Reading Plan /file 2A
Reading the Nag Hammadi Codices
The Second Treatise of Great Seth jolts us from the banal and innocuous idiom of the Gospel of Thomas back to radical teachings on the Archons and their insidious attempt to deviate humanity. As the title indicates, this text belongs to the Lego category of "Sethian Gnosticism." A character named Seth is mentioned once, and once only, in the Old Testament, Genesis 4:25: "And Adam knew his wife again, and she bare a son, and called his name Seth: "For God, said she, hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew." Significantly, it is the mother Eve who names Seth. Evidently she regards him as a replacement and consolation for the murder of her son, Abel. Much ado has been made of the Cain and Abel story, and its consequences for humanity, as we all know.
But what about the Seth story?
My fix: The Gnostic version of Genesis reflects the intensity of their protest
against Judaism, but it does not prove that the Gnostic movement derived
From ancient Iran the Sethians spread into the Middle East (and elsewhere, both toward Asia and Europe) to become established in many places in the Levant, Palestine, and Egypt. After 500 BCE, the Gnostic movement seems to have been concentrated in the region immediately south of the Dead Sea and the nearby hills of the Negev Desert. This region was in Biblical times called the Land of Seir, recalling the ancestral Iranian homeland. It is likely that Gnostics were common figures in the thriving society of the Nabataens whose magnificent site, Petra, is now a world tourist destination. NHC materials tell us that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, once located at the southern tip of the Dead Sea, were sacred to the Sethians.
Significantly, the first deed of Abraham's divine commission, received from the eerie Melchizedek, was to destroy those cities (Genesis, 18). The animosity of the Abrahamic cult toward Gnostics runs very deep. Divine paternalism cannot tolerate competition. In the War Scroll from the Dead Sea caves, the Children of Seth and "the remnant of Seir" top the list of enemies to be destroyed by the Zaddakim, the Righteous Ones, with the aid of supernatural warrior-angels led by Melchizedek.
So, the mere title of this treatise already tells us a lot about what it contains. By the way, there is no surviving First Treatise, leaving scholars perplexed about why this one would be so named.
"The Second Treatise of the Great Seth is a Christian
Gnostic homily in the form of a speech of the ascended Christ to his
followers on earth." So writes Gregory Riley, the scholar who translates
this text in the CGL edition. (The translation in the NHLE is somehwat
different.) With all due respect to Professor Riley, those who are following
this reading plan to learn how to assess the NHC materials will be suspicious
about this characterization. It carries the inference that Treat
Seth reduces to some sort of Christianity (mystical? occult? primitive?),
and flatly asserts that the author of the teaching is Christ—that subline character whom
we already know so much about from the New Testament, of course.
With that hefty qualification on board, let's begin to delve into this fantastic document. With the four preceding books of Level One, "The Mysteries and the Master," we have already seen how deep we need to go in order to detect and extract genuine Gnostic elements. The fact is, it is impossible to read the Coptic materials in a superficial way. You comprehend them in depth, or not at all. Delving into NHC VII, 2 takes us very deep, indeed.
The Second Treatise of the Great Seth opens with a benedictory greeting that looks arresting in the "poetic" layout of the CGL:
Which is about as good as it gets. Even unenlightened people have the Buddha Nature. This truth seems to have been as profoundly realized by Gnostics (of the late, Hellenistic period) as it was by their contemporaries and counterparts, the Mahayana Buddhists of India. The Perfect Vastness (megethos) matches the Buddhist Void, Shunyata. The "ineffable light within the truth" is the Organic Light. My Paraphrase:
The Revealer (Greek phoster, "light-bearer") of the discourse speaks in the first person. Here the Revealer
seems to be male, but in most Gnostic treatises she is female. This individual is teleios, "initiated, knowledgable in ultimate matters." Evidently,
this text is a transcription of the discourse of a telestes who speaks
as if channelling a higher power, Seth, the Revealer. As with Allogenes,
we are again in the atmosphere of a Mystery cell. Another direct disclosure
of Gnostic illumination is about to unfold.
"Father" is the usual Coptic term EIOT, pronounced ee-yot. In Coptic the Greek letter PI attaches to a word to indicate the definite article: pi-ee-ot, "The Father." This is patriarchal slang for a lofty transcendent idea, the First Aeon, the Originator. The word "kindness" is coded, written, MNTXRS with a superlinear stroke over the RS. MNT is a Coptic prefix equivalent to the English suffix -ness. MNTXRS is Chrestos-ness. In fact, there is no way to tell if XRS denotes Christos or Chrestos, but the translator in this instance assumes the latter. Chrestos signifies "goodness, benevolence," rather than "anointed." Chrestos was the generic name in the Piscean Age (began 120 BCE) for the master expected to appear and teach humanity the decisive lessons of that Age.
Note that the master teacher expected in that age was not a messiah or god-sent avatar, just a human being endowed with superior understanding of ultimate things. In short, a telestes of the Mysteries. Scholars of religion responsible for handling the Gnostic Coptic materials do not have the background to know about such nuances, so they do not distinguish the enlightened teacher of the Age from the messiah of redeemer pathology. The experts are facing insurmountable problems here. A few lines later we find the XS with stroke translated as "Christ," because the sacrificed messiah is clearly indicated.
This extraordinary statement comes over as pure drivel in the NHLE, and not much better in the CGL. The translation is a haul, no matter how you cut it, but I am fairly certain that "die with Christ" is meant ironically: it is enslavement to an illusion to accept the death of the messianic Christ literally, and imagine we are implicated in it, or saved by it, when in reality we have the mind to know otherwise. The wonder is that we do not realize that enlightenment is in our minds, already attained.
"It is shame to be enslaved by the idea of salvation when our minds
are self-liberating." A more lucid contrast between salvationist
and illuminist viewpoints can hardly be imagined.
Next, we are surprised by direct mention of Sophia, the central figure in Gnostic cosmology, whose plight is described in a tumble of words, like the gasping declaration of someone who has run far to deliver an urgent message: "The will of Sophia, our sister - a whore, on account of her innocence - who was not sent - did not ask anything from the All, the Pleroma - back when she emerged - set up conditions for the Children of Light" (50.25 - 51, my italics). Translators render the striking word Greek loan word prunikos, "outrageous, unrestrained," as "whore: TISOPHIA TMSOME THETE NOUPRONIKOS
The Coptic MPSHIRE MPOYOIEN, "Children of Light," may be compared
to Bodhisattvas of Buddhist teachings: Children of Enlightenment, if
you will. All humans are potential Bodhisattvas (and all Bodhisattvas are potential humans). Thus all humanity is
covered by this term. In the planetary world (kosmos) produced
from her own power, the Goddess Sophia prepares for the embodiment of
humanity, but some who are embodied "came to the end in ruin in
their dwellings," while others "stand ready to receive the
saving Word of the Monad. (51.13)" The Monad is the singularity
of the Anthropos, the potential of humanity to introduce novelty into
the cosmos. The teaching here says that we have in the conditions
of our embodiment the means to save ourselves by recognition of
the originating code ("Word of the Monad") — that is
to say, the cosmic intelligence that produced humanity in the first place.
Now comes a remarkable detail, unique in the entire corpus. The Revealer seems to describe himself as what New Agers call a walk-in. "I visited a bodily dwelling. I cast out the one who was previously in it and I went in" (51.20f). How Gnostics would have understood the "walk in" phenomenon will become evident in a moment. (The phenomena of the walk in was originally introduced by Ruth Montgomery. New Age guru Drunvalo Melchizedek claims to be a walk in.)
Now, enter the Archons. They play a huge role in Treat Seth,
often indicated between the lines. The Archons are disturbed by the walk-in, who turns out to be Christ, written CHRS. By my best guess,
I would say that this passage might suggest that the Aeon Christos,
who never incarnates from scratch, can extend into human form by copping
a body from someone already alive. Some Gnostics argued that Jesus could
not be the incarnation of Christ from the womb, but the Aeon could have
descended upon the man Jesus at the baptism in the Jordan. Gnostic heretics rejected
virgin birth, but some of them accepted some kind of incarnational scenario. It is
certain that different Gnostic groups held different views on this issue,
short of the standard Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.
The trouble described in 52-55 is due to two interrelated factors: "the plan of the Archons" to deviate humanity, and the inability of some humans to recognize their cosmic origin in the Anthropos. How these two factors are related, the one reinforcing the other in a blind collusion, should be obvious, but if it's not, the teacher spells it out:
Yaldabaoth is the chief Archon, identified by Gnostics with Jehovah, the Father God of the Old Testament. His domain is the planetary system exclusive of the three-body Gaian system: earth, sun, moon. I suspect that "to lay bare the circuit of the angels" means that the Archons present to humanity a stripped down version of cosmic order, the celestial mechanics of the planetary system, their domain. And humanity goes around and around, samsarically confused, looking for divine order out there, and so fails to realize that the divine resides in its own innate capacity, the ordering powers of human intelligence.
The "Man of truth" is PI (the)ROME (human) NT (of) ME (truth).
The Coptic ME (pronounced may) is an ancient Semitic root found in Gilgamesh
and other myths from Mesopotamia where it refers to the ordering principles
of the universe. Its Egyptian cognate is Ma'at, "cosmic order." In
a famous myth, the goddess Ishtar steals the sacred MEs (principles of order) from
Enki, Lord of the Earth. The same root occurs in the Greek metra, "measure," as
in the name of the goddess, Dea-meter. ME in Coptic means both truth
The paramount challenge expressed throughout all the Gnostic materials
is for humanity to learn to see itself in cosmic terms, to recognize
the Anthropos, and to resist illusions about human nature presented in
bogus cosmic schemes and religious doctrines. In its tone and content,
the Second Treatise of the Great Seth represents a high point
of this struggle. It focusses the spiritual challenge carried in the
Gnostic message in a single question: "Who is humanity?" (54.1)
Redeemer and Revealer
The Second Treatise of the Great Seth is white hot in point
by point argument against redemptive theology.
Of course, it could be argued that Jesus was a true Revealer, a teacher
from the Mysteries, whose message came to be distorted and wrongly used
by other people. But if Jesus was an initiate, would he have said many
of the things attributed to him in the New Testament, and would he have
made claims about himself consistent with the theology of Paul and John?
Take away all that, and what is left of "Jesus the Initiate"?
It is almost impossible to find anything that can pass for initiated
teaching in the words attributed to Jesus. The argument that Jesus was
a great initiate, or, in some way, the greatest of all initiates, can
only be maintained by continual regression to Pauline-Johannine theology
with its double whammy, locking together the redemptive ideology of suffering
and the divine status of the redeemer. This whammy is precisely what Treat
Passage 62 celebrates friendship, a Gnostic principle held equal in regard with love. The spirit of friendship allowed those who participated in the Mysteries to come together in "the joining of truth, that they should have no adversary" (62.12). They agreed on the "big picture" because there were all initiated into the same visionary experience, and within the framework of that collective vision each telestes developed individual, even idiosyncratic teachings. (Something similar applies today among the Nyingma Pa in Tibet, Bhutan and Assam. Lamas all agree on the general frame of Tibetan mysticism, but in each valley and village lamas are free to develop and express singular expressions and applications of the Dharma.)
62.27 restates the ludicrous motif: "And Adam was ludicrous, and Abraham, and Jacob, and David, Solomon, the Twelve Prophets, Moses, John the Baptist...". "None of them knew me, the Revealer, nor my brethren" (63.34). In this passage the lineage of Gnostic teachers is entirely dissociated from Biblical tradition. The condemnation of "bitter rules and dietary slavery" (64.2) is a direct swipe at orthodox Judaism, but the overall tone is more universal, more far-reaching.
This passage (64.4f) uses the Coptic word HAL , "trick, deception,
simulation," instead of the more common plane, "error,
going astray." These lines capture the whole tragedy of the human
race: to be misled from its true potential by simulation, falling for
a false version of itself. This warning seems to be unique to the radical
protest of the Gnostics. It anticipates the concept of the AntiChrist
that appears, quite inexplicably, in Christian ideology. It is likely
that the AntiChrist was co-opted from Gnostic teachings by Christian
ideologues. Or perhaps it was planted in the emergent Christian ideology
as a sabotage device.
When they saw the figure of the divine redeemer emerge within the context of the Palestinian ideology of divine atonement, Gnostics were alarmed that humanity would become imprinted by that figure, rather than by the Anthropos, the true image of human species. The Second Treatise of the Great Seth warns us against imprinting by "symbolic universes of thought, language and behavior," especially those that appear in the guise of religious ideals and beliefs. "The most pernicious phenomena of aggression" is not the invasion of a predatory species from outer space, but the subterfuge in our own minds.
Today, social psychologists use the term "metaphoric entrapment" for what the Gnostics called HAL, "simulation." Entrapping metaphors can function as attention sinks, mental prisons, addictions, and even soap-operas, but their most potent and widespread manifestion is religious belief-systems. (For an introduction to this subject see: http://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/entrap.php)
The Inner Guide
Treat Seth does not merely rant about avoiding metaphoric entrapment, it also indicates how we are guided toward the right relation to our own humanity. Consistent with this line of instruction, 66.7 presents an extremely rare disclosure of the inner guide, the Mesotes, "the medium of Jesus." As far as I know, this concept is unique to the Coptic Gnostic material. The Mesotes of Jesus is one of the most enigmatic elements in Gnostic teaching. It is, however, anything but unique in human mystical experience across many cultures and ages.
On the Mesotes and species-self identity, see Mesotes - Matrix of Animal Powers.
All in all, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth is a ferocious
display of Gnostic dissent and a stunning expression of the Anthropos
teaching, a close parallel to the Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism.
By sharp contrast to the startling originality of Treat Seth, this short treatise is highly derivative. It is a collection of aphorisms also found in other languages and Pagan sources. Most of the sayings are non-Christian, and some give the genuine flavor of homegrown Pagan wisdom in antiquity. There are many simple and pious lines like “The love of humanity is the beginning of godliness” (371), and "A godly heart produces a blessed life" (326b). Some sayings are distinctly Christian in the sense of being anti-body and anti-pleasure: ""Do not seek goodness in the flesh" (317), and "The pleasure-loving man is useless in everything" (172).
The motley and contradictory nature of Sent Sextus supports my argument that the NHC is a reworking of shambolic Greek notes ("original writings") taken down in by scribes who understood little of what they were writing, and translated into the weird shorthand idiom of Coptic by scribes who understood even less. If the "original writings" in Greek were confused, the awkward Coptic rendition only increases the confusion.
"Do not give the word of God to everyone" (350) echoes the Gnostic interdiction against disclosing Mystery teachings, and, indeed, against evangelization in general. "Whoever thinks that no one is in the presence of the Divine, is not humble toward the Divine" (380) is a wonderful refutation of the Judeo-Christian belief that God is utterly transcendent. It implies that humility toward the Divine comes from realizing its presence, not its absence. This sentence sounds like it really could have been said by someone who underwent egodeath in the initiatic tradition of the Mysteries. "Promise everything, rather than say 'I am wise' " (389b) is a wry little saying that glimmers with distinctive Gnostic irony.
Here and there in Sent Sextus are genuine gems that hint at the Gnostic sense of life, but on the whole this shapeless compilation is rather tedious and tendentious. The ascetic outlook made this book popular in Christian circles, says translator Frederick Wise. If we read the aphorisms with the expectation of finding Gnostic thoughts, we will be mislead by this attitude of world-denial. By and large, the content of Sent Sext supports the view that the NHC corpus was compiled for didactic use in Coptic monasteries. This document surely could have been intended for such a purpose, but how do we reconcile that theory of the origin of the codices with the presence of radical heretic material such as the Second Treatise of the Great Seth? Answer: We don't.
Whoever collected and translated the NHC corpus, and why they did so,
remains a complete mystery.
The translators tell us that the author of Teach Silv was an "educated Christian" who "found it necessary both to reject erroneous pagan thought and yet, simultaneously, to appropriate the best of such thought to clarify and make cogent the Faith." Well, fair enough. It looks like item 7 in the reading plan presents us with an ideal opportunity to test the skills we've acquired for reading with discernment. Can we now distinguish genuine, uncompromised Gnostic elements from co-opted Gnostic elements, on the one hand, and from patently non-Gnostic elements, on the other? The close merge of contrasting elements gives cause for careful evaluation. This text poses an formidable exercise in distillation.
“The mind is the guide, but reason is the teacher” (85.25), is a Stoic rather than a Christian opinion. Stoicism was the mundane ethical profile of Gnosticism. Sent Seth emphasizes the use of the mind (nous) in ways less indicative of initiation than of Stoic education:
Listen, children, to this advice. Do not be arrogant in opposition of every good opinion, but take for yourself the side of the divinity of reason. Observe the sacred instructions of the Jesus Christ, and you will live regally in every place on earth and be honored by the angelic messengers, and even by the archangels who send them. Then you will acquire them for friends and allies, and you will access all places in the heavenly realms.
The tone is parental, but not overbearing. (Read aloud to get a sense of delivery.) One does not find "the divinity of reason" endorsed in the Gospels. What are "the sacred instructions of Jesus Christ"? This is anyone's guess. As usual, the name Jesus Christ is coded: IS CHRS with linear strokes. Scholars fill in the blanks: I (EU)S(OS), which gives the Greek spelling, Ieusos, of the Hebrew Yeshua, but this is a long way from naming an historical person.
And there is more than one way to fill in the blanks. IS can also be expanded to I(ASIU)S. The term Iasius was Pagan jargon for "healer." A strong man was a Hercules, a man with healing powers was an Iasius. Discussing the repression of the Mysteries in Shamanism, Patriarchy and the Drug War, Dan Russell writes:
In the passage cited, Russell conflates Gnostics with the Jewish Nazarenes of the Dead Sea in a way I would not allow myself to do. I do reckon though that the Nazarene fanatics in the Zaddikim cult may well have used amanita muscaria for their sacrament. Note that fly-agaric, as it is commonly known, is not a true entheogenic, although it is a potent shamanic "power plant." Russell's observation about the substitution of "symbolic entheogenic ingestion" for the real thing has been passionately argued by Jonathan Ott, the leading pharmako-shamanic ethnobotanist on the planet. Ott maintains that the true sacrament given to us by nature gives us faith, but the symbolic sacrament, such as the communion wafer, is a placebo that demands our faith. (On the placebo effect, see The Tyranny of Faith.)
This little digression proves that even with relatively banal material, we are never far from hidden depth in the NHC.
Everything depends on expectations. Come to this text with the expectation of hearing about the teachings of Jesus Christ and that's what you will find. But the expectation has to be set up beforehand. You need a preconception of who Jesus Christ is as a distinct historical person, and of what is attributed to that person. That preconception then attaches itself to the ambiguous encoded name. But it is possible to read Teach Silv and withhold that expectation. Doing so, we find that the tonality of the entire text is Stoic, sober and cautionary, rather than evangelic:
Do not flee from the divine gift and the teaching endowed in you, for that which teaches loves you very much. It shall bestow on you a noble austerity.
The assertion "you shall be human" is arresting. It recalls the white hot argument of Treat Seth with its urgent call to recognize geniuine humanity, divine humanity, the singularity, but here the tone is tempered, gentle, reassuring. The assertion that we can realize humanity through reasoning is, again, purely Stoic. There is no mention of the Mesotes, the inner guide, in Teach Silv, but 87.20 advises: "Do not flee from the divine potential and the teaching that is within you, for he who is teaching you loves you very much." In this idiom, Christos is identified more as an inner teacher than an outer historical figure, but it is nonetheless probable, as the translator notes, that the author of the sermon was a Christian attached to the historical persona of the savior.
The identification of Christos with "the Light" recalls the figure of Amitabha in Pure Land Buddhism. "Light the light within you" (106.10) echoes the words of Gotama Buddha to Ananda and the bhiksus, "Be lamps unto yourselves!" The explicit identification of Christ with Wisdom (Sophia) is a clear co-optation of the feminine divine element. Teach Silv also says pointedly that "Reason and mind are male names" (102.15), but Sophia is a female name. The text strains here and there in its emphasis to be masculine, i.e., fit into patriarchal expectations. The orthodox view of redemption is endorsed: "And the Life died for you when he (Christ) was powerless, so that through his death he might give life to you who have died" (107.15). Compare this with the brilliant remark on self-liberation in the Second Treatise and the Great Seth: "It is enslavement that we should die with Christ, with flawless and imperishable mind (at our bidding). This is a wonder not understood" (49.20-30). Indeed it is.
And it is no wonder that scholars go schizo trying to categorize the Coptic materials. The NHC contains patently contradictory statements in almost every text, and across texts the material is bafflingly in conflict with itself. No doubt this reflects the confused and anguished mindset of the people who collected it.
It is possible to read the Teachings of Silvanus straight through as a meditation text. This cannot be said of any other document in the NHC, I believe. Read it aloud, slowly and reflectively, and the distillation skills acquired by previous steps in the reading plan will be effectuated, more or less automatically. In other words, by reading this text in a careful, meditative way, you can allow your subconscious to resonate to those elements that are genuinely Gnostic, because it has been trained to detect those elements: that is to say, the illuminist features of the text that point us to our innate potential for self-liberation through seeing in naked awareness.
"Be illumined in mind" (94.25)!
On balance there are probably more genuine illuminist elements in Teach Silv than straightforward Christian homily. This observation is lost to scholars who have no clear criteria for the concept of illuminism. I use that term for the Pagan and Gnostic equivalent of the Buddha dharma, the message of enlightenment.
There is no better place to conclude Level One of the reading plan than with this extraordinary text. By diving into Allogenes and the Treatise of the Great Seth, we got a taste of the sublime discourse enounced by illumined masters in the Mysteries. At some points it took quite an effort to reach the true depths of the material. With NHC VI, 2, we do not have to delve arduously into the language, or hold our breath when making plunges into the core material. The thunder comes rolling right to us.
Speaking boldly and directly to the listener, the Wisdom Goddess introduces herself. The epiphany of Sophia in Thunder, Perfect Mind is consistent with the figure of Vajravahari, the "Adamantine Sow" of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, Vajra means "thunderbolt." The parallel is so close and striking that even Gnostic scholars who routinely ignore parallels to Buddhism have noted it.
Vajravahari appears as a tutelary dakini in the initiation of Padma Sambhava (Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, p. 121.) As a Vajra deity, she is a revealer of the Divine Light. "Adamantine" suggests whiteness, such as the luminosity beheld by initiates who encountered the Mystery Light. The "thunder" that accompanies this epiphany is deep, roaring Silence. In Buddhism, "perfect mind" is the Buddha Nature, but in Gnosticism, it is the mind in perfect attunement with Sacred Nature — with Gaia, the Earth Goddess.
Thunder, Perfect Mind induces an act of silent knowing.
The text requires no comment, but should one be needed, go to the feminist
scholars' site Diotima for the translation with notes by Anne McGuire:
jll: Summer Solstice 2005
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.