When Rethinking Gnosticism by Michael Williamsdiscussing early Christianity and non-canonical texts, the words “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” gets thrown constantly. In his compelling book “Rethinking Gnosticism“, Professor Michael Williams at the University of Washington argues that the entire categories of “gnosticism” and “gnostic” are fundamentally problematic and should be abandoned. His arguments are detailed, fascinating, and will require many posts to explore; in this specific post, I plan to cover the high-level issue has he explores it.

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How Do We Define Gnosticism?

Williams argues that, when trying to categorize religious communities, there are two approaches we can take:

Self Definition: We can apply the concept of self definition– how people identify themselves– to understand religious categories. For example– most Christians identify themselves as Christian, most Buddhists as Buddhist, and so on. This can work for all sorts of non-exclusive sub-categories; Presbyterian, Orthodox, and Charismatic people might all consider their communities to be distinct within Christianity. Sometimes, self definition can be controversial. Most Mormons consider themselves Christian, but many non-Mormons Christians do not; similarly, most members of Messianic Judaism groups consider themselves to Jewish, but most non-Messianic Jewish people do not. Even if self definition can be controversial, it can at least provide a framework for discussing how to categorize religious groups. See p.29 for Williams’ own explanation.

Typological  (or Phenomenological): This approach, which may or may not be used in conjunction with self definition, focuses on delineating different religious communities or movements by their qualities. Williams points out (p.30) that fundamentalism is a good example of this– many people self-identify (or self define) as evangelical, but few do as fundamentalist; the category of fundamentalism refers to a set of common characteristics, continuities, and distinctions. It’s these externally-proscribed and somewhat objective properties that help to define a religious community typologically. Different movements in the time of early Christianity, then, would’ve shared certain commonalities (as well as distinctives), and these commonalities can be used to established types.


Only Four Options From Here!

So, per Williams, there are only really four possibilities:

  1. The categories “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” make sense through self definition (via communities who identified as such)
  2. The categories “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” make sense typologically (by sharing a set of common characteristics, continuities, and distinctions)
  3. The categories “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” make sense both self definitionally and typologically
  4. The categories “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” make sense neither self definitionally nor typologically

Williams argues that, while many scholars would favor option 3, that’s the wrong move; in fact, option four is the one best supported by the evidence. The categories “Gnostic” and “Gnosticism” make sense neither self definitionally nor typologically. Why does he think that? Let’s start with whether Gnostic communities or those practicing Gnosticism during the time of early Christianity self defined as such.


Gnosticism Was Not Self Defined

Let’s cover a few arguments Williams gives for why Gnosticism and “Gnostic” don’t make sense from a self definitional perspective:

The Strong Evidence: “Gnostic” Writings

Williams notes that we “do not have any direct evidence of a single so-called gnostic writer using the self-designation gnostikos!” (p. 32)! This may’ve been excusable prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945, but given the massive quantity of texts now available that are considered “Gnostic”, it’s inconceivable that there could be no single instance of self definition available. There are plenty of other forms of self definition in the writings, including “Christians, pneumatics, seed, elect, race of Seth, race of the Perfect Human… but not gnostikos.” (p. 32)

Hostile Writings Alleging Self-Definition

  • The popularization of the term “Gnostic” referring to these early groups comes from Iranaeus, a heresiologist during the time of early Christianity who wrote a five-volume book called “Exposure and Refutation of Knowledge (gnosis) Falsely So Called”. Iranaeus does argues that Valentinus adapted principles of the “sect (hairesis) called gnostic” (Williams, p. 33), but Williams argues that he applies that label as a “shorthand reference for virtually all the groups he is criticizing,” even if they have next to nothing in common (p. 36). Iranaeus does not seem to offer any examples of people self-defining as Gnostic or of affirming Gnosticism.
  • Hippolytus, in the early third century, referred to two groups who called themselves “gnostikoi” (or Gnostic). The first, the Naaseenes, but as Williams notes:

…the designation gnostikoi refers to a quality that they as Christians valued (openness to knowledge) rather than to a religious identity different from being Christian—perhaps in the way one modern
Christian might prefer to classify herself as a (Christian) “intellectual,” while another might call himself a “born-again” (Christian).

  • The other instance in which Hyppolytus references a group as referring to themselves as “Gnostic” is a reference to the “Naasenes”, the “Peratae”, and the “Sethians”; even if Hyppolytus’ claim is correct (and there’s reason to be suspicious, as he’s clearly on the attack), referring to only these factions as self-defining as “Gnostic” negates the vast majority of groups’ participation in Gnosticism as usually understood. My recollection is that David Brakke thinks Hyppolytus is correct and considers the Sethians to be authentically “Gnostic”, but probably only them; I don’t have a citation handy, but I believe he discusses this in his Great Courses Lecture on Gnosticism.
  • Finally: Epiphanius, writing in the 370s, says that the Valentinians applied the label “gnostics” to themselves (Williams, p. 40). And, yet, there is reason to be skeptical here, too. In other parts of his text, Epiphaneus makes a distinction between “the gnostics” and groups like the Valentinians (Williams, p. 40). He seems to be inconsistent across his work in how he applies the word, and he actively contradicts himself on which groups considered themselves Gnostic.


Gnosticism Cannot be Typologically Defined

Even if groups did not self-identify as being Gnostic, could we say that variety of groups and texts have unique features in common that merit the use of the term “Gnostic”? Williams calls our attention to Hans Jonas’ classic work on the subject, The Gnostic Religion:

The emphasis on knowledge as the means for the attainment of salvation, or even as the form of salvation itself, and the claim to the possession of this knowledge in one’s own articulate doctrine, are common features of the numerous sects in which the gnostic movement historically expressed itself. Actually there were only a few groups whose members expressly called themselves Gnostics, “the Knowing ones”; but already Irenaeus, in the title of his work, used the name “gnosis” (with the addition “falsely so called”) to cover all those characteristics. In this sense we can speak of gnostic schools, sects, and cults, of gnostic writings and teachings, of gnostic myths and speculations, even of gnostic religion in general.

Williams argues, however, that “Gnosticism” and “Gnostic” are not not only modern typological constructs (failing to date back to early Christianity), but that they aren’t even coherent from a modern perspective.

Heresiologist Typologies

Williams argues that, “to the degree that Irenaeus does place all of these“sects” in the same category of “gnosis,” it is really merely the category of  “false teaching” rather than a grouping defined by a list of phenomenological traits” (p. 44). He groups Marcion, the Ebionites and the Encratites in with gnostics, despite those groups having no documented emphasis on the pursuit of gnosis. As Williams argues on p. 45:

Irenaeus is not really trying to show us what “gnosticism” is, but what heresy is. To do our work of history of religions with his data, we are better off to cut ourselves completely free from the artificiality of his overall grouping and to establish the clearest possible criteria for classification.

A Lack of Clarity

If Gnosticism were a typologically clear concept, we would expect some degree of consistency about whether or not different tractates in the Nag Hammadi scriptures were “gnostic” or “nongnostic”. Williams does an incredible job, through charts I can represent here for copyright reasons, showing which scholars thought each tractate was gnostic, not gnostic, “gnosticizing” , Christian-gnostic, or Valentinian. He shows how there is there is tremendous dispute– for example, the Apocalypse of Peter in Codex VII is thought be some scholars to be not gnostic, some scholars to be gnostic, some to merely be gnosticizing, and others to be Christian-gnostic.  Admittedly, Williams’ argument here is less persuasive than some of his others, as he picks specific scholars; it would be interesting to know if the state of scholarship today reflects the same typological ambiguity. Nevertheless, it’s clear that there is not scholarly consensus about what actually makes something gnostic from a typological/categorical perspective.


Typological Approaches Do Harm

Williams presses further; do typological understands help our reading of “gnostic” texts? He argues that they do not; in fact, they hamper it! From page 49:

But “gnosticism” as customarily constructed has turned out too often to be doing just the opposite: obscuring from our view the true dynamics in our sources by setting us up to expect what is not there, a Procrustean paradigm distorting newly available evidence into its own image, while screening out the very information that actually tends to suggest that the typological construct itself is outdated.

By assuming that “this is a gnostic text” or “this is a Valentinian text”, we risk imposing our own metaphysical and philosophical expectations on our reading. We can’t approach the text on its own terms, and may miss authors’ intentions by improperly infusing our reading with the intentions of authors of other texts. Calling a text “gnostic” places upon it expectations about the text’s perspective on God, on the world, and on our role as humans. Reading the text with those assumptions, however, limit our ability to see what the text is actually saying!

Where Do We Go From Here?

Williams has certainly painted a grim picture of the study of ancient “gnosticism”! What alternatives are available? He argues that there’s nothing wrong with categorizing texts based on their traditions or sociological roles, like referring to “Valentinian” texts (insofar as texts can actually be determined to be Valentinian). However, there are limitations to this approach– both since such categories can be ambiguous, and because they can fail to show overlap across traditions.

He argues, therefore, for the phrase biblical demiurgical traditions. “Demiurgical” refers to traditions and texts “that ascribe the creation and management of the cosmos to some lower entity or entities, distinct from the highest God”, and “biblical” limits that scope to those that “incorporate or adapt traditions from Jewish or Christian Scripture” (p. 51). For Williams, there are quite a few advantages to this:

  1. Whether a text is biblical and demiurgical is rather specific and potentially easy to distinguish.
  2. It clarifies that the texts in question fall within the Judeo-Christian tradition and context (as opposed to Jonas’ poorly named, The Gnostic Religion).
  3. Because this phrasing is modern, it avoids the polemical and baggage-laden context of the words “gnostic” and “gnosticism”. It takes us away from caricature and helps us treat texts more seriously and fairly.

What do you think? Is Williams persuasive? Do you think there’s merit to hanging on to the words “gnostic” and “gnosticism” when discussing ancient texts? Please share your thoughts in the comments, below!