Against Sethians (St. Epiphanius of Cyprus)

NOTE: This article is taken from The Panarion, Anacephelaeosis III, 39, written ca. 374-377:

Forefathers Adam, Adel, Seth
Forefathers Adam, Adel, Seth


“Sethians” is yet another Sect, of that name. It is not to be found everywhere, nor is the one before it, the so-called sect of “Cainites”; most of these too have probably been uprooted from the world by now. For that which is not of God will not stand; it flourishes for a while, but has no permanence at all.

I think I may have met with this sect in Egypt too—I do not precisely recall the country in which I met them. And I found out some things about it by inquiry in an actual encounter, but have learned other things from treatises.

For these Sethians proudly trace their ancestry to Seth the son of Adam, glorify him, and attribute to him whatever < is held > to be virtuous—the marks of virtue and righteousness, and anything of the kind. What is more, they even call him Christ and maintain that he is Jesus. And they give their teaching in the following form: all things, they say, are the work of angels4 and not of the power on high.



For in this regard they agree with the previous sect, the sect of the Cainites: Two men were born at the very beginning, and Cain and Abel were the sons of the two. And in quarreling about them the angels went to < war with > each other, and so brought it about that Abel was killed by Cain. For the angels’ quarrel was a struggle over the human stocks, since these two men, the one who had sired Cain and the one who had sired Abel, < were at odds with each other >. But the power on high has won, the one they call Mother and Female. For they have the idea that there are both mothers on high, and females and males, and they all but say “kindreds and patriarchies” too.

Since the so-called Mother and Female had won, finding that they had killed Abel, they say, she reflected, caused the generation of Seth, and put her power in him—planting. in him a seed of the power from above, and the spark that was sent from above for a first planting and origin of the seed. And this is the origin of righteousness, and the election of a seed and stock, so that the powers of the angels who made the world and the two primordial men would be purged by this origin and this seed. For this reason the stock of Seth is derived separately from this origin, since it is elect and distinct from the other stock.

For as time went on, they say, and the two stocks, Cain’s and Abel’s, were together, < and > had come together because of great wickedness and had intercourse, the Mother of all, who had kept watch, wanted to make the seed of men pure, as I said, since Abel had been killed. And she chose this Seth and made him pure, and planted the seed of her power and purity in him alone.



But once more, seeing a great deal of intercourse and unruly appetition on the part of angels and men since the two breeds had come together for intercourse, and seeing that their unruliness had caused certain origins of (new) breeds, Mother and Female returned and brought the flood, and destroyed the entire human race < and > all of the opposing stock—in order that, supposedly, only the pure stock that derived from Seth and was righteous would remain in the world, for the origin of the stock from on high and the spark of righteousness.

But without her knowledge the angels in their turn slipped Ham, who, was of their seed, into the ark. For they say that of the eight persons who were saved in Noah’s then ark, seven were of the pure stock but one was Ham, who belonged to the other power and got in unknown to the Mother on high. A plan of this sort, of the angels’ contrivance, was thus carried out. For, they say, since the angels had learned that all their seed would be wiped out in the flood, they smuggled Ham in by some knavery to preserve the wicked stock they had created.

And for this reason forgetfulness and error have overtaken men, and the inordinate impulses of sins and a conglomeration of evil have arisen in the world. And thus the world reverted to its ancient state of disorder, and was as filled with evils as it had been at the beginning, before the flood. But from Seth by descent and lineage came Christ, Jesus himself, not by generation but by appearing miraculously in the world. He is Seth himself, who visited men then and now13 because he was sent from above by the Mother.

Book of Noah (Dead Sea Scroll)


This is the way they say all this came about. But doctrines like these are foolish, weak and full of nonsense, as everyone can plainly see. Two men were not formed (at the beginning) but one man, Adam, and from Adam came Cain, Abel and Seth. And < the human stocks > up until the flood cannot derive from two men but must derive from one, since all the stocks have their own origins in the world < from > Adam. And in turn, every human breed since the flood derives from Noah, the one man not derive—not from different men but from one, Noah, Seth’s lineal descendant; and it is not divided into two, but is one stock. And so Noah’s wife, his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, and the three wives of his sons, are all trace their ancestry to Seth, not to the two men of the Sethians’ mythology, who never existed.


They compose certain books in the names of great men and say that there are seven books in Seth’s name, and give the name, “Strangers,” to other, different books. And they compose another in the name of Abraham which they call an “apocalypse” and is full of wickedness, and others in the name of Moses., and others in others’ names.

Lowering their own minds to great absurdity they say that Seth’s wife is a certain Horaia. Take a look at their stupidity, beloved, so that your will despise their melodrama, mythological nonsense and fictitious claptrap in every way. There are certain other sects which say there is a power to whom they give the name “Horaia.” Now these people say that the one whom others regard as a power and call Horaia, is Seth’s wife!

Thus we can show—as you know, beloved—both that Seth was a real man and that he got no unusual endowment from above, but was the blood brother of Cain and Abel, from one father and one mother. For scripture says, “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bare Cain”; and she named him Cain, meaning “acquisition,” saying, “I have acquired a son through the Lord God.” Again, in the case < of > Abel, “Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bare a son and called his name Abel.”  And much farther on, after the death of Abel, “And Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bare a son, and called his name Seth,” meaning “recompense.” “For,” she said, “God hath raised up for me a seed instead of Abel, whom Cain slew.”  But the expression, “I have acquired through God,” and “God hath raised up for me,” show that the one God, the maker of all is also the giver of these offspring. And that Cain and Seth, at least, took wives is plain—for Abel was killed in his early youth, not yet married.

Codex 5 of the Nag Hammadi Codex contain the Apocalypse of Adam, an apparently Sethian gnostic revelation received by Adam and transmitted to Seth
Codex 5 of the Nag Hammadi Codex contain the Apocalypse of Adam, an apparently Sethian gnostic revelation received by Adam and transmitted to Seth


But as we find in Jubilees which is also called “The Little Genesis,” the book even contains the names of both Cain’s and Seth’s wives, so that the persons who recite myths to the world may be put to shame in every way. For after Adam had sired sons and daughters it became necessary at that time that the boys marry their own sisters. Such a thing was not unlawful, as there was no other human stock. Indeed, in a manner of speaking Adam himself practically married his own daughter who was fashioned from his body and bones and had been formed by God in conjunction with him, and it was not unlawful. And his sons were married, Cain to the older sister, whose name was Saue; and a third son, Seth, who was born after Abel, to his sister named Azura.

And Adam had other sons too as the Little Genesis says, nine after these three, so that he had two daughters but twelve sons, one of whom was killed but eleven survived. You have the reflection of them too in the Genesis of the World, the first Book of Moses, which says, “And Adam lived 930 years, and begat sons and daughters, and died.”



But when humanity had expanded and Adam’s line was growing longer, the strict practice of lawful wedlock was gradually extended. (2) And then, since Adam had had children and children’s children, and daughters were born to them in direct descent, they no longer took their own sisters in marriage. Even before the written Law given by Moses the rule of lawful wedlock was reduced to order, and they took their wives from among their cousins. And now, while humanity was expanding in this way, the two stocks were commingled—Cain’s with Seth’s and Seth’s with the other, and so were the other stocks of Adam’s sons.

Then finally, when the flood had destroyed all of mankind at once, Noah alone, who found favor with God, was preserved, because he had been found righteous in that generation. And as I said before, he prepared his ark by God’s decree, as the true scriptures tell us. The same book of the truth states that he was preserved in it, and with him the seven souls I have mentioned—I mean his own wife and three sons, and their wives, likewise three. And the truth affirms that for this reason remnants of the generation of men were again left in the world. And so, as time went on from generation to generation and with son succeeding father, the world had come to span five generations.



And the foundation of Babylon in Assyria took place at that time, and the tower that they built then. And, as I have already explained in the foregoing Sects with regard to the series of generations I dealt with earlier, all humanity then consisted of 72 men, who were princes and patricians—32 of Ham’s stock, 15 of Japheth’s, and 25 of Shem’s. And so the tower and Babylon were built.

After this tribes and languages were dispersed over the entire earth. And since the 72 < who > were then building the tower were scattered by the languages—because they had been confused, and < divorced > from the one language that they knew—each one, by God’s will, was infused with a different language and acquired it. The existence of the (various) languages from then until now began with them, so that < anyone who > cares to, can discover the originator of each language. For example Iovan, for whom the Ionians who possess the Greeks’ ancient speech are named, acquired Greek. Theras acquired Thracian; Mosoch, Mossynoecian; Thobel, Thessalian; Lud, Lydian; Gephar, Gasphenian; Mistrem Egyptian; Psous, Axomitian; and Armot, Arabian. And not to mention them individually, each of the rest was infused with his own tongue. And thus the continuation of every language in the world was extended.

A lion-faced deity representing Yaldabaoth, a depiction of the Demiurge in Sethianism.
A lion-faced deity representing Yaldabaoth, a depiction of the Demiurge in Sethianism.


Why is it, then, that these people have told their lies, interpolating their own mythology, imagining and dreaming of unreal things as though they were real, and banishing what is real from their own minds? But the whole thing is an idea of the devil which he has engendered in human souls. It is amazing to see how he deceived man into many offenses and dragged him down to transgression, to fornication, adultery and incontinence, to the madness of idols, to sorcery and bloodshed, to rapine and insatiate greed, to trickery and gluttony, and any number of such things—but never before Christ’s coming ventured to say a blasphemous word against his own Master or meditate open rebellion. For he was awaiting Christ’s coming as he says, “It is written of thee that he shall give his angels charge concerning thee, and in their hands they shall bear thee up.” He had always heard the prophets proclaim the coming of Christ < and > that there would be a redemption of those who had sinned and yet repented through Christ, and he thought that he would obtain some mercy. But when the wretch saw that Christ had not accepted his turnabout for salvation’s sake he opened his mouth against his own Master and spewed the blasphemy out, implanting in men the suggestion that they deny their real Master and seek the one who was not real.

Now the Sethians too will be exposed in every way as victims of deception, by the following argument: Seth has died, and the years of his life are recorded. He went the way of all flesh after living for 912 years, having fathered sons and daughters as sacred scripture says. And next his son, his name was Enosh, also lived for 905 years, and departed this life after fathering sons and daughters, as the same book of the truth says.


Therefore if Seth died then, and his sons in succession also lived and departed this life, how will it be found that he is the Lord who was conceived of the ever-virgin Mary after consenting to human life—who was begotten at no point in time, who is always with the Father as the divine Word subsistent; but who came in the last days, fashioned flesh in his own image from a virgin womb and, having taken the human soul, thus became perfect man? The Lord who proclaimed the mysteries of life to us, appointed his disciples as workers of righteousness, and instructed the human race in his teaching, himself and through them—not by revealing the teachings of the Sethians or calling himself Seth as they, foolishly and overcome by a sort of drunkenness, have lost the truth.

But now, though the < rebuttal of the > sect is brief, I do not need to extend its refutation, and am content with just what is here. Their stupidity is easy to puncture and is self-refuting and self-exposing, not only with regard to their kidnapping of Christ and their falsely alleged belief and affirmation that he is Seth, but because of the two men as well. For if the powers had their origin from above, nothing which was done by the two powers was made and done without the one power—whom, indeed, they call the Mother of all. For the one power is plainly the cause of the two powers, and nothing that has been done, has been done without it. And once the beginning is shown to be one, they will return to the confession that the Master of all, and the Creator and Maker of the whole, is one.

But since we have said these things about this sect as well, beloved, and have exposed the poison of their reptilian brood of the asp family, let us once more go to another, in the same order of the treatise.

This is the Diagram of the Gnostic Myth found in "The Gnostic Scriptures" by Bently Layton. The similarities to the situation described in Sethian Gnosis is evident.
This is the Diagram of the Gnostic Myth found in “The Gnostic Scriptures” by Bently Layton. The similarities to the situation described in Sethian Gnosis is evident.