UBC Community, Partners, and Alumni Publications

Sethian Gnostic Alt, Brian


Sethian gnostics – also referred to by scholars as “classic gnostics” or simply “the gnostics” – represent a sect within early Christianity that existed from the second through the fourth century CE. Most of what we know about this group derives from the discovery of the Nag Hammadi collection of Coptic manuscripts, which dates to around 350 CE, but this information is supplemented by various heresiological writings by early proto-orthodox theologians, most significantly Irenaeus, who wrote around 180 CE. The name Sethian is applied to the sect by modern scholars because of its self-identification with the biblical Seth, son of Adam. “Gnostics” comes from the Greek word gnōstikoi (roughly, “those who know”), which some scholars consider to be a label the Sethians applied to themselves. Social information about the Sethians must be inferred from the textual evidence, which contains a number of features used to characterize them: (1) a complex cosmogonic myth based in part on a creative revision of Genesis and Plato’s Timaeus, (2) a strong sense of group identity and in-group language as the “seed (or offspring) of Seth,” and (3) a ritual of baptism sometimes called a ritual of “five seals.” Very little is known of the daily life or organizational structure of the Sethians. They shared with other Christians certain theological traditions, some scripture, and an ascetic lifestyle. Some features of the Sethian myth include: (1) an ineffable divine first principle called the Parent or Invisible Spirit; (2) a second principle called Barbelo; (3) a series of four luminaries, also called aeons or realms, named Harmozel, Oroiael, Daveithai, and Eleleth; (4) the emanation of a number of additional aeons, the last of which is named Wisdom (Sophia in Greek); (5) a craftsman (dēmiourgos in Greek) named Ialdabaoth, who steals divine power from his mother (Wisdom) to create the visible cosmos based on intelligible paradigms while remaining ignorant of the divinities higher than him; (6) the creation of seven, twelve, and/or 365 rulers of the material world who themselves create human beings and the remainder of the material world; (7) a dramatic struggle resulting in some of humanity being given Ialdabaoth’s pilfered power as a spark of divinity; (8) these human beings are the offspring of Seth, sealed by a special baptismal ritual, while the offspring of Cain remain under the power of the ignorant demiurge and his minions. (9) Where the human Jesus appears in the versions of this myth, he is variously identified with a preexistent Anointed One (Greek christos), a preexistent Word (Greek logos), a preexistent Seth, or Barbelo. Individual Sethian texts contain some but not all of the elements of this myth. As such, the category “Sethian Gnostic” can be understood as a polythetic class, i.e. it contains a number of nonessential characteristics but lacks an essential (sine qua non) characteristic. Some scholars, notably John D. Turner, have reconstructed a “literary history” of these texts based on textual developments within this mythic framework. The complex emanation scheme of the Sethian myth reveals an involvement with the Middle Platonic philosophical speculation of the time, which has been compared to such thinkers as Philo of Alexandria and Numenius of Apamea.

Item Media

Item Citations and Data


Attribution 4.0 International