Basic Sethian Christian History

by Bishop Thomas Saunders,

Sethians are Gnostics. The term Gnostic is mysterious, and often debated, but if you want to qualify Christian Sethian Gnosticism, it is when the followers of John the Baptist, decided to follow Jesus.

John the Baptist: (5 B.C. 33{?} A.D.) Jewish prophet who in the New Testament baptized and prepared the way for Jesus. He was executed by Herod Antipas at the behest of Herod’s daughter Salome.
According to Heracleon John was a Levite. His father was Zacharius who officiated as a Priest in the Jewish Temple. His mother was Elizabeth, related to Mary, mother to Jesus. Among his followers were Dositheos, Matthias, Simon Magus, and many other disciples and witnesses to Jesus. See; ”The Cave of John the Baptist,” by Simon Gibson, Doubleday, 2004. Mandaeans believe John the Baptist, called Yahya in the Sidra d-Yahia (Book of John), was the last and greatest of the prophets. While Mandaeans agree that he baptized Jesus (Yeshu), they reject the latter as either a saviour or prophet. And they viewed John as the only true Messiah. (Source: ”Saunders Gnostic Glossary,” SGG)

After the execution of John the Baptist, his supporters formed alliances, and among those were Simon Magus, Philip, Dositheos, Matthias and Jesus. It is important to Sethian history that this relationship is noted, in order to establish this bonding, and its importance to Sethian relationships with later students of this philosophy. Theodotus explains Seth….

Seth: ”From Adam three natures were begotten. The first was the irrational, which was Cain’s, the second the rational and just, which was Abel’s, the third the spiritual, which was Seth’s. Now that which is earthly is “according to the image,” that which is psychical according to the ” likeness ” of God, and that
which is spiritual is according to the real nature; and with refer­ence to these three, without the other children of Adam, it was said, “This is the book of the generation of men.” And because Seth was spiritual he neither tends flocks nor tills the soil but produces a child, as spiritual things do. And him, who “hoped
to call upon the name of the Lord” who looked upward and whose “citizenship is in heaven – him the world does not contain.” (Theodotus, Criddle Collection.) (SGG)

Theodotus, and Heracleon of Alexandria, were Valentinian students, and the fragments of their work which are extant, link the entire lineage of Alexandrian Gnosticism together. It is through the study of these fragments that the parallels from John the Baptist, to Origen, and other later Gnostics can be made. Clement of Alexandria’s, ”Stromata,” is also dedicated to explaining Gnostic traditions.

The Alexandrian church is historically credited to Mark, who went there on his way to Rome, with Peter. There is little doubt that what became Sethian Christianity is a secret level of study, applied mostly to scripture. This makes the ”Gospel of Thomas,” or ”The Secret Sayings of the Living Jesus,” the principle source of Jesus wisdom to the Sethian system. Chaldean, and Pythagorean traditions of occult, and secret traditions seem to have prevailed into Sethian ways. The term Sethian comes about through the following explanation of what is Sethian.

Sethian: It is a name for a specific sect of Gnostics, but also a category created by scholars to refer to a number of sects that are related to Valentinians. The Sethians as a group were known to Hippolytus who dedicated Book Five in his work, ”The Refutation of All Hereseys,” to denouncing them. (See Gaffney) Seth was a character of Gnosticism who represented a savior figure and third son of Adam, founder of the Gnostic race. Generally Sethian works include, “Pistis Sophia,” “Allogenes,” ”The Gospel of Mary,*” “Sentences of Sextus,” “Marsanes,” “Gospel of The Egyptians,*” ”The Apocalypse of Adam,*”
“Origin of The World,” ”The Gospel of Thomas,*” ”The Gospel of Philip,” “The Three Steles of Seth,” “Melchizidek,” ”The Apocryphon of John,” ”The Gospel of Judas,” Trimorphic Protennoia,” the un-named text in the Bruce Codex, and ”Zostrianos.” (Others) Some Sethian works suggest strong ties with
Jewish Gnosticism, as well as Platonic thought, as well as Zoroasterism. (They maintained three principles; darkness below, light above, and spirit in-between, according to work attributed to Dr. Roy Blizzard, University of Texas. See also; ”Sethian Gnosticism, A Literary History,” Turner) see also; ( * Indicates works from the Nag Hammadi Lib., with other works by the same name.) (SGG)

Several things link the above texts together, but the main parallels are in regard to the study of the system of the Monad, and other theme specific language, found almost exclusively in Sethian documents. It is only recently that scholars have been able to sufficiently interpret enough of the exclusive vocabulary of Sethian works, to comprehend some of its deeper meanings. Orthodox sources, like Bible dictionaries lacked almost all of the lexicology needed to comprehend Sethian meanings. Without the working lexicology of this system, scholars lacked the knowledge to comprehend it, as a unified system. That is slowly changing.

Among the Sethian works is, ”The Book of Thomas the Contender,” written by Matthias and the Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Mary, and Judas. These works form a core epistemology to the Apostolic lineage of the other Sethian texts. This makes ”The Pistis Sophia,” extremely important to the acuumulated knowledge of Sethian ways.

One example of a follower of John the Baptist , who converted to Christianity is Dositheos. According to ‘Acts,'(8) the Apostle Philip, taught and stayed with this group of Samaritans. The text mentions Simon Magus, but not Dositheos.

Dositheos: Believed to be the founder of Samaritan Gnosticism in the first century, and associate of Simon Magus. Dositheans were a Gnostic sect which called “God” only ‘Elohim’ not ‘Yehouah or Lord.’ He is stated as the author of the “Three Steles of Seth.” See; (NHL p. 396.)

The ‘Steles,’ may be one of the first written documents of Christianity. Biblical scholars who claim the Sethian texts are not from the birth of Christianity are plentiful, but those studying these texts are challenging that idea. It is hard to believe that the writers of the Sethian texts are not who they say they are. The entire Alexandrian Sethian lineage would have to be lying, including that which is known about Basilides.

Basilides: (?-138) An Alexandrian Gnostic who formed sects around 120 to 138. Known to be associated with Valentinus, and Mathias, and other early Christian leaders. May have also had knowledge of Dositheos and others associated with Simon Magus, or Gnosticism in Samaria. He is associated with Sethian works by Theodotus, and Clement. Thought to have had knowledge of both mystical and Hellenistic philosophy. (See also; ”The Other Bible,” by Barnstone, Harper, 1980; See also; ”Stromata.”)

Another Alexandrian Gnostic was Carpocrates. He and his followers are not popular with other Alexandrian Gnostics.

Carpocrates: (100?-150 CE); Formed a sect in Alexandria known as Carpocrations. Possible successor to Samaritan Simon Magus. He taught reincarnation in his Gnostic philosophy. An individual had to live many lives and adsorb a full range of experiences before being able to return to God. They practiced free
sexuality. They believed that Jesus was the son of Joseph. They questioned the docetic aspects attributed to Jesus. (See; “Sromata,” Bk 3.)

Basilides, and Pantaenus, were teachers of Clement, and Valentinus. When Peter and Mark visited Alexandria on the way to Rome, Pantaenus was appointed the head of the Catachise school. Later Mark returned to Alexandria with Peter’s notes and some of Paul’s work. Pantaenus is fondly mentioned by Theodotus…

Pantaenus: (b.?- 212) Appointed to head the Christian Catechise School of Alexandria by Peter. Originally, the Alexandrian church was thought to be founded by Mark, Peter, Barnabus, and Glaucius. Known to have been a Stoic, and teacher of Clement. Pantaenus is known to have done missionary work as far east as India. Claims to have discovered Eastern Christians in possession of the
”Gospel of Matthew,” written in Hebrew and presented by Bartholomew. (SGG)

It is through the association with the first Christians of Alexandria, that an Apostolic lineage for the Gnostic Gospels, and the Sethian works can be established. Although the Orthodox and Catholic church still deny this lineage, and claim the Gnostic texts are from the second and third century, the historical and archeological evidence against that idea is mounting. The Koran is correct in stating there was a ”secret Christianity.”

A second generation of Alexandrian Christians can be seen in the sons of Basilides, and Carpocrates….

Isidore: Son of Basilides, who according to Hippolytus received special teaching from Mathias. He wrote trying to show that Greek philosophers borrowed from the Prophets. He also held that passions emanated from a part of the soul. (SGG)

Epiphanes: Son of Carpacrotes of Alexandria. Died at age 17. Clement stated that Epiphanes had been taught the way of the ”Monad.” “But the followers of Carpocrates, and Epiphanes think wives should be common property.” (See; Bk 3, of ”Stromata.”) His work ”Concerning Justice,” can be read at; (SGG)

Clement of Alexandria, succeeded Pantaenus, his teacher, as the head of the Christian school. Clement’s teachings are more plentiful than earlier works which serve to explain Sethian ways. The first generation of Alexandrians established what appears to be two separate types of Church, or a church, within a church. This according to most authors this was a Gnostic tradition of the time. If you compare, and contrast Clement’s ”Stromata,” with ”Instructor,” perhaps this is a look into the two types of teaching.

Clement of Alexandria: (?-215 A.D.) Greek theologian, writer, and head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. Clement succeeded his teacher Pantaenus about A.D. 190, and took over the direction of the school. Wrote “Stromata” in which he makes various assessments of others including Basilides, Plato,Valentinus, and Gnostic beliefs. Declared that the Gnostic seeks to become God. (See also;
Clement’s ”Instructor,” which is more of an Orthodox work, compared to ”Stromata.”) (SGG)

It is during this second period in Alexandria, that Heracleon, and Theodotus did their great studies, which contribute greatly to the knowledge we have about Sethian ways.

Heracleon: A Valentinean Gnostic Sage, possibly from Sicily, who flourished around 120? A.D. He declared that, ”the orthodox church was dogmatic and like nourishing stagnant water.” Origen and Clement preserved some of his commentary on the ”Gospel of John,” and others of which some fragments still exist. (See; ”Fragments of Heracleon.”) (SGG)

Theodotus: A student of Valentinus, and Pantaenus in the Alexandrian lineage. Theodotus explains that passions are called spirits: ” The passions that are in the soul are called spirits, not spirits of power, since in that case the man under the influence of passion would be a legion of demons; but they are so
called in consequence of the impulse they communicate. For the soul itself, through modifications, taking on this and that other sort of qualities of wickedness, is said to receive spirits.” ( See; Fragments of Theodotus, Kirby, Criddle. , and
Theodotus, Early Christian Writings, Kirby. ) (SGG)

Clement, produced a valuable student named Origen. Valentinus produced several students who served to carry on the Sethian traditions. Origen’s work reflects he changed terms to suggest Gnostic ideas. This may be due to the violence against Gnostics starting in earlier times.

Origen: (185- 254 C.E.) Born in Alexandria. He studied Greek philosophy with Ammonius, and others. He became a Christian under Clement. Some of his surviving work is considered somewhat Gnostic in its nature according to later western Christian leaders. Origen was declared heretical on the basis of his beliefs in the pre-existence of souls and his beliefs about apokatastasis. In 553 A.D the Chalcedonians anathematized him. (SGG)

Some of the Gnostic works do not state the author, but some do. One important work to the understanding of Sethianism, was written by Valentinus.

Valentinus: (100-180 C.E.) Gnostic teacher some believe is the writer or had a part in the writing of the Gnostic “Gospel of the Truth,” ”A Valentianian Exposition,” and others. Also formed secular Gnostic groups who’s written works are referred to as Valentinian. The ” A Valentinian Exposition,” explains in part the use of the ”monad.” (See; Sethian Monadology. SGG.)

Valentinian: A general reference to types of work which seem related, and to have other than Sethian roots. See; ”The Valentianian Exposition,” “Gospel of Truth,” “Tripartite Tractate,” others) References to Archons, Aeons, Demiurge, Logos and Autogenes are common to Valentinean works. However, Valentinian works are also related to Sethian ideas. (SGG)

One important Valentinian student was Bardesanes: (155-233 A.D.) Bardesanes, or Bar-daisan (so called from the river Daisan (the Leaper), on the banks of which he was born), was born at Edessa, on July 11th, 155 A.D., and died, most probably in the same city, in 233, at the age of 78. His parents, Nuhama and Nahashirama, were nobles. He became a follower of Valentinus, and is called by some the ”Last of the Gnostics. His most famous work was a collection of 150 Hymns or Psalms on the model of the Psalm-collection of the second temple, as still preserved in the Old Covenant documents. He is known for qualifying free will. ”And that everything is not in our own Free-will, that is that Free-will is not absolute, is plainly visible in everyday experience. Fortune also plays its part, but is not absolute, and Nature also. Thus “we men are found to be governed by Nature equally, and by Fortune differently, and by our Free-will each as he wishes.” (SGG)

Other Gnostics were known after Bardesanes, and probably calling him the ”Last of the Gnostics,” is a bit misguided. A late woman Gnostic is known…Marcellina: (330-398 A.D.) The only sister of St. Ambrose of Milan. She was older than St. Ambrose, and was born most probably at Trier, where her father resided as “Praefectus Praetorio Galliarum.” Mentioned to have led a Gnostic sect founded by Heracleon. A list of Valentinians can be found at:

Perhaps the title of the ”Last of the Gnostic,” belongs to Pachomius. It is with the Nag Hammadi association that scholars have connected the Sethian works to Egyptians. It appears he defied the Roman Church into modern times, with the recovery of the Sethian works.
Pachomius: (290-346) Founded the Christian monastery around Nag Hammadi Egypt. Thought by some to have held Gnostic beliefs. He is known as the most probable person to have had the Nag Hammadi texts. He is known to have opposed Athanasius who took over as the Orthodox authority in Alexandria around 297, ending the reign of Origen there. Athanasius, is said to have organized the books of Bible before the Nicean influence of Eusebius. He opposed the Gnostics, and is known to have posted himself in front of the Nag Hammadi mountains, where the texts were eventually found. (Encyclopaedia Britannica), (SGG)

Bits and pieces of Gnosticism seem to have survived in history, but it is doubtful the Sethian ways could be put together without the Sethian texts. It was and is the aim of the Orthodox and Roman Church to destroy the Sethian works, and hide the epistemology of the Secret Christianity. They still deny the lineage of the Sethian texts to this day. Are they correct?