Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition

By Tite, Philip L. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition


Tite, Philip L., Journal of Biblical Literature


Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition, by John D. Turner. Bibliothèque Copte de Nag Hammadi Section «Études» 6. Québec: Les Presses de l' Université Laval; Paris: Peeters, 2001. Pp. xix + 844. euro80.00 (paper). ISBN 2763778348 (Laval); 9042910887 (Peeters).

John Turner (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) is no stranger to students of ancient Gnosticism. Indeed, he has been one of the leading scholars in this field for almost three decades, perhaps best known for his translation work of Nag Hammadi Codices as well as his work on Sethian Gnosticism. In this monumental and exhaustive work, Turner continues to add to our understanding of Sethianism, especially as it is discernible in the Nag Hammadi material. As indicated by the title, Turner sets out to explore the relationship between Sethianism and Platonism. Turner is not the first to see a strong connection between Gnosticism and Platonism. In the first chapter he lays out three explanations of such a connection posited by earlier scholars: Gnosticism as a form of Platonism (i.e., Platonism "run wild"); Platonism as incipient Gnosticism; and Gnosticism and Platonism as interdependent, indices of the social and conceptual development of each tradition (e.g., Sethianism as an index for the reemergence of a Speusippian four-level metaphysic). Turner's work would fall under this third alternative.

After the introductory chapter, the book falls into three major parts. Part 1 offers a delimitation of the Sethian tradition. Part 2 lays out the development of Platonism from Plato to Plotinus. Part 3 explicitly compares the Sethian tradition with Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism. Following H. M. Schenke's lead, Turner claims that the presence of key mythologoumena, along with the witness of the church fathers and Plotinian material collected by Porphyry, indicates that Sethianism actually existed in the second to fourth centuries as a viable alternative to Christianity. The features identifying Sethianism, as Schenke had suggested, are: (1) a pneumatic seed of Seth; (2) Seth as heavenly redeemer; (3) the trinity of Father (Invisible Spirit), Mother (Barbelo), and Son (Autogenes); (4) Barbelo as triadic Kalyptos, Protophanes, and Autogenes; (5) the Four Luminaries (Harmozel, Oroiael, Daveithai, and Eleleth); (6) the demiurge Yaldaboath as opponent of the seed of Seth; (7) the three ages of history with the appearance of a savior figure in each; (8) a special prayer; (9) a negative theology; (10) a specific philosophical terminology; (11) a secondary Christianization; (12) a triad or tetrad of "ministers" of the Four Luminaries (Gamaliel, Gabriel, Samblo, Abrasax); (13) the Coptic designation of "Pigeradamas" for Adamas; and, added to Schenke's list, (14) the baptismal rite of the Five Seals (pp. 63-64). Turner's own historical analysis, however, explicates this religious tradition in more depth. He begins by establishing the literary evidence for Sethianism, placing a strong emphasis upon the sources underlying and interconnecting the Nag Hammadi material, including the following texts: the Apocryphon of John (longer and shorter versions); the Hypostasis of the Archons; Gospel of the Egyptians; the Apocalypse of Adam; the Three Steles of Seth; Zostrianos; Marsanes; Melchizedek; the Thought of Norea; Allogenes; and the Trimorphic Protennoia. (Other possible candidates for a Sethian corpus might also include the Thunder, Perfect Mind, On the Origin of the World, Hypsiphrone, and the Untitled Treatise of the Bruce Codex.)

Turner divides the Sethian material into two broad categories: those of the ascent pattern and those of the descent pattern. Those of the descent pattern highlight the descent of a revelatory figure (such as Pronoia/Barbelo in the Providence Monologue) in three divine epiphanies (during the molding of the earthly Adam; spiritual light to Eve initially hidden in Adam, birth of Seth, Noah escaping the flood; resurrected Christ who reveals the entirety of Sethian history). …

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