THREE STELAE OF SETH
The Three Stelae (Codex VII, tractate 5, of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY) belongs to a group of tractates associated with Sethianism. Seth is the third son of Adam and Eve (Gn. 4: 25-26), appointed as another seed in place of Abel.
The Three Stelae of Seth is a series of hymnic prayers and blessings, each of which is addressed to a person of the Gnostic divine triad (Father-Mother-Son) in conjunction with a communal liturgical practice. A short prologue (118.10-24) introduces Dositheos, the revealer of the three stelae. Whether or not this Dositheos is the disciple of John the Baptist, a Samaritan sect founder, and the godfather in the formation of Gnostic schools, is unclear (Pseudo-Clement, Recognitiones 1.54-63 and 2.8; Homiliae 2.15-25; Origen, In Evangelium Joannis Commentariorum 13.27).
The short tractate is subdivided into three sections consciously structured to parallel each other (e.g., benedictions close each section). The subdivisions also correspond to the Sethian threefold nature of God and the stages of visionary ascent and descent. The tractate concludes with a description of the practice: “from the third they bless the second; after these the first. The way of ascent is the way of descent” (127.18-22).
The background of this descent-ascent may reflect aspects of the baptismal rite, spiritualized (Turner, 1986). The transmission of these three didactic hymns to the community serves to provide a vision of the heavenly world to the Gnostic community and to support the individual believer in elevating himself to the pleroma through prayer. The tractate ends with a scribal note, a colophon, in all likelihood intended to apply to the whole codex (127.29-33).
The importance of Seth to gnosticism as well as Seth’s relationship to religious and philosophical currents of the day make the Three Stelae of Seth most appealing. In particular, the tractate has no traces of Christian content; in its place is Neoplatonic metaphysics. The structure of the divine world and contemplative/mystical ascent has parallels with the Platonists of the third century. Two other tractates, Zostrianos and Allogenes, noted by Porphyry in his Life of Plotinus, are very similar in terminology and vocabulary to the Three Stelae of Seth. All exhibit a tendency toward ontological monism. This literary cluster acts as a unit and helps in deducing the evolution of the Sethian treatises and in placing the Three Stelae chronologically. One theory is that the Three Stelae of Seth was redacted twice (Claude, 1983).
The Gnostic theme of bisexuality, an expression of perfection, is also present in this tractate. Barbelo, the female aspect of the Father, is called “the first male virginal aeon” (121.21-22).
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- Claude, P. Les Trois stèles de Seth: Hymne gnostique à la Triade (NHS 7, 5). Bibliothèque Copte de Nag Hammadi 8. Quebec, 1983.
- Krause, M., and V. Girgis. “Die drei Stelen des Seth.” In Christentum am Roten Meer, Vol. 2, ed. F. Altheim and R. Stiehl. Berlin, 1973.
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- Stroumsa, G. Another Seed: Studies in Sethian Gnosticism. Nag Hammadi Studies 24. Leiden, 1984.
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- Turner, J. “Sethian Gnosticism: A Literary History.” In Nag Hammadi, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, ed. C. Hedrick and R. Hodgson, Jr. Peabody, Mass., 1986.
- Wisse, F. “The Three Steles of Seth.” In The Nag Hammadi Library, 1977. J. M. Robinson. San Francisco, 1977.
HENRY A. GREEN