The Utility of the Term "Gnosticism"

On the Gospel of Thomas e-list, aptly hosted by Mike Grondin, William Arnal urges that we drop the term “gnosticism” when discussing early Christianity. In a follow-up post he emphasizes:

“These are not simply arguments about terminology or misuses of otherwise-fine categories. Both [Michael Williams and Karen King] are arguing, in one way or another, that the entity normally intended by the term ‘Gnosticism’ is not a real entity. King is stronger on this point than Williams, and suggests that instead of ‘Gnostic’ we conceive of and think in terms of various sub-categories such as ‘Valentinian,’ ‘Sethian,’ ‘Thomasine,’ and so forth. This implies not simply a shift in terms, but in conception as well…”

To speak of a monolithic gnosticism, in other words, delegitimates the many ways of being unorthodox — even the many ways of being “gnostic” itself.

Karen King’s book is worth reading (I haven’t read Williams), but I’m afraid I can’t join Bill in jumping on the bandwagon. Hers is the same rationale used by those who insist on pluralizing Judaism, for the sake of reminding us at every turn that Judean faith was incredibly diverse and localized in the first century. The fact is religions are diverse and localized in all times and places. We don’t anally-retentively use “Christianities” today when speaking collectively about Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodoxy, Methodism, Mormonism, Jehovah Witness groups, etc — nor for divisions within any of these groups. “Christianity” sits comfortably on our lips, just as it should. It’s rather hokey — even insulting to the intelligence — to downgrade terminology like this. Our minds don’t need to be handled with kid gloves. “Gnosticism” works just fine, so long as we bear in mind, with someone like Bart Ehrman, that it was “a complex phenomenon with numerous manifestations” (Lost Christianities, p 116), and that it should not be used synonymously with “unorthodoxy”.(1)

I’m no linguistic fundamentalist and all for redefining terms when necessary, especially when the conceptual outcome squares with solid evidence. For these reasons I’ve lobbied for using “Judean” in place of “Jew” in translating Ioudaiou (here). “Jew” is an anachronism before the third century: Judean faith based on the temple cult was very different from Jewish faith based on later rabbinic law — as different as the Israelite faith which preceded them both. But to speak of Israelite faiths, Judeanisms, or Judaisms on account of diversity within each three, is just underscoring the obvious.

King, of course, wants us to go beyond pluralizing “gnosticism” and drop the term altogether, but the Foucaultian strategy is the same. The amazon reviewer pnotley puts it this way:

“King in her final chapter prefers to riff on the advantage of a Foucaultian history [i.e regulating by defining, and interpreted in view of power struggles]… It is true that von Harnack’s belief that a supposedly Hellenistic Gnosticism was corrupting and parasitic on Christianity is based on his Protestant belief that Jesus was the appearance of God in history and that any secular influences would bound to be impious and imperfect… But the main problem with the study of Gnosticism is the scarcity of evidence. We have texts, but we have almost nothing on who believed in them or interpreted them and how they influenced Christianity. A Foucaultian methodology is not going to get around that problem. King’s argument that there is too much diversity to use the common term of Gnosticism is not altogether convincing. If we take away the idea of libertine/ascetic ideals or ‘salvation by nature’ as orthodox Christian misunderstandings, we still have a cosmological myth that is sufficiently different to get some sort of coherent understanding. King’s emphasis on writing a more diverse, non-narrative account of Christianity’s history seems less a corrective to the limitations of orthodoxy. Instead, it appears an indulgence in heterogeneity and diversity for their own sake.”

I agree with this reviewer and would go even go stronger. Gnosticism can legitimately — historically and objectively — be viewed as a parasitic movement on orthodox Christianity. (Note, please, that I have nothing against gnosticism per se. As a secular-minded Unitarian, I say: if you find value in the gnostic worldview, so be it.) The gnostic groups, for all their diversity, rode the shoulders of an earlier tradition (“traditions“, if you must) — Thomas being a rather obvious case.(2) In so doing, they massaged it into a world-view which didn’t depend on things they found wanting, such as apocalypses which never come. Whether that makes gnosticism superior or inferior (or neither) to orthodoxy is a different question, and should be kept distinct from the historical question. Downgrading or eliminating useful terminology isn’t the answer to recognizing diversity within a commonality. If anything, it gives misleading impressions by erasing commonality.

UPDATE: See April DeConick’s take on the matter, and then her follow-up.


1. Some of the Nag Hammadi documents aren’t gnostic (let alone Christian), though I think Thomas certainly is.

2. The sayings of Thomas make perfect sense in view of gnosticism, and I tend to think the gospel was written anywhere between 120-160 CE. Regretfully, I find the various downward-dating attempts and stratification methods (Patterson, DeConick, etc.) unpersuasive.


4 thoughts on “The Utility of the Term "Gnosticism"

  1. Bill’s instincts are pretty good about where the academy is going. If he’s any indication, it appears that the term “gnosticism” is on its way to becoming an academic shibboleth.But ultimately, Loren, I think you’re right: what makes the term “gnosticism” problemmatic is not necessarily the legacy of the proto-orthodox’s world view but the paucity of evidence about the so-called “gnostic” views (a different legacy of sorts from the proto-orthodox, I suppose).

  2. P.S. I need to express my conclusion: Jettisoning the term “gnosticism” (though helpful in distiguishing ourselves from the earlier heresiologists) isn’t going to help us with the lack of evidence problem and may in fact make matter worse in that regard.

  3. I would agree with many of your points, particularly in that Williams and King go too far in dismissing the term “Gnosticism” – it’s a handy soteriological definition of the Sethian/Valentinian/Thomasine/Johannite/Hermetic/Middle Platonist continuum.Plese it seems has done a good job in finishing Williams’ thesis – if “Iranaeus-defined world-hating dualism” isn’t Gnostic (says K & W) , then what IS?We (in the center mass of contemporary Gn experience) have been using a 4 point plane to identify Gnosticism from the texts themselves;– gnosis soteriology (throughout)– immanent pneumatology (as in Thomas)– emanations cosmogeny (as in Ap. John)– sacramental theology (as in Philip)Using this matrix, 80 percent of the NHL complies as “Gnostic”Here’s a thread you might find of interest:

  4. I would agree with you, Loren, except in concluding that gnosticism was a parasitic movement on orthodox Christianity. There’s still the W. Bauer hypothesis to contend with, my take on which is that some form of gnosticism was taught by the HJ, was overwhelmed by Paul’s preachings, and didn’t spring forth again (in fragmented form) until rekindled by the same source that motivated the Gospels in the early 2nd century.

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