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Apocalypse of the Alien God

Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism

By Dylan M. Burns

Publication Year: 2014

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 the Enneads. 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 God proposes 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 God offers 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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xx

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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...

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1. Culture Wars

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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...

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2. Plotinus Against His Gnostic Friends

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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,...

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3. Other Ways of Writing

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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” (πλάσματα), and it seems this formed the basis of his critique...

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4. The Descent

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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...

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5. The Ascent

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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,...

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6. The Crown

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pp. 112-139

The ritual practices described in Marsanes (NHC X,I) 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...

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7. Between Judaism, Christianity, and Neoplatonism

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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,...

Appendix: Reading Porphyry on the Gnostic Heretics and Their Apocalypses

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pp. 161-164


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pp. 165-249


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pp. 250-302


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pp. 303-319

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pp. 320-321

I never do anything right the first time, and this book is no exception. Its thought, structure, and goals have all undergone many revisions, which have benefitted enormously from years of conversation, advice, and criticism, for which I am indebted to the following in particular...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812209228
E-ISBN-10: 0812209222
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245790

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 4 illus.
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion