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The Sethian Gnostics, from After The New Testament

In my previous post I reproduced the new discussion of Gnosticism in the second edition of my book After the New Testament. In this post and the two to follow I will reproduce my new discussions of the various “types” of Gnostic texts that I include in the anthology. Many scholars would consider this first type the most important historically: it is a group of texts produced by and for Gnostics known by scholars as the “Sethians.” Here is what I say about them in the book.


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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The Valentinian Gnostics from After The New Testament
Our Knowledge of Gnosticism



  1. Avatar
    darren  August 24, 2018

    Did these beliefs evolve from Greek thought combined with early Christianity? Were they a continuation of Jewish traditions that were influenced by Greek philosophy? Were they original?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      It is usually thought that they ultimately derive from some forms of Middle Platonism, influenced, of course, by a number of religious traditions (including some from Judaism)

      • Avatar
        Erik Nelson  March 3, 2020

        is there a preferred narrative explanation for the emergence of Christian Gnosticism?

        Ethnically Jewish 1st century “proto-Gnostics” came to accept Yehshua as Messiah, and “imported” their prior proto-Gnostic traditions into the new faith?

        Did John, with a Supreme Deity and a single-tier “pleroma” consisting of one pair of “emanations”, borrow motifs from those Messianic Jewish proto-Gnostic communities?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 3, 2020

          Yes, but it would take a book to explain. The blog-comment version is that it arose principally out of Middle Platonic thought some time inthe second Christian century and was highly influenced, early on, by some forms of Christian tradition.

  2. Avatar
    rivercrowman  August 24, 2018

    Bart, I just acquired your book “The Apostolic Fathers” (Vol. 1). It’s great reading. (I just skip over your Greek translations.) In responding to a member’s comment several weeks ago you noted that Polycarp in his letter to the Philippians referenced 1 Peter, 1 and 2 Timothy, 1 Clement, Matthew, Luke, Acts, several of Paul’s letters, and even 1 John, but not a word can we trace to the Gospel of John! What do you think was the problem? Did he not like John’s Gospel, or maybe it was not yet available to him? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      I wish I knew! My guess is that he didn’t know it….

  3. Avatar
    doug  August 24, 2018

    It seems ironic that the bad divinity Ialdabaoth comes from a divinity whose name Sophia means “Wisdom”. Was the divinity (Sophia) given a name meaning “wisdom” because the spiritual power from on high is breathed into humans by Sophia, or is there some other reason for connecting wisdom with the divinity who created the harmful divinity Ialdabaoth?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      I’ve often wondered that too. She is “Wisdom” yet she manages to fall from the pleroma, possibly by overreaching what she could know. It’s all very mystierious.

      • Avatar
        Eric  August 27, 2018

        Of course, “sophomore” and “sophomoric” also stem from “Sophia”

    • talmoore
      talmoore  August 26, 2018

      I have always assumed that Ialdabaoth was simply a corruption of YHWH Tzva’oth — i.e. “Lord of Hosts” — and that the Gnostics, who believed that the Jewish God of the OT was the demiurge who created the evil and corrupt material world (not to be confused with the transcendent Godhead who is the true one God of the universe) just conflated the creator god YHWH with the creator goddess Sophia (“Wisdom”), both of which, along with the Logos, are often thought of in Platonic and Gnostic traditions as the divine agents through which the material world emanated.

      That’s my theory.

      • Bart
        Bart  August 27, 2018

        Yes, it’s often seen that way. It’s what I’ve long thought too.

        • Avatar
          Erik Nelson  February 29, 2020

          “This Spirit is said to evolve into an entire Pleroma (= fullness) or other divine beings called aeons. The first of these is the Mother of all, named Barbelo, who is often accompanied by a being called Son (or Christ, or “Self-Originate”) – making, then, a kind of original Trinity”

          Christianity is like a “simplified Gnosticism”?

          * Pleroma –> Godhead
          * many tiers of aeons –> one tier
          * Babelo + Son –> Holy Spirit (Shekinah is grammatically female in Hebrew?) + Word

          “One of the female figures, far down the chain of divinity, is named Sophia (= Wisdom), who for one reason or another conceives progeny without her male consort. Among the resulting offspring of Sophia is a divinity named Ialdabaoth”

          Gnostic Demiurge Ialdabaoth resembles Christian concept of “God of this world”?

          Gnostic notion that “God of the Jews” was not “the One True God” resembles John 8:44?

          Biblical themes of a cosmically-significant virgin birth, as well as a fall from grace, are also incorporated into Gnosticism?

          Which came first, the Gnostic or Christian notion of a cosmically-significant virgin birth?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 1, 2020

            It used to be much debated, which led to which, Gnosticism or Christianity? It is not much debated any more. The Gnostic groups we know about date after the days of Jesus, not before.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  August 24, 2018

    Marcion thought the Hebrew creator god was an inferior god, but he wasn’t Gnostic or Sethian, was he? I think he just didn’t like the god of the Old Testament.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      No, not a Gnostic. He held to two Gods, not lots; didn’t have a Pleroma, or claim that “knowledge” brought salvation, or think that (some) people have a spark of the divine within.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  October 3, 2018

        That raises an interesting (to me) question: is the belief that humans can carry a spark of the divine distinctively gnostic among ancient Christians? I should have thought that a fairly orthodox notion.

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2018

          In the gnostic sense it is not attested until the second century.

          • Avatar
            Erik Nelson  March 1, 2020

            “It used to be much debated, which led to which, Gnosticism or Christianity? It is not much debated any more. The Gnostic groups we know about date after the days of Jesus, not before”

            So, much as you would date the simpler, like Mark, prior to the more sophisticated, like Matthew…

            So also would you date the triune Godhead of John, the Father plus one pair of “emanations” (if you would) from Him, prior to the much more embellished gnostic pleroma?

            Someone started with (something resembling) Johannine Christianity and “got carried away” ?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 2, 2020

            No, not really that way, as it turns out, since “more sophisticated” could be earlier and “more simple” could be a later attempt to make it more understandable. Other arguments are far more persuasive. In the case of Gnosticism, we see all sorts of documents that have elements that could be amenable to Gnosticism in., say, the period of the first century BCE to the first century CE (based on other factors than their theological/religous views/perspectives: i.e., they might be *quoted* by an author whose date we know). We do NOT have such documents for texts that are definitely Gnostic. And so there simply is not any evidence that Gnostic texts came earlier than the ones we can date reliably.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 24, 2018

    Wow! Humans really make up a lot of stuff, much of which sounds pretty odd unless we are raised on it.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      Yes, other people’s mythology always sounds MUCH more bizarre than our own….

  6. Avatar
    Apocryphile  August 24, 2018

    It’s fascinating to delve into all the cultural connections and syncretism that was going on in the ancient world. We’re learning a lot about the movement of ancient and prehistoric peoples through the new science of genetic archaeology – bottom line is that people in the ancient world were far more mobile than we previously thought.

    For those interested, a fascinating book on the Jewish counterpart to the Sophia mythos is Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess. A cultural relic of the ancient Israelites’ veneration of the Canaanite female deity Asherah, she becomes in later Jewish mythology and Kabbalistic mysticism an entity known as the Shekinah, where she is even seen as being God’s intimate consort and co-creator.

  7. Avatar
    ardeare  August 24, 2018

    Genesis 4:25-26 “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him.” To Seth also a son was born, and he named him Enosh. At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.” The last sentence in verse 26 may have had added importance for them with Enosh being the first spiritual follower of Seth.

    I’m trying to understand what Seth becoming incarnate in the man Jesus means. Are they saying that Seth was reincarnated?

  8. Robert
    Robert  August 24, 2018

    How did all of these complicated mystical systems come to be associated with Jewish or Christian sects? Other than a singular figure here or there, Adam or Seth or Christ, they seem so foreign to Second Temple Judaisms and the roots of the first Christian communities. At least with someone like Paul, as bizarre as some of his ideas are, we can understand a thread of his Jewish approach to the scriptures, but these gnostics seem so bizarre or foreign or uprooted from other aspects of second temple Judaisms. Is it simply syncretism with foreign mythologies?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      A lot of it stems from middle-platonic philosophy — and of course it didn’t sound so bizarre to insiders as it does to those of us outside! (So too with most mythologies, even our own!)

  9. Avatar
    Pattylt  August 24, 2018

    Sounds like it could be New Age woo. I am always amazed at the minds of men and how far imagination and spirituality can go!
    Do you think any of their beliefs became incorporated into the proto orthodox faith (with obvious modifications or toning it down a bit along the way)?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      Some probably did — e.g., the idea that knowledge matters for salvatoin.

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  August 25, 2018

    Is there any detectable relationship between the Sethians and the Johannine “community” thought to be behind the canonical gospel and letters?


    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      I doubt it — but there were clear connections between John and the Valentinians.

  11. Avatar
    Silver  August 25, 2018

    Please may I ask a question about how useful you, and, indeed, blog members find the ‘thumbs up’ and the ‘thumbs down’ symbols for each comment. There appears to have been a greater use of this facility recently but I find it conveys very little to me.
    Taking, for example, your reply to a query from a reader about whether your colleagues in other disciplines find the same degree of ‘sloppiness’ from their students’ reading of texts as happens with the reading of religious works. (Posted 24th Aug)
    Your response was ‘It’s especially true of readers who come to the text expecting it to be completely consistent, internally, yes. But my sense is that in reading most books, readers generally aren’t alert to the possibility of discrepancies.’
    I find both the question and the reply helpful and interesting.
    However, your reply brought forth one ‘thumbs up’ and one ‘thumbs down’. I feel it would be far better if the responders made a comment, particularly with regard to the ‘thumbs down’ (showing, I assume, disagreement,) to indicate what they took from this interchange.
    Do you tally up this feedback in any way?
    I also note that at the top of each day’s blog there is a star system alongside a number of votes. How does this work and who does the voting, please?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 3, 2018

      Yes, I find it helpful for knowing what kind of posts are most attractive to (some) blog members.

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  August 25, 2018

    The religion of the Sethian Gnostics seems more complicated than the calculation of the FEDEXCUP Golf rankings. Do you think that many ancient people were really able to understand these religious concepts?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      Well, it’s not *that* complicated. And they didn’t have TV pundits explaining it every ten minutes.

  13. Avatar
    John  August 26, 2018

    Quick question:

    Apart from Paul’s 7 books, is there a consensus as to which of the rest were penned by Jews and which by gentiles, in terms of numbers?


    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      Not really. My view is a bit of a minority. I think Matthew and John *possibly* were Jews, but probably not. Evelation was probably written by a Jew. I don’t know that any of the other authors of any of the books was Jewish.

      • Avatar
        Stephen  August 26, 2018

        Ok I believe that’s the third time over the past year you’ve mentioned the idea of “Matthew” and “John” being Gentiles. Have you written about that? If not, do you plan to? If not, that would make a most interesting thread in this very blog!

      • Avatar
        John  August 27, 2018


        If you are in a minority, what does the majority say?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 27, 2018

          My sense is tha ta lot of scholars imagine the authors of such books as Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, etc. were probably Jewish, and certainly, for them, Matthew and John.

  14. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  August 26, 2018

    Fascinating, complicated stories! I wonder if Joseph Smith jr and L Ron Hubbard could have read this stuff? Could they have had access to it before they wrote their new revelations? Unlikely, I’d think? But I’m guessing. It’s so much a human thing to make up stories I suppose they could have done it afresh?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      Yeah, seems unlikely,

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  August 27, 2018

      I’ve often wondered the same about Scientology and LRH. To my very non-expert eye, Scientology certainly appears to have a heavy thread of Gnostic ideas running through it. And LRH, say you might about him, was intelligent and embedded in a milieu that was reaching out for ideas. Seems plausible that he might have decided that Gnosticism had business potential — are there any biographies that address this possibility?

  15. Avatar
    Steefen  August 26, 2018

    The Nicene Creed, Original Form, June 325 C.E. appearing on p. 350 / How Jesus Became God

    Early Christian Creeds, 3rd Edition
    Translation from J. N. D. Kelly 1972
    = = =
    Question for the Professor
    You needed a source. It was in Greek? Kelly’s translation was excellent, not needing any variations because of how you translate the same would have produced pretty much the same result?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      I’m not sure what you’re asking in terms of a source. But yes, it was composed in Greek and the translations are not radically different from one another.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  August 26, 2018

        It seemed as if you were citing Kelly’s book as a source where a reader could find the original Nicene Creed.
        In a scholarly work, would you use a primary source of the Nicene Creed? Is the original in a museum somewhere–maybe the Vatican Library?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 27, 2018

          There are a number of modern sources where you can find the creed. It is not a document like the Declaration of Independence; it is reported in teh writings of church fathers discussing it.

  16. Avatar
    Iskander Robertson  August 26, 2018

    if i have understood your posts correctly , mark thinks a human sacrifice is needed for the forgiveness of sins, but luke thinks that jesus was innocent and killed for no reason so one should feel sorry for jesus and this would be occasion for forgiveness?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2018

      Close, not feel sorry for Jesus but recognize how we ourselves are so sinful (if an innocent man could be put to death), and so repent.

      • Avatar
        Erik Nelson  February 29, 2020

        emphasizing “innocence” could have helped Paul build his case for his own innocence from Roman prison c.60-62 AD ?

  17. Avatar
    rburos  August 26, 2018

    Is it possible to understand orthodox (proto-orthodox?) Christianity without Gnosticism and the battle against it?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2018

      A lot of a person’s identity is connected with the people and views s/he stands against. Probably Gnosticism shaped proto-orthodox emphases and claims, as the p-o Christians worked to establish their distintiveness (e.g., belief in only one God, Christ as fully human and divine, the creation as good, etc.)

  18. Avatar
    saavoss  August 27, 2018

    A friend of mine recently recommended that I read a book called The Teachings of Abraham. A New Age book that was “channeled” from an energy collective who call themselves (i.e. We are Abraham), and Seth books (also New Age channeled from an energy being named Seth. These books sound like they might be influenced by the Sethian religion you mention in this post. I have not read either of my friend’s recommendations. I found it interesting that both of these use the names of Hebrew elders. My friend says there is no connection. Have you ever heard of these works? If so, what is your opinion of them (as Gnostic mythology)?

  19. Avatar
    4Erudite  August 27, 2018

    You recently posted on two of my favorite studies…Gospel of Thomas and this story of Sophia. I noticed a different spelling for her created/thought/”offspring”…I have always seen it spelled with a “Y” (Yaldabaoth)…not that it makes any difference in the story, but just curious, have you seen it spelled with a “Y”? Maybe a different translation? Again, just curious.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 28, 2018

      Yup, comes both ways. Ancient Greek didn’t have a “Y”

  20. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  October 3, 2018

    As you note, other people’s myths tend to seem outlandish, while our own make “sense.” Did the completely outlandish notion that complete humanity and complete divinity can coinhabit one individual arise simply as an attempt to respond to what any reasonable person would find to be incompatible claims about Jesus? Did other philosophical schools wade that deeply into the absurd in pursuit of the profound or mysterious?

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