Episode 80: Michael Williams on the Trouble with ‘Gnosticism’

In this episode Michael Williams, a leading scholar of early Christianity and related currents of thought, introduces us to the family of terms γνώσις, γνωστικοί, and their cognates, as used in the context of a mysterious group of people that early Christian heresiologues found objectionable. Professor Williams has subjected the scholarly use of the term ‘Gnostic’ and its relatives to a serious critique, and this episode is a perfect introduction to the problems with the category ‘Gnostic’ which is an essential introduction to any discussion of ancient texts stemming from the circles of the Valentinians, Marcionites, Sethians, and the host of other fringe movements within the ambit of the early Jesus-movement which are often called ‘Gnostic’.

The first part of the interview traces a genealogy of the term ‘Gnostic’. There were probably people who called themselves γνωστικοί in antiquity as early as the second century CE, but the term is mostly known to us from heresiological writers who use it to designate a difficult-to-pin-down and shifting group of rejected Christian teachings. In other words, our only solid definition of Gnostics from antiquity does not come from the supposed Gnostics themselves – when we use the term, we are using a term whose origins lie in the polemical writings of early Christian heresiologists.

We then resume our story in the early-modern period, when the term is revived by thinkers like Erasmus of Rotterdam and Henry More for use as an intra-confessional term of abuse: soon we have Protestants accusing Catholics of being Gnostics, Catholics accusing Protestants of being Gnostics, Protestants accusing other flavours of Protestant of being Gnostic, and so on. This state of affairs changes in the Enlightenment, when the term begins to be used by some with admiration, reframing the Gnostics of antiquity as a sort of free-thinker group surrounded and oppressed by the tyranny of orthodox Christianity in late antiquity. In Romanticism Gnosis undergoes another transformation, now being used to signify a certain inner state of emotional ‘mysticism’ which the Romantics were into.

Finally, entering the world of scholarship, the Gnostics are studied by the Religionshgeschichteschule of nineteenth-century German scholarship, where they became an example of ‘Eastern’ influence (and often of Eastern corruption) entering into the Hellenic mindset; Gnosticism was a foreign influence on a pure European heritage which had until then subsisted largely without such influence. Then, around the turn of the twentieth century, Hans Jonas’s work invented the idea of ancient Gnosticism as a ‘religion’; this rewriting of the history of ideas has had a deep and lasting effect on both scholarly and popular receptions of what it was to be ‘Gnostic’ in antiquity. Things went on quietly for a while; then, in 1945, a trove of documents written in Coptic were discovered near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt: this library, fragmentary though it was, contained originals of a number of actual ‘Gnostic’ texts, once thought lost forever and known only through the writings of the heresiologists. Then people noticed that the term ‘Gnostic’ doesn’t appear anywhere in these texts, and things really got interesting ….

In the second part of our interview, Professor Williams discusses some of the features common to the texts commonly labelled ‘Gnostic’, some of the features (such as ‘anti-cosmic pessimism’ and an emphasis on a special, salvific knowledge) which are often assumed to be constitutive of Gnosticism as a genre but which aren’t quite so simple in the sources, and finally discusses some of the aspects of his own solution to the problem of the Gnostic category. This is – roughly summed-up – an emphasis on ‘demiurgy’, or creation by an entity lower than the primary god, and a case-by-case approach to individual texts, viewed within the larger context of the early Jesus-movement and also the Jewish and Hellenic backgrounds to these texts.

Works Cited in this Episode:

‘Gnostic’ Primary Texts:

Here is a short list of the texts surviving from antiquity which are generally considered primary ‘Gnostic’ sources (excluding Manichæan materials, which are a whole different kettle of fish, although the religion of Mani certainly shares some relevant features with some of these materials). We are looking at a series of one-off, priceless manuscripts plus the Nag Hammadi texts, which are the remains of a large library containing loads of stuff, but often in very bad condition.

  • The Askew Codex (BL Additional MS 5114): This wonderfully-named manuscript held in the British Library contains two ancient Coptic works in mostly good condition. One is the Pistis Sophia (‘Faith Wisdom’) mentioned in this episode, which was one of the only ancient surviving texts of this sort of Christianity until Nag Hammadi.
    This tractate is translated in Carl Schmidt and Violet McDermott. Pistis Sophia. Brill, Leiden, 1978a.
  • The Berlin Codex (Papyrus Berolinensis 8502): 5th century Coptic MS from Panopolis (present-day Akhmim) in Middle Egypt containing four texts: a fragmentary Gospel of Mary (our only copy of this work); an Apocryphon of John; The Sophia of Jesus Christ; an epitome of the Acts of Peter.
  • The Bruce Codex (Bruce 96): An important text, acquired by the British Library and ham-fistedly bound by them in no particular order; now in the Bodleian Library, where Coptologists have figured it out, rebound it in the proper order, and translated it. Contains the Books of Jeu and another, untitled text.
    See for comment and an English translation Carl Schmidt and Violet McDermott. The Books of Jeu and the Untitled Text in the Bruce Codex. Brill, Leiden, 1978b.
  • The Tchacos Codex: not mentioned in the interview, but worth noting: This is the most recent addition to the corpus of known ‘Gnostic’ works, brought to the light of scholarship in 2001. It is quite early (c. 300 CE), in Coptic, and contains some great stuff: the Gospel of Judas, the Letter of Peter to Philip, the First Apocalypse of James, and part of a version of Allogenes (‘Foreign-Born’), a Sethian work also found in the Nag Hammadi corpus and read by friends of Plotinus. Discovered in Egypt some time in the 70’s, the codex wandered through the dodgy byways of international antiquities dealing until it finally found its way (in very bad condition) into the hands of the eponymous Ms Nussberger-Tchacos. It made a splash when it was brought forward in 2001, because it contains the long-thought-lost Gospel of Judas (condemned by Irenæus (Adv. haer. 1.31.1).
    Two accessible English translations with in-depth commentary can be found at: Simon Gathercole. The Gospel of Judas: Rewriting Early Christianity. Oxford University Press, Oxford and London, 2007. and Karen L. King and Elaine Pagels. Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. Viking, New York, 2007. See also Johanna Brankaer and Hans-Gerbhard Bethge. Codex Tchacos: Texte und Analysen. de Gruyter, Berlin and New York, NY/Köln, 2007.

The Nag Hammadi Library (abbreviated NHC [that’s ‘Nag Hammadi Corpus’] I, II, III, &c, &c.): Discovered in 1945 and pictured above, these leather-bound codices, found in an earthenware pot, have put ‘Gnosticism’ firmly on the map of scholarship. The library contains an enormous amount of material. David Scholer publishes up-to-date and comprehensive bibliographies of everything published in the field of Nag-Hammadi studies going back to 1948, most recently:

  • Scholer, David M., ed. Nag Hammadi Bibliography, 1995–2006. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

In English, the most important series is NHMS, published by Brill. Among many essential works in English, Brill has brought out the wonderful sourceworks of Robinson:

  • J. M. Robinson. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Brill, Leiden, 1977a.
  • James M. Robinson. The Facsimile Edition of the Nag Hammadi Codices: Introduction. Brill, Leiden, 1972 [with these black-and-white facsimiles you can work on these texts at home; nowadays there is also the Nag Hammadi Archive at Claremont Colleges Digital Library.]
  • James M. Robinson. The Coptic Gnostic Library. Brill, Leiden, 1978.

Two major research-projects are ongoing,

  • at the Université de Laval, producing the Bibliothèque copte de Nag Hammadi series of French-Coptic critical editions and useful stuff like concordences, and
  • the Berlin ‘Arbeitskreis’, producing German-Coptic critical editions and other great stuff, like Hans-Martin Schenke , Hans-Gebhard Bethge, and Ursula Ulrike Kaiser, eds. Nag Hammadi Deutsch. Eingeleitet und übersetzt von Mitgliedern des Berliner Arbeitskreises für koptisch-gnostische Schriften. 2 vols. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2001.

Heresiological Primary Texts:

  • Irenæus of Lyon (c. 130–c. 202 CE): a very important figure who had a hand in deciding what the canonical scriptures of orthodox Christianity would be and who, through his work Against All Heresies, helped decide who got to be considered Christian, and who were heretics. Significantly for the present topic, he railed against a group he called ‘Gnostics’ – a γνωστική αἵρεσις – identified by modern scholars as largely made up of various flavours of Valentinianism, and so immortalised ‘Gnosticism’ as a genre. A good French edition of Against All Heresies can be found in the Recommended Reading below.
  • Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 310 to 320–403): The bishop of the island of Salamis. His Panarion is a rabid anti-heretical (or pro-orthodox, if you prefer) book which, luckily for us, preserves some direct quotations of otherwise-lost heretical authors. Incidentally, Epiphanius was an early iconoclast and anti-Origenist, so we shall be encountering him again when we discuss the great esoteric church father Origen. See Frank Williams. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis. Brill, Leiden/New York, NY, 1987.

Later Primary Stuff:

  • Henry More (1614-1687): More, one of the ‘Cambridge Platonists’, took up the term ‘Gnostic’ as an anti-Catholic polemical term in his 1664 A Modest Enquiry into the Mystery of Iniquity. This roughly marks the beginning of the modern use of the term to mean all sorts of interesting things.


  • Ioan P. Couliano. The Tree of Gnosis: Gnostic Mythology from Early Christianity to Modern Nihilism. Harper San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, 1990.
  • Hans Jonas. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity. Beacon, Boston, 2001. [Translated and abridged from Jonas’s original two-volume work, Die Gnosis (1934)].
  • Karen L. King. What Is Gnosticism? Belknap, Cambridge, MA, 2003.
  • Bentley Layton: see Recommended Reading.
  • Christoph Markschies. Gnosis: An Introduction. T&T Clark, London and New York, 2003.
  • A.D. Nock’s critique of Jonas: A.D. Nock. ‘Review of Hans Jonas, Gnosis und spätantiker Geist, 2, 1: Von der Mythologie zur mystischen Philosophie’. Gnomon, 28(2):124–26, 1956.
  • Birger Pearson 2007: see Recommended Reading.
  • Simone Petrement. A Separate God: The Christian Origins of Gnosticism. Harper SanFrancisco, San Francisco, CA, 1990.
  • Kurt Rudolph. Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism. Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA, 1983.
  • Geoffrey S. Smith. Guilt by Association: Heresy Catalogues in Early Christianity. Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York, NY, 2015 [on the ‘black list’ inherited by Irenæus].
  • Morton Smith. ‘The History of the Term Gnostikos’. In Bentley Layton, editor, The Rediscovery of Gnosticism, pages 796–807. Brill, Leiden, 1980.
  • John Turner: Professor Turner was alive at the time of recording this interview, but has since passed beyond the Archons into the Pleroma. His work and personality are remembered with deep gratitude by generations of scholars and friends, and he will be missed. He is mentioned at a number of junctures in the conversation, and his works will be discussed in some detail when the podcast turns to Sethianism.
  • Michael Williams 1999: see Recommended Reading.

Recommended Reading:

Most of the works here are general introduction type materials; in light of the topic of this episode, nearly all of them suffer to some degree from the problems with the term Gnostic that we have been discussing! Nevertheless, those interested in The Artist Formerly Known as Gnosis will find much to interest them.

  • David Brakke. The Gnostics: Myth, Ritual, and Diversity in Early Christianity. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010.
  • Giovanni Filoramo. A History of Gnosticism. Blackwell, Cambridge, MA, 1990.
  • Irenæus. Irenée: Contre les hérésies. Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1979.
  • Bentley Layton. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. Doubleday, New York, 1995.
  • Bentley Layton. ‘Prolegomenon to the Study of Gnosticism’. In Michael L. White and Larry O. Yarbrough, editors, The Social World of the First Christians: Essays in Honor of Wayne A. Meeks, pages 334–350. Fortress, Minneapolis, 1995b.
  • Antti Marjanen. Was There a Gnostic Religion? Finnish Exegetical Society, Helsinki, 2005.
  • Birger Pearson. Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature. Fortress, Minneapolis, 2007.
  • J.M. Robinson, editor. The Nag Hammadi Library in English. Brill, Leiden, 1977 [Great bedside reading].
  • Riemer Roukema. Gnosis and Faith in Early Christianity: An Introduction to Gnosticism. Trinity Press International, Harrisburg, PA, 1999.
  • Andrew Philip Smith. A Dictionary of Gnosticism. Quest, Wheaton, IL, 2009.
  • M. A. Williams. Rethinking Gnosticism: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1999.
  • Idem. ‘Gnosticism Emergent: The Beginning of the Study of Gnosticism in the Academy’. In April DeConick, editor, Religion: Secret Religion, Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks, pages 3–22. Macmillan Reference, Farmington Hills, MI, 2016.


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