Like Marsanes and Allogenes, the text concerns a vision received by a man named Zostrianos and explains and enumerates, in great detail, the emanations that the Gnostics said are produced by God (the true, highest God as opposed to the demiurge), in the Gnostics' esoteric cosmology.
Similarly to other gnostic literature, Zostrianos says, "Flee from the madness and the bondage of femaleness and choose for yourselves the salvation of maleness. You have not come to suffer; rather, you have come to escape your bondage. Release yourselves, and that which has bound you will be dissolved. Save yourselves so that your soul may be saved."
Zostrianos experiences a vision and sees an angel. He ascends through the aeons with the angel, where he passes the luminous cloud, the atmospheric realm, and the aeonic copies. He reaches the Sojourn and is baptized. Next, he reaches the Repentance and is baptized six times. Zostrianos then arrives at the self-generated (Autogenes) aeons, where he is baptized four times. He then receives a revelation from Authrounios, the great preeminence, who explains the origin of the material universe. Zostrianos then invokes Ephesech, Child of the Child, who gives him two lengthy revelations. Finally, Zostrianos receives his fifth and final baptism in the name of the Self-Generated One (Autogenes), and "became divine."
Next, Zostrianos approaches the Aeon of Protophanes and receives a revelation from Youel, who baptizes Zostrianos in living water. Zostrianos then sees the Triple-Male Child and receives a final baptism from Youel.
Afterwards, Zostrianos invokes the luminaries of the Barbelo Aeon (a triad consisting of Salamex, Semen, and the all-perfect Arme) and is then anointed. He enters the Aeons of Kalyptos, Protophanes, and finally Autogenes, where he receives various revelations. At the end, Zostrianos is crowned and finally descends from the Aeons.
Zostrianos features a complex divine hierarchy.
Triple-Powered Invisible Spirit
The Triple-Powered Invisible Spirit is the highest-level deity. He has three powers:
- Vitality or Life
- Blessedness or Mentality
These three powers of the Triple-Powered Invisible Spirit give rise to the aeon Barbelo, which has three sublevels or sub-aeons that represent three distinct phases in the unfolding of the Barbelo Aeon:
- Kalyptos ("Hidden One"), the first and highest subaeon within the Aeon of Barbelo, representing the initial latency or potential existence of the Aeon of Barbelo.
- Protophanes ("First Appearing One"), the second highest subaeon, is called a great perfect male Mind and respresents the initial manifestation of the Barbelo Aeon.
- Autogenes ("Self-Generated"), the self-generated actualization of the Barbelo Aeon, is the lowest of the three subaeons.
In turn, there are four luminaries for each of these three powers (or subaeons).
The Triple-Male Child is a savior or mediator in the Barbelo Aeon who brings undifferentiated beings in the Aeon of Protophanes into differentiated existence in the Aeon of Autogenes, and also helps them to ascend back to the Aeon of Protophanes.
The Self-Generated (Autogenes) Aeons contain the most of the divine beings that are typically associated with the Sethian baptismal rite:
- the Living Water (Yesseus Mazareus Yessedekeus)
- the baptizers: Micheus and Michar (and Mnesinous)
- the purifier: Barpharanges
The Self-Generated Aeons also contain the Four Luminaries:
- Mirothea, the consort of Autogenes and mother of the archetypal Adam, Pigeradamas
- Prophania, the mother of the heavenly Seth and of the Four Luminaries
- Plesithea, mother of the seed of Seth, called "the angels"
- Armozel (or Harmozel): dwelling of Adamas
- Oroiael: dwelling of (Emmacha) Seth
- Daveithe: dwelling of the seed of Seth
- Eleleth: dwelling of Sophia and the repentant souls of later generations.
Sophia does not give birth to the archon of creation, but shows a model of the material world, of which he sees only a dim reflection of while looking downwards. The archon of creation creates the material world based on this reflection.
- Repentance, which has six subaeons for different types of sins
Below these are the lower realms:
- The Aeonic Copies form a lower realm or purgatory. This realm contains the orbiting planets and probably also the fixed stars.
- The atmospheric realm or "the airy earth" forms the atmosphere between the earth and the planets.
- Masbuta, Mandaean ritual baptism that is repeated many times
- John D. Turner of the University of Nebraska writes concerning its date: "... one may date Allogenes around 200 C.E., with Zostrianos coming a bit later around 225 C.E. (Porphyry certainly recognized it as a spurious and recent work)." Turner, John D. "Sethian Gnosticism: A Literary History". Archived from the original on 2012-12-11. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
- Meyer, Marvin (2007). The Nag Hammadi scriptures. New York: HarperOne. ISBN 978-0-06-162600-5. OCLC 124538398.