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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
    ancadudar@yahoo.com  June 14, 2019

    This sounds exactly like what Colossians was addressing. Even the word “kephale” for head in Colossians 1:18 is reinforced by arche/beginning via emphatic apposition.

    The word “head” did not mean authority in the secular Greek literature of the time. One meaning was origin and beginning.

    “And He is the head, who is the beginning, of the body, the church.” That is how it reads with the emphatic apposition in place.

    Colossians 1:19 and 2:9 have the word “Pleroma” in it used in a similar way as this gnostic group. There are so many points of contact between Colossians and what this group believed.

    Colossians portrays Christ as being the very top of the archons via the double meanings of kephale when used in idiom.

    In 2:9-10 all the diety of the “pleroma” dwell in Him bodily and the church is complete in Him who is the head/top and beginning of all rule and authority.

    Basically, with the proper understanding of what the Greek word head meant in idiom, Christ is the head/top and beginning of the archons.

    The church-body is then told in 2:19 to grab hold of the head because when they unite with the head, they are also united with the top archon who fills them with what is needed for their increase.

    It seems like Colossians may have been forged to address teachings from this gnostic group.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2019

      My view is the fairly standard scholarly assessment, that what we think of as Sethian Gnosticism did not exist yet when Colossians was written, even if there were some views then that could have *led* to the emergence of it.

      • Avatar
        ancadudar@yahoo.com  June 16, 2019

        That is interesting Bart. It is just strange that Colossians would use words like pleroma, diety, body, head, and authorities together in one sentence. The theology of Colossians gives off a sense that archons are in view and that Christ is the top or head of them all. I wonder why Colossians was forged, against whom was its polemic?

        There is a group that studied over 2300 instances of “head” used in Greek secular literature at the time of the NT and they found that the word did not mean authority. Outside of mostly meaning a physical head, it was used with connotations of origin, beginning, top of things, prominent and pre-eminence. It was in early medieval times that the word shifted to mean authority. Have you heard anything about this in scholarship?

        I ask because I wonder if that is where 1 Tim 2:13 got its idea from that being formed first made man superior to the woman. That idea of superiority seems to be present in Colossians 1:17-18, where Christ is called the head of the church body for the first time and “head” is linked to being first in time.

        Origin, beginning, and pre-eminence are present in both 1 Cor 11:3,8-9 and Col 1:18 when the word head is used for both man and Christ. Whoever wrote Ephesians would have copied concepts from Colossians 1:18 and merged it with 1 Corinthians 11:3,8-9 to form their theology for Eph 5:23-33. I wonder if 1 Tim 2:13 was written out of this influence?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 17, 2019

          Yes, these kinds of words would be why later Gnostics would latch onto Paul; but it would probably be a mistake to think that the later usages of a term determine their meaning in an earlier author (we could think of lots of exx. in English, e.g. What did “gay” mean in 1920, e.g.?) On the use of “head” — I really don’t know offhand: I’d have to dig around in a lexicon for a while. The word is often to thought to refer to “authority” in the passage about headcoverings you mention (and wouldn’t “pre-emininence” of a man over a woman suggest authority? Or not?)

  2. Avatar
    vallancemjv@gmail.com  November 28, 2019

    I find Gnosticism fascinating.
    In a way everything to do with every Faith is Gnostic, that is ideas forthcoming from man’s Unconscious ala the Jungian Collective Unconscious.
    ‘In The Beginning Man created God in his Image” So to speak.
    Of course Gnosticism predates Christianity if we look at Platonic ideas etc etc.
    My view on Sophia is that she overreached her ‘station’ wanting to ‘see’ what the Invisible Spirit looked like or to ‘know’ him in some way.
    As she looked outside the Pleroma her image was mirrored into the Abyss. Being mirrored she then became Male and thus Iadaboethe came into being.
    Yaldaboet or Saklas Imagined himself to be alone thus boasting ‘ there is no God beside me’
    Part of Sophia was thus entrapped in Yaldaboeths ‘mind’
    and these ‘sparks’ of Sophia became trapped in the created humans.
    Christ her consort thus needed to descend to the Earthy plane to confer the escape plan via the knowledge if hiw to return.
    All if this can also be understood in Jungian terms.
    The Shadow is Yaldaboeth/ Saklas, Sophia the Anima- of female element in man, and Christ – The Self.

  3. Avatar
    AngeloB  June 14, 2020

    Hi Bart. How did the Gnostics cease to be a significant rival of orthodox Christianity? Did the end of the movement come suddenly or gradually?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 15, 2020

      It was gradual, and there were tons of factors involved. I talk about it a *bit* in my book Lost Christianities, if you’re interested in pursuing it. There are lots of theories about it, but very little hard evidence. Part of the deal is that most Gnostic groups did not have hierarchical authorities in their communities, which made them less organized and efficient in spreading themselves than the proto-orthodox.

      • Avatar
        AngeloB  June 17, 2020

        I read the book before. Thanks for refreshing my memory. 😃

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