I am giving serious thought to letting go of the category "gnostic and gnosticism" (just as I did with "orthodoxy" and "heresy" in my period, turning instead to "polydoxy" or multiple competing self-defining orthodoxies). My reason for this is not that I do not think that gnosticism existed in the ancient world - in fact I do. But the categories have become so abused, that they have become heuristically meaningless for me as an historian of religion. I can't use them without running into walls.
The category is a huge mess and people use these words whatever-which-way they see fit for whatever argument they want to make. If they don't want a particular text to be gnostic, they will say that it doesn't have this-that-or-the-other characteristic that is gnostic. If they want the text to be gnostic, they will say that it has such-and-such characteristic which is gnostic. And then there is proto-gnostic, which means there are elements of gnosticism here, but not enough to make it gnostic yet. And then when it comes to those who make the claim to be gnostics, like Clement of Alexandria, well, he can't be a gnostic because he is a famous church father who is considered "orthodox".
The biggest gripe I have is the claim to doceticism that so many people want to make - as if all or even most gnostics were! Marcion was docetic. For him, Jesus appeared on earth one day as an adult "appearance". But for most of the other Christian gnostics, Jesus was born and had a physical body (including the Eastern Valentinians).
"The snake is always the good guy." No, not in all gnostic systems. And even in those systems where he is "good", he sometimes becomes "evil" as in the case of the Ophians described by Irenaeus.
"The gnostics hated the body and lived encratic lifestyles." Some did. But not all by any means. The Valentinians and the Simonians enjoyed sex and considered it a sacred activity within the confines of monogamous marriage. Who knows what Carpocrates was up to or the Archontics.
"The creator god has to be evil." In some cases he is, in some cases he is just foolish, or trying the best he can - but because he is ignorant, he has a hard time. He is rash. He is arrogant. He is even repentant as in the case of Western Valentinianism. For Basilides, Abrasax is "psyche" and the best that psyche can be (if we believe Hippolytus' account). In all cases, he is powerful and must be reckoned with because he owns the soul within which lives the spirit from above him.
"The creator is singular." Most of the time he isn't. He is often helped by the archons or angels in the heavens to create Adam. Sometimes it is a collective of angels who create and a single angel name is not identified.
I could go on and on with all the misconceptions and nonsense that have been heaped on this category, smothering it to death.
So I am about to retire it because I cannot continue my work if I have to constantly be fighting the category's baggage. I am going to set it aside and work to develop new language so that I can create a map of what was going on in the first, second, third and fourth centuries with these communities. I want to know their histories, their relationships to each other, their relationships to other religious movements, their multiplicity of beliefs and practices, their scriptures, their hermeneutics, their geographical locations, etc.
My proposal is to name descriptively the phenonemon I want to study. What I want to study are those groups of religious people in the ancient world that worship a god who is spatially beyond our universe and who is not identified as the immediate creator and ruler of our universe. Instead, these roles are attributed to subordinate powers who are not being worshiped.
I'm considering two names for this phenonemon. Transtheism or Supratheism. I like Transtheism because "trans" has two connotations: across and above/beyond. This is nice because it suggests that the believers could understand that a cross-over between our universe and the otherworld is possible, in terms of the spilling over of the otherworldly god into our universe (as our spirits) and/or the sending of an emissary from the otherworld to assist with salvation and/or our journey "home" to the otherworld. Supratheism is also possible, although it may indicate too much of a complete transcendence and separation of the God, as if the otherworldly God has no contact with this world (which is not the case in these systems).
This may mean that I will have to subtitle my book: The Gnostics and Their Gospels: An Introduction to Ancient Transtheism, the Worship of the God-Beyond our World.
What are your preferences? Transtheism or Supratheism?