- Paperback: 360 pages
- Publisher: Princeton University Press (April 12, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0691005427
- ISBN-13: 978-0691005423
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #368,001 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category
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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. (Church History)
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. (Religious Studies Review)
"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 clichés 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."―Paul-Hubert Poirier, Université Laval
From the Back Cover
"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 clichés 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."--Paul-Hubert Poirier, Université Laval
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More books on the subject are being written and in time I'll read those...but I really appreciate the organization of the author to show where the term has been mis-applied or worse. With those sort of tools it's easier to analyse what might truly be 'gnostic' and what isn't.
Williams' basic position is that there is not enough evidence to support and maintain the category of "Gnosticism", and he proposes a term "biblical demiurgic tradition". Throughout the book, Williams systematically addresses central issues that have been cited as making up the Gnostic category, such as Gnostic interpretation, concepts of the body, ethical issues, and so on.
I would like to mention a couple of examples where I find Williams' discussion lacking. These are only examples, and will precede some good points from "Rethinking 'Gnosticism'" as well.
Firstly, Williams largely presents the category of Gnosticism in very simplistic terms, claiming that it is presented as "cliche" or "caricatures" of the religions so categorised. For ethics, Williams presents the ascetic or libertine options as the ones emphasised by previous understandings of Gnosticism. In contrast, while these elements have been discussed by other authors of note, they have not been presented in a way that obscures the complexity of Gnostic ethics in all its range, (a point in reference would be the Valentinians, who were very mild, middle-of-the-road types). In this sense, Williams seems to be shooting at shadows a bit.
Secondly, Williams claims that the Gnostics had, at times, a more positive attitude to the body. While there is great complexity and variation among differing Gnostic sects, the basic negative view is fairly consistent. Even the Valentinians take a reasonably negative view to it, though they are relatively mild by Gnostic standards. The apparent positive statements and knowledge Gnostics found "encoded" in the body that Williams mentions do not negate this underlying negativity to the material world overall and the body in particular.
While I disagree with Williams' overall position, I still feel that this book has definite value for someone studying Gnosticism's history and controversies. Williams reminds us that we must not get trapped by the "cliches and caricatures" that can easily influence our understanding. He does well at reminding the reader of some of the complexities of Gnostic thought.
One aspect I particularly thought Williams handled well was the aspect of asceticism and libertinism. He draws out important details and discusses the evidence in fresh ways. While I do not think the evidence is there to support his position of throwing the category of Gnosticism out of the window, he does make some interesting and strong points in the details. While this is not consistently so, Williams does raise some very good issues.
Despite some of the problems I have with Williams' overall conclusions, his book is an important contribution to the study of Gnosticism. He has dared rock the boat and get some rethinking going, which is always healthy. I would recommend the book to anyone who seeks an understanding of the problematic side of studying Gnosticism.
In his book, Williams attempts to show that no proposed definition of Gnosticism fits the varying currents and ideologies normally categorized as "Gnostic". His approach is to examine common characteristics attributed to Gnosticism and illustrate Gnostic ideologies where such a trait is absent. His argument is well constructed and persuasive. However, it contains some notable flaws.
Although Williams is absolutely correct that no one definition of Gnosticism can do justice to all the ideologies which fall under it, this is in no way unique. Similar arguments have been made to dismantle terms like "syncretism," "paganism," and even "magic". Yet, as most scholars have argued since the publication of Williams' book, large categories like Gnosticism serve only as a starting point. Few of these umbrella terms could accurately describe all their subsets. The word Gnostic still gives an outline of various movements. Terms such as "Sethian" or "Valentinian" fill in the sketch. In this capacity, Gnosticism is still a useful model.
All in all, I highly recommend this book for anyone who has already made some study of early Christian history and/or Gnosticism. If nothing else, it certainly allows one to understand just how variant Gnostic circles could be.