APOCALYPSE OF ADAM
The fifth tractate in Codex V of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY. It purports to be a revelation given by Adam to his son Seth, “in the 700th year,” that is, just prior to Adam’s death (Gn. 5:3-5). This feature gives the document the character of a “last testament” and associates it with other testamentary literature in antiquity.
Adam describes his fall in the Garden of Eden as a lapse into ignorance. Three heavenly figures then appear to Adam, and their revelation to him becomes the subject of Adam’s last testament to Seth.
He describes to Seth the origin of a special race of men and their struggle against the creator god (called Sacla, the Almighty). Three attempts are made by the creator to destroy this race of men who possess the knowledge of the eternal God. Two of these threats are drawn from well-known Jewish traditions, but here they are given a new interpretation.
Adam describes the descent of a heavenly figure, the illuminator of knowledge. His appearance shakes the cosmos of the creator god and his evil host. They persecute him, yet he succeeds in revealing his knowledge to the special race of men.
The narrative ends with an apocalyptic scene reminiscent of Matthew 25, in which those who oppose the illuminator fall under the condemnation of death but those who receive his knowledge “will live forever.”
The narrative breaks down into two sections that appear to be two sources harmonized by an ancient editor with appropriate redactional comments at the point of literary seams.
One source (64.1-65.23; 66.12-67.12; 67.22-76.7; 83.7-84.3; 85.19-22) can be described as standing near the border between Jewish apocalypticism and Gnosticism. The general character of its Gnosticism and the strong influence of Jewish traditions suggests that the author stood within a system that may be described as emerging Gnosticism.
In form, this narrative source is actually a midrashic commentary on the Genesis account of creation (Gn. 6:10) and the biblical account of the great flood (67.22-76.7). The Midrash of the flood paraphrases the biblical text (67.22-69.10; 70.3-71.4; 72.15-17; 73.25-27) and follows each paraphrase with an “exegesis” (69.18-70.2; 71.8-72.15; 72.18-73.24; 73.27-76.7) that embellishes and expands the biblical account with the narrative of the special race of men as the “real story of the flood.”
The second source (65.24-66.12; 67.12-67.21; 76.8-83.7), on the other hand, contains few references to Jewish traditions and reflects a developed Gnostic mythology.
The most interesting feature of this material is its close parallel with Christian traditions about Jesus. The illuminator comes to leave “fruit-bearing trees” whose “souls” he will “redeem from the day of death.” He “performs signs and wonders” and is punished “in his flesh” by the creator god.
Thirteen erroneous explanations are given by the powers in a highly stylized form to explain the illuminator’s origin. One of these attributes his origin to a virgin birth (78.27-79.19). The correct explanation given by the “kingless generation” describes him as being “chosen” from all the aeons.
These parallels to the Christian traditions are not necessarily evidence of Christian influence, and many have argued that the document is evidence of the existence of a type of non-Christian Gnosticism possessing a redeemer mythology.
These two sources were edited probably sometime prior to the beginning of the second century A.D., during an early stage in the development of the Sethian-Archontic tradition by a group that argued for a spiritualized understanding of baptism and an ascetic lifestyle. The redactor’s views are most clearly expressed in his concluding statement (84.4-85.18, 22b-31).
The document was composed originally in Greek and was later translated into Coptic (Sahidic).
- Hedrick, C. W. The Apocalypse of Adam: A Literary and Source Analysis. SBL Dissertation Series. Missoula, Mont., 1980.
- MacRae, G. W. “The Apocalypse of Adam.” In Nag Hammadi Codices V, 2-5, and VI with Papyrus Berolinensis 8502, 1 and 4, ed. Douglas M. Parrott. Nag Hammadi Studies 11. Leiden, 1979.
- Scholar, D. M. Nag Hammadi Bibliography 1948-1969. Nag Hammadi Studies 1. Leiden, 1971. Updated annually in Novum Testamentum.
CHARLES W. HEDRICK