- Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category
In an ambitious work, Michael Williams has challenged the category of “gnosticism” as an academic discipline and offered a corrective to a problem that has plagued scholars for decades. According to Williams, “gnostic” studies have reached an impasse both in terms of defining the phenomenon and discussing its primary features, evidences, and origins. He even doubts that any religious phenomenon that could be called a “gnostic religion,” “gnostic movement,” or “gnosticism” ever existed.
By categorizing evidences under one broad umbrella, scholars have been guilty of accepting caricatures and misleading generalizations that have basically sidetracked our current understanding of “gnosticism” and literary materials associated with it. The corrective that Williams offers is more profound than merely proposing a series of “gnosticisms”; rather, his criticism is against the category itself which he feels should be abandoned. He demonstrates the inadequacy of the classification when he presents case studies of four diverse “schools of thought” which scholars have generally included under this rubric.
Williams systematically exposes the fallacies behind the category and undermines the scholarly integrity of six major generalizations which have confused modern understanding: protest exegesis, biological metaphors (e.g., parasites), anticosmic world rejection, hatred of body, ethical extremism (asceticism vs. libertinism), and determinism. In each case, Williams proposes alternative perspectives which he feels could prove more productive. The author presents the “gnostics” not as religious or social deviants, but as careful exegetes of problem texts within the mainstream of Judeo-Christian interpretation and as innovators of new religious ideas. He even offers the novel proposal that the Nag Hammadi tractates were grouped in codices as they were for liturgical purposes. In Williams’ analysis, the “gnostics” were much more culturally involved and world-affirming than most scholars admit. This does not imply that there were no extremists among them; however, the extremism is more often the imaginative creation of ancient polemics and modern stereotypes than the representation of historical reality.
Is Williams successful? In my opinion, the author has successfully debunked what he laments “has become scholarly orthodoxy” (p. 118) and has called the scholarly community to reconsider its presuppositions, foundations, and methods. Williams has not left scholars without options. He proposes “biblical demiurgy” as a more useful category. By this he means those traditions which “incorporate or adapt traditions from Jewish or Christian Scriptures” and “that ascribe the creation and management of the cosmos to some lower entity or entities, distinct from the highest God” (p. 51). This would certainly embrace more religious phenomena (such as Hermeticism) than is usually included under the category of “gnosticism,” but would at least provide a category that is [End Page 684] definable and, thus, discernible, and not burdened by misleading clichés. This is a positive suggestion, though it should be noted that this grouping might suggest ideological dependencies where there are none. Likewise, as a category that defines the movements of the second through fourth centuries c.e. which have specific teachers, have clearly enunciated doctrinal formulations, and have been categorized as “gnostic” by Christian heresiologists and even by philosophical polemicists, the term “gnosticism” will be much more difficult to displace. Perhaps the best that Williams could hope is that the term “gnosticism” will be thought of as having “biblical demiurgy” as its chief definitional element. With this as a starting point, perhaps many of the stereotypes will be avoided.
This volume’s readable style, excellent review of materials, interdisciplinary approach, and careful argumentation provide a fine introduction to and model for “gnostic,” or rather, “biblical demiurgical” research. Its thesis must be heard, and hopefully it will prove seminal in spurring many scholars to ask new questions and consider new categories of thought regarding this subject.