Plato’s Sophist in Platonizing Sethian Gnostic Interpretation

The background of this paper is as follows. Throughout II.9[33], Plotinus complains that the Gnostics plagiarize from, and abusively misread, Plato. While Plotinus mentions only the Timaeus explicitly, he implies that the Gnostics appropriated themes from the Phaedrus,Phaedo and elsewhere. And yet, while the Gnostic debt to a ‘popular’ kind of Platonism is widely accepted, most modern scholars have tended to be considerably less sanguine than Plotinus himself that the Gnostics were actually inspired by the reading and original interpretation of Platonic dialogues themselves. Indeed, it has typically been assumed that any Platonic themes in Gnostic literature must have been adopted pre–digested, as it were, from a contemporaneous tradition of exegesis practiced in the academic (Middle– and / or Neoplatonic) philosophic schools. I would like to challenge this assumption, an assumption which, I believe, is fostered by the unfortunate tendency to neglect or to minimize the importance of Gnostic literature in the history of philosophy. A close examination of the Platonizing Sethian corpus–– especially the apocalypses Zostrianos and Allogenes, which are homonymous with those read and critiqued at length in Plotinus circle (according to Porphyry, Vita Plotini 16)–– reveals that these authors were reading and interpreting passages from Platonic dialogues directly, for themselves, and were often doing so in unusual and creative ways that both resembled and–– more significantly–– diverged from that of Plotinus and other academic Platonists. Moreover, once one has been sensitized to the Platonic themes and allusions running through the Platonizing Sethian corpus, one can also detect a subtle critical response to the Gnostic (mis)reading of Plato in Plotinus–– and not merely in the obvious anti–Gnostic tetralogy, but throughout his works–– and also in the writings of Porphyry. Of course, this should come as no surprise, given the enormity of Plotinus’ senior pupil Amelius’ 40–volume oeuvre against Zostrianos alone.

Thus far the background; but in this paper–– which forms part of a larger project which will examine the complex dialogue between Plotinus’ circle and the Platonizing Sethian Gnostics over the interpretation of Plato­­–– I would like to examine what appear to be a number of hitherto unnoticed allusions in the Platonizing Sethian corpus to a crucial passage of Plato’s Sophist (especially 253b–254b) in which Theaetetus and the suggestively named Eleatic “Stranger”–– one is reminded of the eponymous visionary "Allogenes," the foreigner–– accidentally arrive at the definition of the true philosopher who alone is able to apprehend the Divine. The significance of this is threefold: first, [a] it provides an example of the ways in which the Platonizing Sethian employed Platonic texts themselves in the service of, so to speak, an ‘interpretatio Gnostica’; second, [b] it provides some insight into the Platonizing Sethian attitude towards of the practice of philosophy itself, which might help explain their close association with, and or derivation from, philosophical schools; and finally, [c] the evidence for a substantive Platonizing Sethian interest in the interpretation of the Sophist in particular provides strong support for the hypothesis that these sectaries were at the origin of the noetic (Existence–Life–Intellect) triad, ostensibly drawn fromSophist 248c–e, and evidently present, in various permutations, throughout their corpus.