RETHINKING "GNOSTICISM" Date: Tue, 10 Mar 1998 23:58:49 -0500 From: email@example.com To: "James R. Davila"Click here to go one level up in the directory.
Cc: Stevan Davies , firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: pre-Christian gnosticism Steve, Here are some quotes from Michael A. Williams, RETHINKING "GNOSTICISM": AN ARGUMENT FOR DISMANTLING A DUBIOUS CATEGORY, Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1996. Generally, in his book Williams is saying that the term "gnosticism" should be abandoned as ahistorical, since nobody in the ancient world called him/herself a "Gnostic". And since, currently, there's no generally agreed upon definition of "gnostic", anyway, the whole term seems pretty meaningless. In ancient times there were great many different groups, both Jewish and Christian, who were interested in speculating, in a syncretistic sort of way, about the origins of the world, about the Book of Genesis, the Demiurge, the figure of Wisdom, etc., and in trying to combine elements of various religions and philosophies. But any of this doesn't really make them "Gnostic". Williams suggests that the whole concept of "Gnosticism" was really created by Irenaeus primarily as a polemical tool directed at "bad Christians". In this, Irenaeus' normative principle was not "adherence to Gnosis" as such, he simply made up a catchword for "heretics" in general. Williams suggests that it's about time to dispense with this ill-formed category; as a replacement, he suggest that the term "demiurgic speculation" will be more accurate in describing _this sort_ of ancient religious groups. Williams considers Petrement's contribution in his Chapter 10, WHERE THEY CAME FROM, under the heading ACCOUNTING FOR THE INNOVATIONS IN QUESTION, and the subheading THEORIES FOCUSING ON CHRISTIANITY AS THE CATALYST. (There are also a number of other subheadings in this chapter, such as THEORIES FOCUSING ON SOCIAL CONFLICT OR CRISIS.) The whole idea in this chapter is to survey critically the literature dealing with the origins of "gnosticism". Here come the quotes. Of course Williams' review of Petrement is somewhat more nuanced. Here I only quote the more trenchant parts. Below, Williams uses the term "demiurgical traditions" which I explained already. [begin quotes] The most extensive defence of the theory that "gnosticism" originated only with the emergence of Christianity is the study by Simone Petrement, A SEPARATE GOD. Petrement rejects all theories about the pre-Christian Jewish origins of Gnosticism ... She explains everything in the development of "gnosticism" in terms of a history beginning with Pauline and Johannine literature... (p. 229) Petrement therefore sets out to demonstrate how all species of "gnosticism" could have evolved from the same Pauline organism. (p. 230) Petrement's book is a learned and truly ambitious work, but it unwittingly illustrates why it would have been wiser to avoid exactly what she has attempted -- the reduction of the history of "gnostic" phenomena to a unilinear development traceable to some single root revolution or revolutionary. Ironically, Petrement herself remarks early in her book that "gnosticism" was "not one heresy but a swarming ant-heap of heresies." After such an image, we might have expected in the remainder of the book an analysis that allowed for a more complex history of the origins and development of various forms of demiurgical traditions, a history involving multiple, sometimes crisscrossing, streams of tradition. Instead, Petrement has attempted to locate the very first "ant", to reconstruct the order in which the other "ants" were produced, to cram everything into one model, with one explanation. As a result, her construction involves numerous instances of tortuous logic and unconvincing assumptions. A single explanation like this fails to be convincing precisely because there is not in the first place only one thing to explain. (pp. 230-231) [end quotes] And I see similar errors in what James has been saying here so far. It seems that in order to reject the idea that there was such a thing as pre-Christian Jewish "gnosticism", he has not only to embrace an extremely narrow definition of "gnosticism", a phenomenon that exhibited an extremely wide variety, but he _also_ has to offer an extremely narrow definition of "Judaism" on par, as Steve already noted, with the highly subjective definitions offered by fundamentalist rabbis. Regards, Yuri.