Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Intertextual Sammael: Variations on Sammael in Pirkve de Rabbi Eliezer and Selected “Gnostic” Works from Nag Hammadi (4)

The Intertextual Sammael

Intertextual analysis has become common in post structural literary criticism.  The Structuralist model of literary analysis stressed “assertions of objectivity, scientific rigor, methodological stability, and other highly rationalistic-sounding terms.” [9]. Poststructuralist theory, on the other hand, places its emphasis on “uncertainty, indeterminacy, incommunicability, subjectivity, desire, pleasure and play” [10].  Post-Structuralist literary theory argues “that criticism, like literature itself, is inherently unstable.”  The term intertextuality was developed by poststructuralist critics and theorists “in an attempt to disrupt notion of stable meaning or objective interpretation,” [11].  The term suggests that each text “is situated for each reader in an ever-changing web composed of innumerable texts.” [12]. As such, there is no “extratextual” reality to which texts refer or that give texts there meaning.  Meaning or reference is possible “only in relation to this network,” [13].
Intertexuality is a highly efficacious method to examine some of the shared material in our Nag Hammadi works and the PRE.  In the first place, it leaves behind difficult notions that can hinder investigation like the establishment of exact lines of transmission of the stories about Sammael between “Gnostic” and Rabbincal authors.  Such lines of transmission no doubt existed, but the historical record is lacking, and all such historical reconstructions are just that, reconstructions.   Even as methodical a scholar as Strousma makes statements that exceed our documents.  In an analysis of the rape or seduction of Eve by the archons in the Nag Hammadi texts we have examined, and the Jewish sources of these stories, he states : “The parallelisms in the texts quoted above reveal the existence of definite links between Jewish and Gnostic versions of Eve’s adultery and/ or seduction,” [Strousma,48].  He bases the “definite links” on a pun on Eve’s name and the serpent in the Reality of the Rulers that only works in Aramaic, and not Coptic or Greek.  Strousma admits that the “rabbinical texts” were probably redacted at a later date than the “Greek or Aramaic Vorlage of the Gnostic texts,” nevertheless “a previous oral tradition may be assumed.”  Even more boldly, Strousma has the influence as one way:
Moreover, it is easier to understand Gnostics attributing previously known legends about the serpent to the demiurge, than to imagine rabbis integrating scandalous Gnostic sayings about God the Creator into their thought simply by transferring them to Satan or the Serpent [Stousma,49].
            This leap makes many presuppositions about the rabbis, as if they are a monolithic group with one agenda (and not the variegated bunch they were), God the Creator (again, a notion with varied expression) and “scandalous” Gnostic sayings, and by extension, the scandalous Gnostics themselves. These simple assertions illustrate the pitfalls of an essentially historico-literary examination of the Nag Hammadi literatures.  Without another group of documents to support such claims, these statements, couched in historical certainty, are merely speculations. 
            But it goes further than that.  Such speculations are actually harmful to an examination of the materials we outlined here.  Even the brief overview of the materials presented above from Nag Hammadi works and the PRE show that there is an overlap between the two sources.  But assertions like Strousma’s effectively hamstring further research.  By having stable and unchanging categories like the “rabbis” and the scandalous “Gnostics,” great harm is done; his methods and outcomes resemble those of the structuralist approach: he couches his work in firm historical nomenclature that has little if any firm basis.
            Intertextual examination does not have the pitfalls of such source criticism. Intertextuality focuses “upon the ways in which authors absorb, transform, or transgress the traditions they appropriate. [14]. As Karen Kings expands on this notion, intertextual analysis tends to

            …stress the ways that authors alludes to prior written and oral materials in contexts of struggle.  Each work labors to displace other interpretations in order to supersede them. This practice is not so much a matter of influence or borrowing as it is a matter of confrontation; authors reshape meaning by resituating known materials in ways that can at once present their own views and replace prior readings [15].

            King uses this method to examine The Gospel of Mary, but it can be quite helpful examining the Sammael material in PRE and the Nag Hammadi works.  First, this method displaces Strousma’s notion that the rabbi’s use of the Sammael tales is somehow the correct one, the authoritative tradition that is unchanging from the oral sources he speculates they inherited.  It gives us the opportunity to entertain the somewhat novel idea that the Sammael sections of the PRE, especially those that deal with Adam, Eve, Sammael, Abel and Cain, are taking their cue from “Gnostic” works.  As we shall see, to support this, there are some indication in the PRE that its author(s) were engaged in polemic with “Gnostic” groups.
            We must first begin with what the PRE leaves out of its material about Sammael.  For such an important figure in the history of the world, his origins are left unspoken.  This does not seem accidental.  As we saw, the origins of Sammael are key to the cosmogony and anthropogenic ideas of the The Secret Book of John, The Reality of the Rulers, and the First Thought in Three Forms.  His demiurgical function is key to each work, and without it, they would be radically altered in their meaning.  Sammael, who has control over the lower world or the earth in the PRE, functions in much the same way as the Sammael of Nag Hammadi.  He rules the lower estate of the universe, however there his power appears to be absolute, and more importantly, legitimate.  In this sense, his role is expanded beyond that of the Sammael of Nag Hammadi.  That Sammael is consistently, or nearly consistently, painted as a negative force whose power is illegitimate.  Sammael in PRE has his power by a writ of God!  Here, PRE is engaged with demiurgical notions of Sammael and refuts them.  It is hazardous to argue from silence, but the omission of Sammael’s creation may be less than accidental.  It is a motif that occurs repeatedly in the Nag Hammadi works we have discussed.  And in an arena where so much literary traditions are being re-iterated and reinterpreted, the omission of Sammael’s birth is nothing less than a denial of his demiurgical status.  Sammael is instead explained in reference to his place in the angelic pantheon, a place where he is supreme, but only understood in reference to like beings that occupy the same heavenly niche.  Sammael is legitimized in the PRE.  In the Nag Hammadi works he is the demiurge, and is consistently denigrated.  The author(s) of PRE engage in a “confrontation” to redefine Sammael.
            The first area the PRE appears to directly engage Gnostic notions is the creation of man.  In PRE it is God and the Torah that create man.  When God says “Let us make a man in our image, after our likeness,” he is telling the Torah, and the Torah’s response is distress.   The Torah is against creating man, stating that “he will be full of anger,” but God creates the man anyway.  This is not the first revolt of angels or divine beings against God’s premiere creation.  At the beginning of Chapter 13, where Sammael is first introduced, the ministering angels speak to God, and question his creation: “What is man, that thou shouldst take note of him?.... Man is like a vanity upon earth there is none his like,” [PRE,91] God then explains that just as the angels proclaim God’s praise in the heavens, so too will man on earth.  Then God asks if “you are unable to call the names of the creatures which I have created?”  And the angels are indeed unable to name them.  Adam then stood up, and in keeping with the Genesis narrative, named the creatures of the earth.  The angels then “retreated” and said “If we do not take counsel against this man so that he sin before his Creator, we cannot prevail,” [PRE,91].  This is the incident that precedes Sammael’s revolt.
            The angels, and then Sammael’s jealousy of humans, supersedes the stance of the “Gnostics” in such texts at The Secret Book of John.  There, the lower order of creatures envies humanity, and seeks to dominate it.  In the PRE this scenario is effectively re-written to give primacy to God, whose rule is not questioned, but the lower order, from unnamed angels, to Sammael, and even the pre-existent Torah, in various ways disagree with God’s decision to create humans.  Certain members of the divine pantheon do nothing with these impulses (like the pre-existent Torah, who although disapproving of God’s desire to create humanity, helps in the task) to Sammael and his band, whose jealousy leads him to tamper with humanity.  But they cannot stop God from creating man.  The author(s) of PRE essentially strips the power from the Gnostic interpretation of man’s creation.  Rather than the work of a blind demiurgical power, it is God’s work.  Elements of a divine revolt against humanity remain, but they are effectively reshaped into a different mold.
            We also see elements of this transformation in the PRE portrait of Sammael and the serpent.  Although the PRE quotes the injunction in Genesis that the serpent was more wily than any of the beasts that God created, he is also portrayed as Sammael’s unwitting puppet, and appears incapable of resisting Sammael’s use of him as a mouthpiece.  In the PRE the serpent is given a far more positive portrayal than in The Secret Book of to John.  Here, in answer to a question by John about the serpent “Sir, is it not the serpent that taught Adam to eat?”  The Saviour answers John and seems to equate the snake with one of the archonic rulers who taught Adam “the sowing of desire for corruption [sexual reproduction] so that Adam might be useful to it [the serpent] [Layton,44].  Here, the serpent and Sammael/the First Ruler are identified.  The PRE takes this conjunction and makes it firmer, and in essence absolves the serpent from responsibility.  The serpent is not given a positive or negative role.  He is neutral, and his power in stripped from “Gnostic” hermeneutics.  Once more we have the PRE playing with “Gnostic” notions and turning them around           
             In The Reality of the Rulers, the snake plays a more beneficial role.  The “female spiritual principle” descends in the snake and he instructs them to eat the fruit.  When they do they realize that they are “naked of the spiritual element, and took fig leaves and bound them upon their loins,” [L71].   The snake as instructor of Adam and Eve is also at odds with the portrait of the snake in PRE.  As we said, the animal is essentially neutral, participating in Adam and Eve’s corruption, but technically not responsible for it.
            By far the greatest reworking of “Gnostic” myth by the author(s) of PRE is the story of Sammael, Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel.  This myth is central to the story of the Secret Book of John, and in PRE it is the central organizing principle to the first third of the book.  The PRE pits Adam and Sammael in a contest to see who will impregnate Eve.  Both do so, with Adam producing Abel, and Sammael Cain.  Cain’s paternity becomes the very material cause of evil in the world.  He is jealous by nature, a trait he inherited from his father, and sexual jealousy (and an overabundance of sexual desire) lay at the heart of his character flaws. 
The cycle of stories about Cain and his progeny are key to the development of human history as conceived by PRE and The Secret Book of John.  For PRE, the rebellion against creation that begins with Sammael’s tampering with Adam, Eve and the serpent in the Garden receives a decisive push when Sammael impregnates Eve.  Cain, her offspring, resembles his father.  He also has his father’s temperament: he is licentious and jealous, and this jealously leads him to kill his brother Abel.  Adam and Eve bear Seth, and he, unlike his brother, is fully human.  We saw how the angels took consul against Adam [PRE,91], and the reproductive strategy they developed appears to have worked.  They wished to destroy God’s pre-eminent creation, and when they could not do so, effectively hijacked it.  When the sons of God took the Cainite women for wives, this situation was doubled.  Now, a race of creatures existed on the earth that was essentially divine in origin.  They, even more so than the descendant of Cain, are guided by licentiousness.  And although we do not see any interactions with the descendants of Seth and these creatures, Noah’s chastisement of them before the flood reveals some of these dynamics: the mixing of the divine and human is a failed experiment.  When the angels and human procreate, the result is a creature that is neither, and worse yet does not seem reconciled with either an angelic or human role.  The race of Cainites are destroyed by God during the Flood.  Noah, as an heir to Seth, continues the human line.  For the PRE the story of Cain, his half human half divine parentage, and the Sons of God becomes a closed book.  The mixed race of the angels and humans ends in a catastrophe that wipes them out.  God destroys the attempts by Sammael and his band to steer creation by sexual means. 
There is some indication that the PRE is engaged in polemic against “Gnostics”.  In one chapter called “The Premundane Creation” there is a list of the areas of the world that God has created.  We are told “From the quarter facing north darkness goeth forth into the world.”  This area was left purposefully incomplete by God, stating “I am God, let him come and complete this quarter which I have left (incomplete) and all will know he is a God,” [PRE,17].  This may well be a polemic against demiurgical notions.  In a chapter titled “Creation on the Sixth Day,” the creatures of the earth bow down to Adam, thinking that he is God.  Adam chastises them, and enjoins them to worship only the “King over us the One who created us,” [PRE,79-80].  This incident may very well be a polemical attack on certain “Gnostics” doctrines where the first Adam is the lower God.
These are subtle attacks against “gnosticism” but they show that PRE was not unaware of the uses that “Gnostic” texts made of such images of God.  The reworking of the material about Sammael, Cain, and his offspring is even more radical.  Here, the Cainite line is utterly destroyed.  God effectively destroys the divine revolt that hijacked his creation.  Here, PRE is reinterpreting some common Gnostics stories to fit its own textual agenda to give the creator sole status.  As we saw in The Secret Book of John, Cain and Abel are deified as Eloim and Iaue; Eloim had the face of a bear, while Iaue had the face of a cat;  Iaue is just, while Eloim is unjust.  Iaue is in charge of fire and wind, while Eloim is in charge of water and earth.  These creatures rule their respective realms, and Eloim, the first born, in unjust, while Iaue, the second, is just.  “And it [the first ruler] called them by the names Cain and Abel, with trickery in mind.” [Layton,47].  This fascinating read of Cain and Abel makes many moves that PRE seeks to disavow.  In the first, both Cain and Abel are descended from the First Archon.   In the second, Cain and Abel are equated with Elohim and Yahweh, both born from the First Archon, and are called Cain and Abel with “trickery in mind.”  The divine status of Cain and Abel are hid; their theriomorphic nature is not revealed to all, and in a sense, the reader of the Secret Book of John is forced to revaluate the use of Elohim and Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible.  In the Secret Book of John, Seth is the only legitimate offspring of Adam and Eve, and he is called Seth, after the “race of the eternal realms,” [Layton,47].  The Secret Book of John then takes very telling liberties with the chronology of Genesis.  The First Ruler repents of his creation, and Noah and “many other people from the immovable race,” were saved by hiding in a “certain place,” and in a “luminous cloud,” [Layton,50].  After the flood story The Secret Book of John provides the story of the fallen angels taking the daughters of man as their spouses and siring offspring.  These creatures are not wiped out in any cataclysm, but exist “to the present time.”  The general dynamic of chosen race and wicked race, laid out in the PRE and then destroyed in the Flood, is found in the Secret Book of John, but there are also some subtle but crucial moves in The Secret Book of John that creates interesting areas of departure.  The First Ruler destroys all except for the Immovable Race, i.e. he appears to destroy the descendants of Cain.  The fallen angels narrative, then, is a sullying of members of the Immovable Race, dividing their ranks into a Chosen people and a “children of darkness” [Layton,50].
PRE redirects the narrative elements of the Immovable Race tales found in the Secret Book of John.  It actually has a more focused historical reconstruction of the Cainites, Sons of God, and their effect on human history than the Nag Hammadi works we have seen, but the duality between the two races does not continue post-flood.  Although Sammael continues to rule over humanity, he no longer does so through reproductive means.  As we saw in some of his other appearances in PRE, he mainly does this through tricks and deceit.  We can see, in the PRE the beginning of a widening of Sammael’s role which would continue to evolve through the Middle Ages.  He is being closely associate with the Angel of Death, with Satan, and finally, with the power of evil.  PRE reworks the “duality” found in “Gnostic” works between a lower order ruled by the demiurge and the higher ruled by God.  The dichotomy between Sammael/Satan and God would continue in various manifestations throughout the Jewish Middle Ages.  Although it would become a “normative” Jewish tradition, the PRE began as a response against “Gnostic” stories about Sammael, and attempts to reshape them.

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