A modern Russian icon of Seth (photo by Shakko)

As the term “classic Gnostics” implies, the classic Gnostics were the original group of Gnostics in antiquity. Back then, they were known as simply “Gnostics,” and almost certainly referred to themselves as such.[1] Today, they’re sometimes called the “classic Gnostics” to differentiate them from the other theologically Gnostic group of early Christians, the Valentinians.[2] They arose sometime in the late first or early second century AD, and by the year 180, they were spread throughout the Roman Empire. (See The Origins of Gnosticism for a discussion of when, how, and from what they arose.)

Terminology: “Classic Gnostics” vs. “Sethians”

Ever since a 1974 publication by Hans-Martin Schenke, modern scholars have sometimes nicknamed the classic Gnostics “Sethians” due to the importance they placed on the Old Testament figure of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve.[3] This usage of “Sethian” is somewhat unfortunate, since the term originated with the unscrupulous third-century heresiologist (“heresy hunter”) Hippolytus of Rome. Hippolytus used “Sethian” to denote what he imagined to have been a sect within the group of early Christians that his more careful predecessor Irenaeus of Lyons had called simply “Gnostics.” As with Hippolytus’s other imagined “Gnostic sects,” it’s virtually certain that no sect called the “Sethians” ever existed in antiquity.[4]

Although modern scholars who use the term “Sethian” do so as a nickname for the classic Gnostics as a whole, it’s easy for readers to confuse this recent use of the word “Sethian” with Hippolytus’s use of it. “Classic Gnostics” (a term coined by Bentley Layton in 1995, but based on Irenaeus’s usage of “Gnostics”[5]) is clearer and more straightforward, so that’s the term that we’ll use throughout this website when referring to the original group of Gnostics and their texts.

The “Race of Seth”

Despite the unnecessary confusion introduced by the term “Sethian,” it’s rather easy to see why Schenke and others after him have liked to use that word to refer to the classic Gnostics. The classic Gnostics’ scriptures don’t explicitly refer to them as “Gnostics;” instead, they call them an “immovable” or “unshakeable” race that had been founded by Seth in time immemorial.[6]

Seth is mentioned in the fourth and fifth chapters of Genesis. After one of Adam and Eve’s sons, Abel, was murdered by their other son, Cain, Eve became pregnant once more. In the words of Genesis 4:25, “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, ‘For God has appointed another seed for me instead of Abel, whom Cain killed.’”[7] Genesis 5:3 says much the same in a different way: “When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth.”[8]

For the classic Gnostics, these two brief passages contained a great wealth of meaning. The classic Gnostics pointed to and emphasized the particular images used by Genesis: Seth was of “another seed,” “in the likeness” of Adam, and “appointed by God.” This is how they interpreted those images in the context of the rest of their theology and mythology:

For the classic Gnostics – as for the New Testament writers Paul and John before them – the world was ruled by demonic beings called “archons.” The classic Gnostics held that the lecherous archons had raped Eve shortly after she was created, but Eve’s spirit left her body before the horrible deed began. This purely fleshly intercourse produced two purely fleshly sons: Abel and Cain.

But Eve later had voluntary, loving sex with Adam, and their spirits (their spiritual “likenesses” that had been placed in them by God) were fully intact and present. Seth was conceived as “another seed” – that is, a spiritual seed, as opposed to the merely physical “seed” of Cain and Abel. (See The Gnostic Creation Myth for the full story.)

The sons of Adam and Eve founded “races” of people according to whether or not they possessed spirit. Since no spirit had been imparted to Abel or Cain, their “races” cared only for sensory pleasure and earthly well-being, with no capacity for serious spirituality. But the “race” of Seth, the one “appointed by God,” possessed spirit like its progenitor, and was capable of achieving salvation, which the Gnostics called “gnosis.” The classic Gnostics identified themselves with the “race” of Seth, and the rest of mankind with the “races” of Cain and Abel.

The archons did everything in their power to prevent Seth’s insightful descendants from achieving their true potential, ruling them through astrological fate and placing all kinds of worldly temptations in their path. But one day a savior would come who would give the spiritual descendants of Seth the upper hand in this struggle – a retrospective literary prophecy that had already been fulfilled by Christ.[9][10]

These “races” were spiritual ones, not biological ones. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people spoke of race and religion as if they were one and the same; each race had its own religion and vice versa. This way of speaking largely made sense back then, because each people tended to have its own ethnic religion with its own god or gods. But even for religions like Christianity, in which membership was in principle open to anyone from any people, racial language was still used to mark off religious identity. Various non-Gnostic early Christian writings refer to Christians as a “new race,” a “third race” other than Jews and Greeks, and the “God-loving and God-fearing race,” among other such designations.[11]

So when the classic Gnostics called themselves the “race of Seth,” they were marking themselves off as a group of people with a distinct spiritual/religious identity and destiny – a narrower version of the wider ancient Christian usage of racial language.

But the idea of belonging to the “race of Seth” had an additional meaning for the classic Gnostics. Everyone else in society around them belonged to the races of Cain and Abel, which made the classic Gnostics strangers in a foreign land no matter where they went. Indeed, since the “other seed” from which Seth had come was from an incorporeal and incorruptible world that was starkly different from this world, the “race of Seth” wasn’t only foreign to the societies in which it lived; it was foreign to the material world altogether.[12] Seth, the father of the race, was the prototype of the Gnostic who had transcended the material world and become alien to it.[13]

Just as the classic Gnostics’ use of racial language didn’t imply genetic determinism, it also didn’t imply spiritual determinism (or “predestination,” if you like), the idea that some people are born saved and some aren’t, and that nothing that anyone does can change the category to which he or she belongs. The heresiologists sometimes claimed that the classic Gnostics did believe in spiritual determinism,[14] but the heresiologists made that claim because it furthered their polemical interests. They were trying to convince people to join their brand of Christianity (which is often called “proto-orthodox Christianity” today) rather than that of their rivals, the Gnostics. If only the Gnostics were saved, the heresiologists argued, then anyone who wasn’t already a Gnostic must not be one of the fortunate souls, and therefore wouldn’t gain anything by trying to join the Gnostics.

But when we look at the Gnostic texts themselves, we see quite clearly that that wasn’t what the classic Gnostics (or the Valentinians) believed. Instead, when one was baptized as a classic Gnostic, one was reborn or adopted into the race of Seth, and apostasy meant leaving the race.[15][16] Thus, one chose whether or not to be part of the race of Seth when one chose whether or not to be a classic Gnostic.

Community Life

Some scholars have argued that the classic Gnostics were a loose-knit confederation of mostly solitary mystics who seldom got together for any kind of fellowship.[17] But the picture painted by the classic Gnostic texts themselves is one of a religious community with an organized and vibrant social life.

As we’ve just seen, the classic Gnostics defined themselves as spiritual kin and placed great importance on the “us vs. them” distinction between their own group and everyone else. Some classic Gnostic texts explicitly criticize other Christian groups for their shortcomings from a Gnostic point of view. The texts also contain formulas for baptisms, liturgies, hymns, and other communal rituals, many of which are written in the first-person plural (“we”). The group evidently also shared a strenuous ascetic lifestyle that featured celibacy, fasting, and other techniques to detach themselves from earthly cares and draw closer to God.[18][19]

Unlike the Valentinians, who worshiped with other Christians but held additional meetings of their own, the classic Gnostics seem to have worshiped only with other classic Gnostics.

Classic Gnostic Texts

The question of which Gnostic texts come from the classic Gnostics is a difficult one to answer, and there’s no firm scholarly consensus on the matter. For my part, I suspect that most of the texts in the Nag Hammadi Library that aren’t Valentinian are classic Gnostic works. If it’s correct that there were no other “Gnostic” sects within early Christianity besides the classic Gnostics and the Valentinians, then it would follow that any text with distinctively “Gnostic” features must come from one of those two groups.

Nevertheless, the list of texts that scholars widely agree were authored by the classic Gnostics (or “Sethians,” as some scholars prefer to call them for the reasons noted above) is a relatively short one: the Secret Book of John, Zostrianos, Allogenes, Marsanes, the Book of Zoroaster, the Revelation of Adam, the Reality of the Archons, Three Forms of First Thought, the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit (also known as the Gospel of the Egyptians), the Three Steles of Seth, Melchizedek, and the Thought of Norea.[20]

Those texts all share readily identifiable features that seem to point to a distinct social identity behind them, such as an emphasis on the figure of Seth and the particulars of their cosmology.[21] (There’s a general framework or template of cosmology that the classic Gnostics and the Valentinians shared, but some of the details of the classic Gnostic version of that cosmology are different from the Valentinian version or versions.) The rest of the texts that could potentially be classic Gnostic texts are widely disputed.[22]

References:

[1] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press.

[2] Layton, Bentley. 1995. The Gnostic Scriptures. Yale University Press. p. 5-8.

[3] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 41.

[4] Wisse, Frederik. 1981. “Stalking Those Elusive Sethians.” In The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Volume Two: Sethian Gnosticism. Edited by Bentley Layton. E.J. Brill. p. 569-573.

[5] Layton, Bentley. 1995. The Gnostic Scriptures. Yale University Press. p. 5-8.

[6] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 41-50.

[7] Genesis 4:25, NKJV. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+4%3A25&version=NKJV Accessed on 4-21-2019.

[8] Genesis 5:3, NRSV. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+5%3A3-5&version=NRSV Accessed on 4-21-2019.

[9] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 65-66.

[10] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 125-126.

[11] Burns, Dylan M. 2014. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 86-87.

[12] Ibid. p. 87.

[13] Ibid. p. 103-104.

[14] Ibid. p. 88.

[15] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 72-73.

[16] Lewis, Nicola Denzey. 2013. Introduction to “Gnosticism:” Ancient Voices, Christian Worlds. Oxford University Press. p. 125-126.

[17] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 88.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Burns, Dylan M. 2014. Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 131-138.

[20] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 50-51.

[21] Wisse, Frederik. 1981. “Stalking Those Elusive Sethians.” In The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, Volume Two: Sethian Gnosticism. Edited by Bentley Layton. E.J. Brill. p. 573-576.

[22] Brakke, David. 2010. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press. p. 50-51.