RETHINKING "GNOSTICISM"

Date: Tue, 10 Mar 1998 23:58:49 -0500
From: y.kuchinsky@utoronto.ca
To: "James R. Davila" 
Cc: Stevan Davies , crosstalk@info.harpercollins.com
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.


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