Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism

Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism

Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism

Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism

Synopsis

In the second century, Platonist and Judeo-Christian thought were sufficiently friendly that a Greek philosopher could declare, "What is Plato but Moses speaking Greek?" Four hundred years later, a Christian emperor had ended the public teaching of subversive Platonic thought. When and how did this philosophical rupture occur? Dylan M. Burns argues that the fundamental break occurred in Rome, ca. 263, in the circle of the great mystic Plotinus, author of the Enneads. Groups of controversial Christian metaphysicians called Gnostics ("knowers") frequented his seminars, disputed his views, and then disappeared from the history of philosophy--until the 1945 discovery, at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, of codices containing Gnostic literature, including versions of the books circulated by Plotinus's Christian opponents. Blending state-of-the-art Greek metaphysics and ecstatic Jewish mysticism, these texts describe techniques for entering celestial realms, participating in the angelic liturgy, confronting the transcendent God, and even becoming a divine being oneself. They also describe the revelation of an alien God to his elect, a race of "foreigners" under the protection of the patriarch Seth, whose interventions will ultimately culminate in the end of the world.

Apocalypse of the Alien God proposes a radical interpretation of these long-lost apocalypses, placing them firmly in the context of Judeo-Christian authorship rather than ascribing them to a pagan offshoot of Gnosticism. According to Burns, this Sethian literature emerged along the fault lines between Judaism and Christianity, drew on traditions known to scholars from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Enochic texts, and ultimately catalyzed the rivalry of Platonism with Christianity. Plunging the reader into the culture wars and classrooms of the high Empire, Apocalypse of the Alien God offers the most concrete social and historical description available of any group of Gnostic Christians as it explores the intersections of ancient Judaism, Christianity, Hellenism, myth, and philosophy.

Excerpt

The terms “Christianity” and “Judaism” are difficult for students of these ancient religions. Church historians remain unable to pinpoint once and for all the emergence of “Christianity” from “Judaism”; scholars of Judaic studies debate when Judaism was “invented.” “Christianity” and “Judaism” can feel like vacuous terms that house a great diversity of groups, practices, and ideas whose differences seem to outweigh their resemblances. Consequently, some scholars feel more comfortable discussing Christianities and Judaisms, and nobody is comfortable with the term used for groups that exist on the borderlines between them: “Jewish-Christian” (!). Even more problematic is the term “paganism,” which is essentially a wastebasket for the religious life of every ancient person who did not identify with a cult of the God of Abraham. Yet we persist in using these terms, despite our misgivings, and not just as a heuristic sleight-of-hand. Sometimes there are significant differences between various groups and their ideas, differences that do correspond somewhat to the way that we moderns might use the terms “Jewish” or “Christian” or “Hellenic” (“pagan” I renounce in this book). These differences did not fall from the sky. They were manufactured, in words, art, and ritual, by cultural warriors who believed that such differences mattered and used them to legitimize their own interests.

This book is about some of those real differences and the development of the ideologies that crafted them—in this case, the competing worldviews of “Christian” and “Hellenic” (i.e., Greek) philosophers. It argues that one can identify when and where these worldviews . . .

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