Sethian Crowns, Sethian Martyrs? Jewish Apocalypses and Christian Martyrs in a Gnostic Literary Tradition

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The predominant image of the crown is among the most baffling features of several, difficult Gnostic apocalypses, recensions of which we know to have been controversial in the school of the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus (ca. 263 c.e.). In these “Sethian” apocalypses, recovered from Nag Hammadi (Upper Egypt) in 1945, crowns adorn heavenly beings, and are donned by seers during their celestial voyages. It is clear they are significant in this literature, but scholarship has yet to answer how, and why. First, while these crowns are relatively common in the “Sethian Gnostic” literature, they are notably absent from the Hellenic philosophical tradition which also informs the apocalypses in Plotinus’ school. The abundance of crown-imagery, however, in contemporary Jewish and Christian apocalypses thus serves as evidence of a Judeo-Christian background for this “Platonizing” Sethian literature, even if it is replete with Neoplatonic jargon instead of references to Jesus of Nazareth. Secondly, the crowns seem to indicate a state of glorification and deification derivative from ancient Jewish tradition concerning the possibility of recovering the primordial glory of humanity, often phrased as becoming an angel. Thirdly, Plotinus’ Christian Gnostic opponents may have seen these crowns differently — as indicative of the glory of martyrdom, reminding us that this early confrontation between Hellenic and Christian Gnostic philosophers followed on the heels of the Decian and Valerianic persecutions.

Sethian Crowns, Sethian Martyrs? Jewish Apocalypses and Christian Martyrs in a Gnostic Literary Tradition

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Abramowski 1981:6 noted the presence of crowns in the Untitled treatise as well as Zostrianos but did not analyze them.


See Schenke 1981:601–602 and Turner 2001:122.


Thus Poirier 2000:401–402noting further that “one must therefore see in it a symbol of their election or of the perfection they have attained. It is not a crown that is promised but a crown already possessed just as in the Odes of Solomon.”


Turner 2000c:136. On Gnostics as rulers over the archons cf. Orig. Worldnhc ii 5.125; Fallon 1979:285.


Sevrin 1986:218–220; Turner 2001:195; and Brakke 2009:201–204. Nonetheless the treatise still offers some important data concerning the Sethian traditions it incorporates and so merits analysis here.


This text can be found in Schmidt 1978.


See the recent edition of Betz 2003.


Meeks 1967:235; Fossum 1985:88; see these for passages Mem. Marq. 2.12 4.7 5.3 6.2 in MacDonald 1963.


See Grundmann 1964:626 on Asc. Is. 9.9 9.24 11.40; b. Ber. 17a; b. Šabb. 104a.


Turfan fragment M5569 = Gardner and Lieu 2004:88. When possible I have used the translations offered in Gardner and Lieu 2004.

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