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

In: Numen
Dylan M. Burns Universität Leipzig, Ägyptologisches Institut, DDGLC-ProjektRitterstr. 12 / 3.02, 04109 Leipzig Germany

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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.

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