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Early Christian Texts Discussions
Presented by the Tanho Center

No Such Thing as ‘Gnosticism’?

Monday, June 24, 2019
8:00 – 9:00 pm Eastern Time
Zoom Meeting Link: https://zoom.us/j/499027361
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Presenter:  Deb Saxon

This month’s study involves exploring the raging debate over whether there is any such thing as ‘Gnosticism’ and whether or not it is important to stop labeling certain texts as ‘gnostic.’ Following the ‘Questions for Discussion,’ presenter Deb Saxon offers some preparatory references:

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How did you first discover the extracanonical texts and how did you think of them? Did you think of them as the ‘gnostic Gospels?’ Why were you drawn to the study of these writings?
  2. Does it matter what we call these texts or how we classify them? What are the stakes in continuing to call them ‘gnostic’?
  3. If we don’t use ‘gnostic,’ what can we use instead?

Rather than looking at a single primary text, we will be considering snippets of two important books by Michael Williams and Karen King that have tackled this question and argued that the term ‘Gnosticism’ is misleading and inaccurate and serves simply to perpetuate old ideas about the superiority of some ideas as ‘orthodox’ and others as ‘heretical’.

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(Bold italics in the quoted passages indicate Deb Saxon’s highlights — passages are not bolded in the original texts.)

Michael Williams

Michael Allen Williams.  Rethinking “Gnosticism”:  An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1996)

“The extended argument at the core of this book amounts to a case study in the construction of categories in the study of religions, and in how a category can become more of an impediment than an expedient to understanding” (Preface, xiii).

“What is today called ‘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 . . .. The forms of religious expression generated among these circles have . . . captured the imagination of a considerable audience of modern readers . . . since the discovery in 1945 in Egypt of a collection of fourth-century C.E. manuscripts . . ..” (p. 3).

“. . . the chapters that follow raise questions about the appropriateness and usefulness of the very category ‘gnosticism’ itself as a vehicle for understanding the data under discussion” (p. 3).

“. . . the term ‘gnosticism in modern discourse has become such a protean label that it has all but lost any reliably identifiable meaning for the larger reading public” (p. 3).

“There is no true consensus even among specialists . . . on a definition . . ..” (p. 4).

“In this study, I will be arguing that it is best to avoid imagining something called ‘the Gnostic religion’ or even ‘gnosticism.’ I will suggest that the texts in question are better understood as sources from a variety of new religious movements. Modern treatments of ‘gnosticism’ often do, in fact, include some similar disclaimer acknowledging the multiplicity of phenomena involved, but the discourse normally moves quickly to the enumeration of features that, it is claimed, really make all these movements one thing, ‘gnosticism.’ The result has been the premature construction of a category that needs to be not simply renamed or redefined, but rather dismantled and replaced (p. 8).”

“There have been many specific definitions of ‘gnosticism’ in the history of scholarship. Indeed, as we will see, the plurality of definitions and the inability of any single definition to win a clear consensus has been the problem” (p. 27).

“The problem is not with the data, but with the category. The data, the phenomena that have come collectively to be called ‘gnosticism,’ are a truly fascinating assortment of religious phenomena. What has happened, however, in the history of their study is that they have come to be routinely herded into the same corral and treated as though they are best understood when considered to be the same breed, with the same ancestry, the same essential constitution, the same disposition, and the same habits . . .. ‘gnosticism’ is probably not what it is so often purported to be. Or better put: The sources that are routinely classified as ‘gnostic’ do not in fact share some of the important features that are usually treated as the characteristic or identifying traits of ‘gnosticism’” (p. 28).

“It seems to me that we have reached a stage in the analysis of new sources from Nag Hammadi and related materials where to make real progress in our understanding of these sources, the men and women behind them, and their relation to the larger fabric of late antiquity, we the modern readers may need to take what might seem to be a few steps backward. The late Professor Morton Smith of Columbia University gave a paper in 1978 . . . . he  . . . remarked with mock resignation and lovable sarcasm that “‘gnosticism’ has become in effect a brand name with a secure market.” But I wonder. I wonder if the market is not in fact softer than it once was. And in any case, I wonder if the record of product performance does not indicate that it is time for scholars as responsible modern ‘producers of knowledge’ to issue a massive recall, and to focus collective attention on developing not merely a repackaging program but a new model altogether” (p. 266).

Karen King

Karen L. King. What is Gnosticism? (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003)

“Why is it so hard to define Gnosticism? The problem . . . is that a rhetorical term has been confused with a historical entity. There was and is no such thing as Gnosticism, if we mean by that some kind of religious entity with a single origin and a distinct set of characteristics. Gnosticism is, rather, a term invented in the early modern period to aid in defining the boundaries of normative Christianity. Yet it has mistakenly come to be thought of as a distinctive Christian heresy or even as a religion in its own right, and libraries are replete with books describing its central beliefs, discussing its origins, and considering its history. . . . . the problem of defining Gnosticism has been primarily concerned with the normative identity of Christianity.

Gnosticism has been constructed largely as the heretical other in relation to diverse and fluctuating understandings of orthodox Christianity. This means that modern historical constructions of Gnosticism reflect many of the characteristics and strategies used by early Christian polemicists like Irenaeus and Tertullian to construct heresy. Although the two constructions are by no means identical, the continuities between discourses of heresy and characterizations of Gnosticism are notable. . . . it is largely apologetic concerns to defend normative Christianity that make Gnosticism intelligible as a category at all.

As in comparable dualistic categories of self and other (such as citizen/foreigner, Greek/barbarian, Jew/Gentile, Christian/pagan), the other achieves its existence and identity only by contrast to the self. Such categories are totally inadequate when it comes to understanding the tremendous social and cultural diversity of those others because they were invented, not to do justice to the groups and materials they encompass, but to satisfy the needs of defining the self.

In this way, the category of Gnosticism was produced through the Christian discourse of orthodoxy and heresy. The result is an artificial entity . . . . So long as the category of Gnosticism continues to serve as the heretical other of orthodox Christianity, it will be inadequate for interpretation of the primary materials and historical reconstruction” (pp. 1-3).

King then says that the interesting issue in thinking about terms like Gnosticism, Judaism, Christianity, Oriental religion, paganism, or even “religion” itself, “the interesting issue is not that they are artificial constructs but rather how they are constructed and to what ends” (p. 3).

In her next chapter, King includes stereotypical definitions of “gnosis” and “gnosticism” that she will then show to be problematic:

gnosis: esoteric knowledge of spiritual truth held by the ancient Gnostics to be essential to salvation

gnostic: an adherent of gnosticism

gnosticism: the thought and practice esp. of various cults of late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis—Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (p. 5)

King then says, “Modern scholars understood Gnosticism to be a particular kind of heresy. They have generally divided the earliest varieties of Christianity into three categories: Jewish Christianity, Gnosticism, and orthodoxy. The first appropriated too much Judaism and took too positive and attitude toward it; the second appropriated too little and took too negative an attitude. Orthodoxy was just right . . . apparently safe from both dangers.

Gnosticism as a category served important intellectual aims, defining the boundaries of normative Christianity—especially with reference to Judaism—and aiding colonialism by contrasting Gnosticism as an Oriental heresy with authentic Western religion. Moreover, it offered a single category to refer to a vast range of ideas, literary works, individuals, and groups. Repetition of the term by people of repute reinforced a sense of realism, until its existence seemed unquestionable” (p. 7).

King goes on to say that literature that is theologically diverse has been treated “like the child’s game of putting the correct shape—a cylinder, cube, or pyramid—into the correct hole. If you do not have blocks that match the holes, you can force them to fit by making the holes big enough to accommodate any of the shapes, or you can whittle away at the pieces until they have been reshaped to fit. But you can never really get the different-shaped blocks to all fit into the same hole without some violence to the evidence” (pp. 8-9).

At the end of the book she says, “My purpose in this book is to consider the ways in which the early Christian polemicists’ discourse of orthodoxy and heresy has been intertwined with twentieth-century scholarship on Gnosticism in order to show where and how that involvement has distorted our analysis of the ancient texts. At stake is not only the capacity to write a more accurate history of ancient Christianity in all its multiformity, but also our capacity to engage critically the ancient politics of religious difference rather than unwittingly reproduce its strategies and results” (p. 19).

Deb Saxon’s “Is There Any Such Thing as a ‘Gnostic’ Gospel?

Deb Saxon’s August, 2018, guest post on Early Christian Texts: The Bible and Beyond blog by no means provides the depth of Williams’ and King’s works but attempts to present the problem simply to a popular audience.  Read it here: “Is There Any Such Thing as a ‘Gnostic’ Gospel?

Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code

Dan Brown. The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 246.

Next, here is a short passage from a more recent work (the fictional DaVinci Code) that points out ways in which “Gnosticism” continues to be characterized. This serves as an example of the points Williams and King are making. As you read, think about what you might say if someone asked you to critique Brown’s representation of the Nag Hammadi Library:

Teabing located a huge book and pulled it toward him across the table.  The leather-bound edition was poster-sized, like a huge atlas.  The cover read: The Gnostic Gospels.  Teabing heaved it open . . . . ‘These are photocopies of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scrolls . . . . The earliest Christian records.  Troublingly, they do not match up with the gospels in the Bible.’

Tertullian’s Scorpiace (“Scorpion”)

Tertullian’s Scorpiace (“Scorpion”) is a treatise written as an antidote to what Tertullian considers the poison of heretics who are akin to small but very dangerous scorpions.

This among Christians is a season of persecution. When, therefore, faith is greatly agitated and the church burning, as represented by the bush, then the Gnostics break out; then the Valentinians creep forth; then all the opponents of martyrdom bubble up, being themselves also hot to strike, penetrate, kill. For, because they know that many are artless and also inexperienced, and weak moreover, that a very great number in truth are Christians who veer about with the wind and conform to its moods, they perceive that they are never to be approached more than when fear has opened the entrances to the soul, especially when some display of ferocity has already arrayed with a crown the faith of martyrs . . .

Irenaeus of Lyons’  Against Heresies 

This material accessed from New Advent’s reprinting of Against Heresies.” Source. Translated by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

Irenaeus’ descriptions in this late second century book are often used as the basis for modern reconstructions of ancient ‘heretical’ groups. 

Book 1, Chapter 8

How the Valentinians pervert the Scriptures to support their own pious opinions. (Note: In modern introductory textbooks, Valentinians are often lumped into the “Gnostic” category, but Irenaeus doesn’t actually do that. However, this passage gives insight into his thinking about heresy in general.)

    1. Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth.

By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.

In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma.

Book I, Chapter 10

Unity of the faith of the Church throughout the whole world.

    1. The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one, Ephesians 1:10 and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess Philippians 2:10-11 to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send spiritual wickednesses, Ephesians 6:12 and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.
    2. As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.

But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

Book II, Chapter 11

By this course, therefore, not yielding credit to the truth, but wallowing in falsehood, they have lost the bread of true life, and have fallen into vacuity and an abyss of shadow. They are like the dog of Æsop, which dropped the bread, and made an attempt at seizing its shadow, thus losing the [real] food.

Book II, Chapter 26

Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.

    1. It is therefore better and more profitable to belong to the simple and unlettered class, and by means of love to attain to nearness to God, than, by imagining ourselves learned and skilful, to be found [among those who are] blasphemous against their own God, inasmuch as they conjure up another God as the Father. And for this reason Paul exclaimed, Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies: 1 Corinthians 8:1 not that he meant to inveigh against a true knowledge of God, for in that case he would have accused himself; but, because he knew that some, puffed up by the pretence of knowledge, fall away from the love of God, and imagine that they themselves are perfect, for this reason that they set forth an imperfect Creator, with the view of putting an end to the pride which they feel on account of knowledge of this kind, he says, Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.

Now there can be no greater conceit than this, that any one should imagine he is better and more perfect than He who made and fashioned him, and imparted to him the breath of life, and commanded this very thing into existence. It is therefore better, as I have said, that one should have no knowledge whatever of any one reason why a single thing in creation has been made, but should believe in God, and continue in His love, than that, puffed up through knowledge of this kind, he should fall away from that love which is the life of man; and that he should search after no other knowledge except [the knowledge of] Jesus Christ the Son of God, who was crucified for us, than that by subtle questions and hair-splitting expressions he should fall into impiety.

Book III, Chapter 4

The truth is to be found nowhere else but in the Catholic Church, the sole depository of apostolic doctrine. Heresies are of recent formation, and cannot trace their origin up to the apostles.

    1. Since therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. Revelation 22:17 For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the thing pertaining to the Church with the utmost diligence, and to lay hold of the tradition of the truth. For how stands the case?

Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? 

Book III, Chapter 11, Against Heresies

    1. It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the pillar and ground 1 Timothy 3:15 of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.

 Book IV, Chapter 26

Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church — those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth, according to the good pleasure of the Father. But [it is also incumbent] to hold in suspicion others who depart from the primitive succession, and assemble themselves together in any place whatsoever, [looking upon them] either as heretics of perverse minds, or as schismatics puffed up and self-pleasing, or again as hypocrites, acting thus for the sake of lucre and vainglory.

For all these have fallen from the truth. And the heretics, indeed, who bring strange fire to the altar of God — namely, strange doctrines— shall be burned up by the fire from heaven, as were Nadab and Abiud. Leviticus 10:1-2 But such as rise up in opposition to the truth, and exhort others against the Church of God, [shall] remain among those in hell (apud inferos), being swallowed up by an earthquake, even as those who were with Chore, Dathan, and Abiron. Numbers 16:33 But those who cleave asunder, and separate the unity of the Church, [shall] receive from God the same punishment as Jeroboam did. 1 Kings 14:10

Book V, Chapter 20:

Those pastors are to be heard to whom the apostles committed the Churches, possessing one and the same doctrine of salvation; the heretics, on the other hand, are to be avoided. We must think soberly with regard to the mysteries of the faith.

    1. Now all these [heretics] are of much later date than the bishops to whom the apostles committed the Churches; which fact I have in the third book taken all pains to demonstrate. It follows, then, as a matter of course, that these heretics aforementioned, since they are blind to the truth, and deviate from the [right] way, will walk in various roads; and therefore the footsteps of their doctrine are scattered here and there without agreement or connection.

Resources for Further Study:

Bauer, Walter. Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Penn.: Fortress Press, 1971.—This is a translation of Bauer’s original work in German in the early twentieth century.

King, Karen. What is Gnosticism? Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2003.

Marjanen, Antti, ed. Was There a Gnostic Religion? (Publications of the Finnish Exegetical Society) 87.  Helsinki: Finnish Exegetical Society, 2005.—This contains essays by people who take various opinions with respect to this question.

Taussig, Hal, ed. A New New Testament: A Bible for the Twenty-first Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Williams, Michael. Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for the Dismantling of a Dubious Category. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University, 1996.