Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Apocalypse of Adam

Introduction to the Text: 

The Apocalypse of Adam is preserved in a manuscript discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1946. It is one of many manuscripts of gnostic secret revelations. In this particular text, Adam communicates knowledge to his son Seth, the progenitor of the race of gnostics. In the story, he receives messages from three figures. Three stories are revealed, all of which find biblical precedents: the great Flood, re-population of the world, and  “a cosmic conflagration that is perhaps based on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” (Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:707). Each event is explained as the creator God’s attempt to destroy the race of Seth. At the end of the text, the author equate baptisms with knowledge.

God Judging Adam 1795 by William Blake 1757-1827

God Judging Adam 1795 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939 (http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05063)

Because dating the text is difficult, G. Macrae dates it anytime between the first and fourth centuries CE, more likely earlier than later (Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2:708). Present form of the text, though, occurred through a growth process of narrative and language elements. Although we may be tempted to consider it either a Jewish or Christian text, depiction of the Illuminator of Knowledge, a major figure within the text, is neither absolutely one or the other. Thus, it may represent a transition period from a form of apocalyptic Judaism to Gnosticism, the latter being a distinct system of practices and beliefs. Macrae suggests that it reflects “an encounter between Jewish practitioners of baptism and sectarian gnostics, who diverge from them on this issue in particular” (Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:709).

Musings on the Mythological Background for the Apocalypse of Adam

As I read through this text, I was intrigued by the implicit and explicit references to Greek mythology. I list a few examples below:

Text Reference
“Then God, the ruler of the aeons and the powers, separated us…” (ApAdam 1:4)

 

 

The idea that Adam and Eve were once a single androgynous being reflects the androgyne myth (Aristophanes’s Speech from Plato’s Symposium)

 

 

“And God will say to Noah – whom the nations will call Deucalion” (ApAdam 3:8)

 

 

In the Greek flood story, Deucalion is the hero (See Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 1.7.2; Pseuo-Lucian, De Dea Syria 12-13)

 

 

“He is a drop. It came from heaven to earth. Dragons brought him down to caves” (ApAdam 7:24)

 

 

“The infant Zeus is said to have been hidden and nourished in a cave; cf. Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1.1.6-7” (Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 1:717, footnote j)

 

 

“Of the nine Muses on separated away” (ApAdam 7:31)

 

 

Although this reference is not to any particular story, the Apocalypse of Adam continue to note that the Muse became androgynous and conceived. This is a common motif in Greek myth (See Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1.3.5)

 

 

Although this list of references is quite brief, it does well to highlight how Greek mythology informed the way in which the author of the Apocalypse of Adam approached and viewed the world and history. Each reference to Greek mythology was appropriated for his specific purpose. No doubt he was influenced by Greek myth. At the same time, no doubt he viewed the world in a way unique to him and his community.

My point is that, as people viewing texts 2,000 years after the fact, it is important to recognize two aspects of every culture: (1) each culture should be permitted to stand independently and read on their own terms, and (2) we should recognize that each culture influences the other. Seeing that texts are products of cultures, these aspects are equally applicable to texts. In the case of the Apocalypse of Adam, Greek mythology and thought influenced the text; however, the text is also an independent testament of a particular historical situation and worldview. Balancing these two aspects is one of the greatest challenges when reading ancient texts and seeking to understand how ideas developed.

*For those who read Pseudepigrapha Saturday consistently, please be aware that I will be wrapping up my Pseudepigrapha Saturday posts for the foreseeable future. I am doing this because I start at the University of Chicago mid-September. While I still plan on using my blog as a way to study (i.e. posting about major texts in my courses, posting about approaches and methodologies, etc.), I will not be posting on a weekly, consistent basis. 

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