What is Gnosticism?

Back to Meta Index

notes on Karen L King's   What is Gnosticism

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. John 1 3:6

And how could it, given the state of psychological evolution of mankind, then and even now? Unfortunately, we are unable to see the darkness in our own psyches, let alone our possession by the seven devils of psychological resistance.

Unable to see the primitive in ourselves, we are unable to see it in the darkness that received the message of Jesus two thousands years ago. Otherwise, we could see the inevitable processes of resistance, especially negation, projection and inversion, by which the shell of normative Christianity contained and protected itself from the seed of the Revelation.

The seed was, and always is, Gnosis or knowledge. The shell is orthodox Christianity, which formed out of darkness around the seed, and did not receive or understand it, and is known as belief. "Gnosticism" is a term invented by the shell to resist and negate the teachings and message of Jesus.

Karen L King's What is Gnosticism? in turn negates virtually all prior conceptions of Gnosticism, and arrives (2005) just as the old resistances are being revived by new discoveries like the Gospel of Judas and popular ideas like the Da Vinci Code. The defenses erected in response to these texts and ideas recyle out-of-date scholarship and up to 1800 year-old polemical propaganda, all of whose goal, as it has always been, is to negate and marginalize and protect the human psyche from the threat of knowledge. King's book is a prerequisite to understanding the reaction to the Judas Gospel, particularly in pronouncements by experts and apologists on the "Gnostic" character of that text.

If it were not for the fortuitous discovery in 1945 in Egypt, at Nag Hammadi, of forty-six texts buried in a jar in the sands, possibly during a purge of the local Coptic monastary library's newly-decreed non-orthodox texts, we would only know our subject through the shell's resistance (because the few non-Nag Hammadi survivals would be unconfirmed as part of a wider-phenomenon). King outlines the history of this resistance, from the early Christian polemicists like Irenaeus and Tertullian through modern religious and history of religion scholars who adopted the same arguments and frameworks as the early defenders of the faith.

King reviews the stategies found in the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy, which are based on concerns of origins, purity and essence, and have their modern counterparts in historicism, antisyncretism and phenomology and typology. Conventional wisdom, formed out of projection and resistance, sees Gnosticism as too little or too much influenced by Judaism; as Hellenic-Pagan or Oriental (Manichaean or other) contamination of Christianity; as dualistic and anticosmic and docetic and demiurgic and anti-Semitic and ascetic/libertine. According to King, none of these strategies, whose goal is exclusion, have proved viable and must be given up, as well as the term "Gnosticism" itself (see below).

In showing that Gnosticism is nothing like we thought it was, King shows that neither is early Christianity. Two aspects of one phenomenon, both were much more complex, diverse phenomena than we thought (primitivism again), and the proper focus of scientific inquiry should be the actual historical process of early Christian identity formation, as defined by the inclusion and exclusion of different ideas and practices in the tension between belief and knowledge.

The scholars have recently been forced by new information and perspectives to confront and analyse their own resistances and understand their cultural and historical biases. Without mentioning the word, King's book is a psychological case study of the phenomenon of resistance in its many manifestations -- splitting and projection, negation and foreclosure, inversion and distortion -- which were used to constitute early Christian identity, and continued to affect the thinking and perceptions of modern scholars.

Out of the empty space left by the death of preconceptions, and the hanging question, What is Gnosticism? we can ask, what is being repressed? What have our psychological defenses been defending against, all this time? Why is knowledge labeled "heresy?" Scholarship appears to be coming very close to the seed of the truth, if it only had an adequate psychohistory and a realization of the container and the contained.

What is Gnosticism?  

Why is it so hard to define Gnosticism? The problem, I argue, is that a rhetorical term has been confused with a historical entity. There was and is no such thing as gnosticism, if we mean by that some kind of ancient religious entity with a single origin and a distinct set of characteristics. Gnosticism is rather, a term invented in the early modern period to aid in defining the boundaries of normative Christianity.
The initial insight is quite simple: the problem of defining Gnosticism has been primarily concerned with the normative identity of Chrisitianity. Gnosticism has been constructed largely as the heretical other in relation to diverse and fluctuating understandings of orthodox Christianity.
In this way, the category of Gnositicism was produced through the Christian discourse of orthodoxy and heresy ... As such, Gnosticism has been classified as a marginal, sectarian, esoteric, mythical, syncretistic, parasitic, and Oriental religion.
Historically, Gnosticism is a term that belongs to the discourses of normative Christian identity formation It has been used to refer to the following:

... too little or too negative an appropriation of Judaism;

... outside contamination of pure Chrisitanity ... or as a form of contaminated Christianity

... (related traditions like) Heremeticism, Planonizing Sethianism, Mandaeism, Manichaeism, the Albigensian heresy, or the tenets of the medieval Cathars.

Introduction, p.1-4  
[1 Why is Gnosticism So Hard To Define?]

Modern scholars have tended to group together a wide variety of ancient persons, ideas, and texts described in the writings of ancient Christian polemicists. With a few significant exceptions, early Christian polemicists did not call such groups Gnostics; rather, they labeled them heretics.
Gnosticism as a category served important intellectual aims, defining the boundaries of normative Christianity -- especially with reference to Judaism -- and aiding colonialism by contrasting Gnosticism as an Oriental heresy with authentic Western religion. Moreover, it offered a single category to refer to a vast range of ideas, literary works, individuals, and groups. Repetition of the term by people of repute reinforced a sense of realism, until its existence seemed unquestionable.

Chapter 1: p.6-7

Nineteenth and twentieth-century scholarship has been dominated by two methods for defining Gnosticism: (1) determining its historical origin and genealogical developments; and (2) establishing its essential characteristics typologically.

The first method links origin with essence, assuming that if a particular phenomenon's point of origin can be identified, then we have learned something about its essential character and meaning as well as its history. Adolf fon Harnack offers a good example of this approach ... He located the essence of Christianity in the earliest and purest form of the teaching of Jesus.
Hans Jonas, by contrast, rejected the proposition that the origin of Gnosticism lay in a single historical site as the contamination of Christianity, arguing instead that it arose simultaneously in a variety of ancient Mediterranean locales as a distinct religion. Yet he, too, identified origin with essence.

Chap. 1 p.11
My purpose in this book is to consider the ways in which the early Christian polemicist's discourse of orthodoxy and heresy has been inter-twined with twentieth-century scholarship on Gnosticism in order to show where and how that involvement has distorted our analysis of the ancient texts. At stake is not only the capacity to write a more accurate history of ancient Christianity in all its multiformity, but also our capacity to engage critically the ancient politics of religious difference rather than unwittingly reproduce its strategies and results.

Chap. 1 p.19

[2 Gnosticism as Heresy]
Our discussion of Gnosticism begins with the ancient Chrisitian polemicists. Chief among them were Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Tertullian of Carthage, Hyppolytus of Rome, and Ephiphanius of Salamis, all of whom lived in the Roman Emire during the first four centuries C.E. and wrote polemical treatises against other Christians.

Chap. 2 Gnosticism as Heresy p.20
Indeed, we can learn more about Gnosticism as a category by identifying the themes and straegies of the polemicists present in the works of modern scholars than by examining the content of the polemicists' descriptions of heresy.

Chap. 2 p.21
Although ancient Christianity as theologically diverse and sociologically multiform, participating actively in ancient urban pluralism, the fourth and firrth centuries witnessed the formation and consolidation of a more uniform Christianity, under the guiding eyes of Christian emperors. A church headed by bishops, defined by creed and canon, and unified by increasingly standardized liturgical practices won out and for a time claimed the title of orthodoxy for itself.
The primary challenge for Christian self-definition was sameness, whether distinguishing the orthodox from heretics or Christians from non-Christians.

Chap. 2 p.22
"Orthodoxy" and "heresy" are terms of evaluation that aim to articulate the meaning of self while simultanously silencing and excluding others within the group. The power relations implied in the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy are firmly embedded in struggles over who gets to say what the truth is: the orthodox are the winners; the heretics, the losers.

Chap. 2 p.24
Tertullian sets a hedge around Scripture by insisting that there are limits to Jesus' injunction to seek and find. Once one has found, he says, it is time to quit seeking. Only as long as one adheres to the rule of faith, within the context of the group Tertullian sanctions, is it permissable to seek. And yet he concludes:
In the last resort, however, it is better for you to remain ignorant, for fear that you come to what you should not know. "Your faith have saved thee," it says, not your biblical learning. Faith is established in the Rule .. To know nothing against the Rule is to know everything.
According to this discourse, true Christian are said to rely on God as creator; heretics, to reject God as creator and therefore to be godless. True Christians know they are saved through the grace of God by Faith in Christ Jesus (pistis); heretics falsely believe they are saved by nature through the revelation of the Savior (gnosis). True Christians rely on the Scriptures as guides to faith and appropriate moral behavior; heretics pervert them for devious purposes and are incaplable or truly moral behavior. True Christians are humble before God; heretics are arrogant. And so on.

Chap. 2 p.30
Tertullian's famous declaration:
What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Chruch with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic? Our principles come from the Porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord is to be sought in simplicity of heart. I have no use for a Stoic or a Platonic or a dialectic Christianity. After Jesus Christ we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research. When we come to believe, we have no desire to believe anything else; for we begin by believing that there is nothing else which we have to believe.
Chap. 2 p.35
[Creating Outsiders: Jews and Pagans]
The creation of heresy was only part of the project of Christian identity formation. Christians also had to create categories that distinguished them from outsiders.

Chap. 2 p.38
When modern historians adopt the strategies as well as the content of the polemicists' construction of heresy to define Gnosticism, they are not just reproducing the heresy of the polemicists; they are themselves propagating the politics of orthodoxy and heresy. We should therefore not be suprised to observe twentieth-century historians employing the categoey of Gnosticism to establish the bounds of normative Christianity -- whether in Protestant anti-Catholic polemic, intra-Protestant debate, or the colonial politics of Orientalism.
The language, themes and strategies of orthodoxy and heresy proved to be a powerful discourse, persising in vaious forms up to our own day. My purpose in this book is to show how twentieth-century scholarship on Gnosticism has simultaneously reinscribed, elaborated, and deviated from this discourse.

Chap. 2 p.54  
[3 Adolf von Harnack and the Essence of Christianity]

For Harnack, the term "Hellenization" described the inescapbale background of all intellectual and cultural life in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Chap. 3 p.56
For Harnack, the essence of Christianity is transhistorical; none of the forms that it takes in history is identical with the Gospel itself or even necessary to it ...
... What, then is "the essence of Christianity?
Firstly, the kingdom of God and its coming.
Secondly, God the Father and the infinite value of the human soul.
Thirdly, the higher righteousness and the commandment of love.
Chap. 3 p.56-57
Indeed, for Harnack, locating the essence of Christianity was only part of the task, however crucial; it remained to lay bare the history of its "husk." The most signficant event in that history was Hellenization.

Chap. 3 p.58
This transformation, or rather this deformation, was in Harnack's view only the beginning, for Hellenism transformed the Gospel into dogma: "Dogma in its conception and development is a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the Gospel."

Chap. 3 p.60
On the basis of descriptions givien by the polemicists, Harnack listed eleven items that he suggested constituted the regula fides of Gnosticism ...
1. Gnostic thought distinguished between the supreme God and the creator, and hence between redemption and creation.
2. The supreme God was separated from the God of the Old Testament, and hence at least some parts of it could no longer be accepted as revelation of the supreme God ...
3. Matter was considered to be independent and eternal.
4. The created world was conceptualized either as the product of an evil being or intermediary acting out of hostility to the supreme God, or as a "fall of humanity."
5. Evil was understood as a physical force, inherent in matter.
6. The absoluteness of God was dispersed in Aeons ("real powers and heavenly persons").
7. Christ revealed a previously unknown God.
8. Gnostic Christianity distinguished Jesus in his human appearance from the heavenly Aeon of Christ, resulting in the belief that (a) Jesus was only a human being becuase he and Christ were entirely unrelated, or (b) Jesus' soul was formed in heaven and only appreared to pass through Mary's womb; or (c) Jesus' early appearance was a mere phantasm. The saving action of Christ was to reunite to God everything that had been severed from Him by an unnatural connection to matter.
9. Humans were divided into two or three classes, depending on whether they possessed spirit and sould or only a material nature. Only the spirtial were "capable of Gnosis and the divine life ... in virtue of the consitution" (that is, the spiritual were saved by nature).
10. Christian eschatology, including the second coming, the resurrection of the body, and the final judgment, was rejected entirely. Instead, Gnostics thought the spiritual person enjoyed immortality here and now, while waiting for future delivery from the sensous world and entrance into heaven.
11. As an addendum, Harnack noted that Gnostic ethics were based on a contrast between the "sensous and spirtual elements of human nature," and therefore Gnostics were capable of only two kinds of practice: strict asceticism or libertinism.
Chap. 3 p.62-63
For Harnack, then, the Gnostics "were, in short, the first theologians of the first century." Given Harack's opinion that theological dogma arose only with the degeneration of true religious enthusiasm, this achievement was not to their credit.

Chap. 3 p.64
Harnack's scholarship was contoured by his Protestant perspectives and was couched in the highly sophisticated terms of the critical-historical methods of his day. But it followed a pattern not dissimilar to that of Tertullian in that Harnack considered the problem with Gnosticism (heresy) to be the fact that it suffered from an acute overdose of Greek philosophy.

Chap. 3 p.69  
[4 The History of Religions School]

History of relgions scholars came to the astonishing conclusion that Gnosticism was an independent religion whose orgin lay, not in deviant Christian heresy, but in pre-Chrisitan, Oriental myth and cultic piety ... They focused on three particular topics: tracing the title "Son of Man" back to its origin in Iranian folk religion, the Gnostic influence on Paul, and the Gospel of John.
The Primary method of the history of relgions school was motif history, which involved tracing the orgin and genealogical development of a particular motif such as Son of Man from its earliest manifestation to its most developed form ... Here we can see the ninetenth- and early twentieth-centruy discourse of evolutionary progress intersecting the new fields of comparative religion, history, and philology, as well as the accounpanying colonialist identity politics of Orientalism.

Chap. 4 p.73
Although the associative genius of the history of religions scholars was intellecturally brilliant, it was a disaster sociologically and historically.
Scholars now consider the historical method of tracing motifs to be irremediably flawed because the analysis did not give sufficient attention to the shifting meanings and uses of motifs throughout shifts in their historical, intellectual, and sociological contexts.

Chap. 4 p.80
The intellectual world of early twentieth-century Europe tended to dichotomize the geography of East and West into Oriental and Greek cultural divisions. Neither the geographical nor the cultural boundaries were very prcise, but in general Bousset followed the discource of Orientalism, in which the Greek, Western side tended to be characterized as rationalist, historical, and universalizing; the Eastern, as nonrational, mythical, and cultic.

Chap. 4 p.95
Bousett devoted ten pages of Kyrios Christos to describing the basic nature and content of Gnostic thought, which may be summarized as follows:
  • sharp dualism, formed when "motifs which stem from Greek philosophy of a Platonist or Neoplatonist tendency are combined with specifically Oriental, mythologically determined dualism;" ...
  • radical pessimism toward the lower world;
  • alienation: "the Gnostic feels homeless, an alien in an alien world ...
  • a theology of the alien God;
  • an elitist anthropology,, that is, "the foolish dream that one belongs alone in the immediate entourage of God";
  • a radical religion of redemption, ...
  • salvation by nature, through revelation, initiation and sacrament: ...
  • esoteric: "Gnosis is rather mysterioius wisdom which rests upon secret revelation ..."
  • mythic: "in Gnostic redemption theology, myth everywhere takes the palce of the historical";
  • docetic Christology: ... Jesus on earth had possesssed only an illusory form ...
Most of these views derive more or less directly from the views of the ancient polemicists. Two, however, belong to the modern age: the association of relgion with feeling (alienation) and the particular way in which myth is contrasted with history.
Bousset held that Gnosticism was a pre-Christian religion, existing alongside of Christianity. It was an Oriental product, anti-Jewish and un-Hellenic.

Chap. 4 p.97-99
History of relgions scholars left an influential legacy of innovative misconceptions and misleading characterizations of Gnosticism. Of these, possibily the greatest mischief was done by the invention of the Gnostic redeemer myth, that staple of two-page summaries of Gnosticism ... The impression that this artificial narrative actually existed gained support from the fact that so many many literary artifacts could be interpreted to fit at least some part of the myth. They then appeared as evidence for the whole story -- even though in reality there is no single existing ancient literary source that gives "the Gnostic redeemer myth" as scholars have "reconstructed" (i.e. invented) it.

Chap. 4 p.110  
[5 Gnosticism Reconsidered]

In his pioneering book translated into English as Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Bauer suggested the following working hypothesis: "certain manifestations of Christian belief that the authors of the church renounced as 'heresies' orginally had not been such at all, but, at least here and there, were the only form of the new religion -- that is, for those regions that were simply 'Christianity." Bauer's reconstruction of the evidence pointing toward the need to abandon the dominant master narrative of Christian origins, which he called "the eccleastical position."

Chap. 5 p.111
Bauer's most lasting contribution .. challenged Tertullian's thesis that orthodoxy chronologically preceded heresy. Of course, the history of religions school had already declared Gnosticism to predate Christianity, but Bauer's work offered a more profound callenge to normative definitions of Christianity becase Bauer did not consider Gnosticism to be a non-Christian relgion ... As a result his construction of early Christian history directly challenged the normativity of orthodox Christian identity in ways that the history of religions schools had not ... Bauer provided the conceptual tools for thinking about what all historical-critical scholars of Christianity now quite routinely refer to as "the varieties of early Christianity."

Chap. 5 p. 114
In 1934, the German Jewish Philosopher Hans Jonas published the first volume of Gnosis und spatantiker Geist,, a systematic rethin,ing of the origin and meaning of Gnosticism ... Joanas's work as imbued with the simple but profound insight that the origins and genealogy that had dominated -- and indeed continue to dominate -- the study of Gnosticism were inadequate to explain the meaning of Gnosticism or account for its origin. Jonas proposed instead a methodologial shift toward a typological (phenomenological) delimitation of the essential characteristics of Gnosticism ... Bousset believed that both origin and meaning could be established by tracing the genealogy of a motif or idea. Jonas correctly pointed out that even if such a genealogy could be accurately plotted, it would still not be sufficient to account for the orgin of Gnosticism and certainly not the meaning of its language and myth.

Chap. 5 p.115-116
... Jonas proposed seven characteristics of encapsulate the essence of Gnosticism: gnosis, dynamic character (pathomorphic crisis), mythological character, dualism, impiety, artificial, and unique historical locus.

Chap. 5 p.120
... layers of the New Testament ... should be counted as belonging to the Gnostic domain. Christianity and Gnosticism are two species of the same genus ... insisted on seeing Gnosticism as a unitary whole ... he maintained the traditional negative evaluation of it intellectually, morally and religiously.

Chap. 5 p.134-135
The pre-Christian Gnostic redeemer myth was the invention of modern scholarship; it is inadequate, when not entirely misleading, for reading the ancient materials.

Chap. 5 p.138
Recent research supports the view that some Mandaean traditions may go back as far as the second or third century C.E. ... Once Mandaean materials no longer were thought to provide the key to the problem of Christian origin, Western scholars shifted their attention decisively away from Mandaean materials.

Chap. 5 p.140-141  
[6 After Nag Hammadi I: Categories and Origins]

In this chapter I will chart some of those tensions and point out the directions in which scholarship is moving. One crucial impact of the Nag Hammadi codices has been to force scholars to reconsider our current frameworks and methods. More data have not resulted in more certainty; rather, they have exposed the implausibility of explanatory frameworks that may be elegant but are too simplistic to deal with the historical complexity of the pluralistic religious life of the ancient social world. The Nag Hammadi codices have only added to that complexity ... Far from unmaking Christianity or denigrating theological enterprises, eludidating this complexity will ground theological reflections in more accurate historical and theological readings of the ancient materials.

Chap. 6 p. 150
Early Christian literature does not divide neatly into orthodox and heretical camps; there are unexpected overlaps and suprising similarities, and crucial points of difference are not always where we expect them to be. As a result, scholars have come to realize that the diverse forms of early Christianity were much more entangled than previously thought ... Acordingly, some texts taht have been classified as Gnostic (that is, heretical) such as GosThom, need to be considerd "historically of equal value with the canonical writings..." the problem of defining Gnosticism is intimately bound up with establishing the identity of Christianity.

Chap. 6 p.152-153
A second, higly influential and useful subcategory of the Nag Mammadi materials was proposed by Hans-Martin Schenke, who argued persuasivly for grouping a set of Nag Hammadi works in there heading of "Sethianism."
  • The Sethians understand themselves to be "the seed of Seth."
  • Seth is the Gnostic saviour, or alternativily, Adam is the savior of his son Seth. Both may have a heavenly and/or an earthly aspect.
  • The heavenly place of rest for Adam, Seth, and the seed of Seth is the four aeons and illuminators of Autogenes: Harmozel, Oroiael, Davilthe, and Eleleth.
  • Autogenes is a member of the divine triad as the Son of the Father (often named the Invisible Spirit) and the Mother, Barbelo. The triad is itself specifically Sethian.
  • "Man" (Adam in his primal form is connected with this heavenly triad.
  • Beneath the four lights is the realm of the Demiurge, Yaldabaoth.
  • The appearance of the divine Man is a result of the arrogance of Yaldabaoth and the punishment for his hubris.
  • Finally, Sethian mythology contains a distinctive periodization of history: the age of Adam, the age of Seth, the age of the original Sethians, and the present time.
To these mythic contents, Schenke added consideration of the intertextual relations among the works and, above all, evidence for the practice of two cultic mysteries: baptism and ritual of ascent.

Chap. 6 p. 157
Sethians, like most Christians and indeed most social groups, divide humanity into only two categoies (those who will be saved and those who will not, that is, insiders and outsiders), while Valentinians have three categories (spiritual humans and psychic humans -- both of whom will be savid -- and material persons who will not). ... Different emphases ... in the gender symbolism of the two mythologies. While both largely share in the patriarchal gender construction of anceint Mediterranean socity, Sethianism tends to portray the femal in more active and positive roles, and in a few places even critiques the illegitimate domination of women by men (...portraying the subordination of women to men in Genesis 3:16 as part of the wicked God's attempt to enslave the Spirit). Valentinian myth and ritual make more use of androgeny as a symbol of primal unity ...

Chap. 6 p.161
These four subcategories (Valentiniansim, Sethianism, Hemeticism, and to a lesser degree Thomas Christianity) have become well established with the field. Their status with regard to Gnosticism, however has become increasingly unclear.

Chap. 6 p.162
Similarly, the normative definition of Christianity continues to be the main issue at stake in the debate of Gnostic origins. This point is easily illustrated by the fact that the various proposals for the origins of Gnosticism can be readily categorized according to how they understand the relationship of Gnosticism to Christianity.
1. Gnosticism is a Christian heresy ...
2. Gnosticism is one variety of Christianity ...
3. Gnosticism is a pre-Christian or proto-Christian religion ...
4. Gnosticism is an independent tradition ... which may nonetheless have exerted some mutual influence on each other ...

Chap. 6 p.162
Although strong arguements have recently been made for reconsidering the origin of Gnosticism within Cristianity, the hot new contender for the locus of Gnostic orgin is Judaism.

Chap. 6 p.175
This discussion illustrates a definite tendency in current scholarship to reduce the orgins of Gnosticism to the production of an evil Demiurge even though many of the Nag Hammadi texts have no biblical Demiurge. And even in those that do, it is not possible to choose one feature of a complex myth to determine its historical content and personality ...

When we peruse the texts of Nag Hammadi for signs of alienation and resistance, we find they mark a variety of attitudes: ascetic withdrawal, utoipian hope, compassion, and not least parody and satire with their biting critiques of power relations in the world ...

Any attempt to resolve the multifarioius materials into a single origin and linear genealogy is doomed to fail on its own premise. Such an approach cannot solve the problem of the origin of Gnosticism because no such monolithic entity ever existed ...

The notion of mutiple origins challenges the reification of Gnosticism, but even this postion does not go far enough. Because the core problem is the reification of a rhetorical entity (heresy) into an actual phenomenon in its own right (Gnosticism), the entire question of origin is a non-issue whose seeming urgency arises only because of its rhetorical function in the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy.

Chap. 6 p.188-190  
[7 After Nag Hammadi II: Typology]

This discussion illustrates a definite tendency in current scholarship to reduce the origins of Gnosticism to the production of an evil Demiurge even though many of the Nag Hammadi text have no biblical Demiurge. And even in those that do, it is not possible to choose one feature of a complext myth to determine its historical context and positionality. The entire complex of leterary and thematic resouces, the rhetorical goals and strategies of the work as a whole, must be taken into account. When we do this, Jewish materials -- no matter how intergral -- appear as part of a heterogeneious complex.

Chap. 7 p.187
Most summary definitions of Gnosticism continue to describe it as a Christian heresy. They usually recount a version of the Gnostic redeemer myth and refer to Gnosticism as a religion of redemption through knowledge (gnosis). They state that the radically anticosmic dualism of Gnosticism is demontrated by the belief that the world was fashioned by an ignorant and wicked demiurgic creator. Gnosticism is commonly said to exhibit an attitude of alienation and rebellioius protest, as well as a belief that Gnostics are saved by nature -- two views that, when combined, led to either an ascetic or a libertine rejection of the world and hatred of the body. Sometimes accounts of Gnosticism indicate that it is a syncretistic relgion or the product of some historical crisis, proof of which can be found in the impious hereneutic that reverses and mocks the traditions of Jews and Greeks alike.
This chapter illustrates the problem with typology by examining three of the supposedly "essential characteristics" of Gnosticism: dualism, ascetic or libertine ethics, and docetism.

Chap. 7 p.191
Scholarship since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi collection has been engated in a dual enterprise. On the one hand, it has continued in the framework of previous discourses, especially that of orthodoxy and heresy, reinscribing its discursive themes and focusing on origins and typology. On the other hand, study of the individual works has increasingly led scholars to question whether it will ever be possible to resolve the enormous varity of the materials into a single common origin or a single typological schema. Previous views about the origin of Gnosticism in Hellenistic contamination or Oriental syncretism have been thoroughly undermined. More recent attempts to establish Gnostic origins in either Judaism or new Testament Christianity have proved equally problematic. At the same time, every feature of existing characterizations of Gnosticism has been called into question.
Where do we go from here?

Chap. 7 p.216-217  
[8 The End of Gnosticism?]

What will happen now to the category of Gnosticism? In the end, I think the term "Gnosticism" will most likely be abandoned, at least in its present usage ... It is important not su much to eliminate the term per se, but to recognize and corect the ways in which reinscribing the discourses of orthodoxy and heresy distort our reading and reconstruction of ancient religion. These distortions have both confused historiography and undermined the legitimate work of theological reflection.

Chap. 8 p.218

The ancient discourse of orthodoxy and heresy has affected not only the goad and substance of the study of Gnosticism, but its methods as well. I suggest that in the development of modern historical scholarship the concerns of ancient discourse with orgins, essence, and purity were transformed in disciplinary methodologies.

Chap. 8 p.219
I suggest that in the development of modern historical scholarship the concerns of ancient discourse with origins, essence and purity were transformed in disciplinary methodologies ... None of these has a legitimate place in historical research, given that historical phenomena never have a pure origin but are always in media res; given that there is no purity, only mistures; no essence, only continuity in difference.

Chap. 8 p.220
b>Pitting Gnosticism against some pure essence of Christianity does not merely identify "heresy" or "Gnosticism" (both in the singular) ; it produces them as the "other" of Christianity ... But they did not exist as heretics or as examples of "Gnosticism" until those categories were invented by polemicists or modern scholars to serve their politics of religious identity.

Chap. 8 p.224
Yet as I have argued above, the variety of phenomena classified as "Gnostic" simply will not support a single, monolithic definition, and in fact none of the primary materials fits the standard typological definition.

Chap. 8 p.226
What I am calling for is a shift in historical-critical and literary methods away from the search for origins to the analysis of practice.

Chap. 8 p.228
Such historiographical enterprises will result in more than one true and authentic narrative, but not in a narrative of Christian triumph or a naturalization of the develoment of orthodoxy, since they would chart the decisive acts and construct "orthodoxy" through rhetorical acts of erasure, harmonization, and fiat within the complex of Christian practices in the Mediterrean world. They would note throughout what was at stake and for whom.
This book by no means offers a complete analysis of the twentieth-century study of Gnosticism. Its aim was more limited -- to locate some of the inconguities in the construction of Gnosticism in order to aid in "thinking hard and speaking differently" about religious identity formation.

Chap. 8 p.236  
  Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism?. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003 - Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.26 - Reviewed by Nicola Denzey, Bowdoin College