Sethian Gnostics

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Apocryphal/Apocalyptic Writings


In reading about the Gospel of Judas, I keep coming across the term "Sethian Gnostics" as though this is some specific group within Gnosticism. Were they, and if they were, what set them apart from other Gnostic groups?


Perhaps it will be helpful to think of Gnosticism like this: The term Judaism includes the orthodox as well as the reformed. Christianity includes Unitarians, Catholics, and Evangelicals, and everything in between. So it is with Gnosticism. Scholars have identified differences within writings and have made some generalizations. There is Valentinian Gnosticism, Thomasine, Sethian, etc.

Most scholars agree that the Gospel of Judas is a Sethian text. It gets that designation because it is traced back to Seth, who was the third son of Adam and Eve. Seth was born after Cain murdered Able. Seth, according to Gen. 4:25, was appointed to them from God.

Gnostics accorded Seth a mythological status. He was a pre-existent divine being. Along with the Great Invisible Spirit (the Father) and Barbelo (the Mother), the Son— the Self-Created One— ruled the aeons of the Pleroma. The Pleroma refers to the spiritual universe where God dwells in accordance with all the other divine powers and emanations. The Father of this triad was responsible for the inbreathing of the divine Spirit into Adam. The Mother was Eve (a Sophia/wisdom figure), and the Son (Seth) was the Logos (the Christ). This would be the essence of their sacred history.

Together, the written documents reveal at their core five basic points. (1) They are drawn from Hellenistic-Jewish understandings of Sophia, which is divine wisdom in its elemental, fallen, and restored states. (2) They have a unique exegesis of Genesis 1-6, which sees a sacred history in Seth's seed. (3) They include the practice of baptism as a removal from the material world and a transporting into the realm of light. (4) They include an emerging Christology wherein Christ is related to Seth. (5) They reflect the influence of Pythagorean and Platonic metaphysical concepts that define the world of the divine and the means of integrating with it.

It is believed that Sethianism existed before the first century of the Common Era. As a non-Christian sect, they believed they had the primeval knowledge about Adam and Seth, and they anticipated Seth's messianic return. The Apocalypse of Adam might have been written at this time. In this Gnostic text, Adam explains to Seth that he learned about the Eternal God from Eve. After the fall, he and Eve were separated, but three mysterious strangers brought about Seth's birth in an attempt to preserve this knowledge. Adam prophesies at length about how the sub-god will attempt to destroy mankind, but eventually a great illuminator (Seth) will return. This illuminator will know the eternal truth and will confer a saving baptism.

During the latter part of the first century, Sethians came into contact with Christian baptismal groups. It wasn't too difficult to make the connection between Seth and the pre-existent Christ. Seth is now thought of as a supernatural being. The Apocryphon of John was probably written during this time. It describes the resurrected Jesus returning to give secret knowledge to the apostle John. This knowledge includes a lengthy vision about the history and realm of the spiritual world.

The next hundred years, however, resulted in an increasingly estranged relationship between Sethanismand Christianity, which was becoming more codified and orthodox. The Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians (otherwise known as The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit) was probably written during this time. This book explains how Seth is incarnated as Jesus, who was sent to release people from the prison of this earthly world.

By the third century CE, Christians had pretty much rejected Sethianism. Yet, it was still very popular with those interested in the metaphysical aspects of Platonic thought. The representative text would be Allogenes, whose author was given revelations about overcoming fear and ignorance.

By the latter part of the third century, Sethianism was breaking apart. No longer embraced by orthodox Platonists and rejected by Christians, Sethianism became fragmented into many sectarian gnostic groups, some of which lasted well into the Middle Ages. In later decades, Sethians proclaimed a slightly more positive view about the material world, but continued to elaborate and expand upon the various planes of existence, including all the sub-spiritual realms.

Sethians, then, were a very important Gnostic sect. They believed themselves to be direct descendants of Adam and Eve through Seth. Since Seth was the keeper of secret knowledge, his followers (Sethian Gnostics) were the only ones who had the true knowledge. Seth was seen as a savior-figure who was incarnated as Christ.

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