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Michael Williams on Early Christian Heterodoxies

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Having dissected and anatomised the concept of Gnosticism as a heresiological, and then as a scholarly construct, we turn to the problematic and fascinating sources, especially the textual corpus of Nag-Hammadi, in search of information about what was really going in in the movements behind these documents. Topics discussed include:

  • Why did anything like Christianity ever arise in the first place? How did the writings of a fairly obscure ethnic group (the Jews) come to dominate the religious landscape of the Roman empire? Professor Williams gamely gives some likely reasons for the rise of Christianity – and of the particular brand of Christianity that ends up dominating the world, rather than, for example, Sethianism or something like that – including its monotheism, its internal social structure, and the networking activity of its early partisans.
  • What about the Gnostic ecclesiolæ? What kinds of social structures/ecclesiastical organisations might have lain behind works like those found at Nag-Hammadi? As Professor Williams lays out, the evidence points to the more speculative works from Nag-Hammadi having been read by ordinary Christians in ordinary Christian churches, at least in the early period (say the second century); later, by about the year 400, we have some solid evidence for identifiable and self-identified, such as an inscription identifying a particular church as ‘Marcionite’.
  • We then discuss the social and ideological hegemonisation of Orthodoxy in late antiquity.

Works Discussed in this Episode:


  • This Egyptian papyrus with a fragment of Irenæus: Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 405, about which Wikipedia can tell you more.
  • Early fourth-century inscription identifying a church as Marcionite: The oldest reference to Christ in a church inscription, interestingly, is from an inscription from a Marcionite church in the village of Deir Ali (دير علي), south of Damascus. The Greek inscription identifies the building as the ‘gathering place [συναγωγή] of the Marcionites of the village of Lebabon of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ under the leadership of Paul the presbyter’ (Philippe Le Bas and William Henry Waddington, Inscriptions grecques et latines recueillies en Grèce et en Asie Mineure (1870), volume 3, inscription 2558).


  • P. Brown. The World of Late Antiquity. Thames and Hudson, London, 1971.
  • Rodney Stark. The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1996.
  • John Turner on the ‘Five Seals’ ritual alluded to in Sethian texts: J.D. Turner. Sethian Gnosticism and the Platonic Tradition. Presses Université Laval/Éditions Peeters, Montreal/Louvain-Paris, 2001. See also John D. Turner. ‘Ritual in Gnosticism’. In John D. Turner and Ruth Majercik, editors, Gnosticism and Later Platonism, volume 12 of SBL Symposium Series, pages 83–139. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, 2000.
  • Frederick Wisse on ‘free-floating mythologoumena’: Frederik Wisse. ‘Stalking those Elusive Sethians’. In Bentley Layton, editor, The Rediscovery of Gnosticism: Proceedings of the International Conference on Gnosticism at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, March 28-31, 1978, pages 563–78. Brill, Leiden, 1981.