Gnostic Apocalypse Now! – By Tuomas Rasimus

Tuomas Rasimus on Dylan M. Burns’s Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism

Dylan Burns, Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014, 336pp., $69.95 
Dylan M. Burns, Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014, 336pp., $69.95

Ever since the chance discovery in 1945 of thirteen Coptic codices preserved on papyrus near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, interest in Gnosticism has increased exponentially. Until the publication of critical editions and translations of these texts in the 1960s and 1970s, our knowledge of things Gnostic depended largely upon hostile outsider descriptions from ancient heresy hunters such as Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons (ca. 180 CE). Discovery of the Nag Hammadi cache allowed the ancient Gnostics to speak in their own voices for the first time in almost 2,000 years. The hostile outsider descriptions could be set side by side with authentic insider accounts, and new versions of Christianity’s early history and Gnosticism’s place in it started to emerge. Many saw the Gospel of Thomas as the earliest gospel, containing authentic sayings of Jesus, and some have even advocated its inclusion into the canon as the Fifth Gospel, unfairly excised from it long ago by orthodox bishops. Many more were enthusiastic about having three Coptic copies of the Secret Book (or Apocryphon) of John, since these seemed to contain an original version of the “Barbelo-Gnostic” teaching which Irenaeus (in Against Heresies 1.29) had presented as the culmination of early heresy and the immediate ancestor of the greatest danger the church had met so far: Valentinianism. In fact, it was soon discovered that the Nag Hammadi codices contained many examples of both Valentinian and Barbelo-Gnostic teaching, now increasingly seen as the two major branches of ancient Gnosticism.

But a question soon arose: What exactly was Gnosticism? The mysticism of the Gospel of Thomas did not appear comparable to the Barbelo-Gnostic conviction that the creator of the Old Testament is an evil angel, or to the Valentinian system of thirty divine aeons constituting the godhead. And while the liberation of the divine spark from the prison of the body was a standard doctrine of the Barbelo-Gnostics and the Valentinians, inherited from Platonism, it was unknown to Marcion who agreed with them that the father of Jesus was not the creator but another, alien God. At times, Gnosticism in scholarship seemed to amount to a catchall for any pre-Nicene Christian heresy, and many scholars even included other religions such as Mandeaism and Manichaeism under the term. Others suggested that Gnosticism was in fact a religion on its own, its key characteristic being an anti-cosmic attitude — visible especially in the denigration of the creator and the body.

Clearly, some clarification was needed. With the appearance of Rethinking “Gnosticism” by Michael A. Williams and What Is Gnosticism? by Karen L. King, it has become increasingly evident that Gnosticism was not a monolithic movement or religion and that caution is needed when using the term. Williams even recommended abandoning the problematic category altogether. If anything like a scholarly consensus has emerged, it is perhaps that one ought to reserve the term “Gnostic(ism)” for the teachings that conclude Irenaeus’ catalog of heresies (the Barbelo-Gnostics of chapter 29 and the unnamed “others” of chapters 30 and 31, dubbed as “Sethian-Ophites” and “Cainites” by later heresy hunters) while treating Valentinian, Marcionite, Thomasine, etc. materials as various if somehow related manifestations of the multiform ancient Christianity. Such an approach is advocated, among others, by Bentley Layton, David Brakke, and the present reviewer.

Even those scholars who feel uncomfortable with the term “Gnostic(ism)” agree that the so-called Barbelo-Gnostics were an important early Christian movement. Following the pioneering work of Hans-Martin Schenke from the 1970s, many tend to use the label “Sethian” instead of “Barbelo-Gnostic.” Schenke showed that a group of sixteen texts, mostly from the Nag Hammadi cache, represent a unique mythology that not only spoke of a triadic godhead of Father, Mother Barbelo, and Christ above the evil angelic creator Yaldabaoth, but also presented Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, as a heavenly savior. Importantly, the authors of the original Sethian texts identified themselves as the “seed” or “race” of Seth.

Apocryphon of John. Coptic Museum, Cairo. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Apocryphon of John. Coptic Museum, Cairo. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Evidence for Sethianism already existed in the outsider reports of early Christian heresiologists. Irenaeus knew a version of a central Sethian text, the Secret Book of John, part of which he paraphrased in his Against Heresies (1.29), and Epiphanius, the fourth century bishop of Salamis, still had access to some original Sethian documents (Panarion 26, 39, 40). But now their short and hostile accounts were complemented, even superseded, by the Coptic insider testimonies. Of course, the Coptic texts are not original in the sense that they are fourth- or fifth-century translations of second- and third-century Greek versions — and there is current debate about how different the Coptic versions are from their Greek Vorlagen — but their publication has nevertheless revolutionized our understanding of what purports to be ancient “Gnostic” Christianity.

Recent advances in the study of Sethianism (or Classic Gnosticism) highlight its close relationship to the emerging Neoplatonism. We now know that Greek versions of at least two Sethian Nag Hammadi texts, Zostrianos and Allogenes, circulated in the study group of Plotinus, the reputed founder of Neoplatonism, in mid-third-century Rome. Though eventually refuted by both Plotinus and his star student, Porphyry, these Sethian texts may have contributed to their thinking, a possibility hotly debated in current scholarship.

Burns enters this debate with his important and well-written book. He focuses on four Sethian Nag Hammadi texts known collectively as the “Platonizing Sethian treatises” (Zostrianos, Allogenes, Marsanes, and Three Steles of Seth). These texts, full of Neoplatonic jargon and doctrine, are usually read in light of Plotinus and Porphyry’s thought and earlier Sethian mythologoumena, due to the influence of John D. Turner’s indispensable scholarship. Burns convincingly shows that they should also, perhaps even predominantly, be read as Judeo-Christian apocalypses. This is a clear breakthrough and a huge step forward in the study of these fascinating, yet baffling and relatively little-understood, treatises.

The Platonizing Sethian texts in question describe an ancient seer’s ascent to the metaphysical heights of the Barbelo aeon, who here is no longer the divine mother figure of earlier Sethianism, but rather comparable to Plotinus’ divine Intellect and to some extent to Philo’s Logos or Sophia. The ascent is followed by the seer’s participation in angelic liturgy as well as his divinization and eventual descent as a savior-revealer, an incarnation of Seth. As Burns notes, “analysis of their genre and their pseudepigraphic appeal to authority reveals that numerous key motifs of the texts, particularly in their frame narratives, are common stock in contemporary Jewish and Christian apocalyptic storytelling.” Burns follows John J. Collins’s famous definition of apocalypses (Semeia 14) and identifies features of the genre in the Platonizing Sethian texts. These include pseudepigraphy, the empowerment of the seer by the heavenly revealer, breaks between revelatory discourses, the seer’s composition of a revelation for posterity, writing in heaven, ascent on a cloud, and incognito ascent and descent.

Burns further describes the texts as meditative ascent manuals — similar in some ways to Hekhalot literature and Hermetica — intended to teach lay meditators how to elicit visionary experience and achieve a mystical union with the Godhead; these intended readers would have been familiar with basic Sethian mythology and would have had some expertise in Greek philosophy but no interest in formal training or philosophical argumentation. As for the authors of the texts, Burns cautiously suggests several options, including Plotinus’ Gnostics or Jewish-Christian metaphysicians, perhaps specifically Elchasaite missionaries to Rome. In fact, Burns shows throughout the book that Sethian baptismal speculations and understandings of the repeated incarnations of the savior (Seth) throughout history are similar to those of Jewish-Christian groups from the Syro-Mesopotamian area, including the group that raised Mani. Without lapsing into parallelomania, Burns also notes several intriguing and detailed similarities between Sethian and Manichaean thought, and this is certainly a fruitful direction for future research.

What is especially laudable about this book is how Burns manages to place the somewhat obscure Platonizing Sethian treatises in their wider cultural-historical context in an understandable and stimulating manner. In dealing with the evidence from Plotinus and Porphyry, Burns discusses philosophical study groups within the context of what he calls the Hellenic culture wars of the second and third centuries, centering around the competing Hellenic and Oriental identities, manufactured, respectively, by the Second Sophistic movement and various “Auto-Orientalizers” like Plotinus’ Gnostics. (Burns does not fail to evoke Edward Said.) He also points out how Sethian references to the “race” or “seed” of Seth do not simply indicate biological speculation but are rather markers of cultural, ethnic, and cultic identity. Partially drawing on Denise Buell’s research, Burns suggests that Sethian language about race took on the character of ethnic reasoning with reference to both the new, third race of the Christians and the Platonic Auto-Orientalism.

However, when it comes to the theme of the seer’s divinization, Burns pays curiously little attention to the Platonic understanding of “becoming like unto God,” and instead seems to argue for a purely Judeo-Christian background for the theme. This may be due to his concentration on the idea of the seer’s “angelification” as opposed to “divinization”; angels do not abound in Platonism, as Burns remarks. Or perhaps he is overly determined to drive home his point about these texts’ apocalyptic character at the expense of their other aspects (in this case, Platonic). Moreover, his suggestion that Platonism and Christianity definitively parted ways after the Plotinus-Gnostic controversy seems to make too strong a claim. The Christian Platonism of Marius Victorinus and Augustine as well as the existence of Hypatia’s school offer just some examples to the contrary.

Nonetheless, the minor critical remarks offered here do not alter the fact that Dr. Burns has produced a remarkable opus that forces scholars working with Sethian texts to redirect their focus to the undeniable fact that many Sethian texts (not only the four Platonizing ones) need to be approached as examples of Judeo-Christian apocalypses as well. With his careful study of a selection of texts that represent a later and increasingly Platonic form of Sethianism, Burns has greatly increased our understanding of this one form of early Christianity which, in the opinion of some scholars (though not necessarily Burns himself), is alone worthy of the title, “Gnostic.”