiritual.

Furthermore, there is presented in this writing a generally low view of the created world and mankind. The first section of the treatise is Christ recounting his treatment of the man Jesus. He says that “I visited a bodily dwelling. I cast out the one who was in it previously, and I went in… For he was a worldly man, but I, I am from above the heavens. I did not refuse them, on the one hand, and I became Christ.”[9] Why are human bodies treated as no more than dwellings by Christ, as if they are of no importance? It seems that mankind’s ignorance of the things above, not only of the ‘higher’ things that Christ has come to reveal, but of the facts of the crucifixion as well, for according to this treatise, Christ was not actually crucified on the cross.[10]

GnosticsThere are within this text several parallels to non-gnostic religions and sects. Firstly, there is a possible indication of interaction with the Gospel of Matthew. A passage reads “There was a trembling that overcame the chaos of the earth, for the sols which were in sleep below were released, and they were resurrected? They walked about boldly….”[11]  Ostensibly, this could be based upon Matthew 27:52-53. The writer has at least some familiarity with orthodox Christianity and there seems to be evidence of an Eastern influence as well. There is a reference to “three paths, which are an undefiled mystery”, which seems to carry inferences of Eastern mysticism, perhaps even a form of Vedic Hinduism. Things are have not appeared in any of the scholarship that I have thus found, yet there seems to be the possibility for future research into the influences of this text.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Second Treatise of the Great Seth is the passage where Christ speaks of the crucifixion, revealing to the reader that it was in fact not Christ crucified, but instead Simon of Cyrene, who in the Gospel narratives helps Jesus carry the cross. Christ in this story is not adorned with a crown of thorns, nor was he in any way truly involved with the crucifixion, except that he was “changing [his] forms above, transforming from appearance to appearance” and was “undefiled” by the entire proceeding.[12] This refusal to proclaim Christ crucified, and indeed the calling of Christians who profess such a belief, seems to undermine what is commonly viewed as the chief tenants of Early Christianity—Christ has died, Christ is Risen, and Christ will come again. Is this a possible indication of wide spread disbelief in the crucifixion? Christ later speaks and reveals that this knowledge of who actually died on the cross is not for those who are “poor” or “ignorant”,[13] but for those who are given the “Gnosis of Greatness”. Looking at these beliefs from the perspective of the orthodox Christians, this gnosis would seemingly sidetrack the entire message of Christianity. If Christ did not die (and therefore did not rise), then are men still sinners? Is faith in a dead man enough for eternal life? St. Paul writes that if the resurrection did not happen, we are to be pitied above all men for our foolish belief. Yet the perspective of this text seems to not even address such concerns, for Christ is able to grant his followers the gnosis that saves them. Apparently, the idea that God would come and die as a man was not a confession that the writer of this text would make and instead of relying on the atonement of Christ, the reliance was placed on the true gnosis of Christ.

 

Rendering of Gnostic Sophia

Rendering of Gnostic Sophia

It is oft argued that Trinitarian Christianity has been in existence since the time of Christ and the giving of the Great Commission in Matthew 28: 19-20, where the names of the “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are given for Baptism. The Christ of the Second Treatise seems to indicate a possible line of Trinitarian thinking, as he mentions throughout his telling of gnosis the Father, himself (the Son), and the “Good One”, whom He will accomplish everything in, including the joining of truth.[14] Is this an inference of Trinitarian Gnosticism similar to the Divine Triad that we see in orthodox works? Within the text itself, it seems difficult to divine those who have knowledge from the potential character of the Holy Ghost, as the spiritual aspects of gnosticism seem to leave much room for interpretation. This potential element of Trinitarian thought is of course not equivalent with later Christian Orthodoxy on the subject of the Trinity, for Christ is not viewed as fully man but indwelling a man; however it is interesting to see what could be inferred from such a belief. As one final note, I found it interesting that two gnostic theologies presented in this text later found their way into the holy text of another of the world’s largest religions, Islam. The gnostic doctrine of the crucifixion (that is, Christ did not die) and the doctrine of an unorthodox Trinity are both found in the Qur’an of Islam [15], a suggestion that these gnostic (or at least heretical) ideas had widespread evidence in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, likely into Arabia by the 8th century CE.

In conclusion, The Second Treatise of the Great Seth gives the scholar an excellent picture of a Gnostic belief concerning the person of Christ and His crucifixion. Further, the texts reflects many ideas that could be found to be influential not only in the orthodox period of the Christian Church, but also for years to come in the context of the greater Roman world. While the text does not specifically delve into details of Orthodox Christianity, there are inferences of possible Trinitarian thought and the influence of the Gospel of Matthew, as well as explicit claims that common Christians believed in the death of Christ, a fundamental principle of Christianity even today.


 

Sources

[1] Antti Marjanen. “‘Gnosticism’.” The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies. Ed. Susan A. Harvey and David G. Hunter. First ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 215. “G/gnostic” is a tricky category, as Christopher Tuckett and Elaine Pagels have helpfully reminded us. I hope to run a piece on the definition of “G/gnostic” in the not-too-distant future, but for the duration of this post, the term “gnostic” will be used. [2] Ibid. [3] Bart D. Ehrman. “The Second Treatise of the Great Seth”. Lost Scriptures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. 82. [4] Marajanen, 203-4. [5] Ibid., 215. [6] Ehrman, 85.  [7] Ibid., 86. [8] Ibid. [9] Ibid., 82-83. [10] Ibid., 84. [11] Ibid.  [12] Ibid. [13] Ibid., 85. [14] Ibid. [15] “The Holy Qur’an.” The Meaning of THE HOLY QUR’AN. Ed. Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Eleventh ed. Beltsville, MY: Amana, 2004. Surah 4.157-8 and 3.59.

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