Reflections on Teaching Gnosticism Week 7: Sethianism

As with the lecture on Valentinianism a few weeks ago, this week we looked at another prominent gnostic group, Sethians, and again squeezed in a lot of reading: three chapters from the textbook and two primary texts: the Three Steles of Seth and the Apocryphon of John.

The lecture was structured around a callout box on. p. 118 of Denzey Lewis’s textbook entitled “The Development of Sethianism,” adapted from the work of John D. Turner. This schema essentially has three stages: Jewish, Christian, and Platonic.

It can be hard for some to swallow the notion that Gnostic Judaism could have existed; so I tried to show how some elements of Sethianism were already present in Hellenistic Judaism—namely, an interest in Seth (based on Genesis 4:25-26; 5:3, 6-8; and also part of contemporaneous Christianity, observable particularly in Syriac tradition through the Cave of Treasures, the Revelation of the Magi, and other texts), and in hypostasized Sophia/Wisdom (particularly in Proverbs 9 and Sirach 24). Denzey Lewis’s discussion of gnostic creation myths (ch. 11) was helpful in this regard, as she demonstrates quite effectively the exegetical strategies employed in the texts to account for problems in Genesis—e.g., why are there two creation stories? why does God use the plural “us” in creation; why does God not want humans to have knowledge, etc. She notes also that the exegetes did not want to throw out Genesis, because they considered it scripture without error, instead they teased out its hidden meanings to show that the true, ineffable God is not the god responsible for the imprisonment of humans. So, gnostic texts are not anti-Jewish, thus making Jewish Gnosticism plausible.

The third stage in the development of Sethianism involves the platonizing of the traditions in such texts as Zostrianos and Allogenes, which were known to the third-century philosopher Plotinus. Students in his school in Rome became interested in these texts and Plotinus worked to refute them. Denzey Lewis looks at these texts in more detail in ch. 19, so I followed her lead and discussed them only briefly.

The remainder of our time was spent on the Christian stage of Sethianism. We considered what the heresiologists—Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Pseudo-Tertullian, and Epiphanius—had to say about them. Denzey Lewis states that “for the most part, the NH Sethians have little to do with the Sethians mentioned in our heresiological sources” (p. 119). That may be true of the early heresiologists, but Epiphanius is a lot more helpful than Denzey Lewis suggests. In the Panarion 26 and 39, Epiphanius discusses “Sethians,” “Gnostics,” and “Archontics.” Among the things said of the Sethians are the following: “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.” Among the Nag Hammadi texts are one book under Seth’s name (the Three Steles of Seth), one called “stranger” (Allogenes, and another Allogenes the Stranger in the Tchacos Codex), and an apocalypse attributed to a Jewish patriarch (Apocalypse of Adam). Now what Epiphanius says about the Sethians’ sexual and cannibalistic practices likely is pure polemics, but there is still some useful information in the Panarion for studying Sethianism, indeed much of what he says led to classifying some of the Nag Hammadi texts as Sethian in the first place.

After the break, I supplied the students with some paper and markers and had them construct a pictorial representation of the cosmology of the Apocryphon of John. I encouraged them to be creative—diagrams were fine, but comic strips or screenplays were possible, as were drawings of something that can be used as an analogy for demonstrating some aspect of the system. My favourite of the bunch was a colourful depiction of trifle, with the true God as the cherry on top, the earth as green jello at the bottom (why is green jello so bad?), and a spoon representing the efforts of the agents of light to pierce through the barriers between the heavens and the earth to rescue humans.

We finished with an idea I had when I took an undergraduate Gnosticism class many years ago with Michel Desjardins at Wilfrid Laurier University. We were asked how the complicated gnostic system could be portrayed in a simpler, more accessible form. I came up with the idea of using a scene from Disney’s Pinocchio in which the blue fairy (=Sophia) animates Gepetto’s (=the Demiurge’s) puppet (=Adam) and appoints Jiminy Cricket (=Jesus Christ) to be “Lord High Keeper of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong” and teach him how to be a real boy (=salvation through gnosis). I have always found this a successful analogy for how early Christians may have felt when they were told their cherished traditions (Genesis) contained hidden meanings. Similarly, the students’ understanding of Pinocchio has been irrevocably changed. There is no going back.

The lecture was enhanced by two songs that draw upon gnostic texts and images. The first of these is “Hypostasis of the Archons” by Secret Chiefs 3, suggested by Denzey Lewis in her bibliography to the text. Why are death metal bands so interested in Gnosticism? And why do they only use the texts as titles for songs that otherwise have nothing to do with the ideas contained within them? The second song is “Original Sinsuality” by Tori Amos, who took fuller advantage of the text and composed a far more listenable song, though it is very peculiar to hear Amos bring melody to words like “Yaldabaoth” and “Saklas.”

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