Alternative MethodsConventional Methods

March 29

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

Sherry Torres
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 10 min.

The view that the category “ gnosticism” is an academic construct whose use creates more heuristic problems than it solves has been steadily gaining support over the last twenty years or so. Ioan Culianu called the term a “sick sign” which can signify almost anything and therefore practically nothing, and argued for a redefinition of “gnosticism” by placing it within a taxonomy of religious dualisms . Karen King called for scholars to set strict limits upon the diverse phenomena being described as “gnostic”, and suggested a non-narrative Foucaultian methodology may bring increased clarity to the field . With Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’, Michael Williams has taken this line of critique to its inevitable conclusion, and called for the rejection of the category altogether.

Williams, Professor of Comparative Religion and Near Eastern Languages & Civilization at the University of Washington, Seattle, has devoted his career to “gnosticism”, and to related issues such as the Nag Hammadi corpus. It is surprising indeed, then, that his major work should be a damning critique of that very category, and given that he is a professor of comparative religion specifically, to mount such an attack on religious typological categories shows considerable courage. Williams’ broader thesis concerns the construction of said categories, and specifically how remaining entrenched in an outdated category can be an impediment to scholarly understanding moving forward.

Williams begins with concise examinations of four examples of schools or writings generally included in the category “gnosticism” by scholars, apparently intended to place the following argument into scholarly context for the lay-reader. These case-studies, all drawn from the mid to late 2nd century C.E., are the “ Apocryphon of John”, a text with multiple attestations at Nag Hammadi and elsewhere; Ptolemy, of the Valentinian tradition; “ Baruch”, a book which is no longer extant but which is summarised by the early Christian writer Hippolytus; and Marcion of Sinope, who preached that God, the father of Jesus, was not the Hebrew God YHVH. These case-studies are intriguing, although their position at the front of the book is puzzling, for reasons I shall return to.

Not until Chapter two does Williams begin to rethink “gnosticism”. Here, his challenge to the category “gnosticism” takes place on two fronts; as a self-designated emic category, and as an etic typological construct. “Gnosticism”, he argues, is presented as being a little of both types of definition, but is in actuality neither. His argument against the first, that the primary sources do not seem to refer to themselves as “gnostics”, is not a strong one. For example, one could point out that the term “Christian” was originally applied to them by outsiders, took several centuries before it was self-designated, and furthermore, does not appear in the gospels. Are we then to reject “gnostic” because of its non-appearance in the Nag Hammadi corpus? Williams seems to be suggesting so, although not for this reason alone, as we shall see. Nevertheless, this part of the argument has seen indignant refutations from several prominent contemporary “gnostics”.

His examination of “gnosticism” as a typological construct is stronger. Here he critiques the scholarly practice of basing the modern category “gnosticism” on the catalogue of groups assembled by Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses in the 2nd century C.E. He points out that Irenaeus was not interested in what “gnosticism” was, but in what heresy was (p45). Irenaeus’ “gnosticism”, therefore, is defined neither doctrinally nor through self-identification, but theologically, and this agenda has informed the academic category from the very beginning. Elsewhere, however, Williams himself seems unable to separate “gnosticism” from the received data set of groups and individuals to whom scholars have traditionally included in the category “gnostic”, stating “the problem is not with the data, but the category” (p28). This sets up a significant and unresolved tension that runs throughout the book; why must the category “gnosticism” necessarily include all of these groups, when Irenaeus’ theological agenda differs so significantly from the scholarly one? Indeed, reading this work, it seems clear that this is the single largest problem in the attempt to establish a useable definition for the category “gnosticism”.

Regardless of these issues, however, “gnosticism” remains of value as a category if it can be demonstrated to be heuristically useful. Again, Williams argues that it is not, and gives as an example the failure of scholars to agree on which texts from the Nag Hammadi corpus are “gnostic” or otherwise. He suggests that the term “gnosticism” be therefore replaced with other, more functional categories, and presents his own term, “biblical demiurgical traditions”, as one possible alternative.

The bulk of the book is made up of chapters which examine in detail what Williams calls “clichés that have come to be almost routinely invoked at any mention of ‘gnosticism’” (p52). These “clichés” are familiar as frequently included in the “family resemblance”-type definition of “gnosticism” typically presented in modern primers on the subject . Firstly, we are frequently told that “gnostics” practiced “protest exegesis”, the systematic reversal of conventional scriptural interpretation. Williams is convincing in showing that in actual fact, these unconventional exegeses are typically of passages that had proven equally problematic to conventional Christian interpreters, and therefore represent innovative problem-solving rather than systematic reversal. Secondly, he examines the claim that “gnosticism” is parasitically reliant upon other traditions as “hosts” for its survival, concluding that “gnosticism” shows a familiar pattern of innovation from common sources, the same process that for example saw Christianity emerge from Judaism. Thirdly, “gnostics” are often presented as “anticosmic” isolationist pessimists; Williams presents strong evidence that this was certainly not always the case. Similarly, he argues that the claim that they hated their bodies cannot be demonstrated from the sources, and the charge that “gnostics” were either ascetics or wild libertines is a gross over-simplification of a diverse range of ethical agendas. Finally, while some of the sources indicate a deterministic soteriology, Williams interprets these not as elitism, but as reaction to hostility from outside that some “gnostic” groups may have experienced. In other words, the doctrine that some were incapable of receiving “gnosis” was not a prescription against evangelism; rather, it was an explanation of why the teachings were resisted or ignored.

These case-studies are robustly argued, marshalling an impressive range of primary and secondary sources in a manner that demonstrates a deep involvement with the field and an acute awareness of the critical debates surrounding it. Yet there are questions to be asked about the selection of these definitional “clichés”. Why, for example, does he not critique the conception of the experiential phenomenon of “gnosis” itself, which is surely of critical import to the category with which it is so fundamentally entwined? Nor does he choose to examine the presence or otherwise of “demiurgical” doctrines, which, given that he is arguing for the replacement of (the majority of uses of) “gnosticism” with the term “biblical demiurgic traditions”, is either a gross oversight or deliberate avoidance.

Elsewhere, he betrays his assumptions, for example, Chapter 5, “Anticosmic World-Rejection? or Sociological Accommodation?”, where he argues that “gnostics” could not be doctrinally anticosmic because they did not eschew worldly or political activity. This is clearly an oversimplification; if we accept Culianu’s definition of anticosmic duality (as Williams appears to) as the belief that mans’ place in the universe is ultimately meaningless, the absence of commensurability between man and God, then there is no reason to assume that it is necessarily accompanied by asceticism or political disavowal, as Williams does. Indeed, given the disbelief in an interested and interventionist God, the urge to shape the world according to the will of mankind could conceivably be all the greater, as it was for the politically active existentialist Sartré.

It is difficult, furthermore, to see the justification for the inclusion of Chapters 10 and 11, on the origins of “gnosticism” and the dating and authorship of the Nag Hammadi corpus respectively. Although both are interesting and written with characteristic intelligence, it is unclear how they further his argument. Indeed, these chapters, together with the first, give the impression of having been included in order to include an overview of all of the author’s work on “gnosticism” in a single volume. The argument necessarily loses focus at these points, and the book suffers as a result. Williams states in the preface that the book is not aimed merely at specialists, but at the interested general reader; “helping the non-specialist gain a fairly close impression of the ‘soul’ of various ancient groups and individuals whose writings are discussed” (p viii). This clearly contradicts the argument that these groups have little or nothing in common, and this is exacerbated by the decision to place the chapter outlining various so-called “gnostic” groups at the front of the book, creating a diffuse but distinct impression of this “soul” of “gnosticism” before he begins his attempt to dismantle the category.

Despite the waters being muddied by theological agendas and the psychologising trajectory exemplified by Jung and Quispel, a typological academic definition seems relatively straightforward when detached from Irenaeus’ data set. “Gnosticism” is demiurgical (conceiving of Creation as the work of lower or subordinate deities), as Williams himself hints at by his proposed alternative category – perhaps nuanced by reliance upon “gnosis”, a soteriological, revelatory “knowledge”, as I have argued elsewhere. Anomalies in the data set should be identified and thrown out, not doggedly clung to despite undermining the functionality of the category. Is this, in fact, not what scholarship does? Whales were for a long time believed to be fish, and when it was demonstrated that they breathed a different way and so could not be fish, we did not abandon the category “fish” altogether. Rather, the perimeter of to what the category “fish” refers was moved. Indeed, Williams himself proposes that his own category be substituted for the majority, though not the totality, of the data set. Would it not be easier to argue for the non-inclusion from the category of those few problematic examples, than for the abolition of the whole category, especially one so firmly established?

It could also be questioned whether Williams actually addresses the fundamental problem here, which is the use of “family resemblance” definitions in these types of category formation. Demonstrating that not all “gnostics” were, for example, deterministic, does not mount a serious challenge to the category, as “family resemblance” definitions do not require all of their typological features to be demonstrable. While such a definition might be acceptable in a popular context, they are too vague to be of use in academic studies. “Family resemblance” definitions, as Fitzgerald has argued, are useful to the academic because they allow the continuing usage of categories which have not (or cannot) be adequately defined, and as such perpetuate and perhaps even exacerbate the problem . Having set up the question of category formation in the opening pages, I had hoped that Williams would return to the question in his conclusion. Disappointingly, he instead only repeats his call for the abandonment of the category.

Perhaps this book would have been more convincing as two separate works; one an overview of the state of the field of studies in “gnosticism”, and the other his critique of the category itself, perhaps with a stronger emphasis on the wider implications for category formation in the field of Religious Studies. Such concision would strengthen Williams’ argument through focus; unfortunately, here it is padded out with material designed to broaden the book’s appeal.

These criticisms aside, however, it is clear that “Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’” has profound implications for the study of “gnosticism”, and the wider matrix of religious movements of the middle-east of the early centuries of the Common Era. As such, it is a powerful work at the leading edge of scholarship, and I commend his nerve in publishing a work as certain to raise heckles as this. While Williams’ term “biblical demiurgical traditions” does not appear to have been widely adopted, there are signs however that “gnosticism” as a term is beginning to fall out of favour, with many scholars now reverting to the term “gnosis” . Evidence, perhaps, that Williams has produced a timely challenge to ideas that are half a century or more old.


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