PARAPHRASE OF SHEM (NHC VII, 1)
One of the longer and best-preserved tractates of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY. This text is part of a small, selective group of Gnostic texts that show no evidence of having been influenced by Christianity (cf. APOCALYPSE OF ADAM, THREE STELES OF SETH, and EUGNOSTOS). Attributed pseudonymously to Shem, the son of Noah and the ancestor of Abraham (Gn. 10:1, 21-31; 11:10-26), the Paraphrase of Shem is a revelation delivered by the Gnostic redeemer Derdekeas (Aramaic for child, boy) to Shem.
The revelation begins with Shem being elevated “to the top of the world close to the Light,” that is, to the Supreme Being (1.10- 11). Shem’s mind is separated from his body, and he learns about cosmogony, soteriology, and eschatology. Three principles, “Light, Darkness and Spirit [pneuma] between them” are introduced (1.26-29). The Light knows of “the abasement of the Darkness” (2.11-13), but the Darkness is ignorant of the Light (2.16-18). So begins the cosmic drama. Darkness frightens Spirit (2.21) and becomes aware that “his likeness is dark compared with the Spirit” (3.6-7). Ignorant of the Light, Darkness directs his attention to Spirit to claim equality. From the mind of Darkness, evil is born; and from “the likeness of the Light” a son, Derdekeas, appears, whose task it is to carry up to the Light, the light of the Spirit shut up in Darkness (3.35-4.19).
The bulk of the tractate hereafter describes a cosmogony involving the struggle among the different powers, Derdekeas’ effort to liberate Light, and the events leading up to the time of consummation when “the forms of Nature will be destroyed” (45.16-17). Similar to other Gnostic eschatological writings, world history and evolution terminate with the consummation, and the particles of light return to the Supreme Being and no longer possess a (material) form. Derdekeas ends the Paraphrase of Shem by telling Shem of his role; he also tells him that salvation will only be given “to worthy ones” (49.6).
The Paraphrase of Shem is of particular importance for the religious history of late antiquity, postbiblical Judaism, and early Christianity. Its allusions and the biblical exegesis of the creation story of Genesis present an interesting comparison to other Jewish pseudepigraphic and apocryphal literature of the period of postbiblical Judaism. For example, the destruction of Sodom (28.34-29.34), the flood (25.13; 28.6), and the Tower of Babel (25.18 and 26; 28.10) show a clear dependence on the Old Testament. The lack of Christian influence in the Paraphrase of Shem and evidence of a pre-Christian Gnostic redeemer also draws attention to the mythological and historical background of the New Testament.
This combination of a heterodox Jewish background with an absence of Christology has led Wisse (1970) to suggest that the polemic against baptism by water in this tractate is addressed to some Jewish baptismal sect and not against Christians. Others view this ritual as unveiling Christian traces and Elchasaite involvement (Sevrin, 1975). Affinities to the Paraphrase of Seth of Hippolytus are also a topic of debate (Refutatio, 19-22). The Paraphrase of Shem has been viewed as a source for the Paraphrase of Seth and the basis for the doctrine of the Sethians of Hippolytus.
Finally, the list of names (31.4-32.6 and 46.4-47.6) in the tractate indicate some form of ritual to be recited at one’s final ascent. It also supports a process where novices are socialized and instructed through different stages of Gnostic teaching.
The terminus ad quem is the first part of the third century with the middle of the second century or earlier, as plausible for the final redaction in Egypt.
- Aland, B. “Die Paraphrase als Form gnostischer Verkündigung.” In Nag Hammadi and Gnosis, ed. R. McL. Wilson. Nag Hammadi Studies 14. Leiden, 1978.
- Bertrand, D. A. “Paraphrase de Sem et Paraphrase de Seth.” In Les Textes de Nag Hammadi: Colloque du Centre d’Histoire des Religions, ed. J.-E. Ménard. Nag Hammadi Studies 7. Leiden, 1975.
- Fischer, K.-M. “Die Paraphrase des Seem.” In Essays on the Nag Hammadi Texts: In Honor of Pahor Labib, ed. M. Krause, Nag Hammadi Studies 6. Leiden, 1975.
- Krause, M. “Die Paraphrase des Seem.” In Christentum am Roten Meer, pp. 2-105. Berlin, 1973.
- . “Die Paraphrase des Seem und der Bericht Hippolytus.” In Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Gnosticism, ed. G. Widengren. Leiden, 1977.
- Rudolph, K. Gnosis. Trans. and ed. R. McL. Wilson, pp. 85-86. San Francisco, 1983.
- Sevrin, J.-M. “A propos de la ‘Paraphrase de Sem.’” Le Muséon 83 (1975):69-96.
- Wisse, F. “The Redeemer Figure in the Paraphrase of Shem.” Novum Testamentum 12 (1970):130-40.
- . “The Paraphrase of Shem.” Nag Hammadi Library, ed. J. M. Robinson, pp. 308-328. Leiden, 1977.
HENRY A. GREEN