“Gnosticism” as a scholarly category and the study of the diversity of Christianity (NT Apocrypha 15)

Early Christian writings can be used as a window into the various worldviews and practices of specific Christian authors (and sometimes provide glimpses into the groups to which a particular author belonged). One of the things we’ve been trying to do in our study of the early Christian Apocrypha and Nag Hammadi documents is to shed off any preconceived notion of what to expect (concerning the form of Christianity reflected therein) and instead begin by approaching the worldview within each writing, as best we can, on its own terms. We try to begin with a blank slate, so to speak, and we can’t assume that the key to interpreting one Nag Hammadi (“gnostic”) document, for instance, will fill in the gaps in another. Overall, we should expect that answers to our questions will not always be forthcoming due to the nature of the evidence, rather than plugging in information from some other writing to substitute for this lack of knowledge.

Some scholars (including those that introduce the writings in the Schneemelcher edition of the New Testament Apocrypha) too readily jump to the conclusion that some document is “gnostic” and then too readily assume a whole set of beliefs (and related practices) to be characteristic of that writing without any clear evidence of such within the writing itself. This does not facilitate understanding the variety of “Christianities” in writings that are traditionally categorized as “gnostic” (including some of the Apocryphal Acts and Gospels). One of the things that scholars like Michael Allen Williams and Karen L. King have now (thankfully) engrained in us is the problem with the category of “gnosticism” / “gnostic” itself, at least as it is now used. The term has come to be applied to so many writings and movements that its application often acts as a hindrance to understanding the specifics of a particular author’s worldview (and the practices implied by that worldview). It seems that application of the term sometimes acts as a substitute for trying to understand the specific and individual characteristics of a writing and the form of Christianity it may reflect. Categorizing a writing as “gnostic” and then assuming the set of beliefs and practices that have, over the years, been attached to that category may make things a lot easier, but it will not do in assessing the diversity of early Christianity (-ies). If we do continue to use the term “gnosticism” at all, we have to constantly remind ourselves of the above situation and not let the term distract us from careful analysis of the evidence we have.

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

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

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