Reading Plan 3A
A Reading Plan for the Nag Hammadi Codices
"The Sense of Cosmic Order"
Level Three of the Reading Plan presents some of the more difficult material in the corpus, but the task of reading becomes easier, and the exegesis less cumbersome, because we have learned how to work though the "double trouble" of Gnostic writings, namely, the diversity and incoherence to be found in all these chaotic documents. Not to mention the contradictions!
In the investigation of a crime scene, good detection depends on knowing what to look for and what to look past. With the NHL the crime that has been committed is the wholesale destruction of Gnostic writings and Pagan intellectual culture. The fragments preserved have been badly transcribed from lost sources. The jumble of incongruous elements is familiar by now—no need to get involved in sorting it all out, which is, in any case, an impossible task. Bursts of lucid syntax and revealing phrases continue to appear, and if we have benefited from previous reading, it will be easier to detect them. Consistent with the Lego method, I will specifiy the outstanding points in each text that build into a pre- and non-Christian profile of Gnosis typical of Pagan illuminism and, in particular, the Sethian-Ophite message.
18, The Apocalypse of Adam: page 277 NHLE. NHC V, 5. 8 pages. Revelation discourse from Adam to Seth. CORE: loss of divine knowing, Flood theme and Biblical narrative, conflist between the enlightened and the slaves of the Demiurge, the Zodiacal pattern of Gnosis. Good condition, intact but for a few blank pages and gaps.
With the word apocalypse in its title—titles in the NHC typically appear at the end of the document— Apoc Adam might seem to offer proof that Gnostics indulged in apocalyptic ravings similar to the Zaddikite tracts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. This is not the case, however. The five apocalypses in the NHC do not resemble the Judaic and Christian types in any important or consistent respect. The threat of divine retribution is not an Illuminist notion and when it does appear in Gnostic writings it signals a Judaic context or Christian slant. The apocalypses of the NHC do not go on for pages with genocidal visions of doom and destruction. At most, they hint at a bad time to come for those who do not realize the truth of the Revealers. There is no cause for the Pleromic Aeons to wreak vengeance on humanity, as the paternal creator is said to do.
Wisdom is its own reward, ignorance damns itself.
Apoc Adam assumes the form of a testament from Adam to his son, Seth, the prime example of a phoster, a Gnostic Illuminator or Revealer. Seth is the nominal head of the lineage of the Sethians, or Children of Seth, who are condemned as arch-enemies of the Zaddakim in several places in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We would expect this text to be exemplary of the Sethian school of Gnosis that I have identified as the root lineage of the movement.
But is Apoc Adam consistently Sethian, or not? The translators comment:
Close reading shows that this is indeed a radical non-Christian initiation text with a strong astrological element. The Sethians were noted for being masters of astronomy and the code of the star-writing, the Zodiac. (Josephus repeats the Jewish legend that attributes these skills to the Children of Seth.) Apoc Adam describes thirteen kingdoms or celestial zones, probably by allusion to the thirteen constellations of the Zodiac. The Illuminator descends through each constellation: this is the Mystery teaching that enlightened teachers appear in the Zodiacal Ages to assist humanity in facing the problems and challenges unique to the Age. An identical notion occurs in Mahayana Buddhism which arose in the 2nd Century BC, contemporary with the final, historically noted Gnostic sects. It is likely that the Gnostic figure of the Phoster was a close contemporary parallel to the Bodhisattva of the Mahayanists, or the latter may have derived from the former.
The appearance of world teachers in each Age is reflected in Hinduism and other Asian religions. It was standard in the Magian Order. Such teachers ought not be confused with messiahs, however. A messenger is not a messiah. The enlightened ones who develop the message of the Age do not enact a drama of redemption or sacrifice, as messiahs do, or as they are expected to do. Seth represents the lineage of enlightened messengers who draw their knowledge from a deep understanding of the Anthropos, "Adamic humanity."(Medieval cameo of Adam and Seth.)
Studies of the long-term patterns of religious and cultural evolution with the framework of the Zodiac show that the concept of the messiah that prevails today is unique to the Arien-Piscean nexus: it was prepared in the Arien Age (beginning 1850 BCE) and assumed definitive form in the Piscean Age (after 120 BCE). Through clever scripting and the brutal enforcement of a political agenda, the messiah came to be identified with a fictional entity raised to historical status, Jesus. Divinized by the dictate of Constantine, the contrived persona of Jesus became the focus of the messianic expectations of the Piscean Age. This was the wrong solution to the primary theme of the Age, the quest for inner guidance. Previous to this development, teachers were known to appear in each Age—for instance, the Dipankara Buddha, or Shenrab Miwoche of the Dzogchen tradition. But these epochal guides, as them might be called, did not perform magical and sacrificial acts consistent with the role of a messiah. And they were human messengers, not superhuman saviors.
Unfortunately, scholars who detect a "redeemer myth" in non-Christian material such as Apoc Adam do not take sufficient care to distinguish the Pagan phoster from the savior of Judeo-Christian faith. The Illuminator redeems nothing. This key point is constantly overlooked in the exegesis of the Gnostic "redeemer myth." I have argued, based on the textual evidence, that Sophia is the unique redeemer figure in Gnosticism. This is correct along Sethian-Ophite lines. But in the syncretic Christianized Gnosis of Valentinus, the Aeon Christos assumes that role, and enacts it by coming to the rescue of Sophia.
Christos the Aeon can be regarded as distinct from the Incarnation, Jesus Christ. This is clear from a close reading of the NHL. But a lot of people involved with Gnosticism today (many of whom, I presume, are young, bright people) insist that the Christos of the NHC be identified literally with Jesus Christ. And they tend to get quite upset when a maverick such as myself puts it in question. They want their messiah, no matter what. They crave the pathological fix of the Piscean Age. They want what is rightly called in the Zeitgeist Movie "the spiritual fraud of the Age."
See my digression on the codes used in the NHC: Fabulating Jesus.
Apoc Adam contains Biblical jargon such as, "when God had created me out of the earth along with Eve, your mother" (64: 7-8). This line uses the Coptic KAH, a transliteration of the Greek ge for "earth." The word used for god is PINOUTE, "the spirit," not PIOT or PEIOT, "the father," which I translate here and elsewhere as "Originator." Typically, the Gnostic rendition of Biblical events takes its own spin. Adam says that "She (Eve) taught me a word of knowledge about the eternal god." The Coptic SHAJE NTE OUGNOSIS could also be translated "language of knowing."
The opening passage refers to the Aeonic gods as the "creators," and says that the ruler of the Aeons "divided us in wrath. Then we became two Aeons" (64: 21-22). What are we to make of this enigmatic statement? First of all, it is exceptional in describing an act of wrath directed by the divine Aeons toward its experimental projection, humanity. Does this passage allude in some way to the separation of the sexes? I think it may, but a more significant clue to this passage may concern, not the two sexes, but the two bodies. And thereby hangs quite a tale.
Irenaeus (Against Heresies I.30.9) wrote that the Gnostic Ophites taught that humans have two bodies, that is, two independent physical forms: a material body (hylikon) and a pneumatic body (pneumaticon). For purposes of elucidation, I prefer to call the latter the plasmatic body, or plasmic double. Ireneaus explains that prior to being cast from paradise, which caused the bodies of Adam and Eve to materialize, "they previously had nimble, shining, and as it were, spiritual bodies." P. A. Williams (Rethinking 'Gnosticism') points out that "no change of form is mentioned, only a different, material substance for the body." The plasmic double is supple and luminous, composed of a kind of compact gel with no interior organs, by contrast to the heavy, gravity-bound, organ-packed hylicon. One may read the texts as saying that the former body turned into the latter, but one may also take another view: both bodies co-exist in parallel worlds. We all have two physical bodies.
Along with the Organic Light, two-body theory was one of the best-kept secrets of the Mysteries, reserved exclusively for oral instruction. The Mystery of the Human Double by Ralph Shirley (London, 1938) presents startling, first-hand evidence of the existence of the plasmic double which can appear either as a spectral form or as an exact duplicate of the physical body. Shirley reports attested events of bilocation, the same person seen in two places at once. We can shift from one body to the other. In sleep, we acquire a tenuous, twilight awareness of the plasmic double, or we may encounter our double in dreams.
Castaneda also describes this phenomenon, often in comical terms. In When the Impossible Happens, Stan Grof gives a vivid account of his attempt at bilocation, or projection of the double, and advises how dangerous it seems to be. Classical accounts of people meeting their physical double abounded during the Occult Revival at the end of the 19th Century in Europe (see my Twins and the Double in extenso.) The antics and exploits of the double are terribly confusing to read about, and to experience bilocation may be easier than to explain it!
I cannot say with confidence that the Apoc Adam presents an explanation of two-body theory, but the odd statement "we became two aeons" suggests that it might. Aeon means "generation." There are two generations or streams of physical expression for humanity, through the sensuous mortal form and the double, which is virtually immortal. The latter is a paramorphic reflex of the former: whatever physical body you have, you always have a plasmic counterpart which is a continuous, shapeshifting form. Roughly speaking, this is two-body theory—take it or leave it. I suspect that most of you will prefer to leave it. (Fine with me. Some things ought to remain inexplicable.)
Enter the Archons
I have argued that there is no fall of humanity in Gnosticism. But the Gnostic equivalent to the Fall, if there is one, seems to be about the splitting of the Anthropos into two distinct and parallel embodiments, "two generations." Following the split, Adam and Eve are visited by Archontic beings, "who were not from the powers of the god who had created us" (65:30). This encounter closely resembles the Biblical account of Abram falling into a stupor in the grove of Mamre. Three Archontic "angels" appear and charge hthe patriarch with his mission. Archontic intrusion typically occurs in a state of lowered attention and heightened suggestability.
In Apoc Adam, the Archons falsely claim to be the creators of humankind. The Annunaki narrative from the Sumerian cunieform literature, the oldest extand writing in the world, states the same claim, leading some people (such as Zacharia Sitchin) to believer that what is written on clay tablets must be a literal fact. Close reading of mythological and esoteric writing demands the ability to detect fabrications in support of a human agenda, even when such fabrications refers to extra-human forces. (Some would argue that all myths are human-made fabrications and nothing else. I disagree, but it is not easy to elucidate my position on this issue.)
From passage 65 on, the text follows the familiar lines of Biblical narrative: the primary parents lose awareness of the direct presence of the divine, they undergo carnal desire, shortening of life-span, death—and then cometh the Flood (69:2). The text equates the Greek flood hero Deucalion with Noah. When Noah advises his sons, "Serve him in fear and slavery all your lives," it is difficult to say if the text refers to the Aeons or the Archons. This distinction is blurred from the outset of the Flood narrative, but line 74:2 says explicitly of the sons of the twelve tribes, "they will go to Sakla their god." Although it does not do so in clear-cut terms, Apoc Adam develops the contrast between the Sons of Seth, the generation of the Gnostic Revealers, and the sons of Noah who are ruled by Saklas, the Demiurge. The difference in these "generations" parallels the difference between the two bodies, if you will. "The flesh of man [ ] was the illuminator when he had the glory," i.e., the direct presence of the Aeons, says one translator of this text (Douglas Parrott, NHLE, p 278)
Although evidence on two-body theory is skant, it is sufficiently clear from Apoc Adam, stacked against Irenaeus, that the status of the Illuminator (Gnostic Buddha or Bodhisattva) implies a luminous body, recalling don Juan's statement that we are the luminous beings. To my knowledge, Tales of Power contains the most extensive lore on the plasmic double in modern writing. In my point-by-point comparison of Gnosis and the NeoToltec shamanism of Casteneda, I cite the astonishing testimony of the Mystery adept Isadorus, the husband of Hypatia, concerning the augoeides, “golden aura,” which I equate to the luminous egg of Castaneda. A lost passage from Isadorus, preserved by another late Gnostic, describes the attachment of the egg to the human form at the assemblage point in exactly the same way Castaneda does.
To return to the apocalyptic elements: Apoc Adam exhibits a rare outburst in passage 76. I present the CGL parallel passage lineation:
The following lines describe great angels who descend from the clouds and take "them" up to the Aeonic realm, consistent with the Christian notion of the Rapture. Scholars note that Apoc Adam, although thematically a Sethian work, does not exhibit the radical Gnostic elements attributed by Gnostic-bashers Hippolytus and Epiphanius to the Sethian school. Although the papyrus is in good condition, the scribal hand is uneven, as if written by someone weary or shaky, and there are many peculiarities: wide variations in the length of the 36 lines on each page, forked paragraph signs (recalling the paragraph markers in The Tripartite Tractate), numeral signs above written-out numbers, Coptic synonyms written above other Coptic words, alternative spellings, and more.
Apart from all its orthographic difficulties, I find Apoc Adam to be strained by the dubious admixture of illuminist myth and biblical narrative. It is as if the scribe who put this document together was hobbling together parts from incongruous sources (hence the forked paragraph signs, indicating joints), and trying to make it all fit together. Which it doesn't. So there you have it: we're face down in the usual mess of pottage, as so often occurs in Coptic Gnostic studies.
Coptic is an awkward language, inadequate for philosophical expression or metaphysical nuances. Apoc Adam does not clearly convey Illuminist ideas, even though takes for its theme the role of the Illuminators or phosters in mythological and historical terms. Line 76:19 refers oddly to "the dead earth." Some kind of spiritual battle between the Illuminators and the servants of the Demiurge is suggested, but the key passages on several successive pages are damaged from line 26 down to the end of the page. As so often happens with the NHC, it is impossible to tell what is going on; especially who "them" and "they" are.
From passage 78 on, the NHLE edition presents separate paragraphs describing the thirteen kingdoms. The experts say these kingdoms represent "false or inadequate representations of his (the Illuminator's) origin" (NHLE, p. 277). I say they represent how Illuminators who appear in each age take on the lessons of that age and reflect solutions to humankind. These thirteen passages, which could be correlated to the Zodiacal constellations, are loaded with mythological and arcane references and astrological clues. But without elaborate commentary, little can be made of these quasi-poetic passages apart from their loose archetypal (i.e., Zodiacal) structure.
Apoc Adam concludes with a reference to concealing secret knowledge on a mountain, a theme related to the terma tradition of Nyingma Buddhism:
This text poses a good test for our reading skills, especially discrimination, the single most important skill we have acquired in working through these arcane materials.
Before looking at 1 Apoc Jas, let's review the apocalypses in the NHL. As already noted, none of them resembles a full-blown apocalyptic tract such as The Book of Revelation or numerous exemplary texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls. All in all, five NHL tractates carry the word apokalypsis in the title:
Clearly, the scribes who collected this diverse material made an attempt to organize it on genre lines, binding four of the five apocalypses in the same codex. Scholars perform elaborate sleight-of-hand tricks to show other organizational features of the NHC, but to my mind this the only convincing example.
The Apocalypse of Paul, not included in the Reading Plan, is probably the best clear-cut example of an irrefutably Christian Gnostic document that one could imagine. Not surprizingly, since the name "Paul" would have been planted in the argumentation of the 4th century syncretic literature the way a "shill" is planted in an audience. Attribution to Paul is a sure signal that hard-core salvationism is right around the corner. Apoc Paul bears no resemblence to a Greek work of the same name, even though both treat of stock material of Paul's ascent through the heavens. Apoc Paul opens anecdotally: Paul meets a young child on a mountain path on the way to Jericho. The child proves to be his spiritual guide. The text is teasingly incoherent;
So what is the child saying? Consistent with Gnostic teaching, the text says, "Let your nous awaken." The "principalities are arche," an allusion to the Archons. The mongrel Greek/Coptic EUKRAK MEPSYCHE, translated "soul-seed," is baffling. Whatever it means, the child spirit intends to show Paul things in a visionary way, through nous. He reveals a hierarchy of spirits, including the fourth heaven where where "angels resembling gods brings a soul out of the realms of the dead" (19: 7-10). This may be a reference to the Treasury of the Light, the realm of the sun where benevolent Archons called paralemptors assist the dead through the bardos of the afterlife (in The Books of Jeu, non-NHL). The Sun is the fourth sphere counting outwards from the earth: moon, venus, mercury, sun. There are toll-collecters in each of the seven heavenly zones. Witnesses testify to the deeds of the deceased at each level. In the fifth heaven (mars), Paul sees judgemental angels with whips and rods, a typical S-and-M scene in the afterlife scenario derived from Egyptian sources, but atypical in Gnostic material.
In the seventh heaven (saturn), lo and behold, Paul sees a radiant old man dressed in white who will not let him pass until the guide advises him to make a sign (semeion). "That it [Apoc Paul] comes from Gnostic circles with a typical anti-Jewish bias seems assured by the negative view of the deity in the seventh heaven" (NHLE, p. 257). In the Ogdoad he sees the twelve apostles. (I have argued that the Odgoad is Gnostic jargon for the realm of the zodiac, comprised of twelve or thirteen constellations, depending on who's counting.) Then Paul ascends further, but the document ends here with no description of the higher realms. Except for the angelic inquisitors, who may be regarded as agents of divine retribution, there are no strong apocalyptic features in the tractate.
There is not much Gnostic content in Apoc Paul save for the illuminist invocation, "Let your nous awaken." With 2 Apoc Jas we again encounter a mixed bag, combining Jewish and Gnostic elements. For the most part, this text presents a revelation discourse delivered to James by the resurrected Jesus.The words attributed to Jesus take the form of aretologies in the ego eimi style, "I am he." Curiously—I, for one, am curious about such matters, although other Gnostic scholars don't seem to be—the text identifies James as "the Just" by dixaios, derived from the name of the Goddess Dike, "Justice." That is to say, it specifies the leading figure of the Zaddikite movement, thus presenting a clear cross-link between DSS and NHC mterials; but scholars don't seem to care much about this cross-reference.
Before the revelation discourse begins, we get a conventional telling of the attack on James the Just on the stairs of the main temple in Jerusalem, a well-known set piece from Jewish antiquity. The scene breaks off (45: 26), only to be resumed at the end of the tractate (61 f.) where the murder of James by a mob is described. Such anecdotal action is extremely rare in the NHC or any surviving Gnostic writings.
The revelation discourse (not apocalypse!) begins with the announcement, "I am he who received revelation from the Pleroma of Imperishability" (46: 6-8). The speaker is "the Lord," PICOEIS in Coptic where PI is the definite article, the, attached to the noun COEIS. In this transcription, C stands for the demotic letter djandja, which looks like an X with a line under it; but no one really knows how this letter was pronounced. Scholars assume a c or hard j sound.
The Lord, spelled PEICOEIS in the next passage, "came as a son who sees, and as a brother [was he sought]" (46: 20). The unnamed male master says that he is "rich in knowledge (gnosis), with a unique understanding that is produced only from above" (47: 7-11, the lines here being very short). There follows some warnings about judgement, which beling, I guess, to the apocalyptic genre; but the master (presumed by scholars to be the resurrected Jesus, on circumstantial evidence and totally without textual grounds) offers the Gnostic or gnomic assertion, "I am surely dying, but it is in life that I shall be found" (48: 8-9). Make of this what you can.
From 40 on, more aretologies: I am the first son who was begotten... I am the beloved, I am the righteous one, I am the son of the Father (PIEIOT). Such enigmatic disclosures suggest that this entity has appeared in the world in various ways, appearances, or disguises, without being recognized. There is a hint in this language of the Gnostic doctrine of docetism, the supernatural or apparitional body (Buddhist nirmanakaya). "I am a stranger" is the pervading theme. The Gnostic teacher is "a stranger in a strange land (title of the sci-fi novel by Robert Heinlein)," not because he is alien to the earth, but because those who might recognize him are alienated from gnosis and from their own humanity.
An intriguing passage on the virgin (parthenos) is missing. The speaker refers often to fatherhood and uses a parable device (inheritance) that cannot be clearly read given the surviving lines. There is a warning about an adversary whose "promises are evil schemes" (53:14), but it is not clear who this is. The illumined master, never identified as Jesus, says that he has seen from the heights how the adversary "imprisoned those from the Father... and fashioned them to resemble himself" (54:10-14), which sounds like an allusion to the Demiurge.
There follows an extraordinary passage in which the speaker adresses James with a sequence of "you" statements (NHLE, passage 55 on, printed in poetry-like lines):
The possessive case here is striking, emphasized by the repetition of "you." In some manner the speaker is transmitting a privileged authority on James, and then: And he kissed my mouth" (56: 14)," the public kiss being the known greeting of telestai in the Mysteries. The speaker promises to reveal all. He assures James that he is judged and spared, and that he will be treated well by "the kind (chrestos) Father." It appears that somewhere along the way, the first-person speaker is no longer the unnamed Lord but James who declares "I am the Just One and I do not judge" (59:22). In other words, James is initially the receivver of the revelation but then becomes its instrument. This grammatical shift suggests a liturgical formula or ordainment recital (see below).
Soon after this switch we return to the scene on the temple stairs where the crowd who have been listening to James are not persuaded. They call for stoning. James pleads with the higher powers to deliver him from the trials of life on earth, save him from the humiliating enemy, and send him into the Light. And so the tractate ends.
Scholars detect ordainment recitals pasted into the main text of 2 Apoc Jas, which accounts for some of the odd declamations, both from James and the unnamed master. All in all, this text leaves a weak impression. Its deserves attention for the way it contains narrative and thematic elements relating to the Zaddikite sect of the Dead Sea. To scholars, this is not so remarkable: it is Jewish material that one expects to find in the writings of Gnostics who, they say, drew extensively on Jewish tradition even while they were out to subvert it. I say that the way the Jewish material is handled presents evidence of an ideological war beween the Sethians and the Zaddikim.
In development for this section of Level Three:
After the Tripartite Tractate, Apoc John is the longest and most coherent cosmological treatise in the NHC. In some parts it reads like an Asian metaphysical text, with passages that closely parallel the mandala of the Dhyani Buddhas and the Mahamudra emanations of Tibetan Buddhism. (I have elucidated these Buddhist/Gnostic parallels in detail in material yet to appear on this site.)
This text survives in three versions in the NHC and a paraphrase by Irenaeus (BG 8502). The mainstream NHLE edition gives a condensed version that covers 19 pages. In the CGL (Coptic Gnostic Library) with Coptic text, the four versions are spread across two pages for comparision, and the document runs to 164 pages.
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.