This, the fourth tractate of Codex II of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY, is a Gnostic exposition of the origin, nature, and function of angelic powers like those mentioned in the New Testament at Ephesians 6:12 and Colossians 1:13. In the cosmology of the document, the universe is divided by a veil into two mutually exclusive realms. The primary, incorruptible, and invisible realm above the dividing veil is contrasted with its shadow, the corruptible and visible realm of physical matter and of ignorance beneath the veil. At the instigation of a heavenly and incorruptible being called Pistis Sophia (Faith, Wisdom), the ignorant, inferior, and malevolent god of the lower realm, Ialdabaoth, organizes his offspring into a hierarchy corresponding to that found in the upper world. So organized, this angelic offspring of Ialdabaoth constitutes the archons (rulers) mentioned in Ephesians and Colossians. Thus, the corruptible archons of the lower realm correspond to the incorruptible angels (or aeons) of the upper.
When the archons of the lower world see the image of the incorruptibility that dwells above the veil reflected in the waters of their lower realm, they lust after the beautiful image and attempt to capture it by creating a copy of it out of physical matter to act as a decoy. This physical decoy is Adam. At first, Adam is unable to rise from the ground out of which he was created, for while the archons can give him physical life, mere animation, they cannot give him what is found only in the upper world, an incorruptible soul. However, when the incorruptible Spirit above sees Adam below, it descends to the lower realm and inhabits his physical body. Exactly why the decoy Adam is successful in luring the Spirit from above is not explained.
The archons then put Adam into the Garden, and while he sleeps, they take Eve from his side. In this division, the incorruptible Spirit that dwelt in Adam remains with the part that becomes Eve. The archons, in their lust for this spiritual entity, rape Eve and beget Cain, but before they do, the Spirit passes from Eve into a serpent and so remains undefiled. It is this spiritual serpent that then teaches Adam and Eve to defy the evil archons, to partake of the fruit of the Garden, and to gain knowledge. The Spirit then passes from the serpent into Norea, the daughter of Adam and Eve. When the archons attempt to rape Norea, as they had her mother, Eve, she resists and calls upon the god of the upper realm, who sends the angel Eleleth to rescue her.
Eleleth teaches Norea how the first archon, Ialdabaoth, was created out of the incorruptible Sophia, and how Ialdabaoth subsequently created the physical universe and begot the other archons. For blasphemy against the upper realm, Ialdabaoth is finally consigned to Tartarus, and one of his offspring, the repentant archon Sabaoth, is installed in his father’s place over all the lower realms. Eleleth finally reveals to Norea that she and her offspring, who possess Spirit, rightly belong to the upper realm and will be saved from the lower world and its archons when the true Man comes into the world at a future time. The treatise ends with an eschatological hymn describing the salvation of the spiritual beings and the final destruction of the archons.
The Hypostasis of the Archons was written in Greek before A.D. 350, and the many puns on Semitic names indicate a Jewish or Jewish-Christian connection (Layton, 1987). The cosmogonic myth in this document is presented in an abbreviated form and must be fleshed out by comparison with other instances of the same myth, particularly with that in the fifth tractate of Codex II, On the Origin of the World, with which Hypostasis of the Archons has many close parallels.
- Barc, B. L’Hypostase des archontes. Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi 5. Quebec, 1980.
- Bullard, R. A. The Hypostasis of the Archons: The Coptic Text with Translation and Commentary. Patristische Texte und Studien 10. Berlin, 1970.
- Bullard, R. A., and B. Layton. “The Hypostasis of the Archons.” In The Nag Hammadi Library, ed. James M. Robinson, pp. 152-60. New York, 1978.
- Fallon, F. T. The Enthronement of Sabaoth: Jewish Elements in Gnostic Creation Myths. Nag Hammadi Studies 10. Leiden, 1978.
- Layton, B. “The Hypostasis of the Archons . . . English Translation, Notes, and Indexes.” Harvard Theological Review 67 (1974):351-425, and 69 (1976):31-101.
- ____. “The Reality of the Rulers.” In The Gnostic Scriptures, pp. 65-76. Garden City, N.Y., 1987.
STEPHEN E. ROBINSON