Zostrianus is the major tractate (1) in Codex VIII of the NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY. The name is linked with the magical tradition of the famous Persian Zoroaster by means of a second colophon to the tractate (cf. Arnobius, 1871, I, 52). The work is likely to be the apocalypse of Zostrianus referred to by Porphyry (1946, p. 16). The text of Zostrianus is poorly preserved. Since only the opening and closing sections are relatively intact, a lucid translation is difficult.

The book recounts a heavenly journey by Zostrianus. He is called from this world, ascends into the heavens, and learns from various revealers a secret gnosis. The content of that knowledge consists largely of the names of the mythological beings in the heavens and of their interrelationships. Attention centers on an intermediate realm called the Barbelo aeon. This aeon in turn contains three constituent aeons (Kalyptos or Hidden, Protophanes or First-Visible, and Autogenes or Self-Begotten), each of which possesses four illuminators or lights. Knowledge of these heavenly beings provides the key for escape from the physical world. When the journey is over and the revelations are complete, Zostrianus is pictured as descending to this world, where he writes down his gnosis and exhorts his readers to escape from their bondage to matter.

The worldview presented by Zostrianus is thoroughly Gnostic. A basic dualism between matter and spirit is assumed. Human life represents the imprisonment of the soul within matter; salvation means to be rescued from this world. The mythological aeons are to explain how this world came into existence from the one, good Spirit.

The relationship of the gnosticism of Zostrianus to that of other Gnostic work is difficult to ascertain. Zostrianus addresses itself to a select group called “the living elect” and “the sons of Seth.” Its cultic materials suggest the existence of a group or community. Yet its teachings do not easily fit those of the Sethians described by Irenaeus and Hippolytus. From the Nag Hammadi Library close parallels can be found with the THREE STELES OF SETH (VII, 5) and ALLOGENES (XI, 3), and to a lesser degree with MARSANES (X, 1). These four non-Christian works in turn share some mythological ties, especially in the Autogenes aeon, with the GOSPEL OF THE EGYPTIANS (III, 2 and IV, 2), APOCRYPHON OF JOHN (II, 1; III, 1; IV, 1), and the Untitled Text of the Bruce Codex. Thus it would appear that Gnostic groups of varying persuasions felt at liberty to utilize and alter common traditions to suit their needs.

Zostrianus is also related to the philosophical discussions of the late Middle Platonic period. The Barbelo aeons are expressly identified with the philosophical triad of Existence, Life, and Mind. Other philosophical terms and categories are also frequently employed. Furthermore, parallels with the arguments of the essay of Plotinus Against the Gnostics (Enneads II, 9.6-10) indicate that Zostrianus was one of the Gnostic works that Plotinus disputed.

Jewish and Christian influences on Zostrianus are secondary. Zostrianus approves of creation by a word, but it provides no exegesis of or reference to the Genesis texts. Though it uses a heavenly journey format similar to that in the Enochian literature of the Pseudepigrapha (especially 2 Enoch), the contents of the revelation are totally dissimilar. There is an allusion to the triad of faith, hope, and love, but without specific reference to the Pauline passage. Unless one Greek abbreviation stands for Christ, that name receives no mention at all; likewise, the name of one angelic being may the name Jesus without special interest in it. One brief reference to a man who cannot suffer but does could also reflect later Christian teachings.

In conclusion, Zostrianus is best described as an apocalypse of the heavenly journey type. It intends to show that its mythological gnosis provides the interpretive keys for those interested in a correct understanding of Platonic philosophy. Thus, the tractate most likely originated in one of the centers of Middle Platonism late in the second century A.D. or early in the third.


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  • Doresse, J. “Les de Zoroastre, de Zostrien de Nicothée. . . .” In of Walter Ewing Crum, Boston, 1950.
  • Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. S. MacKenna. London, 1969.
  • Porphyry. Vita di Plotini ed ordine dei suoi libri, ed. G. Macchiaroli. Naples, 1946.
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