Why did Sethian gnostic authors write pseudonymously? In addition to making a claim to authority, gnostic pseudepigraphy, exemplified by The Three Tablets of Seth, was multiple and performative, implying that the self is multiple—a manifestation of selfhood at different levels of a single reality—and that performing one’s self as multiple provides a path to higher knowledge of one’s self and thus of God. That is, gnostic pseudonymity stems from a distinctive understanding of the self and functions as a mystical practice that performs that understanding. The eschewal of pseudonymity in Valentinian literature reflects different conceptions of the self and of the path to gnosis.
Why did gnostic authors write pseudonymously? Surely they did so primarily to lend their works an authority they would not have been able to claim had they written in their own names. Presumably certain ancient readers found revelations from divine figures and the teachings they contained more persuasive when an apostle like John or even the first human being, Adam, presented them rather than when they were related by an anonymous or otherwise unremarkable contemporary person. In his substantial 2012 book Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics, Bart Ehrman convincingly argues that, despite universal condemnations of forgery among ancient Mediterranean intellectuals, many early Christian authors produced forgeries to promote the apostolic origin of their views in the context of polemics with rival Christian teachers and groups.1 With ultimate truth and salvation at stake, pseudonymous Christian writers “may have thought that they had a truth to convey, and they may have been willing to lie in order to convey it.”2
Ehrman does not treat any gnostic writings, which lack the obvious signs of polemics one finds in, say, the Pastoral Epistles or 3 Corinthians, but his argument certainly applies to at least some of them. The author of the Apocryphon of John (nhc iv,1) has the Savior point out that his interpretations of Genesis differ from others in his context, and Zeke Mazur has detected subtle but sharp criticism of non-gnostic Platonists in the eschatology of Zostrianos (nhc viii,1).3 In general, the gnostics wrote within the same milieu of debate, boundary-making, and religious competition that inspired the more overtly polemical forgeries that Ehrman studies. They too probably lied in part to convey their understanding of truth and salvation in opposition to rival claims.
Nonetheless, other recent works on the question of pseudepigraphy suggest consideration of what other functions forgery may have had and whether any ideas about God, the self, or the practice of writing might have motivated the choice of pseudonymity as one’s strategy for claiming authority. Some of this scholarship retrieves and revises twentieth-century attempts to understand pseudepigraphy in spiritual, even mystical terms.4 For example, Charles Stang interprets pseudonymity in the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus as a mystical practice: the author’s identification of himself with the other self of Dionysius the Areopagite is “a practice that stretches the self to the point that it splits, renders the self unsaid, that is, unseated from its knowing center, unknown to itself and so better placed, because displaced, to suffer union” with Christ.5 Other scholars take their cue from Michel Foucault’s concept of “author function,” which construes the author as a production of discourse for diverse ideological purposes.6 Karen King finds that the Apocryphon of John distributes “author-function (identifying source and securing transmission) … among the Savior, John, the impersonal narrator, and the material artifact (the book).” A single author dissolves into “different figures or voices” that “all work simultaneously to express author-function.”7
Although the approaches of King and Stang differ, both focus on the multiple identities and voices that pseudonymous writing produces. Rather than construing the forged writing as composed by a single pseudonymous author, they emphasize the gap between selves that writing as another self creates. From one perspective, the deceit of forgery lies precisely in that gap: the self that purports to write is a false self. From another perspective, the gap between self and not-self may provide the space in which knowledge of self and other, gnosis, may take place.
I argue that such is the case with gnostic pseudepigraphy: the multiplicity of self that pseudonymous writing performs reveals the truth about one’s self and enables gnosis of self and God. The “gnostic” literature considered here is the corpus that scholars usually call “Sethian.”8 Within that corpus, gnostic pseudepigraphy displays two distinctive characteristics. On the one hand, it is often multi-epigraphic: an author can write not only in one false name, but in multiple false names, the voices of which are folded within one another. There is, then, not a single false self. On the other hand, it is sometimes performative: the text invites the reader or listener to join in the author’s enactment of another identity or identities. These two characteristics imply that the self is multiple—that is, layered, a manifestation of selfhood at different levels of a single reality—and that performing one’s self as multiple and layered provides a path to higher knowledge of one’s self and thus of God. That is, in these works pseudonymity reflects a distinctive gnostic understanding of the self and functions as a mystical practice that performs that understanding. The best example may be The Three Steles of Seth (nhc vii,5), in which these characteristics and functions define the work.
In comparison with other pseudepigraphic Jewish and Christian works of the first three centuries, gnostic works sometimes feature multiple voices or literary personae. To be sure, not all gnostic writings are pseudepigraphic: Marsanes, for example, may be the actual name of a real gnostic visionary who wrote the work with that title (nhc x). But other works feature a multiplicity of voices, all or some of which are false. For example, as King’s essay explains, the opening of The Apocryphon of John slips seamlessly from the voice of a nameless narrator to that of the apostle John to that of the multiform Savior, and back again. Similarly, in The Nature of the Rulers (nhc ii,4), the voice of an anonymous author gives way to that of the quasi-biblical character of Norea, who in turn gives voice to the great angel Eleleth. The anonymous author initially presents himself as something of a teacher, responding to a student’s inquiry about the “authorities” against whom Paul warns in Ephesians 6:12, but he writes in the style and diction of biblical narrative, as a kind of gnostic Moses.9 These works are multiply pseudepigraphic or multi-epigraphic. Scholars have often taken these shifts in voices as invitations to engage in source criticism, as indications that an editor has awkwardly reframed pre-existing literary works. Even if so, the appropriation of different voices creates a layering of authorial personae.
Moreover, some gnostic works invite their readers or hearers to add their voices or, better, to participate in the work’s pseudonymity by giving voice to speakers within the work. The Gospel of the Egyptians (nhc iii,2 and iv,2) claims the great Seth as its author: “This is the book that the great Seth composed and which he placed in high mountains upon which the sun has never risen—nor can it.” So important is this claim that it is repeated only lines later.10 Pseudo-Seth narrates the entire gnostic history of salvation, from the first emanations from the Great Invisible Spirit to the incarnation of the great Seth in Jesus, culminating in a baptismal hymn in the first-person singular, which an initiate would recite or sing: “I shall truly declare your praise, / For I have comprehended you.”11
It seems likely, however, that worshipers would add their voices to that of Pseudo-Seth at times throughout the narrative of salvation, for interspersed within it are doxologies or hymns of praise that divine beings offer to those higher than they, as well as lists of divinities that repeat and multiply. The hymns and lists invite the shared recitation of gathered hearers, who thus speak as higher divinities or join their voices with that of the great Seth, the purported narrator. The readers and hearers join the work’s author in enacting the pseudepigraphical authorship of Seth.
The Three Steles, or Tablets, of Seth, however, features most clearly the two distinctive features of gnostic pseudonymity, multiplicity and performativity, and thus provides the best opportunity to reflect upon its spirituality and enactment of self. Dated by scholarly consensus to the first half of the third century, Three Steles consists of a set of hymns that Adam and Eve’s third son Seth purportedly recorded on three tablets that survived the flood and which actual gnostics of the second and third centuries would have used in liturgical gatherings. This communal function appears in the frequent use of the first-person plural in the hymns—“We praise you, we bless you,” and so on—and in a concluding set of instructions for their use as a means of ascent to mystical contemplation of God, followed by descent:
Whoever remembers these (steles) and always glorifies shall be perfect among those who are perfect and impassive beyond all things; for, particularly and collectively they all praise these: and afterward they shall be silent.
And just as it has been ordained for them, they will ascend. After silence, they will descend from the third: they will bless the second; and afterward, the first. The way of ascent is the way of descent.12
The work repeatedly names the steles as being “of Seth,” but a concluding colophon asserts that “this book,” either this work alone or the entire codex, “belongs to the kinship.”13 The Three Steles of Seth, as we shall see, identifies the gnostic community as Seth, and thus a book that Seth composed can belong also to the kinship that he is.
The attribution of the hymns to Seth makes them pseudepigraphic, but the work as a whole is almost certainly doubly pseudepigraphic. For the text incorporates also the voice of a narrator, one Dositheus, who claims to be the reporter of the tablet’s contents, and most likely we should understand him also as the author of the concluding instructions and benediction. The work opens as follows: “Report of Dositheus, (consisting) of the three tablets of Seth, father of the living and immovable race. He remembered what he saw, gained acquaintance of, and read; and he delivered it, just as it was written there, unto the elect.” Dositheus appears to go on to say: “Many times I joined in glorifying along with the powers. And I was deemed worthy by the immeasurable greatnesses. And they [the tablets] are as follows.”14 The contents of the first tablet begin immediately thereafter. As James Goehring notes, this “I” who joins in the hymns might not be Dositheus, but rather Seth, or even the congregation.15 This pronominal ambiguity is the first sign of the multiple self that speaks throughout the work.
Bentley Layton has suggested that the name Dositheus might not be a pseudonym, and there is reason for that hesitation, even if one concludes that the consensus on this point is correct.16 If the name is a false one, claimed in order to lend the work antiquity and authority, scholars agree that it must refer to the Dositheus whom Origen and the Pseudo-Clementines identify as the Samaritan teacher of Simon Magus.17 Although he does not say so explicitly, Layton’s hesitation may be based on the question of whether Dositheus was a figure of sufficient antiquity and authority to function as a compelling pseudonym.
Although a first-century figure could be of sufficient antiquity (as were all the Christian apostles), was the alleged Samaritan teacher of Simon Magus so well-known and respected that his name would have lent prestige and reliability to a work? Of course, Hans-Martin Schenke used this attribution to help build his case for the Samaritan origin of Sethian Gnosticism, a hypothesis that he later abandoned.18 Layton, however, in 1987 was still open to the possibility that there was in fact a sectarian leader named Dositheus who wrote this work or that the author was someone else with that name. Paul Claude, however, persuasively argues that Dositheus’s mythic function of providing the transmissional link from the ancient Seth to “the elect” of the present day requires a legendary figure like that of the founder of Samaritan gnosis, who would have carried authority within gnostic circles if not in the wider culture.19
The ambiguity of Dositheus’s identity matches the pronominal and other forms of ambiguity that run throughout the work and that stand behind the major issue on which translators and interpreters of the text differ—the number, beginnings, endings, speakers, and addressees of the hymns. An examination of how and why scholars disagree on the work’s literary structure takes us to the heart of its pseudonymous strategy. In 1975 Konrad Wekel could speak simply of “three prayers” on the three tablets, but his lack of precision on this question did not last.20 In 1996 James Goehring proposed a structure that resembles that of Paul Claude, who edited the text in 1983. Like many pioneers in Nag Hammadi studies, Claude often solved the work’s puzzles in the mode of neutestamentiche Wissenschaft, that is, through source and redaction criticism.21 Goehring was aware of and did not criticize Claude’s redactional theory, but did not make much of it in his own analysis of the text:
The First Stele (118.24–121.17)
Prayer of Seth to Adamas (118.25–119.15a)
Hymn to the Self-Begotten (119.15b–121.16)
The Second Stele (121.18–124.15)
Hymn to Barbelo (121.20–124.13)
The Third Stele (124.16–127.27)
Expression of joy at reaching the highest level (124.17–21a)
Hymn to the Unbegotten (124.21b–126.32a)22
According to Goehring’s analysis, each tablet contains a single hymn, addressed in turn to the Self-Originate aeon, to the Barbelo, and finally to the Invisible Parent. The hymns on the first and third tablets are preceded by a prayer from Seth to his father the Geradamas and by an expression of joy at reaching the highest level of contemplation, respectively. Each hymn consists of an invocation, a large section of glorification, and then a closing prayer or benediction. This scheme attractively maps out a clear, three-step ascent to union with the ultimate divine principle and correlates nicely with the structure of three tablets.
Differing from Goehring’s three-part scheme, however, others have discerned more complicated literary structures. Layton divides the work into seven hymns:
The First Tablet (118.24–121.17)
Hymn 1: Emmakha Seth’s praise of the Geradamas (118.25–120.17)
Hymn 2: Praise of the Barbelo (120.17–121.16)
The Second Tablet (121.18–124.15)
Hymn 3: Praise of the Barbelo (121.20–123.6)
Hymn 4: Petition to Barbelo the parent (123.6–124.10)
Hymn 5: Thanksgiving to the Barbelo (124.10–13)
The Third Tablet (124.16–127.6)
Hymn 6: Collective thanksgiving and petition to Barbelo the parent (124.17–125.16)
Hymn 7: Collective thanksgiving to the Barbelo (125.16–127.6)23
All the hymns except the first, in which Seth praises the Geradamas, address the Barbelo, although Layton admits that some of the language in the third tablet could refer to the Invisible Parent, as Goehring in fact argues. John Turner, in his translation for Meyer’s Nag Hammadi Scriptures, makes more subtle distinctions:
The First Stele (118.24–121.17)
Seth’s Hymn to Pigeradamas, the Divine Adam (118.25–119.15)
Seth’s Hymn to Autogenes, the Self-Generated (119.15–120.17)
Communal Hymn to Barbelo (120.17–121.16)
The Second Stele (121.18–124.15)
Communal Hymn to the Barbelo Aeon, Unified Author of Multiplicity (121.20–123.13)
Communal Petition to the Barbelo Aeon to Enable the Ascent (123.14–124.13)
The Third Stele (124.17–127.6)
Opening Communal Doxology (124.17–126.5)
Traditional Doxology to the Supreme Preexistent One (126.5–17)
Final Doxology to the Supreme One (126.18–127.16)24
Turner finds three hymns in the first tablet, addressed to the Geradamas, the Self-Originate, and the Barbelo, with the first two sung by Seth and the third by the community. The second tablet contains a communal hymn to the Barbelo and a communal petition to the Barbelo. Finally, the third tablet consists of a combined doxology and petition as well as two doxologies, all addressed to the Invisible Parent.
Why do scholars differ on this fundamental question of the number and addressees of the hymns contained in the Three Tablets of Seth? On the one hand, the manuscript clearly marks where each tablet begins and, except for the third, where it ends. On the other hand, the manuscript provides no subdivisions to the text on each tablet, and thus scholars must rely on titles and pronouns to identify speakers and addressees and to discern individual hymns. As for the speaker, the pronoun “I”—identified early as Emmakha Seth—appears through about the first third of the first tablet, after which the first-person plural “we” speaks for the remainder of the first tablet and throughout the second and third tablets. For Layton and Turner, this shift in the first tablet indicates the existence of two hymns on that tablet. Not for Goehring, however, who sees no change in addressee and argues that Seth’s function as a “prototype” for the Sethian community explains this shift within a single hymn.25
To complicate matters further, while Goehring sees the first tablet’s entire single hymn as addressing the Self-Originate aeon, both Layton and Turner believe that the section that speaks in the first-person plural addresses not the Self-Originate aeon, but the Barbelo. They part ways, however, on the earlier portion of the tablet, with Layton understanding it to be a single hymn addressed to the Geradamas and Turner dividing it into two hymns, one to the Geradamas and the other to the Self-Originate.
The tablet certainly begins with Emmakha Seth praising his father, the Geradamas, for the speaker says, “I praise you, O father, O Geradamas—I, your own son Emmakha Seth, whom you have ingenerately produced for the praise of our god.”26 But some lines later the speaker proclaims, “Great is the good Self-Originate, which has stood at rest.… You came with good”—and so on.27 For Goehring this declaration marks the beginning of the hymn to the Self-Originate, after an introductory prayer to the Geradamas, and likewise Turner sees here a second hymn, one to the Self-Originate after an initial one to the Geradamas. But Layton believes that this simply continues the same hymn to the Geradamas, for, as he says in a footnote, the Self-Originate aeon is the aeon in which the Geradamas dwells.28 In other words, the Geradamas can be addressed as the higher abstraction in which he is subsumed. Or, as Goehring puts it in his introduction, “the apparent identification of Adamas and the Self-begotten … may not have caused the Gnostic any difficulty.”29
A similar slippage in addressing terminology occurs in the third tablet. Both Goehring and Turner understand the entire third tablet to be addressed to the ultimate divine being, the Invisible Parent or the One, although Goehring considers it to consist of a single hymn and Turner sees a combined doxology and petition along with two doxologies. On the other hand, Layton finds two hymns, both addressed to the Barbelo. Here the problem is not only the titles that the speakers use, but the characteristics that they attribute to the divine. On the one hand, some of the language must apply to the ultimate divine principle, the One or the Invisible Parent. The speakers acclaim the addressee as “unbegotten,” “you who are non-existent,” and “parent of divinity and vitality,” and assert that the eternal ones and the aeons come from the addressee.30
On the other hand, the speakers tell the addressee that “you are acquainted with the One”—a statement that makes sense for the Barbelo, but not for the One itself—and they admit that they cannot speak of the One, which it seems they were just doing.31 In Layton’s view these lines indicate that the hymn is, in his words, “clearly addressed to the Barbelo and not its parent,” even if some of its language can be applied to Barbelo’s parent, or, as his subtitle puts it, the hymn addresses “Barbēlō the parent.”32 And thus we once again have an instance in which a divine being is addressed in ways that pertain to its higher abstraction, that is, its source and the level of reality in which it is contained.
The identification of higher and lower divine entities occurs in other gnostic works that are not liturgical, to the confusion of many a modern reader. Consider, for example, the career of Sophia or Wisdom in the Apocryphon of John. After her repentance for her mistaken production of Ialdabaoth, Wisdom is “conveyed not to her own eternal realm but to a place higher than her offspring, so as to dwell in the ninth (heaven) until she rectified her lack.”33 Because the ninth aeon is that of Epinoia or Afterthought, Wisdom can thenceforth appear as Afterthought or indeed as Life, Zoē.34 Afterthought, Wisdom, Life—they are not the same, and yet they are. Alternatively, in the Gospel of the Egyptians, the divine self-originate Word (Logos) becomes fused with the Adamas to create a single rational human being, and yet they can continue to appear as two separate characters.35 Thus presumably different higher and lower beings can act independently while sharing the same identity, both temporarily and permanently.
Such replication of characters at different levels of reality plays out the gnostic concept of emanation, the process by which the single ultimate principle of all being, the Invisible Spirit, unfolds into an Entirety that consists of multiple aeons and yet is simultaneously nothing more than the Invisible Spirit itself. Zeke Mazur calls the initial movement from the single first principle to multiplicity “primordial self-reversion”: “This act of self-apprehension produces the first minimal duality through the deity’s own self-objectification. Once actualized, the self-apprehension is extruded from the absolute unity of the transcendent deity and thereby acquires independent subsistence, having crystallized into a fully-determinate second principle.” That second principle is, Mazur continues, the Barbelo or Forethought, “in effect, the ‘image’ of the first principle itself—the object of its own self-apprehension.”36
This ontogenesis through self-apprehension continues through the principles subordinate to the Invisible Spirit. Thus, in the Apocryphon of John, after Forethought emanates from the Invisible Parent, it requests four eternal realms, the aeons Prior Acquaintance, Incorruptibility, Eternal Life, and Truth, each of which has an unnamed masculine consort. The author concludes, “This is the androgynous quintet of aeons, that is, the group of ten aeons, that is, the parent.”37 The Barbelo is the quintet of aeons made up of itself and its four eternal realms, even as it is distinguishable from them. And all of them are the parent, even as they are not. Hence, the speakers in the Three Steles of Seth can address the Barbelo as the Invisible Parent in a hymn addressed to the Barbelo and the Geradamas as the Self-Originate in a hymn addressed to the Geradamas. Perhaps Wekel was correct not to distinguish individual hymns within the three tablets: they are single prayers that shift in their speakers and addressees, but from another perspective the speakers and addressees do not change, but rather speak from and are spoken to at different levels of their identities.
Analogously, who are human gnostics if not also lower particularities emanated from and subsumed by higher abstractions, with which they are identical and yet from which they are distinguishable? As Mazur explains, the gnostic’s self or intellect, like the aeons, is a remnant of the Invisible Spirit’s act of self-knowing: “The inherent ‘impression’ (tupos) or ‘image’ (eikōn) within the human subject—the faculty of transcendental apprehension—was a residual ‘impression’ or ‘image’ of the reflexive ‘first thought’ or ‘first manifestation’ of the first principle.”38 Like the original quintet of aeons in relation to the Invisible Spirit, the gnostics, both individually and collectively, are distinguishable from the Emmakha Seth who dwells before the luminary Oroiael, and yet they are he at the same time. Thus, they and Emmakha Seth can speak within the same hymn in the first tablet with the same voice. The gnostic self, then, is a layered self, individualized and independent but also subsumed within the higher abstractions from which it gains its existence and with which it is identical.
This concept of the self provides the basis for gnostic mysticism as it is found in Allogenes. There divine beings instruct the person in search of gnosis with the ultimate divine principle to withdraw into his own intellect and to discover there the constituent aeons of the Barbelo. The gnostic must understand that the manner in which the unrecognizable exists within the spiritual beings “is after the pattern (tupos) that resides within you.”39 One must know one’s self as not oneself, as a pattern or image of higher abstractions, in order to know the divine from which one is separated and yet with which one remains identical.
The specific function of pseudepigraphy in gnostic writings ought to be understood in relation to this concept of the layered self. That function may become clearer in comparison with what Stang argued for concerning pseudonymity in the Pseudo-Dionysian corpus.40 As we have seen, Stang revisits the criticized “religious/psychological” approach to ancient pseudepigrapha used by several mid-twentieth-century scholars, who emphasized ecstatic, even oracular identification of the author with the pseudonymous figure as the basis for genuine or valid Christian pseudepigraphy. Although Stang turns to the religious/psychological approach for inspiration, he diverges from it in a crucial way. Earlier scholars had seen the pseudonymous author as basically passive and totally effacing of his self, which is ecstatically vacated or serves merely as a vessel for the divine figure, whose presence engulfs or seizes the writer.
Stang, however, interprets the writer of the Pseudo-Dionysiac corpus as active, deliberately cultivating a divided self. The author identifies with the pseudonym even as he retains his own self: he inhabits the role of Dionysius the Areopagite (Acts 17:34) in a manner as detailed and deceptive as that in which the author of the Pastoral Epistles inhabits the role of Paul, but he does little to disguise his extensive borrowing from fifth-century Neoplatonists. The self knows or un-knows itself through knowing and identifying with another self. Hence the subtitle’s allusion to Paul’s statement in Galatians 2:20: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The self is ecstatically divided and broken down—but meticulously and deliberately so. In more recent work, Stang traces a tradition of self-deification through identification with a higher divine double of one’s self, a tradition rooted in Plato and manifest in late antiquity in the Thomasine literature, Valentinian works, Mani, and Plotinus.41
A similar spirituality motivates gnostic pseudonymous writing and becomes especially apparent in the doubled pseudonymity and overlapping voices and addressees of the Three Steles of Seth. To be sure, pseudonymous composition deceitfully suggests antiquity and authority, but it does so in a way appropriate to the gnostic understanding of the self. Like pseudepigraphic writing, the hymns in Three Steles Steles of Seth invite gnostic practitioners to perform their selves as layered and thereby to see and understand themselves as multiple selves, stemming from and united with abstract entities. The overlapping hymns, which simultaneously voice multiple divine and human characters, enable mystical union with the Barbelo as one’s higher self. While Pseudo-Dionysian mysticism required an intentional division of the self through identification with the pseudonym, gnostics understood themselves as already essentially layered, simultaneously individualized and corporate. For them the multiplied voice of pseudonymity expresses the truth of one’s self and brings it to consciousness. The doubled pseudepigraphy of the Three Steles of Seth—that is, writing as someone else (Dositheus) reporting the writing of someone else (Seth)—matches literary form with mystical practice.
The highly fragmentary later work Melchizedek (nhc ix,1) may provide additional evidence for ritual identification with a pseudonym as a path to gnosis. The author writes as Melchizedek, whom Genesis identifies as “priest of God Most High” and portrays as conducting a ritual blessing, with “bread loaves and wine,” of Abram and God (Gen 14:18–19). After the angel Gamaliel concludes a long revelation, the author announces that the angel “has [caused] me to be raised up from ignorance and the fruit-bearing of death to life.”42 The speaker closely ties his new status of knowledge and life to his name: “For I have a name: I am Melchizedek, the priest of [God] Most High. I know that truly I am [the image] of the true high priest of God Most High.”43 The pseudonym Melchizedek identifies the speaker as an image (ⲉⲓⲛⲉ) or lower manifestation of a higher being. The speaker appears to receive his name in baptism: “And <according to> the [perfect] laws I will say my name as I am receiving baptism now, forever among the living holy [names] and in the [waters.] Amen.”44 Here follows a liturgical doxology, consisting of eleven trisagions (“holy, holy, holy”) addressed to God and other divine beings, which, like the doxologies in the Gospel of the Egyptians, is appropriate for the reader or listener to join. The author has identified himself as a lower manifestation (“image”) of a divine self, and other gnostics may join their voices with that of the author. Melchizedek ties this layering of self directly to the pseudonym: the name that the speaker receives enables the speaker to take his place among the other “living holy names.” The name Melchizedek may be false, but it instantiates the speaker’s true, knowing self as multiple.
Recognizing this function of pseudonymity adds depth and specificity to our understanding of gnostic mysticism as self-knowledge. John Turner has argued that in the so-called Platonizing Sethian treatises, including the Three Steles of Seth, “the contemplation of entities on ever higher ontological levels is characterized as a form of self-knowledge in which the consciousness of the knowing subject is actually assimilated to the ontological character of the level that one intelligizes at any given point. The soul thereby assimilates itself to the ontic nature it once occupied before its descent.” Turner attributes this development in gnostic works to the influence of “the Platonic tradition of contemplative ascent extending from Plato’s Symposium through Plotinus.”45 Gnostic myth proved amenable to this Platonic tradition of contemplation because of its theme of self-replication through primordial self-reversion, in which multiple selves incarnate a single self at lower levels, and pseudonymous writing provided one specific means for the self’s assimilation to higher selves. Moreover, the soul’s descent may be understood not as a true decline from a higher ontological nature, but rather as the eclipse of the soul’s knowledge of its true self as identical with multiple higher selves. Speaking as another self performs the self’s unity with one’s true higher self. One “ascends” in the sense that one identifies again with that higher self, which one always must be because, at least for these gnostics, there appears to be only one actual self, the Invisible Spirit, simply unfolded in multiple layers. One’s pseudonym is not really false.
In contrast to the (Sethian) gnostics, Valentinian authors did not write pseudonymously—at least so the surviving literature suggests. Valentinus, Ptolemy, Heracleon, and Theodotus wrote in their own names. Works like the Treatise on the Resurrection (nhc i,4) and the Tripartite Tractate (nhc i,5) survive anonymously, but there is no reason to think that they did not once bear the names of their authors; most likely Rheginus, the addressee of the Treatise, was a real person interested in instruction from the author, like Ptolemy’s Flora. The Gospel of Philip (nhc ii,3) is an example, not of pseudonymity, but of false attribution, akin to that of the canonical gospels: there is no indication that the author (or compiler) claimed to be Philip, nor does that apostle’s identity play any meaningful role in the work. The Prayer of the Apostle Paul (nhc i,1), if it is Valentinian, may be an exception. The speaker may claim to be Paul, but it is more likely that a Valentinian theologian invokes in prayer the example of Paul, the apostle to whom Valentinians traced their academic lineage through Valentinus. Or, as Einar Thomassen suggests, the prayer may be a Valentinian revision of an earlier non-Valentinian work, which could have been pseudepigraphic.46 In general, however, Valentinians did not write pseudonymously; their conception of the knowing and speaking self differed from that of the Sethian gnostics.47
Like the Sethian gnostics, the Valentinians thought of the self as not simply one; but unlike the Sethians, they sought to identify and unite with a single higher self, one’s angelic double, unique to every person.48 The primordial separation of female from male in Eve’s removal from Adam repeats at the level of each individual: one’s “female” human spirit has separated from one’s “male” angel, of which one’s spirit is an image. Through such rituals as baptism and eucharist, one’s lower female self unites with one’s angelic male self in anticipation of the final such reunion at the consummation of all things. A Valentinian eucharistic prayer asks, “O you who have joined the perfect light with the holy spirit, join the angels with us, too, as images.”49 Or in baptism the female self “is given form” and “is changed into a male.”50
This Valentinian self is a doubled self, not the multiply layered self of the Sethian gnostics, and the Valentinian’s higher self is not a corporate entity like the gnostic’s Seth, but a single male angel, unique to every person, one’s individual authentic self. And thus the Valentinian who speaks from mystical knowledge does not do so pseudonymously, as Seth or Melchizedek, but as one’s own self. The author of the Gospel of Truth (nhc xii,2) depicts believers as “texts of truth, which speak and know only themselves,” for, according to Valentinus, at creation the Son deposited within human beings “a seed of higher essence,” which enabled them to “speak freely.”51 The Valentinian eschewal of pseudonymous writing reflects a conception of the self that differs from that of the gnostics and a path to gnosis that finds the divine within one’s unique self rather than in a vertical, so to speak, identification with a higher abstraction.
Within the competitive and contentious religious world of the Mediterranean in the second and third centuries, pseudonymous writing emerged as a powerful strategy to assert the legitimacy and antiquity of one’s teachings. But it was not the only strategy available to religious authors: Valentinian writers tended to stress their education in a lineage of inspired teachers that went back to Paul—what Ptolemy called “the apostolic tradition.”52 The Sethian gnostics, however, sometimes wrote as persons other than who they really were—as Adam, Seth, Melchizedek, John, and others—and in their case this choice reflected a distinctive understanding of the self and of the path to knowledge of self and God. Having originated in successive acts of self-reversion, the gnostic self was multiple and layered, a lower instantiation of higher abstractions from which it is separate and with which it is identical. To write and speak as another self performed that understanding of the self and enabled the practitioner to know and become one’s true self in just this way. In this case, lying told the truth about one’s self.
1 Ehrman 2012; cf. Brakke 2016. I presented earlier versions of this paper at meetings of the the Center for the Study of Religion at The Ohio State University; the Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity Section of the Society of Biblical Literature; and, originally, the North American Patristics Society in honor of James E. Goehring upon his retirement from Mary Washington University. I am grateful to Professor Goehring and to the other participants in those sessions for their questions and suggestions.
2 Ehrman 2012, 548.
3 Apoc. John nhc ii,1 13,19–21; Mazur 2016.
5 Stang 2012, 204.
6 Foucault 1998.
7 King forthcoming.
8 For the classic delimitation of the Sethian corpus see Schenke 1974 and Schenke 1981. For the identification of this (and only this) tradition as “gnostic,” see Brakke 2010. The argument here does not depend on this approach to the problem of “gnosticism,” but it does assume the coherence of the so-called Sethian texts and their origination in some religious tradition with distinctive beliefs and practices. Among these works I consider the following to be pseudepigraphic or, in the gnostic style, to move in and out of pseudonymity: the Apocryphon of John nhc ii,1; nhc iii,1; nhc iv,1; bg 8502,2, Revelation of Adam nhc v,5, Nature of the Rulers nhc ii,4, Gospel of the Egyptians nhc iii,2 and nhc iv,2, Zostrianos nhc viii,1, Allogenes the Stranger nhc xi,3, Three Steles of Seth nhc vii,5, and Melchizedek nhc ix,1. Thunder Perfect Mind nhc vi,2 and Three forms of First Thought nhc xiii,1 pose a special problem: as wisdom monologues, they present the timeless speech of a female divine voice; whether they should be understood in terms of a pseudepigraphy is a difficult question that, however resolved, does not affect my argument here.
10 Gos. Eg. nhc iii,2 68.1–5, 10–14 (Layton 1987, 119).
11 Gos. Eg. nhc iii,2 67.12–14 (Layton 1987, 119).
12 Steles Seth nhc vii,5 127,6–21 (Layton 1987, 158).
13 Steles Seth nhc vii,5 127,28–29 (Layton 1987, 158).
14 Steles Seth nhc vii,5 118.10–24 (Layton 1987, 152).
15 Goehring 1996, 387.
16 Layton 1987, 149.
17 Goehring 1996, 386; cf. Origen, Cels. 1.57; 6.11; Comm. Jo. 13.29; Ps.-Clem. Rec. 2.11.
18 Schenke 1974, 172.
19 Claude 1983, 3, 60.
20 Wekel 1975, 572. His translation leaves numerous spaces between sense units or paragraphs, but provides no structural analysis beyond differentiating the three tablets and the introductory and concluding elements.
21 Claude 1983, 9–12.
22 Goehring 1996, 374–5.
23 Layton 1987, 152–8.
24 Turner 2007, 526–36.
25 Goehring 1996, 381.
26 Steles Seth nhc vii,5 118.24–30 (Layton 1987, 152).
27 Steles Seth nhc vii,5 119.15–18 (Layton 1987, 153).
28 Layton 1987, 153n (119c).
29 Goehring 1996, 377.
30 Steles Seth nhc vii,5 124.21–31 (Layton 1987, 157).
31 Steles Seth nhc vii,5 125.7–19 (Layton 1987, 157).
32 Layton 1987, 156–157.
36 Mazur 2010, 229.
37 Ap. John nhc ii,1 6.8–10 (Layton 1987, 32, trans. altered).
38 Mazur 2010, 277.
40 Stang 2012.
41 Stang 2016.
45 Turner 2001, 757.
46 Thomassen 1995, 256–7.
47 Remarkably in A Valentinian Exposition nhc xi,2 the aeon Wisdom (Sophia) speaks in the first person (34.25–31), but the author does not claim to be Wisdom, only to quote her. Otherwise, the anonymous author speaks as a learned theologian: e.g., “But I call the thought ‘only-begotten’ ” (24.32–33).
48 Stang 2016, 113–19.
49 Gos. Phil. nhc ii,3 58.10–14 (Layton 1987, 334).
51 Gos. Truth nhc i,3 23.8–11; Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 2.36.2–4 (Fragment C in Layton 1987, 235).
52 Ptolemy, Flor. 33.7.9 (Layton 1987, 314).
Aland Kurt , '“The Problem of Anonymity and Pseudonymity in Christian Literature of the First Two Centuries” ' (1961 ) n.s. 12 Journal of Theological Studies : 39 -49.
Brakke David , '“Early Christian Lies and the Lying Liars Who Wrote Them: Bart Ehrman’s Forgery and Counterforgery” ' (2016 ) 96 Journal of Religion : 378 -90.
Foucault Michel , '“What Is an Author?” ', in James D. Faubion (ed), Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology , (The New Press , New York 1998 ) 205 -222 .
King Karen L. , '“ ‘What is an Author?’: Ancient Author-Function in The Apocryphon of John and The Apocalypse of John” ', in William Arnal (ed), A Share in All Good Things: Essays in Honour of John S. Kloppenborg , (Peeters, Leuven Forthcoming ).
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Mazur Zeke , '“Forbidden Knowledge: Cognitive Transgression and ‘Ascent Above Intellect’ in the Debate between Plotinus and the Gnostics” ' (2016 ) 1 Gnosis: Journal of Gnostic Studies : 86 -109.
Schenke Hans-Martin , '“Das Sethianische System nach Nag-Hammadi-Handschriften” ', in Peter Nagel (ed), Studia Coptica , (Akademie , Berlin 1974 ) 165 -173 .
Schenke Hans-Martin , '“The Phenomenon and Significance of Gnostic Sethianism” ', in Bentley Layton (ed), The Rediscovery of Gnosticism: Proceedings of the International Conference on Gnosticism at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, March 28–31, 1978 , (Brill , Leiden 1981 ) 588 -616 .
Thomassen Einar , '“Notes pour la délimitation d’un corpus valentinien à Nag Hammadi” ', in Louis Painchaud & Anne Pasquier (eds), Les textes de Nag Hammadi et le problème de leur classification , (Les Presses de l’Université Laval , Québec 1995 ) 243 -259 .
Turner John D. , '“Ritual in Gnosticism” ', in John D. Turner & Ruth Majercik (eds), Gnosticism and Later Platonism: Themes, Figures, and Texts , (Society of Biblical Literature , Atlanta 2000 ) 83 -139 .
Turner John D. , '“Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition” ', (Les Presses de l’Université Laval , Québec 2001 ).
Ehrman 2012; cf. Brakke 2016. I presented earlier versions of this paper at meetings of the the Center for the Study of Religion at The Ohio State University; the Mysticism, Esotericism, and Gnosticism in Antiquity Section of the Society of Biblical Literature; and, originally, the North American Patristics Society in honor of James E. Goehring upon his retirement from Mary Washington University. I am grateful to Professor Goehring and to the other participants in those sessions for their questions and suggestions.
Ehrman 2012, 548.
E.g., Aland 1961, Russell 1964, Speyer 1971.
Stang 2012, 204.
Goehring 1996, 387.
Layton 1987, 149.
Schenke 1974, 172.
Claude 1983, 3, 60.
Wekel 1975, 572. His translation leaves numerous spaces between sense units or paragraphs, but provides no structural analysis beyond differentiating the three tablets and the introductory and concluding elements.
Claude 1983, 9–12.
Goehring 1996, 374–5.
Layton 1987, 152–8.
Turner 2007, 526–36.
Goehring 1996, 381.
Layton 1987, 153n (119c).
Goehring 1996, 377.
Layton 1987, 156–157.
Mazur 2010, 229.
Mazur 2010, 277.
Turner 2001, 757.
Thomassen 1995, 256–7.
Stang 2016, 113–19.