Review of Rethinking "Gnosticism" at

_Rethinking "Gnosticism"; An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category_

by Michael Allen Williams

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   "Religious Studies Review":
   "There can hardly be a category more misused in contemporary scholarly
   and not-so-scholarly discourse than `gnosticism,' so it was probably
   inevitable that a serious scholar would come along with an argument
   for the abandonment of the category altogether. In this provocative
   book Williams does just that."
   "Church History":
   "Rare is the book on gnosticism that is thoroughly grounded in the
   primary sources in the ancient languages, widely conversant with the
   secondary literature, controlled and sophisticated in its historical
   method--and still intelligible and interesting, not only for experts
   in its field, but also for religious historians and educated readers
   in general. Michael Williams's Rethinking `Gnosticism' is such a book.
   It is essential reading for scholars of ancient Christianity and for
   anyone who wishes to use the terms `gnostic' and `gnosticism,' but it
   can be read with profit by all historians concerned with issues of
   methodology in studying religious people of the past."
   Paul-Hubert Poirier, Universite Laval:
   "Michael Williams presents the first treatment of gnosticism in book
   form that endeavors, and succeeds, to get out of beaten tracks by
   questioning the very definition and description of this phenomenon. He
   conducts a detailed analysis of the cliches that have been in
   circulation for decades and shows convincingly how they have
   contributed to a distorted and biased approach to the sources. This
   book will be epoch-making for the field of gnostic studies and should
   attract a very large reading audience."
   Book Description:
   Most anyone interested in such topics as creation mythology, Jungian
   theory, or the idea of "secret teachings" in ancient Judaism and
   Christianity has found "gnosticism" compelling. Yet the term
   "gnosticism," which often connotes a single rebellious movement
   against the prevailing religions of late antiquity, gives the false
   impression of a monolithic religious phenomenon. Here Michael Williams
   challenges the validity of the widely invoked category of ancient
   "gnosticism" and the ways it has been described. Presenting such
   famous writings and movements as the Apocryphon of John and
   Valentinian Christianity, Williams uncovers the similarities and
   differences among some major traditions widely categorized as gnostic.
   He provides an eloquent, systematic argument for a more accurate way
   to discuss these interpretive approaches.
   The modern construct "gnosticism" is not justified by any ancient
   self-definition, and many of the most commonly cited religious
   features that supposedly define gnosticism phenomenologically turn out
   to be questionable. Exploring the sample sets of "gnostic" teachings,
   Williams refutes generalizations concerning asceticism and
   libertinism, attitudes toward the body and the created world, and
   alleged features of protest, parasitism, and elitism. He sketches a
   fresh model for understanding ancient innovations on more "mainstream"
   Judaism and Christianity, a model that is informed by modern research
   on dynamics in new religious movements and is freed from the false
   stereotypes from which the category "gnosticism" has been constructed.
   About the Author:
   Michael Allen Williams is Professor of Comparative Religion at the
   University of Washington, and is currently chair of the Department of
   Near East Languages and Civilization. He is also the author of The
   Immovable Race: A Gnostic Designation and the Theme of Stability in
   Late Antiquity and co-editor, with Collett Cox and Martin Jaffee, of
   Innovation in Religious Traditions: Essays in the Interpretation of
   Religious Change.

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