Rethinking "Gnosticism"

Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category

Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 360
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    Rethinking "Gnosticism"
    Book Description:

    Most anyone interested in such topics as creation mythology, Jungian theory, or the idea of "secret teachings" in ancient Judaism and Christianity has found "gnosticism" compelling. Yet the term "gnosticism," which often connotes a single rebellious movement against the prevailing religions of late antiquity, gives the false impression of a monolithic religious phenomenon. Here Michael Williams challenges the validity of the widely invoked category of ancient "gnosticism" and the ways it has been described. Presenting such famous writings and movements as theApocryphon of Johnand Valentinian Christianity, Williams uncovers the similarities and differences among some major traditions widely categorized as gnostic. He provides an eloquent, systematic argument for a more accurate way to discuss these interpretive approaches.

    The modern construct "gnosticism" is not justified by any ancient self-definition, and many of the most commonly cited religious features that supposedly define gnosticism phenomenologically turn out to be questionable. Exploring the sample sets of "gnostic" teachings, Williams refutes generalizations concerning asceticism and libertinism, attitudes toward the body and the created world, and alleged features of protest, parasitism, and elitism. He sketches a fresh model for understanding ancient innovations on more "mainstream" Judaism and Christianity, a model that is informed by modern research on dynamics in new religious movements and is freed from the false stereotypes from which the category "gnosticism" has been constructed.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2221-8
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-2)
    (pp. 3-6)

    What is today usually called ancient “gnosticism” includes a variegated assortment of religious movements that are attested in the Roman Empire at least as early as the second century c.e. These movements seem to have had their greatest impact during the second and third centuries, though some of them apparently experienced some kind of survival long after that. The forms of religious expression generated among these circles have, at various levels, captured the imagination of a considerable audience of modern readers. This has been especially true since the discovery in 1945 in Egypt of a collection of fourth-century c.e. manuscripts...

  7. CHAPTER ONE What Kind of Thing Do Scholars Mean by “Gnosticism”? A LOOK AT FOUR CASES
    (pp. 7-28)

    One of the most interesting developments in the history of religion in late antiquity was the emergence of certain forms of religious expression and practice that modern scholarship usually classifies under the rubric Gnosticism,” or “Gnosis,” or “the Gnostic religion.”¹ The term “gnosticism” seems to have originated in the eighteenth century. On the other hand, the words “gnosis” and “gnostic” are Greek terms that are actually found in some of the ancient sources that either describe or represent examples of certain of the religious forms in question. However, when used for the modern category “Gnosticism,” “Gnosis,” or “the Gnostic religion...

  8. CHAPTER TWO “Gnosticism” as a Category
    (pp. 29-53)

    What kind of category is “gnosticism,” and how useful is it? The organization of religious phenomena into categories of some sort is of course necessary to any intelligible analysis in the history of religions. In the categorization of religious movements there are, broadly speaking, at least two basic strategies.

    The first is to use self-definition as the index, by attending to how those whom we are studying seem to group themselves, how they seem to construct their own communal or traditional identity. At least in principle, this is the approach underlying the customary organization of textbooks that survey the “major...

  9. CHAPTER THREE Protest Exegesis? or Hermeneutical Problem-Solving?
    (pp. 54-79)

    One of the features that has come to be viewed as characteristic of “gnosticism” is a tendency to interpret Scripture in ways that to readers familiar with more traditional or orthodox interpretations often seem surprising or even shocking. While method in scriptural interpretation, or “hermeneutics,” is not necessarily thefirstfeature that scholars would mention in a technical discussion of the definition of “gnosticism,” it is nevertheless one of the most important, since it is usually viewed as central evidence for more general alleged dimensions of the “gnostic attitude” (such as “anticosmism,” to be discussed in chapter 5).

    The way...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR Parasites? or Innovators?
    (pp. 80-95)

    For generations researchers have sought appropriate metaphors that would capture the essence of the construct that has come to be known as “gnosticism” or “gnosis.” The great German historian Adolf von Harnack described “gnosticism” with the now-famous phrase “the acute secularising or hellenising of Christianity.” This was a medical metaphor, by which Harnack contrasted the “acute” process in these “heretical” developments with a more gradual or “chronic” shaping influence of Hellenistic culture in more “orthodox” forms of Christianity.¹ In reaction to this and other such analyses of “gnosticism” that tended to treat it as merely a heretical derivative, Hans Jonas...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE Anticosmic World-Rejection? or Sociocultural Accommodation?
    (pp. 96-115)

    Among the most common elements in modern characterizations or definitions of ancient “gnosticism” is a reference to an “anticosmic” attitude.¹ “Anticosmism” is frequently singled out as the identifying mark distinguishing “gnostic dualism” from other dualisms.² Gnostics, we are told, “rejected the world.” By itself, any reference to “anticosmism” or “world rejection” is no more than a metaphorical shorthand. One of the problems with such shorthand is that it so often tends to be invoked in rather perfunctory fashion and without much or any further explanation, as though everyone knew what it implied.

    Now to be sure, the general grounds for...

  12. CHAPTER SIX Hatred of the Body? or the Perfection of the Human?
    (pp. 116-138)

    In a passage where Irenaeus of Lyons is describing some of his opponents, probably Valentinians, he makes an interesting comment about their physical demeanor: If someone is converted to their position, Irenaeus says, this person “thinks that he is neither in heaven nor on earth, but rather that he has entered into the Pleroma (‘Perfection’), and has already been joined to his ‘angel.’ He walks around with a pretentious and supercilious air, looking like a rooster in his arrogance. There are those among them who say that it is appropriate that the person who has ‘descended from above’ exercise noble...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN Asceticism … ?
    (pp. 139-162)

    One of the most frequently repeated characterizations of ancient “gnosticism” is that it was a religious ideology that tended to inspire two divergent ethical programs, asceticism and libertinism.¹ This characterization has been around in one form or another for a very long time² and has been repeated so often that its essential validity has often been simply presupposed.³

    Botanical metaphors seem to be the favorite media for expressing this formula: The two types of behavior sprout from the same theoretical “root,” or they are two different branches of the “same tree of gnosis.”⁴ In a less organic mode, one recent...

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT … or Libertinism?
    (pp. 163-188)

    The “two option” model for gnostic ethics mentioned at the beginning of the previous chapter has not gone completely unchallenged in modern scholarship.¹ However, it is not clear that most criticisms have had much effect on the popularity of the formula. Much of the reason is that challenges to its validity have often amounted merely to the objection that the formula, especially in its inclusion of libertinism as the “other” option, is merely an exaggeration. This form of criticism has become more frequent since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts. The ascetic posture evidenced in several of these writings,...

  15. CHAPTER NINE Deterministic Elitism? or Inclusive Theories of Conversion?
    (pp. 189-212)

    In the bequest left to modern researchers by the ancient heresiologists, there is a treasured caricature that has provided countless hours of intellectual satisfaction. I am speaking of the portrayal of “gnostics” as determinists, who understood human existence not in terms of provision, possibility, or free choice, but in terms of fixed identity and destiny.

    Special credit for the early popularization of this caricature must go to Irenaeus of Lyons. As we saw in chapter 1, Irenaeus said that the Valentinian Ptolemy taught that humans have received their spirit from mother Achamoth, their soul from the demiurge, and their flesh...

  16. CHAPTER TEN Where They Came From …
    (pp. 213-234)

    At least since the work of the eighteenth-century Italian scholar Giambattista Vico, one of the presuppositions informing much research on religion has been that “the nature of any cultural product cannot be understood or known ahistorically—that is, without reconstructing its origins and causes.”¹ How do we speak of the origins of religious phenomena such as those under discussion in this study? In what religious tradition(s) did innovators first fashion these myths? The majority of the surviving sources usually treated under the rubric “gnosticism” are Christian or bear at least some elements from Christian tradition. Does this mean that the...

  17. CHAPTER ELEVEN … and What They Left Behind
    (pp. 235-262)

    In December of 1945, some Egyptian villagers in a rural area a few miles across the Nile from the town of Nag Hammadi found a small cache of ancient books that we now know most probably date from the fourth century c.e. All of the writings bound in these books are written in the Coptic language—the Egyptian tongue of the day, which had come to be written in an alphabet that was mostly borrowed from Greek. The villagers apparently split up the find and eventually at least most of these books, or “codices,” made their way, through various channels,...

    (pp. 263-266)

    In a very helpful essay pertaining to the general topic of “gnosticism” and its definition, Kurt Rudolph has distilled into a few sentences the essential defense, if there is one, for retaining the category “gnosticism.” Actually, even though he defends the importance of the category, Rudolph himself would prefer to dispense with theterm“gnosticism.” He considers it to be “a modern, deprecatory expression, a theologizing neologism,” and for this category he argues that we should stick with ancient terms such as “gnosis” and “gnostics.” After acknowledging that not even these terms were used by the ancients as “a general...

  19. NOTES
    (pp. 267-310)
    (pp. 311-328)
  21. INDEX
    (pp. 329-335)