Podcast episode

Episode 118: Dylan Burns on Sethian Gnosticism

We know from Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus that a number of Christian texts were circulating among Plotinus’ students at Rome. For a long time these were assumed to be roughly Valentinian works, since Valentinianism was the strain of esoteric Christianity best-know to scholarship. When the Nag Hammadi Coptic library was discovered and published, however, we suddenly had versions of a number of important, highly-Platonistic religious texts, one of which – Zostrianos – is mentioned by name by Porphyry as circulating among Plotinus’ students. Study of the Zostrianos and related texts from Nag Hammadi has led to scholars coining the term ‘Sethian’ to describe a number of works with common features.

Then something unexpected happened: it turned out that there were a number of ideas in Plotinus’ thought which were also in the Sethian texts, and a number of scholars have now made the case that Plotinus was more ‘Gnostic’ than he would himself have admitted. But before we can assess the Gnosticism that may be found in Plotinus, we need as good an idea as possible about the ideas circulating among Plotinus’ Gnostic friends. Cue an episode on Sethianism.

It turns out that the Sethian Gnostic texts open a window on a fascinating, highly-apophatic, highly esoteric ancient form of Platonistic Christianity well worth studying in its own right. We are delighted to have Dylan Burns as our guide to what these texts were like, what kinds of beliefs are found in them, and to the amazing mytho-metaphysics which describe the reason the world is the way it is (i.e. really bad, ruled by evil archontes) and man’s divine destiny of escape from this flawed state of affairs.

In a long and fascinating discussion:

  • We decide on working definitions for ‘Sethian texts’, ‘Gnosticism’ as a textual typology, and open the problem of who the ancient readers of the Sethian texts, the ‘Immovable Race’, might have been,
  • We discuss the remaining textual corpus of Sethian works, the Coptic treatises The Secret Book of John (which survives in multiple shorter and longer versions in the Nag Hammadi library and the Akhmim/Berlin Codex), Allogenes, Marsanes, Zostrianos, The Three Steles of Seth, the Gospel of the Egyptians,  and outliers, and
  • What makes them distinctive – pseudepigraphic attribution, the importance of the figure of Seth, but also a distinctive style of angelology, a threefold division of world history with an eschatological end-point – along with some other fascinating descriptors, such as a very strong apophatic tendency and a distinctive blending (more in some texts than in others) of recognisably Jewish, Christian, and school-Platonist elements, and the presence of the Barbelo, a feminine self-noetising nous, the first emanation from the Great Invisible Spirit, the supreme god who is described under deeply apophatic strictures,
  • Burns’ approach to dating these texts, suggesting a second-century origin for some version of them, taking into account the amount the texts will have evolved between then and the fourth century, when our MSS likely come on the scene,
  • The question of the Platonistic character of some of our texts: Is this a case of Gnostics learning and incorporating cutting-edge philosophy into their religious worldviews, or does it instead represent the forerunner of much of the metaphysical architecture we find in Plotinus and his successors?
  • The ‘detail-oriented’ nature of the Gnostic worldview found in this literature, with its complex mythological-metaphysical architectures of immaterial realities and sub-realities all interacting in the process of creation, fall, and redemption,
  • The Sethian myth as laid out in its most detailed form in the Apocryphon of John, which preserves a theogony, cosmogony, anthropogony, and salvation history,
  • The character of the Sethian Aiôn-figures as both elements in a celestial topography and angelic or quasi-angelic beings,
  • The figure of Ialdabaoth, the ignorant demiurge-figure, described as a theriomorphic tyrant-god, and
  • The generation of the first humans by Ialdabaoth based on the archetype of the aionic anthropos; the humans have an aspect of the divine world within them, and so the aiones intervene to help free them from the grip of ignorance by granting them faculties of apprehending their true, divine nature.

Interview Bio:

Since this interview was recorded Dylan Burns has become Assistant Professor of the History of Esotericism in Late Antiquity at the University of Amsterdam’s HHP. Nice one! He is an editor of Brill’s Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies series. His many publications deal with ancient Gnosticism, Platonistic and Platonising religious movements, Platonism and ancient philosophy more generally, as well as the wider field of western esotericism studies. His most recent book at the time of writing is Did God Care? Providence, Dualism, and Will in Later Greek and Early Christian Philosophy. More of his works can be found in the Recommended Reading section below.

Works Cited in this Episode:

The Coptic primary texts discussed in this episode can be found in English in Bentley Layton. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. Doubleday, New York, 1995.

Primary:

  • Genesis 5:3 on Seth: And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat [a son] in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth.
  • Porphyry on Sethian texts circulating in Plotinus’ seminar: Plot. 16:

There were at the same time many Christians and others, of a contrary school of thought to the ancient philosophy (αἱρετικοὶ δὲ ἐκ τῆς παλαιᾶς φιλοσοφίας) following Adelphios and Akylinos, possessing many writings of Alexander the Libyan and Philokomos and Demostratos and Lydos, and producing Revelations (ἀποκαλύψεις) of Zoroaster and Zostrianos and Nikotheos and Allogenes and Messos and many others of this sort, themselves deceived and deceiving many [others, saying] that Plato had not penetrated to the depths of the noetic essence (ὡς δὲ τοῦ Πλάτωνος εἰς τὸ βάθος τῆς νοητῆς οὐσίας οὐ πελάσαντος).

Secondary:

  • Brakke 2010 [see below].
  • Burns 2014 [see below].
  • Schenke argues for a common Sethian group of texts: The Phenomenon and Significance of Gnostic Sethianism. Tr. Bentley Layton. In Bentley Layton, editor, The Rediscovery of Gnosticism: Proceedings of the International Conference on Gnosticism at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, March 28-31, 1978, pages 588–616. Brill, Leiden, 1981. Cf. Das sethianische System nach Nag-Hammadi-Handschriften. In Studia Coptica, ed. P. Nagel. Berlin: Akademie, 1974, 165–73.
  • Douglas M. Parrot on the ‘scribal note’ to NHC VI.7: see his intro and edition of the “Scribal Note” in the CGL [Brill] edition of the Nag Hammadi Hermetica (between the prayer of thanksgiving [NHC VI,7] and the excerpt from Logos teleios [NHC VI,8]).
  • Turner, John D. The Sethian Baptismal Rite. In Coptica, ed. Painchaud and Poirier, 941–92.
  • M. A. Williams. Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1999.

Recommended Reading:

  • David Brakke. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010.
  • Dylan Burns. Apophatic Strategies in Allogenes (NHC XI, 13). Harvard Theological Review, 103(2):161–79, 2010.
  • Dylan Burns. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2014.
  • Bentley Layton. Prolegomenon to the Study of Gnosticism. In Michael L. White and Larry O. Yarbrough, editors, The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks, pages 334–350. Fortress, Minneapolis, 1995.
  • Alastair Logan. The Mystery of the Five Seals: Gnostic Initiation Reconsidered. Vigiliæ Christianæ, 51(2):188–206, 1997.
  • Ruth Majercik. The Existence-Life-Intellect Triad in Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. CQ, 42(2):475–488, 1992.
  • Alexander J. Mazur. The Platonizing Sethian Background of Plotinus’s Mysticism. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA, 2021.
  • Birger Pearson. The Figure of Seth in Manichaean Literature. In P. Bryder, editor, Manichaean Studies. Proceedings of the First International Conference on Manichaeism, pages 147–56, 1988.
  • Birger Pearson. Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. Fortress, Minneapolis, 2007.
  • Guy Stroumsa. Hidden Wisdom: Esoteric Traditions and the Roots of Christian Mysticism. Brill, Leiden, 1996.
  • J.D. Turner. Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition. Presses Université Laval/Éditions Peeters, Montreal/Louvain-Paris, 2001.
  • Idem. Ritual in Gnosticism. In John D. Turner and Ruth Majercik, editors, Gnosticism and Later Platonism, volume 12 of SBL Symposium Series, pages 83–139. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, 2000.
  • Idem. Victorinus, Parmenides Commentaries, and the Platonizing Sethian Treatises. In Kevin Corrigan and John D. Turner, editors, Platonisms, Ancient, Modern and Postmodern, pages 55–96. Brill, Leiden, 2007.
  • M. A. Williams. The Immovable Race: A Gnostic Designation and the Theme of Stability in Late Antiquity. Brill, Leiden, 1985.
  •  Frederik Wisse. Stalking those Elusive Sethians. In Bentley Layton, editor, The Rediscovery of Gnosticism: Proceedings of the International Conference on Gnosticism at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, March 28-31, 1978, pages 563–78. Brill, Leiden, 1981.

Themes

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