Book Review: Rethinking Gnosticism

If one word could sum up the last few months of my life it would be this one: Gnosticism. (Runner-up: WHARBLGARBL.) As part of my directed reading project, my supervisor has me putting together book reviews, both as a way of assessing argumentation and (I presume) as prep work for what real scholars do. Other things I presume real scholars do: Hate undergraduate students.

I’ll cut to the chase: This is my review for Michael Allen Williams’ Rethinking Gnosticism.

Those of you familiar with the field will know that this book represents a watershed moment in the study of Gnosticism. Rethinking Gnosticism is nothing less than a full revision of previous scholarship—a total assault on beloved categorical constructs and an attempt to redefine what Gnosticism is and how it’s studied. In terms of current thinking, it has been highly influential.

Of course, I disagreed with much of it.

If you are on Twitter, you already know my book review saga. While I appreciate where Rethinking Gnosticism stands in terms of scholarship (really, it’s a remarkable coup d’état), I definitely had my issues with it. This seemed to erupt quite frequently in snarky 140 character outbursts. By the time I turned in my review, I’d had it with the Gnostics, the heresiologists, scare quotes, irregular capitalization, and I didn’t want to think—or rethink—about them any more. Good riddance!

Now that my supervisor has had the chance to go over it and the grades are in, you are free to read it over at Here is a teaser:

Williams begins his reassessment of Gnosticism by examining four representative sources: Apocryphon of John, Valentinian writings, Baruch (a text by Justin the Gnostic known through Hippolytus), and Marcionic theology (13-26). For Williams, the Gnosticism contained in these works hinges on their demiurgical component, a belief in a creator god who is often at odds with transcendent principles and salvation. But a larger point looms: despite their shared similarities, these texts contain a multiplicity of views (28). This small sampling immediately illustrates categorical problems, though Williams’ inventive suggestion of a new construct, “Biblical Demiurgical Traditions,” does little to account for this diversity, instead winnowing the field on mythological considerations. Nevertheless, from these four sources, Williams uses broad strokes to characterize the field of study while excluding texts which are often discussed by scholars within a Gnostic framework (e.g. Thunder Perfect Mind, Allogenes). This is a point I will return to later, as it suggests larger methodological issues.

There were a few points that were left out of my review, and I think a couple bear mentioning here. One, Rethinking Gnosticism pretty much ignores any “gnostic” elements in this variety of Christianity, meaning that emphasis on personal revelation is swept aside as a defining feature. While I think my analysis hints at this, in hindsight, I’m becoming more and more convinced that this can’t be so easily dismissed. I think neutralizing these mystical/revelatory components obfuscates the core message of some defining texts of Gnosticism (see above). In doing this, we lose a key ideological marker of this specific religious movement  and I’m not sure how well this serves our understanding.

My other concern is the way the Nag Hammadi sources are linked with other texts. This manifests itself in Williams’ argumentation from a small sample of NH texts and patristic sources, which become one single “Gnosticism.” I wonder if, in equating Nag Hammadi texts with writings mentioned in heresiological accounts, a mistake is being made akin to that of uncritically equating the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Essenes. While there is certainly overlap, I wonder if the field is better served by bracketing off the Nag Hammadi library as its own phenomenon. Certainly, it needs to be put in context, but perhaps its current anchoring in other sources creates more problems than it solves. That said, I’m not a scholar of this field, and have very little background in Christianity so I’ll just leave these questions out there.

If Gnosticism isn’t your thing—or you just really, really enjoy my book reviews—you can also take a trip back to October, when I reviewed Garth Fowden’s The Egyptian Hermes. Good times. It goes without saying that these papers haven’t been published anywhere and these are undergraduate coursework assignments, not real scholar things.

About Sarah Veale

Sarah Veale is a former journalist and current MA student of Greco-Roman religion at the University of Toronto. Her first peer-review article, "Orientalism in Iamblichus' The Mysteries," was recently published in The Pomegranate:The International Journal of Pagan Studies.
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5 Responses to Book Review: Rethinking Gnosticism

  1. Great! Names were taken, assess were kicked, oxen gored. Someone should give Williams the review, let him pop a vein, and THEN tell him it’s by an undergrad.

    Scholars who are essentially materialist are incapable of understanding Gnostic and Hermetic literature. Hell, it’s hard enough for esotericists! So their ideas are often unintentionally risible.

    • Sarah says:

      Well, I don’t think we need to go that far.

      Perhaps we can just leave it at a disagreement in perspective.

      But…thanks for the moral support! ;)

    • Absolutely! One has a very different perspective with one’s eyes open vs. shut :-) Not that I intended my dictum to be absolute; after all, one needn’t understand the contents of a scroll to catalog it, or to analyze the handwriting and the case it came in.

  2. Oh, and I meant to paraphrase Lon Milo DuQuette: “Those books were written by professional holy men to be read by professional holy men. If they had had any idea that lay people would be reading them and arguing over them, they would never have released them.”

    • Sarah says:

      Well, that may be true. I’d like to think that these sorts of texts can be valuable both for those inside a tradition, and those outside who want to study them in a different context.


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