Sunday, March 11, 2007

What is Gnosticism?

We are struggling to answer this very stubborn question. Why? Because we have realized after examinnig the literature recovered in the 1940s from Nag Hammadi, Egypt, that the rubric "Gnosticism" is a misnomer. It is a modern rubric that contemporary scholars have invented, rather than a word that describes a historical religion. Scholars built our modern understanding of Gnosticism to help us describe groups in the ancient world whom the leaders of the apostolic churches identified as deviant or heretical.

We understood these "heretical" Christians as participants within a larger religiosity, an umbrella religion we called Gnosticism. Gnosticism came to represent for us a form of religion in the ancient world that had turned against Judaism and Christianity, a perversion of traditional morality and piety as well as theology. It was described by scholars in the last century as a form of religiosity characterized by a negative view of the world and human existence, succumbing to nihilism and yearning for everything spiritual.

But this "golden bough" had broken. Analysis of the Nag Hammadi texts has shown us that there is no generic Gnostic religion. Rather there were a variety of Jews and Christians who were esoterically minded and yearned for the experience of "gnosis" - a direct meeting with God - and they had varying relationships with the apostolic churches or the synagogue. They all appear to have formed conventicles, study circles, or lodges in which they met for initiation into the mysteries of the Kingdom. But some of these people remained active members of the apostolic churches or synagogues, while also participating in the esoteric lodges. Others left the churches and synagogues, and only attended the lodges. These lodges were very distinct from each other in terms of social location, ritual performances, and even theological systems.

Even though there was no Gnosticism, I don't think this means that there were no Gnostics. So we must be very careful not erase the Gnostics in our post-modern reconsideration of Gnosticism as a mega-narrative that we created. What we need is to rethink the Gnostics and remap the second century so that it makes sense with the Nag Hammadi literature and the normative discourse that the Fathers of the apostolic churches were putting into place to suppress those whose Christian religiosity did not match their own. So yes, there were Gnostics. But who they were still remains to be fully understood.


Loren Rosson III said...


Thanks for this post. By whatever coincidence, I just gave my own take on the matter here, a bit different from yours.

You write:

Even though there was no Gnosticism, I don't think this means that there were no Gnostics. So we must be very careful not erase the Gnostics in our post-modern reconsideration of Gnosticism as a mega-narrative that we created.

I don't see how "there was no Gnosticism" squares with "there were Gnostics". I think there was/were both, though I prefer to use a lower-case "g" (rather than pluralizing) to indicate the diversity.

Jordan Stratford+ said...

Even though there was no Gnosticism...

To paraphrase a comment I just posted on Loren's blog;

I would suggest you 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 criteria to identify Gnosticism from the texts themselves;

- gnosis soteriology (throughout, esp. Theodoto)
- 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". However, much work remains before deciding to jettison the other 20 percent.

So, yes, unequivocally and without question there was "a Gnosticism"

Here's a thread you might find of interest:

April DeConick said...


Okay, this is what I make of the materials. I'm in these texts all the time and what I have come to understand is this.

The different Gnostic Christians - let's say the Valentinians and the Sethians - would never see themselves as participating in the same religion. They had completely different self-definitions. Even though we may see some commonalities in their myths, they didn't. All these groups of esoteric Christians in search of gnosis - a direct experience of God - did not identify with each other. Many identified against each other!

They also had different relationships with the apostolic churches and the synagogues. Some of the Gnostics attended ordinary churches and synagogues, while also attending a special conventicle. Others turned away from the apostolic churches and synagogues and worshiped only in the conventicle, with the understanding that they were the only true expression of Christianity or Judaism.

So yes, we definitely have Gnostics, but we don't have Gnosticism, at least nothing that the ancient Gnostics themselves would appeal to. They would be horrified to think that we were dumping them in the same camp!

Let's put it this way, second century Christianity was about as sectarian as you can get - and I'm including apostolic Christianity as one of the sects.

g. wesley said...

Professor DeConick, have you read Alastair Logan's response to Williams and King (The Gnostics [t&t clark, 2006]), and if so what did you think of it? Also, I've been meaning to ask: I'm curious as to why Gospel of Judas lists "[S]eth, who is called Christ"(52), among the rulers of the underworld and chaos, the descendents of Ialdabaoth, since it doesn't seem to accord with parallel lists (Apocryphon of John, etc.) or with the heavenly origin of Seth and the immovable race in the sethian text group (and even elsewhere in Gospel of Judas [49]). Do you have any thoughts or know of any explanations (such as Cainite polemic against Sethians, to grasp at straws)?

Gary Hudson said...

To understand the relationship between orthodox Christianity and “Gnosticism” I think that we need look no farther that the relationship of the sutra and tantra teachings of early Buddhism.

Orthodox Christian texts provide a philosophical base for an outer socially transformative Christianity while the spectrum of Gnostic texts provides a road map for an inner transformative Christianity. Gnosticism is the disciplined inner path of world renunciation which leads to the direct experience of God.

It is Christian yoga or the yoke of Christ.

The two teachings comprise the mother (outer, householder, social) and father (inner, individual, renunciate) teachings of Christianity.

I doubt that tantric Christianity took on a life of its own until sutra Christianity tried and finally succeeded in eliminating it.

Gary Hudson, author
Revelation: Awakening the Christ Within

April DeConick said...

G. Wesley,

There is a mistake with this reconstuction. It cannot read this, but there is another reconstruction that does make sense here (in the Sethian mythology), and I include this in my own translation (I am entirely indebted to Professor John Turner for his excellent reconstruction of this area of the manuscript which he has shared with me). So not to worry. There is no Seth or Christ here in the manuscript. Faulty reconstruction in my opinion (and other scholars who are now working on Judas).

So stay tuned. The bottom line - the reconstruction and translation of the Gospel of Judas is NOT FIRM YET.

Dave Renfro said...


I had just finish re-reading the Apocryohon of James and was puzzling to myself, "Why is this Gnostic?" when I was forwarded your recent post.
The early labeling of the Nag Hammadi material as Gnostic has been a disservice to recent scholarly research as well as the contemporary Gnostics who have devoted years of study under this misconception.
I believe "Jewish Wisdom Literate"
provides more than enough "dualism" and "nihilism" to flavor many Jewish/Christian text a "taste of gnosticism".

g. wesley said...

Professor DeConick, thanks for the info of Gospel of Judas 52. Do you know when the crtical edition National Geographic was to publish last year will come out? Are others preparing editions, and when will they be available? I'd like to include Gospel of Judas (especially 50-52) in my MA thesis. Is there anyway for a student to get a reliable transcription/reconstruction or even images of the original (not that I know anything about papyrology)?

April DeConick said...

Mr. Wesley,

We are all waiting for the critical edition and the photographs. I was told no later than April 2007, but I haven't heard any hype yet so I'm worried. I will try to find out for you.

I have my book coming out in the fall. I offer my own reconstruction and translation. My recommendation is that you translate the text yourself. The English translations I have seen so far have made translation choices that obscure the Coptic in my opinion. But even when you translate yourself, you must be careful and not accept all the reconstructions. These will be highly contested I am sure (they already are).

When do you need the information to include Judas in your dissertation?

April DeConick said...

Mr. Wesley,

In this case, I think you will be fine. Come fall, much more will be published and will be being discussed in an academic forum. One of the problems with the way this particular manuscript has been handled, is that it was published in popular edition before it was fielded through academic rigorous routes of open discussion. So people have thought that it is a closed deal, that the publication by National Geographic is the end of things. I can tell you that it is only the beginning, and there are some real problems that some of us in the field are now addressing. It is too bad in my opinion that it went down this way, the cart before the horse so to speak. So I imagine things will be messy for a while.