Book Review by Virginia Wayland for Religious Studies 535 (5 April 2005), University of Pennsylvania 

Gedaliahu A. G.  Stroumsa  Another Seed:  Studies in Gnostic  Mythology  Nag Hammadi Studies  XXIV  (Leiden: Brill, 1984)  195 pages. 

About the Author:

            Gedaliahu Stroumsa was born in Paris in 1948, obtained  his PhD. from Harvard University in 1978 and is now  a Professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  His current research is devoted  to a large-scale study of the self-definition of Christianity in the ancient  world, and its evolving relationships with intellectual and spiritual  challengers: Judaism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Greek philosophy and heretical trends.  The major focus of research bears on the radical transformations of  anthropological perceptions[1].

Introduction:  Gnostic Sexual  Myth

            Stroumsa views Gnosticism, particularly Sethian Gnosticism, as a mythological phenomenon, "the last significant outburst of mythical  thought in Antiquity."  It is  significant as one of a very few creations of new mythological patterns whose origin  and early development are not buried in prehistory.   Gnosticism is  self-consciously both a mythology and a theology, so that its myths have a peculiar character  that is both post-philosophical and post-biblical.  Sethian Gnosticism is examined as a radical reconception, even  inversion, of Jewish values and elements, which is reflected in the reorganization  of the elements of Jewish myth.

            His study aims to delineate the background of biblical exegesis  as well as Greek philosophy against which Gnosticism emerged, in order to  discover and analyze the organizing and governing principles concealed in the  mythology of Gnosticism.  The hope is  to bridge the gap between phenomenological descriptions and the research into  Gnostic origins. 

Part One:  From Origin of Evil to Origin  of Righteousness

1.  Unde Malum:  From Apocalyptic Literature to  Gnostic Myth

            The dualism of the Sethian gnostic texts is viewed as a basic  polarity between the world and the spiritual realm of the higher God.  An obsessive preoccupation  with the problem of evil is viewed as the basis for the Gnostic rejection of the  material world and its creator.   Jewish apocalyptic and pseudepigraphic literature provides a defined literary  context in which the emergence of the Gnostic mythological confrontation with  evil can be examined.  Apocalyptic  literature already represents a process of reflection on the origin of evil as  represented in two biblical myths of the Urzeit:  the sin of Adam and Eve, and  the descent of the 'Sons of God' from their heavenly abode and their copulation with  the daughters of men (Gen. 6:1-4).   The Biblical account is etiological; it accounts for the moral depravity of mankind.  Gnostic  reinterpretation puts the origin of evil in the attempt to mix the unclean elements of  darkness or matter with the pure elements of light or spirit (mixis).  Salvation is possible only if  the pure elements remained untainted. 

            The myth of the Fallen Angels assumes a role at the core of the mythological expression of Gnostic consciousness.  The Jewish theological problem  of the existence of evil is inverted in Gnosticism, so that Gnosticism seeks to  explain the possibility of salvation in a creation that is utterly evil.  In the resulting myth, evil  stems from the lust of the angels; salvation depends on the transmission of a pure  seed by women who escape unsoiled. 

2.  The Archons as Seducers

            There are three elements (mythologoumena) which are identified as  keys to the Gnostic sexual myth:   the Seduction of Eve by Yaldabaoth, the presence of the Female Spiritual  Principle in the snake, and the birth of Cain and Seth.  In the Jewish texts, the theme  of intercourse between the sons of God and daughters of men is integrated  into human history 96 the origin of evil was not commitant with God's  creation.  Gnosticism has a vested  interest in showing that the pattern of mixis was begun in the first  generation of mankind.  In some texts,  the responsibility for the sin of Adam and Eve is attributed to the demiurge  himself; sexual impulse is seen as stemming directly from the  male/female duality.  The existence of  the imperfect world is explained as an abortion/miscarriage.

            Stroumsa proposes that the Gnostic interpretation is rooted in  Jewish exegesis of Gen. 4:1b, 4:25, and 5:3.  Gen. 4:1b could be interpreted as meaning that Cain was the son  of Sammael and Eve.  This  helps to explain Cain as murderer.   Seth is then the first son of Adam.  Alternatively, Cain is the son of the earthly Adam, and Gen. 4:25  is interpreted to mean that Seth's father is the heavenly, not earthly  Adam.  This builds on the similarity  of Gen. 1:27, 5:1 and 5:3.   These can be combined so that Cain is the son of Eve and the archon, and Seth is  the son of heavenly Adam.  The  fourth possibility eliminates the earthly Eve as the mother of Seth since she  is not explicitly mentioned in Gen. 5:3. 

Part Two:  The Gnostic  Race

3.  Seth and the  Child

            The child as savior is a variously represented theme in the  literature of Antiquity.  Seth is one of  the clearest manifestations of the savior-child.  Seth tends to be considered the  first son of Adam.  The First Adam  96 heavenly counterpart of Adam 96 was identified with the supreme God, and the  heavenly counterpart of Seth was developed on the basis of Gen 5:3 'according to  his likeness, in his image'[2].  Seth was the savior of mankind  since he 'recovered' the glory of Adam and Eve before the fall (Apoc.  Adam).  In Gos. Eg. the  parousia of Seth was identified with the advent of Jesus, who is considered to be the  earthly manifestation of the heavenly Seth.

            The name Seth seems to stem either from the root 'to drink', or  'to plant'.  The idea being  evoked is that of a seed planted which is watered to bring it to full growth.  This becomes a metaphor of a  'pure seed' which grows into a plant that 'bears fruit'.  The community of Gnostics is  variously identified with the 'plant' or the 'fruit'.

 4.  Gnostic Salvation History

            Gnostic soteriology has been considered to be totally ahistorical  and non-temporal in its attitude.   This chapter examines this assumption with particular focus on the  Apocalypse of Adam, in which there is a 'seed of men' who escaped the rule of the  demiurge and his archons, and received the life of knowledge.  These form a 'kingless race'  in a 'holy dwelling place'.  They  remain pure and undefiled by any desire.   These are fundamentally different from common humanity and do not share in its  history.   

            The Apoc. Adam describes three major events in world  history, which correspond to three advents of the illuminator of knowledge.  Each time the illuminator  comes to save his seed and to usher in a new period.  The first two events are cataclysmic attempts by the demiurge to  destroy the Gnostics. The first is the Flood in the days of Noah.  In the second, the powers of  the demiurge throw fire, sulphur, and asphalt on the 'kingless race' in  their land (Sodom and Gomorrah).  By the third coming of the  illuminator, "he will redeem their souls from the day of death.  For the whole creation that  came from the dead earth will be under the authority of death" (Apoc. Adam 76:15-20).  History  consists of four periods, the final and lasting period being the reign of the race of the  illuminator, which has been liberated from the threats of the  demiurge.  This division is also  reflected in the coming of the true man in Hyp. Archons 96:28-97:4.  The fourfold division of  humanity in Orig. World (125:3-7) and of the lights in Ap. John  (7:30-8:28) is less clearly temporal in origin.   The prediction of two cataclysms is present in Josephus (Ant. 1.79-71), Jub. 8:3;  and 4Q En Giantsa.   In these, the cataclysm is associated with the writing of tablets or the  erection of stele which preserve knowledge for future generations.  Stroumsa sees The Three  Steles of Seth as an extension of this tradition to fit the three comings of  the illuminator.

            This is the second longest chapter of the book, and perhaps the  least successful.  The argument  for a 'Gnostic' conception of salvation history rests almost entirely on a  single text (Apocalypse of Adam).   There are several elements in this text which are clearly associated with  salvation history in other pseudepigraphic literature.   However, the essential characteristic of the Gnostic race remains its total independence of the  world, its archons, and thus its history.  At most, Stroumsa delineates a point of tension between the  Gnostic self-conception as 'other' and participation in the life and events of  the world.

 5.  Sacred  Geography

            This chapter begins by examining the Gnostic texts for evidence  of the land of Seiris, which Josephus  associates with the dwelling place of the Sethites and the presence of the tablets  of knowledge.   Later  Syriac Christian traditions concerning the Land of Shir and the Mount of  Victories (Chronicle of Zuqnin; Ps-Chrysostom)[3].   In Hyp.Arch.  92:8-14, Noah is asked to set the ark on Mount Sir.  However, in the Gnostic texts,  the secret writings are always kept on or in a high mountain (Allogenes  68:20-23; Gos.Eg. III, 68:10-22 (Charaxio)).  

            The promised land with a holy dwelling place (Apoc. Adam)  is essentially otherworldly, not a geographical location The 'holy dwelling  place' is a new creation where they will go away from this one.  This also occurs in Marcion, Manicaeanism.  This place  is reached with the help of an illuminator or through attainment of Gnosis, and  they would live there with angels of the great light.  It was a land of truth where the Holy Spirit dwelt, and the place  the illuminator comes from.   This place of salvation or promised land retains some temporal reality from its  Jewish heritage, in that Gnostics in some sense belong there  already.

6.  Sons of God or Sons of Seth

            This chapter examines the various Jewish and Christian  interpretations of 'the sons of God' in Gen 6:1-4 as the context for the Gnostic self-identification as the sons of Seth.  There is a clear tradition during the first centuries of the  common era that the 'sons of God' in this passage are angels who descend from  heaven and become the teachers of women and the fathers of giants.  This tradition is reflected in  Greek translations of Genesis, as well as 1Enoch and other  pseudepigraphic literature.  A second  tradition identifies 'the sons of God' with the descendents of Seth as a line of  righteous men, leading to Enoch, and Noah.   The intercourse between the 'sons of God' and the 'daughters of  men' that is responsible for the birth of the giants and the corruption of the  world, is then viewed as intermarriage between the descendents of Seth and the  descendents of Cain, so that the descendents of Seth become opposed to Noah.  The second tradition tends to  dominate later Jewish and Christian exegesis.

            The Gnostic description of the seed of Seth is another race, one  which is opposed to the 'material race' (Tri. Trac. 119:8-10).  This race is immovable and incorruptible, living and immovable.  It is a 'race of the immortal soul (Apoc. Adam  78:3-5).  The father of this race is  'the perfect man', the Great or heavenly Seth.  Schenke proposed that a gap exists in the Gnostic texts between  the first sons of Seth and the Gnostics contemporary to the texts.  Stroumsa postulates that the  Gnostic self-identification with the descendents of Seth merged with the  tradition of opposition of Noah to the sons of Seth provides one of the motivations  for the vilification of Noah and the vindication of Sodom in Gnostic salvation history.     


Part  Three:  Echoes and Repercussions

7.  Gnostic Elements in Hermetic Traditions

            In this chapter, Stroumsa explores the writings of Zosimus[4], a 4th century alchemist, which reference traditions  concerning the lust of angels for women as a source of technical knowledge.  Zosimus also connects the race  of philosophers, who spend their lives in immateriality, with the man  inside Adam, 'Phos'.  These may be  liberated by the coming of the Son of God, who is opposed by the 'demon who  mimics'.  Stroumsa sees the  transformation of the leader of the Sons of God into the false Son of God as  originating in the Gnostic version of the Genesis story.

 8.  Gnostic Myths in Manichaean Garb

            This chapter outlines some of the ways in which Manichaeism  adopted and transformed elements of Sethian gnosticism into its own form.  The chapter attempts to  explore the tension in Manichaean thought between independent use of Jewish  apocalyptic traditions and the use of Jewish apocalyptic traditions transformed by  Sethian gnostic thought.  The  roots of Manichaean thought in Sethian gnosticism are evidenced by the importance  of 'Sethel', the seduction of the archons, the view of the material world  as an 'abortion' or miscarriage.   The independent use of Jewish apocalyptic is briefly examined in the  connection between the Manichaean Book of Giants and the fragments found at Qumran.

Conclusion:  The Gnostic Sexual Myth

            This concise summary of the conclusions of the previous chapters emphasizes the Gnostic dualistic view of history as a permanent conflict  between the Gnostics and the forces of evil.  This dualistic view of history is tied to the central Gnostic  myth of a dual humanity; a common humanity born of the rape of Eve by the archon,  who becomes the demiurge himself, and the 'pure' seed of Seth.  Stroumsa uses the connections  he has drawn between Gnostic and apocalyptic literature to argue that the roots  of Gnosticism were in the exegetical problems of first century  interpretation of Genesis.  He sees  Gnosticism as a radicalization and recrystallization of selected Jewish exegetical  traditions which did not require Christian mediation. He sees the transition from  the 'fall of Eve' to the fall of Sophia as deriving from:

As a result, he  attributes the development of a hierarchical duality between God and the demiurgic  angel to Judaism, as an answer to the problem of biblical anthropomorphisms.  The Gnostics, in turn, picked  up this duality and radicalized it by demonizing the demiurge and identifying  him with Satan.  The identification  of evil with matter is secondary to the demonization process, which transformed  a hierarchical duality into a conflicting dualism.


            The book as a whole provides a valuable source for connecting  various elements of the Gnostic myth with other Jewish literature of the  period.  Stroumsa shows a keen  appreciation for the variation with the Gnostic corpus as well as an eye for common elements.  This wealth of  detail will make the book extremely difficult for a reader who is not already  familiar with the Gnostic or pseudepigraphic texts involved.  It succeeds very well at  placing Gnostic interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis within the larger  context of biblical exegesis in antiquity.   In particular, the delineation of the Gnostic tendency to shift particular  events or elements 'backward' into the story of Adam and Eve works very  well.

            Stroumsa is less successful at uncovering the origins of  Gnosticism.  His attempts to trace  particular elements (mythologoumenon) through the literature are hindered as  evidence for historical development of ideas by questions concerning the relative  dates of the texts and traditions.   In particular, Stroumsa often states that an exegetical tradition found in  a later text reflects a much earlier tradition.  Since there is no way of knowing how much earlier, or to which  elements of the tradition this actually applies, the effect is to introduce a  large measure of historical uncertainty.          

[1] Quoted from

[2] The triple emanation of the Immortal Man, the Son of Immortal  Man, and the Son of Son of Immortal Man in Eugnostos is a very clear  description of this.

[3] This tradition may be built on the connection of the 'sons of  Seth' with Moab  and Edom in Balaam's prophecy (Num. 24:17-18).

[4] Zosimus was born in PanopolisEgypt at the end of  the 3rd century, and taught in Alexandria, Egypt.