Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Apocalypse of the Alien God

Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism

Dylan M. Burns
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 336
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Apocalypse of the Alien God
    Book Description:

    In the second century, Platonist and Judeo-Christian thought were sufficiently friendly that a Greek philosopher could declare, "What is Plato but Moses speaking Greek?" Four hundred years later, a Christian emperor had ended the public teaching of subversive Platonic thought. When and how did this philosophical rupture occur? Dylan M. Burns argues that the fundamental break occurred in Rome, ca. 263, in the circle of the great mystic Plotinus, author of theEnneads. Groups of controversial Christian metaphysicians called Gnostics ("knowers") frequented his seminars, disputed his views, and then disappeared from the history of philosophy-until the 1945 discovery, at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, of codices containing Gnostic literature, including versions of the books circulated by Plotinus's Christian opponents. Blending state-of-the-art Greek metaphysics and ecstatic Jewish mysticism, these texts describe techniques for entering celestial realms, participating in the angelic liturgy, confronting the transcendent God, and even becoming a divine being oneself. They also describe the revelation of an alien God to his elect, a race of "foreigners" under the protection of the patriarch Seth, whose interventions will ultimately culminate in the end of the world.Apocalypse of the Alien Godproposes a radical interpretation of these long-lost apocalypses, placing them firmly in the context of Judeo-Christian authorship rather than ascribing them to a pagan offshoot of Gnosticism. According to Burns, this Sethian literature emerged along the fault lines between Judaism and Christianity, drew on traditions known to scholars from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Enochic texts, and ultimately catalyzed the rivalry of Platonism with Christianity. Plunging the reader into the culture wars and classrooms of the high Empire,Apocalypse of the Alien Godoffers the most concrete social and historical description available of any group of Gnostic Christians as it explores the intersections of ancient Judaism, Christianity, Hellenism, myth, and philosophy.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0922-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xx)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    The terms “christianity” and “Judaism” are difficult for students of these ancient religions. church historians remain unable to pinpoint once and for all the emergence of “christianity” from “Judaism”; scholars of Judaic studies debate when Judaism was “invented.”¹ “christianity” and “Judaism” can feel like vacuous terms that house a great diversity of groups, practices, and ideas whose differences seem to outweigh their resemblances. consequently, some scholars feel more comfortable discussing christianitiesand Judaisms, and nobody is comfortable with the term used for groups that exist on the borderlines between them: “Jewish-christian”(!).² Even more problematic is the term “paganism,” which is...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Culture Wars
    (pp. 8-31)

    Who were these followers of “Adelphius and Aculinus” in the time of Plotinus? Porphyry says that they were christian heretics, but also trained Platonists. nothing is known about Adelphius or the authors of other texts (now lost) the heretics brandished, “Alexander the Libyan and Philocomus and Demostratus of Lydia.”¹ Aculinus appears to have enjoyed a reputation as a Platonist roughly contemporary with Plotinus.² Alexander the Libyan was known to tertullian and Jerome as a valentinian.³ these figures all bore normal names (i.e., epigraphically attested as used by everyday people), not pseudepigraphic, authoritative titles.⁴ they are Greco-Roman, showing that in this...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Plotinus Against His Gnostic Friends
    (pp. 32-47)

    The testimony of Porphyry about the heretics known to him and Plotinus is a fascinating and rich account of their encounter with living, breathing readers of sethian apocalypses. He says that this literature circulated among christian Platonists, who invoked alien, non-Hellenic authorities popular in Jewish lore (like “Allogenes”—“the stranger-foreigner”) and challenged the authority of Plato and, by extension, the vigorous Hellenic cult(ure) ofpaideia. Both he and Amelius wrote treatises attacking these apocalypses. Plotinus wrote his own work responding to the heretics. Porphyry, editing his master’s work following his death, entitled itAgainst the Gnostics; hence we consider these...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Other Ways of Writing
    (pp. 48-76)

    Plotinus claims that the Gnostics do not write in a philosophical style, and so “another way of writing” would be necessary to refute them. Porphyry, meanwhile, denigrates the Sethian apocalypses as “forgeries” (πλοάσματα), and it seems this formed the basis of his critique of theApocalypse of Zoroaster.¹ Porphyry’s use of the word “apocalypse” or “revelation” (άποκάλυψις) for these documents is tantalizing, and at first sight straightforward: These texts were apocalypses, “revelations” of some sort, stories dealing with whatever kinds of ideas that “revelations” traffic in. Yet the apocalyptic background of the texts has not been studied with respect to...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Descent
    (pp. 77-94)

    While the entirety of sethian literary tradition is cast in the shape of contemporary apocalypses, scholars have long distinguished between the texts that are also inundated with the language of contemporary Neoplatonic metaphysics—the Platonizing literature,Zostrianos,Allogenes,Marsanes, and theThree Steles of Seth—and those that are not. However, the more popular nomenclature to express this distinction in scholarship describes them as “ascent” (Platonizing, contemplative) and “descent” (apocalyptic, historical) treatises.¹ For Turner, the descent treatises develop Jewish traditions about the descent of Wisdom (sophia) into the cosmos into a theology of the descent of Barbelo, the divine Mother;²...

  9. CHAPTER 5 The Ascent
    (pp. 95-111)

    While we have found Plotinus’s complaints about the Gnostic approach to writing and divine providence to reflect the contents of the sethian literature that informed his friends, many of his arguments deal with cosmological concerns—the preexistence of matter, its relationship to the fall of soul, and the eternity of the world. The Platonizing sethian apocalypses, however, focus on supracosmological matters—the world of the intelligibles. This does not mean that Sethian literature avoids cosmological questions; rather, they come up in passing, in allusions to knowledge presupposed of the reader, as we saw in passages about the sethian elect. Moreover,...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Crown
    (pp. 112-139)

    The ritual practices described inMarsanes(NHC X, 1) are distinctive among the Platonizing sethian literature, encompassing such diverse activities as alphabet mysticism and the use of arcane ritual instruments.¹ Scholars have thus referred to these practices and the greater range of rituals in Sethian literature (such as baptism) as “Sethian theurgy.”² For philosophers like Iamblichus and Proclus, “theurgy” (θεουργία)—“god-work” (θέος + έργου)—included purification, hymns, prayers, the animation of statues, possession, the conjuration of spirits, and mystical contemplation, derived mainly from the second-centuryChaldean Oracles.³ Use of the term “theurgy” to describe the rituals of the Sethian Gnostic...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Between Judaism, Christianity, and Neoplatonism
    (pp. 140-160)

    Having examined the culture wars taking place among second and third-century intellectuals, Plotinus’s polemic against his friends in Rome, the literary heritage of the apocalypses they circulated, and the views these texts espoused about soteriology, eschatology, and divinization, we can now step back and outline a more broad and comprehensive picture of what was at stake in the Plotinus-Gnostic controversy and the significance of the Sethian literature beyond its philosophical import. Indeed, the reading of the sethian texts proposed in this book also tells us a great deal about ancient religious identity among Christians, Jews, Gnostics, and Hellenes. On the...

    (pp. 161-164)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 165-249)
    (pp. 250-302)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 303-319)
    (pp. 320-321)