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Sethian Gnostics and the Gospel of Judas

Soon after scholars had a chance to examine the Gospel of Judas it became clear that it embodied a form of early Christian Gnosticism known as “Sethian.”   Most descriptions that you find of Gnosticism are simplistic and do not actually reflect the mind-boggling complexities of the texts that embody it, to the extent that even if you master the basic descriptions you find, it is very hard to make sense of any of the texts.

That is certainly true of the Sethian writings! To say they are gloriously confusing is a serious understatement.  They involve myths filled with wierd names and intricacies of relationships and events that are hard to explain in the abstract.

But hey, you gotta try!  And if you don’t have much space to do so, well, you do the best you can.  Here is how I explain Sethian Gnosticism in my book After the New Testament , 2nd edition.  (The book is actually an anthology of early Christian texts writings all kinds, and I include selections from three key Sethian texts.)

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Sethian Gnostics

The group of Gnostics that scholars have labeled the “Sethians” are known from the writings of proto-orthodox heresiologists beginning with Irenaeus (around 180 CE) and from some of the significant writings of the Nag Hammadi library. They were a thriving sect already by the middle of the second century.

Members of the group may not have called themselves Sethians.   Scholars call them this because among their distinctive features they understood themselves to be the spiritual descendants of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve.   Many of the books associated with the Sethians present detailed and complex myths that explain the origins of the divine realm, the material world, and the humans who inhabit it.   These mind-stretching myths…

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What is the Gospel of Judas About?
What Is Gnosticism?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Bennett  August 4, 2020

    Can you give an estimate about what proportion of Christians were gnostics of one sort or another, say up to the time of Constantine?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2020

      At the time of Constantine it must have been a very small number. 1-2%? 150 years earlier? Impossible to say. But I shouldn’t think more than 8-10%. Probably far fewer. Just a guess.

      • Avatar
        Bennett  August 6, 2020

        Given the relatively small numbers of ‘gnostic’ christians, then, why do you think so much effort was dedicated by the photo-orthodox church writers against it? It would seem to me that gnosticism in the very early church was no more significant than the other variants/divisions that existed between Rome, Asia Minor, North Africa and Egypt, for example.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 7, 2020

          Well, there are a lot of people afraid that the world will end if the LGBTQ community is given the rights accorded heterosexuals. Fear is not always commensurate to “threat”

  2. Avatar
    brenmcg  August 4, 2020

    Isn’t this what the author of 1 Tim 6:20 is referring to when he says “turn away from profane empty babblings and unorthodox teachings falsely called gnosis”?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2020

      He does not appear to be referring to the advanced forms of Gnostic thought we know about now, but simply those who claim to “know” the truth but teach falsehood. Nothing he says about the false teachings he encounters resembles our later gnostic texts closely.

  3. fefferdan
    fefferdan  August 4, 2020

    There is quite a lot of “Seth” material among New Age groups. Is the connection to Sethian Gnosticism direct? I mean, is the new “Seth” material consciously continuing the older tradition? Both do seem to share at least some of the gnostic cosmology. http://www.thenewgnosis.org/thesethiangnosisoldandnew.htm

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2020

      No, it got picked up after Gnostic texts were discovered in the mid 20th century.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  August 6, 2020

        I didn’t phrase my question well. I meant to ask if the new Sethian stuff seems consciously influenced by the older material that was discovered in Nag Hammadi.

  4. Avatar
    vallancemjv@gmail.com  August 4, 2020

    Thanks Bart. Great read. I love the Gnostic Myths, to me they make weird sense, the journey is within .

  5. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  August 4, 2020

    Much attention is given to Gnosticism in Bart’s recent posts. We read that some of the Nag Hammadi texts were not Christian (What is Gnosticism, August 2). This is news to me, I had been led to believe that Gnosticism was the esoteric form of Christianity. Its dualism is clear: there is a good God (Original Spirit) and a bad God (Ialdabaoth) who is the offspring of the Original Spirit. Were the non-Christian Nag Hammadi texts Zoroastrian? If not, what were they?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2020

      Did I say they were not Christian? Oh dear — if I did, I completely misspoke. Most of them certainly were Christain.

  6. Avatar
    gbsinkers  August 4, 2020

    At which point I raise my hand in class and ask “These divine beings, aeons, seem vaguely familiar to Greek gods. Is there evidence that Sethians were influenced by Greek mythology?”

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2020

      Certainly by forms of Greek thought, especially middle-PLatonism. None of the traditional Greek gods is named as teh deities int he Pleroma though.

  7. Avatar
    Clair  August 4, 2020

    Makes me think of Hindoo thinking with goals of Moksha, Nervana and such. Such thinking would have been long available at libraries like Alexandria often with scholars from those places. Perhaps we can credit some of their students for thought that does not fit well into local traditions?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2020

      I’m not familiar with any Hindu influence on the Greek scholars on Alexandria.

      • Avatar
        GeoffClifton  August 6, 2020

        It has been argued that following Alexander the Great’s conquest of parts of North Western India, some elements of Buddhism and Hinduism may have influenced Greek philosophy, including practitioners such as Hegesias, who did visit Alexandria. But the evidence is patchy.

  8. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  August 5, 2020

    Fascinating. I always wondered how Gnostics recognized which of us humans has the divine spark. Was it based, say, on intelligence or some kind of greater than average personal spirituality?

  9. Avatar
    Syahreza Ali  August 5, 2020

    Prof ehrman so Jesus didn’t plan to be crucified and also he didn’t know right? Those sin redemption just an invention also Jesus himself never said he was god but that was word that put in Jesus mouth by scribes lie and the sin redemption by Jesus death also frabricated story ,also in our Islam there story in quran where god warn Jesus follower not to betray Jesus after all god did to them, but then in bible we know one Jesus disciple betray Jesus and make Jesus about to be arrested, but in quran it’s said god save Jesus from being arrested and being crucified, but instead god punish Judas by make his face resemble the face of Jesus so they crucified Judas and torture him instead , but god just raised Jesus alive to heaven , so tahts explain actually the story of death of Judas are only fabricated tahts why they are contradict each other also the story of Jesus ressurection also didn’t exist I think we find story connection here

    • Avatar
      Syahreza Ali  August 6, 2020

      Dr ehrman what do you think about this ?

      • Bart
        Bart  August 7, 2020

        Sorry, you need to explain what you want to know before I can answer.

        • Avatar
          Syahreza Ali  August 8, 2020

          Can you answer the mark question above? And what do you think about that statement that we connect between quran and bible

          • Bart
            Bart  August 9, 2020

            I think you’re having trouble understanding who to ask a question on the blog. I do not have a record of what you said before. If you want to ask a question again, you need to state the entire question, otherwise I won’t know what you’re talking about. When you want me to “answer the question mark” I don’t know you mean.

  10. Avatar
    Syahreza Ali  August 5, 2020

    Mistake in a bible that can be refuted are basically like scientific error or mathematical error can you mention some like that ?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2020

      I’d say it’s a rather serious scientific error to claim that the universe, including the earth with all its life, was created in six days.

  11. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  August 5, 2020

    Great stuff !

    From what I understand, this branch of Gnosticism (Sethian or Barbelo Gnosticism) was originaly pre-Christian (probably Judaic?) With a focus on Barbolo (wisdom) and Seth. It was through some of the essential Gnostic texts, for example through the Gnostic “Apocryphon of John” that they Christianized it (?) where the Great Seth became Christ.

    To me, this intriguing idea of ​​a more or less established Gnostic system that may be pre-Christian gave rise to a dimension of symbolism perhaps used through biblical texts, well aware that the other more Christian Gnostic branches (Thomas / Johannine / Vaneltinian) were established from the end of the 1st century and a couple of centuries after that.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2020

      I believer the standard view now is that it was not pre-Christian but developed out of a range of influences, including some knowledge of Christainity.

  12. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  August 5, 2020

    PS. I must admit that I do have a soft spot for the Gnostics. If I lived in a country where you were compelled to have a religion but could choose any one you liked, I would go for Gnosticism.

    • sschullery
      sschullery  August 6, 2020

      hmmm, I wonder what part appeals? In any event, it may not be too late. I met a woman a few years back at a bible study group in Florida who said she was a Gnostic. Unfortunately, I didn’t know enough about it to make the appropriate inquiries..

      • Avatar
        GeoffClifton  August 8, 2020

        For me it’s the fact that only in the Gnostic Gospels does Jesus actually laugh. So I reckoned that folks who at least had a sense of humor can’t be all bad.

  13. Avatar
    Eskil  August 5, 2020

    In the earlier post, you wrote that Gospel of Judas was written by Cainites. Now you wrote that it belonged to Sethians. Is there contradiction here?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 5, 2020

      There would be if that’s what I said! What I said is that Irenaeus claimed the book was used by Cainites. Now I’m saying that it was written by a Sethian. Either Irenaeus was wrong or the Cainites were Sethian or the Cainites used a book written by a Sethian.

  14. Avatar
    jscheller  August 5, 2020

    Fascinating! So this form of gnosticism is not docetic? They believe that Seth was incarnated in Jesus versus possessing him? Is this “Seth” the same as Adams third son? If so, does this mean that Adam’s third son had ascended after life on earth and then descended in the incarnation that was Jesus? Does the “Christ” or “Son” in relation to Barbelo play a role in the Jesus incarnation as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2020

      This form of Gnosticism believes that the man Jesus was an actual human being; but the Christ was a separate, divine being, who termporarily indwelt and impowered him, prior to his death. So it’s not “docetic’ but “separationist” (separating the Jesus from the Christ, as two distinct entities)

  15. 1SonOfZeus
    1SonOfZeus  August 5, 2020

    Hello Dr. Ehrman. I just want to say thank you for what you do. I haven’t had much money to donate yet, but I will soon. I still believe and want to be a member of the great movement you are creating. Thank you sir. 😊
    I have been a member of this blog for a few years. Thank you for your knowledge. You have helped me through my hard time because how great of a person you are.

  16. Avatar
    darren  August 5, 2020

    This is fascinating stuff. Were Gnostics primarily gentiles, or were there Jews as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2020

      Mainly gentiles, almost certainly; but highly revered the Hebrew Bible and its secret teachings.

  17. Avatar
    AstaKask  August 5, 2020

    I feel like reading these (and I have tried) is like reading a text in a related language, like German (I’m Swedish). I can see the outline of what is being said, but the details are completely beyond me. Or, if they had to read a modern novel dealing with cars and buses and computers… there’s so much context that has been lost to time.

  18. Avatar
    chrisjpaxton@gmail.com  August 6, 2020

    What I find interesting about the Gnostics and their view of creation is that there almost seem to be echos of some of these ideas in Scientology.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2020

      I would suppose that means that this is something that you find intereesting about *Scientology” (since the Gnostics had no way of knowing that would happen).

  19. Avatar
    Eskil  August 6, 2020

    The Dead Sea Scrolls describe the doctrine of two spirits:
    “the God of Knowledge … has created man to govern the world, and has appointed for him two spirits …: the spirits of truth and injustice. All the children of righteousness are ruled by the Prince of Light and walk in the ways of light, but all the children of injustice are ruled by the Angel of Darkness and walk in the ways of darkness.”
    This is also a dualistic doctrine, isn’t it, but both the goodness and the badness originates from the One God, not from a Demiurge or from some other higher God. Was this doctrine Jewish, Christian, Gnostic or something completely different?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2020

      It was Jewish before it was Christian, and non-Gnostic Christian before it was Gnostic.

  20. Avatar
    Brand3000  August 7, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    “Heaven and Hell” is a great book. The next time someone says that an eternal hell seems unfair, are we right to remind them that both Jesus and Paul did not believe in an eternal hell but rather annihilation?

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