The concept of 'gnosticism' must be phased out?

Jerry Russell

Staff member
Richard Carrier has posted an article entitled "Gnosticism didn't exist (say what now??)". It continues, "It wasn't a thing. It was largely invented entirely out of modern scholars' imaginations."

Carrier says that this is not only his idea, but that the entire Westar 'Christianity Seminar' (successor to the Jesus Seminar) reached the same conclusion back in 2014. This was completely news to me, and I wasn't about to take Carrier's word for it. So I followed his link to 'Foundations and Facets Forum', the journal of the Westar Christianity Seminar. where Karen King and Michael Williams are cited as a major sources in four papers attacking the utility of Gnosticism as a conceptual tool.

Perhaps King's primary concern is that gnosticism consists of a cluster of concepts, including "anticosmic dualism, consubstationality of the human with the divine, or salvation by knowledge, though a particularly popular choice has been the distinction between the true God and the creator God of Genesis." (Forum journal, p. 11). Various scholars apply one or another of these definitions or some combination thereof. Here at this website I think we've used the definition "salvation by knowledge".

But (if I'm understanding correctly) the point is that no single cult or sect combines all these criteria, while at the same time all Christian and Jewish sects exhibit one or another of the criteria to some degree. Thus, there is no scholarly consensus about either what Gnosticism is, or which sects should be considered Gnostic.

Because of the controversy and lack of consensus, the Seminar scholars voted that 'Gnosticism' is useless as a categorization tool; and furthermore, that the term has been subject to so much confusion that it's beyond any redemption.

I find it tempting to re-define 'Gnosticism' as a fuzzy set, allowing for the idea that various sects and documents might be judged more or less gnostic according to the degree of the various properties on exhibit. But the Seminar scholars say that any such attempts at re-definition can only cause further confusion and controversy.

Williams' focus is that "gnostic" is used as a synonym for "heretical" among Christian centrists, and thus has pejorative and prejudicial connotations. He thinks the term should be deprecated for the same reasons as perhaps we should be getting rid of the racial concepts of "black" and "white", which are socially constructed categories serving no useful purpose other than stereotyping and demonization.

Although Carrier presents this as more or less a foregone conclusion, I see that the editors of Wikipedia have hardly noticed at all. The critiques Williams and King are relegated to a brief paragraph at the end of the article, as one of six trends in the definition of Gnosticism.
It sounds like a variation on the common stratagem of "the silent treatment" or of "ignoring". After all, they have been rather successful regarding 'Chrest'. Obviously they don't like the rising understanding that there were many different Christologies floating around amongst the other mystery schools of the day.
Obviously they don't like the rising understanding that there were many different Christologies floating around amongst the other mystery schools of the day.

I don't think they would disagree with that at all. It's just that they don't want to categorize them into "Gnostic" and "Orthodox" pigeonholes. They're asking for a new vocabulary.