“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.

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

  1. Phil Harland Post author


    Angela said…

    I agree that “gnosticism” is a loaded term, does not always help, but can actually hinder with the examination of early Christian texts. It seems dangerous to apply a term to a large number of texts that may have very little in common. However, I have a hard time imagining the study of early Christian texts without this term. Perhaps it could be beneficial to use this term in the broad sense at the beginning of our studies and then proceed to examine each text seperately thereafter. It seems to me that this debate is a lot like the objective/subjective debate regarding the study of religion. Without assumptions and biases where would we begin? Do we not study what triggers our interest? This does not mean that we will maintain our assumptions at the end of our course of study, but it certainly provides a starting point. I think that if we use the term gnosticism carefully at the beginning of our studies without the determination of maintain its category, this term might help us.

    9:06 AM
    Phil Harland
    Phil Harland said…

    Thanks for that, Angela. You are absolutely right that the problem we are encountering with “gnosticism” is characteristic of other categories in the study of religion (and reflects outsider terminology–often forgotten by those who use “gnosticism”), and that we do indeed need to formulate useful scholarly categories to make sense of our subjects. A key issue is whether a category has come to be less of a help and more of a hindrance to making sense of (understanding) our subjects. So that is where the debate might take place, and I (influenced by Williams) am suggesting that the hindrance factor may be quite high in this particular case. Certainly you are right that we can still use the term, but there’ll be a lot of ‘splainin to do and we’ll need to regularly remind ourselves of the nature of the problem.

    9:24 AM

  2. jay

    While I understand one’s human and spiritual need to subject the “gnostic” texts to scholarly investigation … I can assure you that any conclusions you reach will not exceed the realm of speculation.
    There are very many secrets and rites that always have and always will remain unknown to all but the priests. Our “secrets” are thousands of years old, handed down from one generation of priests to the next in the oral tradition. It is forbidden to record these mysteries or divulge them to anyone outside of the priesthood.
    Christian Gnosticism is alive and well. While we are generally portrayed to be an “underground” movement by mainstream sects, the opposite is actually true. We are quite active under a variety of auspices and our rites are performed under the strictest secrecy.
    But as for discovering the “mysteries” … you don’t stand a chance. At best, you will arrive at an erroneous conclusion based on half of the equation. If gnosticism could be subject to scholarly interpretation … do you really think the information you are working with is truly “gnostic”?
    If you want real clues to true gnostic enlightenment start with these:
    1. Jesus said that not one dot or tittle will be changed in his word – so it is NOT written.
    2. Look for the glaring omissions in scripture – these are the signposts.
    a. Where was jesus during puberty and why don’t the scriptures address the sexuality of jesus and how he dealt with it?
    b. jesus told his disciples, “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of god” – so the kingdom of god is a quality of life that is attainable on earth.

    I can offer you nothing more than this. Good luck!

  3. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello Jay,

    Thank you for your comments from a neo-Gnostic perspective (there are indeed groups today who claim to be the heirs of early gnosticism, for those of you who are unaware of that). Neo-gnosticism itself is a phenomenon of scholarly interest as well. Here on this site we approach all religious phenomena, whether Jewish, Christian, gnostic, or what have you, from an historical point of view, not a faith-perspective. That’s not at all to deny that people can hold a faith-perspective, such as yours. Phil

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