CONCEPT OF OUR GREAT POWER
An apocalyptic tractate dating from the mid-fourth century or shortly thereafter and influenced by Jewish speculations, biblical or apocryphal, slightly tinged with gnosticism. The aim of the text is to describe the history of the world in its fundamental stages: creation, the flood, the origin of evil, the coming of a Savior who descends into Hades to humiliate the archons, the appearance of an Antichrist who rules over the world, and finally the apocatastasis (second coming) and the salvation of the elect souls. This history is presented according to a scheme of three aeons—the aeon of the flesh, the psychic aeon, and the indestructible aeon. The Great Power takes the role of speaker, and communicates to his hearers a number of revelations and teachings.
The aeon of the flesh comes into being in the “great bodies” (38). During its reign the vengeance of the father of the flesh, the water, takes place. He sends the flood upon men, sparing only Noah (38.17-39.15). Then follows the reign of the psychic aeon (39.16): “It is a small one, which is mixed with bodies, begetting in the souls and being defiled.”
In fact during this aeon the pollution, which had already made its appearance under the aeon of the flesh, now increases, and gives birth to all kinds of evils, “many works of wrath, anger, envy, malice, hatred, slander, contempt and war, lying and evil counsels, sorrows and pleasures, basenesses and defilements, falsehoods and diseases, evil judgments” (39.20-31).
The author concludes this list with an exhortation of Gnostic savor addressed to his hearers: “Yet you are sleeping, dreaming dreams. Wake up and return, taste and eat the true food. Hand out the word and the water of life! Cease from the evil lusts and desires and (the teachings of) the Anomoeans, evil heresies that have no basis” (39.33-40.9). The reference to this heresy, which was propagated during the fourth century, provides a terminus a quo for the dating of the text (Wisse and Williams, 1979).
A man who knows the Great Power is going to be born under the dominion of the psychic aeon (40.24-27). He will drink from the milk of the mother, he will speak in parables, he will proclaim the aeon that is to come (40.28-32). This man “spoke in 72 tongues, opened the gates of the heavens with his words, put to shame the ruler of Hades, raised the dead” (41.6-11). His coming provokes reaction from the archons. This man is Christ. By the treachery of Judas, the text tells us, the archons laid hold of him and brought him before the governor of Hades. But “the nature of his flesh could not be seized” (42.1-2). Here we have the Gnostic doctrine of docetic origin, that the Christ could not be grasped.
He leaves only his outward semblance in the hands of the archons, mocks them (“he prepared himself to go down and put them to shame”), and escapes from them (cf. Nag Hammadi Library, Codex II, Seth 51.24-29; 52.10-14; 53.20-21; Codex I, Apocalypse of James 30.1-8; 31.15-21; Apocalypse of Peter 80.25-30; 81.3-82.17). The coming of Christ is followed by a series of signs that mark the end of the psychic aeon: “The sun set during the day; the day became dark; the evil spirits were troubled, the aeons will dissolve.
But those who would know these things . . . will become blessed, since they will come to know the truth” (42.15-43.29). The signs of the end are brought on by the dissolution of the archons: the destruction of cities, the shaking of the mountains, a trembling of the earth, the death of animals (43.32- 44.13) mark the transition from the realm of the archons to the kingdom of the Logos. These signs are typical of eschatological times, and are found in similar form in the Jewish pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Ascension of Isaiah 4 and 5; II Enoch 22; IV Esdras 5; Ascension of Moses).
An imitating spirit is sent by the archons to combat a divine child come to his maturity (44.31-45.4). His coming will also be marked by signs of the end (45.31-46.5). Positive signs, on the contrary, will accompany the coming of the Great Power who will protect the elect, who are clothed in holy garments (46.8-24). These will return to an “immeasurable light” (46.8-9). The treatise ends with the redemption of the souls, and the fact that the elect have come to be in the unchangeable aeon.
- Wisse, F., and F. E. Williams. “The Concept of Our Great Power.” In Nag Hammadi Codices V, 2-5, and VI, ed. D. M. Parrot, pp. 291-324 (translation). Nag Hammadi Studies 11. Leiden, 1979.