by V.H. Soror G.A.D.S.I.Q.S. and V.H. Frater S.C.E.S.C.


What is commonly referred to as the study of ancient gnosis or Gnosticism is a mélange of plurality composed of an assortment of religious movements that date their beginnings anywhere between the 1st and 2nd centuries of the common era. The problematic nature of arranging and categorizing such an assortment of religious traditions under one universalizing concept is exactly what is addressed in Michael Williams’ Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Gnostic studies have historically been done through the perspective of early polemics written by the early church fathers against the ‘so-called false Gnostics’ and ‘Gnostic heresy.’ However, since the discovery of Nag Hammadi in 1945 researchers in the field of Gnostic studies have been able to examine these multiform groups in context with their own writings.

Sadly, despite this innovation in research scholars have for the most part failed to put these groups into historical perspective arguing instead from a definition that both essentializes the supposed common core of these groups as well as upholds the theological and academic assumptions in regards to the nature of these groups. Despite the ominous state of affairs in the field of Gnostic studies Michael William’s work Rethinking ‘Gnosticism’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category has taken the theoretical approach to Gnosticism a step further. This paper will attempt to address some of the various theoretical and methodological problems in the field of Gnostic Studies. Specifically, this paper will address the overwhelming reliance of scholars of Gnosticism on the phenomenological approach of Hans Jonas, the construction of Gnosticism as a typology, the resulting essentialized and transhistorical character attributed to Gnosticism, the contributions of recent scholars, and Williams’ argument for the dismantling of the category ‘Gnostic.’ Finally, this paper will explore possible improvements in the methods and theories used to study Gnosticism.


Essentializing Religion or The Hidden Metaphysical Reduction
Broadly defined Gnosticism refers to those ancient 1st and 2nd century groups in the Roman Empire that desired ‘to know’ God through experience rather than to take God’s presence or commandments on faith alone and the characteristics attributed to these ‘knowers’ by scholars became the basis for the qualities of the Gnostic religion. However, this type of broad existentialist definition generally attributed to Hans Jonas and his followers, metaphysically reduces these religious movements to a fundamental attribute. The opaqueness of Jonas’ work led A.D. Nock in 1936 to state, “I am now left in a terminological fog [1] .” This ‘terminological fog’ has yet to be lifted as Tite argues:

“Jonas has arguably been the most influential scholar of Gnosticism to promote a phenomenological approach in which ideological elements serve as a basis for constructing a ‘Gnosticism’ which is an essentialized and transhistorical phenomenon.”[2]

In fact Jonas defines the essence of Gnosticism and what he calls the Gnostic Religion as, “a certain dualism, an estrangement between man and the world…A cosmic nihilism as such begotten by whatever historical circumstances…characteristic traits of existentialism might evolve. [3] ” The characteristics ‘dualism’ and ‘world rejection’ that Jonas perceives as paramount in Gnosticism are based for the most part on Manicheaen and patristic sources rather than primary sources. In addition, Jonas’ metaphysical reduction lends itself to a, “transhistorical portrait of Gnosticism. [4] ” Indeed, as suggested by Tite the consequence of such a construction is the refinement of Gnosticism in “…such a way as to transcend historical boundaries (irreducibly removed from historical and cultural confines) and placed within a type of attitude which can emerge within various historical-cultural contexts. [5] ” Hence, the metaphysical reduction by Jonas creates an irreducible intrinsicality that remains insulated from more historical and social scientific approaches. 

Constructing Heresy: Gnosticism as “Typology”
In addition to treating ‘Gnosticism’ as an irreducible and ahistorical phenomenon, Jonas’ and his supporters examine Gnosticism as a typological construct from which it is possible to arrange otherwise disparate groups into a univocal heresy and antagonist to early Christianity. Since the definition ‘Gnostic’ is by and large an etic term and there is little evidence to suggest it as a self-designation it is assumed that the category designates a common typology among these groups. “The rationale is usually that these groups which are alleged to have used the self-designation share a typological structure with groups for whom the self-designation is questionable, or unattested, and this structure is ‘gnosticism’ or ‘the Gnostic religion. [6] ’” According to Williams’ the argument for self-designation comes from the common misreading of the early heresiologists. “This exercise has been repeated so often that there is frequently at least a popular impression that even thought the ancient writers did not actually use the term ‘gnosticism,’ they were assuming essentially the same phenomenological grouping of data. [7] ” In addition it is useful to point out that the term Gnosticism, “with a pejorative connotation, was coined in France as late as the eighteenth century. [8] 

Perhaps there is no more a lucid example of what Russell McCutcheon would consider ‘manufacturing religion [9] ’ or better yet a sui generis discourse than the phenomenological approach used in the study (or perhaps the creation) of Gnosticism and the Gnostic Religion. This approach championed by Jonas has continued to be the both the prototype and exemplar of the majority of Gnostic studies. As a result of this manufactured typology not only does a negation of historical, social, and cultural contextualization of the subject occur but also a definitional problem in regards to the subject itself. As Edwin Yamauchi points out, “how one defines Gnosticism or Gnosis will largely determine one’s historical conclusions.[10” Yamauchi’s comment is reminiscent of McCutcheon’s politics of nostalgia [11] in which the very act of defining in this case ‘gnosticism’ provides either validation of insider truth claims in regards to the purity of the early Christian message or an unbroken transcendent message of knowledge present in ancient Gnostic groups that lives on today.

A more specific example of the validation of truth claims in regards to modern studies is given by Tite who addresses the importance of the origins of Gnosticism from two oppositional groups:

“For example, Protestant claims of returning to a “New Testament” Christianity not polluted by medieval Catholicism; or modern Gnostic groups such as the Ecclesia Gnostica [12] or the Universal Christian Gnostic Movement of Canada (New Order) which trace themselves back through an occult tradition to a pristine mystical or mystery tradition.” [13]

The politics of returning to a pure Christianity for certain Protestant sects involves retracing the historical origins of Christianity. This quest for historical origins so to speak is reliant upon the definition one gives to Christianity. By shrouding a transhistorical essentializing approach in a ‘historical’ cloak one appears to be discerning the ‘pristine pattern’ that links a historical ideal (i.e. pure Christianity) to the ideal of the present which would in this case be Protestant Christianity. However, it is the idealized Christianity that is sought within history not the actual historical, cultural, or social manifestation.

Likewise, when applying the phenomenological existentialist approach advocated by Jonas to the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholique one is able to assert insider truth claims in regards to the essence of their religious message. While it is more often the case for esoteric orders to claim the continuance of message and meaning from archaic sources without respite, scholarly approaches that emphasize the temporal continuity or essence of a given religion allow certain socio-religious entities to choose historical instances according to predilection in order to support their claim of historical lineage. Furthermore, “such attempts at using historical data to gain access to nonhistorical essences result in a circular reasoning [14] …which privileges an assumed sui generis essence. [15] 

The lack of analytical boundaries in regards to this type of irreducible reductionism negates the situating of data within its more expansive historical, social, and cultural specificity. Hence we are left with a typological definition of Gnosticism that dictates an ahistorical, transcultural, and existential viewpoint that categorizes several multiform religious groups on the basis of perceived essential meanings. Furthermore, the typology serves to give validity to the individual scholar’s dictated shared qualities and meanings rather than historical, cultural, social, or textual realities.

The Devil’s Advocate: Creating God in Your Own Image
Although there have been steps made towards remedying the problem of defining Gnosticism in a cross traditional typological manner [16] that is unified only through meaning most scholars have simply added a new historical twist to Hans Jonas’ phenomenological method. For example in Kurt Rudolph’s Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, Rudolph acknowledges in the preface the debt his study owes to Jonas’ methods and work. [17] In addition to Rudolph’s inclusion of social and cultural factors in Gnosis (1984) scholars have taken various steps to improve if not jettison Jonas’ approach. “In the past two decades there has been a notable shift away from purely phenomenological analyses of Gnosticism to a growing appreciation for the dimensions of various Gnosticisms. [18] 

“Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospel’s (1979), Henry Green’s The Social and Economic Origins of Gnosticism (1985), and, perhaps most notably Michael Desjardin’s Sin in Valentinianism (1990), scholarship has moved beyond simple theological or philosophical abstractions of the phenomenological traits of Gnosticism, and had discovered within the Nag Hammadi sources communal formation, ritual and ethical consideration, and power dynamics.”

However, despite the use of more social scientific analytical frameworks and the acknowledgement of ‘gnosticisms’ the importance placed on essentializing remains firmly intact. As Rudolph states, “The essential basic features of Gnosis can easily be extracted from Gnostic traditions, even if they belong to the teachings of different schools. [19] 

This attachment of essential qualities to an ahistorical typology in order to get to an existential truth claim of what gnosis ‘is’ forms the basis from which Williams’ argues for the reexamination of the category ‘gnosticism’ and the field of Gnostic studies and proposes the adoption of his classification of ‘biblical demurgical traditions.’ One of the more explicit examples of how essentialized Gnostic qualities are often misconstrued by scholars is the ‘parasite’ metaphor proposed by Kurt Rudolph. Rudolph asserts that Gnosticism is not a pure religion or phenomenon rather it is always associated with some other older religious form or tradition upon which it attaches itself and spreads. [20] In recounting the origin and spread of Gnosticism Rudolph states,

“It grew like parasites (or mushrooms) on foreign soil, the ‘host religions’ as it were, to which belong the Greek, Jewish, Iranian, Christian, and Islamic. Gnosticism therefore has no tradition (Tradition) of its own but only a borrowed one. Its mythology is a tradition (Überlieferung) created ad hoc from foreign material, which it has amalgamated in accordance with its own fundamental conceptions.” [21]

In addition to Rudolph’s characterization Birger Pearson in his argument for pre-Christian Gnosticism asserts that there are ten essential features of Gnosticism that allow it “…to be treated as a historically discrete religious phenomenon. [22] ” Nevertheless, Williams’ points out that Pearson adds to his essential features by saying that, “what makes Gnosticism so hard to define is, finally, its parasitical character. [23] 

The parasite metaphor is problematic on many levels not the least of which is the portrayal of Gnosticism or any of the collective groups that are used to construct the category as something less than a full blown religion. The use of the ‘parasite’ or ‘virus’ metaphor serves as an all inclusive category that attempts to capture certain aspects of the collective phenomena known as Gnosticism and describe them in terms that are free of association with any particular ‘host’ religion as well as reinforcing its transhistorical nature rather than individuating these groups in terms of particularities. “The metaphors mentioned are therefore reaching for the transtraditional character of ‘gnosticism.’ But these metaphors, and especially the parasite metaphor, are also aimed at something else, and that is the dependence of ‘gnosticism’ on its host traditions [24] ” As Williams further points out these metaphors serve to emphasize the perceived tension between what is on the one hand classified as a transcendent tradition of knowledge and on the other a tradition dependent on other traditions. [25]

In addition to the pejorative nature of designating a religious tradition as ‘parasitic’ the metaphor itself remains untenable when examined more closely. In Williams’ view the designation “represents a misguided attempt to explain certain features in something called ‘gnosis’ or ‘gnosticism’ by creating a special class of organism in the history of religions, when in fact the phenomena at hand are understandable in terms of normal and expected processes in religious innovation and the emergence of new religious movements. [26] ” That is to say that Rudolph’s search for any ‘pure’ or ‘pristine’ manifestation of Gnosticism is akin to the aforementioned Protestant search for an unpolluted ‘New Testament Christianity.’ In addition taken in light of Rudolph’s definition, “every new religion has begun as a ‘parasite.’” When placed in context with the study of other religious innovations and developments such as the development of Christianity or Islam from Jewish roots, “it becomes clear that what really is meant by a ‘nonparasitical’ religion is most probably simply one that has grown to be sufficiently successful in terms of numerical strength and historical longevity to be viewed as its ‘own’ tradition. [27] ” Furthermore Williams’ refers to Rudolph’s stance that Manichaeism can be regarded as one of the “four world religions known to the history of religions [28] ” differing only in that Manichaeism ceases to exist. [29] What is implied and consequently inferred by Williams’ is that Manichaeism is somehow an exception to the ‘parasitic’ character Rudolph attributes to Gnosticism and since the metaphor in no way accounts for this exception Rudolph is caught in his own phenomenological trap. [30] 

Moving Beyond Metaphors; Gnosticism Without Tears
Although Williams’ critique calls for scholars to rethink their various classification systems and emphasizes a more social scientific approach his proposed solution of reclassifying Gnosticism and restructuring the field to focus on what he calls ‘biblical demiurgical traditions’ does not adequately individuate the various groups that compose the category of Gnosticism. Consequently, it is in itself a typology albeit grounded in historical and textual evidence. What is needed is not redescription via a mere change in label but an actual methodology that provides for the individuation and recognition of various groups in their respective historical, cultural, and social manifestations.

To this end how do we lift the ‘terminological fog’ surrounding Gnosticism and Gnostic Studies? Perhaps employing classifications that are specific to historical, cultural, and social circumstances and jettisoning the transhistorical quest for meaning would be a good place to start.


[1] Van den Broek, Reolef and Wouter J. Hanegraff Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Gnosticism and Hermeticism in Antiquity: Two Roads to Salvation. New York: SUNY Press 1998 p.4

[2] Tite, Phillip A. “Categorical Designations and Methodological Reductionism: Gnosticism as Case Study.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religions 13.3 (2001): 269-292. p. 275

[3] Jonas, Hans. The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God & the Beginnings of Christianity. 3rd ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001. p. 325

[4] Tite p. 275

[5] Tite p. 276

[6] Williams. Michael A. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Universtiy Press, 1996. p. 43

[7] Ibid p. 44

[8] Van den Broek, Reolef and Wouter J. Hanegraff Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. p.4

[9] See McCutcheon’s Manufacturing Religion

[10] See Yamauchi, Eswin M, Pre-Christian Gnosticism: A Survey of Proposed Evidences. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. pp. 13-21

[11] See McCuthceon Manufacturing Religion

[12] See Ecclesia Gnostica Catholique a exoteric division of Aliester Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientalis which incorporates into its liturgy the ‘gnostic mass.’

[13] Tite, Phillip A. “Categorical Designations and Methodological Reductionism: Gnosticism as Case Study.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religions 13.3 (2001): 269-292. p. 272

[14] Baird, Robert D. Interpretative categories in the history of religions. In James S. Heffler (ed), On Method in the History of Religions, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press. (1968) 17-30 pp. 24-25

[15] Tite, Phillip A. “Categorical Designations and Methodological Reductionism: Gnosticism as Case Study.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religions 13.3 (2001): 269-292. p. 273

[16] See Williams. Michael A. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. p. 30

[17] See Rudolph, Kurt Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987. p.3

[18] Tite, Phillip A. “Categorical Designations and Methodological Reductionism: Gnosticism as Case Study.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religions 13.3 (2001): 269-292. p. 281

[19] Rudolph, Kurt Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1987. p.55

[20] See Williams. Michael A. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. p. 80

[21] See Rudolph, Kurt “Randerscheinungen” 108; rqtd. in Williams, Michael A. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. p. 80

[22] Pearson, Birger Gnosticism, Judaism and Egyptian Christianity. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990. pp. 7-8.

[23] Ibid

[24] Williams. Michael A. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. p. 82

[25] Ibid

[26] Williams. Michael A. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. p. 83

[27] Ibid

[28] Rudolph, Kurt Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987. p.326-27

[29] See Williams. Michael A. Rethinking “Gnosticism”. p. 94

[30] Ibid


Copyright ©1997 – 2021
by V.H. Soror G.A.D.S.I.Q.S. and V.H. Frater S.C.E.S.C.