4QInstruction and Sethian Gnosticism

In a book I’m reading I encountered a quote from a highly fragmentary text from Qumran that is usually known as 4QInstruction. The fragment 4Q417 includes the words “for engraved are the ordinances of God, about all the [iniquities of the] sons of Seth, and a book of memorial is written before him”. [The picture on the right is not of 4QInstruction, lest anyone enlarge it and be disappointed - I couldn't find an image of this particular text online].

In later times, including among the Mandaeans but also in texts from Nag Hammadi, certain Gnostics would trace their teaching back to Seth and to wisdom that he inscribed on stele.

There is significant uncertainty about how the fragment mentioned above is to be positioned relative to other fragments that seem to be part of the same work. Also uncertain is whether this is a work of the Qumran sectarians themselves or simply a work that is part of their collection.

Although the idea of a righteous race descended from Seth does not seem to have been at all limited to groups that can be categorized as Gnostics, it is still intriguing that the text from Qumran appears to polemicize against the sons of Seth. And so this is a text that definitely merits further investigation by those interested in tracing the history of the “Sethian” ideas that became part of the heritage of later Mandaeans and other “Gnostics”.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08428173510982603101 nicholas meyer

    Hello James: There’s an alternative reading of this phrase which may fit better with the Scrolls corpus as a whole as well as the reference to “the iniquities of the sons of Seth”: “sons of Seth” may be a reference to Balaam’s prophecy in Num 24.17, so that it functions as cipher for all the enemies of Israel/the wicked; the text is quoted in 1QM 11.6 and CD 7.21.Cf. Harrington, Daniel J. Wisdom Texts from Qumran.London, UK: Routledge, 1996. pp 55-56.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks Nick! This is one of the things I love most about blogging – someone working in one area (say Mandaeans or Early Christianity) can mention something he read that set certain bells ringing related to his area, and quickly get some feedback from someone with more expertise in another area.Obviously a reading that makes sense of the reference in the context of the rest of the Qumran literature is to be preferred – I’ll have to take another look at some texts, including well-known ones like the Damascus Covenant, which I last read before I started doing anything about the Mandaeans. I seem to remember a reference (perhaps in CD?) to some who reject Torah altogether, which could simply be a reference to Jewish apostasy (or at least, what was considered such by the Qumran group), but also makes me think of the Nasaraeans mentioned by Epiphanius, which he says were a pre-Christian Jewish sect that had the “fathers” but not Torah.Thanks again for your helpful comment!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00637936588223855248 Joshua

    Ok, very much not an expert on these things but two obvious speculations come to mind: First, whether a group as a whole was righteous doesn’t stop God in the Bible from condemning their sins. The Israelites are God’s choosen people and yet get repeatedly chastised. Second, there’s a general trend in the Biblical texts for God to narrow down his chosen more and more, often as a result of sin (Cain and his descendants are weeded off, then in the time of Noah, Ham and his descendants, then it becomes narrowed to the descendants of Abraham, etc.) Given the nature of the Qumran community it isn’t surprising if they would emphasize that sort of exclusiveness in the broader context of people descended from Seth (i.e. pretty much everyone who wasn’t already rejected as being descended from Cain) other than themselves?Also, in regard to the issue of gnostics and inscriptions on steles attributed to Seth, Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews mentions a pillar made by Seth. That’s written in around 93 or so, so that credit to Seth was around very early. How well can we pin down the date on 4Q?


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