If one seeks out a quick definition of ancient gnosticism, one is liable to get something like the following:
Here in a few paragraphs is an example of how gnosticism is typically defined in university classes and encyclopedias. It is a presentation buttressed by such classic modern studies of gnosticism as Hans Jonas' book The Gnostic Religion. Through force of repetition it has become more or less standard. But is this definition really apt to the beliefs and practices of the ancient gnostics? How appropriate is it to what we find in the Nag Hammadi texts? After all, most of the elements of this definition were forged before the discovery of these writings. With actual gnostic writings now available, scholars should be able to come to a more nuanced understanding of gnosticism than was previously possible. Has their reading of the Nag Hammadi texts changed our understanding of this ancient religious movement?
A religious movement that flourished in the Roman Empire between the second and fourth centuries C.E. Identified as heretical by both Christians and Jews, the gnostics taught that the world was created not by the true God but by a lesser, deficient being called the Demiurge, who ruled over his creation, our world, with the help of administrative powers called Archons. The realm of the true God (the Pleroma, or "Fullness") lay beyond this faulty creation, and it was the goal of the gnostics to escape the trap of this world and return there.
According to the gnostics, human beings contained a spark of true divinity that did not belong in this lesser creation, but would continually be reincarnated here unless redeemed by gnosis (the liberating knowledge of our true origins). Human beings were divided into three types: the spirituals (those predestined for salvation), the psychicals (those who could attain a kind of salvation through gnosis and various purifying practices) and the materials (those who by their nature were permanently tied to the material realm). Gnostic religion was thus characterized by a radical contempt both for the world (understood as a prison) and for the body (each individual's prison cell). Ancient sources show that this contempt led in some groups to a rigorous asceticism, in others to an equally rigorous licentiousness (since the laws of morality were merely part of the trap created by the Demiurge, some gnostics taught that the spiritually liberated must demonstrate their liberation by breaking as many of these laws as they could).
Christian gnostics understood Jesus to be a messenger of the true God, sent from the Pleroma to bring the liberating teachings of gnosis. They rejected the orthodox doctrine that Jesus died to atone for the sins of men. According to the gnostics, the evil in the world did not result from human sin, but rather from the Demiurge's faulty creation: i.e., the world was evil because its creator was evil. Whereas orthodox Christians accepted the Old Testament as part of their sacred scriptures, the gnostics saw in the Old Testament God a depiction of the Demiurge. Only Jesus was sent from the "Father," i.e. the true God.
Given its rigorous contempt for the world and its concomitant rejection of social norms, most scholars understand gnosticism to have been a religion of radical revolt. The Bogomils in eastern Europe and the medieval Cathars in the south of France are considered to be later incarnations of gnostic religion. A buried collection of ancient gnostic scriptures was discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.
In his book Rethinking "Gnosticism" Michael Allen Williams assesses the validity of such usual definitions and finds them seriously lacking. To read his study is to realize to what extent this thing called "gnosticism" is an amalgam of modern scholarly caricature and uncritical reliance on ancient heresiologists like Irenaeus and Epiphanius. Such reliance was maybe inevitable given the previous lack of original sources. But now with the wealth of gnostic gospels and treatises uncovered in Egypt, things have changed. Williams' work sets out to reveal the extent of the needed change.
Williams' overall methodology is simple: take the current scholarly presentations of gnostic religion and compare them point by point with what we actually find in the gnostics' writings. But also: take the ancient heresiologists' presentation of the gnostics and undertake a similar comparison. Do the gnostics' presentations of themselves in their writings correspond to the doctrines attributed to them by Irenaeus? Do they correspond to what we hear from the community of modern scholars? If not, why not?
If Williams is right, our idea of gnosticism as an ancient religion would not, in important respects, have been shared by the ancient gnostics themselves. Our understanding of gnostic doctrines and attitudes (to the body, to society, to ethics) has often put the stress in the wrong place. And our presentation of gnostic practices still relies on the heresiologists, even though their portrayals have been given the lie by the Nag Hammadi writings.
For one, gnosticism is usually presented as a world-denying religion of revolt: a religion adopted by outsiders in a state of rebellion against social norms. The gnostics were believed to have erected a barrier between themselves and the surrounding world by mechanically reversing dominant social values. This notion of the gnostics undertaking a kind of systematic denial of everything society held sacred grew mainly from select observations of gnostic readings of Hebrew scripture (for example, they frequently understood the serpent in the Garden of Eden in a positive way, while Yahweh, understood as the Demiurge, was seen negatively). But, as Williams points out, such instances of gnostic scriptural interpretation do not necessarily indicate a rebellious attitude to society at large. Using models developed from the sociological study of religious movements, Williams argues that in many cases the opposite was more likely true: that the gnostics were actually interpreting Judeo-Christian ideas of the divine in ways more in harmony with the dominant pagan society in which they lived. Williams' argument here is convincing. Our interpretation of the gnostic attitude as one of revolt against society has been foisted on us by the heresiologists, who themselves, for obvious reasons, sought to portray the gnostics as rebels against orthodoxy. To claim the gnostics were radical social deviants is thus anachronistic.
Williams likewise takes up the question of "gnostic determinism": the oft-repeated modern assertion that the gnostics believed mankind to be strictly divided into different types (the spirituals, the psychics, the materials) or different races (the race of Seth, the race of Cain), and that the doctrinal upshot of such divisions was that each individual's potential for salvation was understood to be already determined at birth. Williams shows that this modern notion of gnostic determinism is not supported by the original texts. A careful reading of the sources shows that one is not "born into" the race of Seth: rather it is a status one may attain or earn. The race of Seth is more a spiritual community than a biological "race" in our modern sense. Likewise with the division into three types: one's status as a spiritual is seen to be linked to one's behavior: one may lose this status through abandoning the truth, and thus to be born as a spiritual is no guarantee of salvation. The assertion that the ancient gnostics were elitists in the sense of believing themselves predestined to salvation (saved in essence) is misguided. Williams demonstrates that there was at least as much flexibility in these gnostic notions as there is in more recent Protestant doctrines of the elect.
With these remarks I've only scratched the surface of this subtle and wide-ranging study. Williams offers an important discussion of gnostic hermeneutics (their practice of Biblical interpretation) and reassesses gnostic notions of the body and how these might relate to the different doctrines of salvation. One abiding concern of Williams' book--and I've maybe been irresponsible in skirting it until now--is the appropriateness of the term "gnosticism" itself. On the basis of the many disadvantages Williams sees in the term--its vagueness as a category, the baggage it brings with it--he suggests scholars refer instead to "biblical demiurgical traditions" when discussing much of what is typically called "gnosticism." He seeks to demonstrate that 1) the ancient people we refer to as "gnostics" did not themselves use this term, and 2) modern scholars have long had difficulty establishing a stable set of characteristics for gnosticism: i.e., we still cannot define clearly what gnosticism is. The argument Williams finally puts forward is that the term has impeded our understanding of the ancient religious movements in question. It has led generations of scholars to grapple with false problems and construct arguments on the basis of unexamined preconceptions. This is a pretty serious charge to make. Whether or not Williams is right in these assertions--something I'm in no position to judge--it seems obvious that his book has brought forth much that is new in the field of "gnostic" studies. And it seems clear that many of his new perspectives on the "gnostics" grew directly from his attempts to think beyond the (academic or heresiological) category "gnosticism."
Williams' book is not for scholars only, however. Even a reader only slightly familiar with the Nag Hammadi texts can gain much from it. He helpfully begins the book with a chapter summarizing the myths or doctrines of four important "gnostic" traditions: the myth from The Apocryphon of John; the doctrine of the Valentinian teacher Ptolemy; the myth taught by Justin the Gnostic; and the teachings of Marcion. These four different examples are then referred to repeatedly in the remainder of the study in order to clarify this or that point. Williams has structured Rethinking Gnosticism in a way that allows him to write both for fellow scholars and the general reader. It is a successful strategy all around, one that makes the book fascinating reading for anyone interested in "gnosticism," the Nag Hammadi texts, or the history of Christianity.
Check the book at Amazon.com: Rethinking "Gnosticism"