Reflections on the Category Gnosticism

Preface, Forum 5,1

Taking on the topic of gnosticism for the fall 2014 meeting of the Christianity Seminar was a gesture at much more than simply disposing of a single category. It was a gesture at writing the history of the first and second centuries more expansively, measuring the pulse of that period with finer instruments. We took on the arguments of the most cutting edge intellectual projects on the topic: David Brakke’s The Gnostics, Karen King’s What is Gnosticism?, and Michael Williams’s Rethinking “Gnosticism”. While David Brakke has circumscribed the use of the term “gnostic” into much more responsible limits, the seminar generally followed the more radical work of King’s What is Gnosticism? and Williams’s Rethinking “Gnosticism” by acknowledging that “gnosticism,” if not also “gnostic,” was a modern term that hindered rather than helped to make sense of the first- and second-century social and textual landscapes.

Our collective conversation was an exercise in continually pushing ourselves to think outside of discrete phenomena and essentializing terms—in part because they kept creeping in, even for the most diehard deconstructionists among us. We asked less about the rich contents of the texts from the Nag Hammadi codices (perhaps unfortunately) than about the problems of classification at large. But our conclusions as a seminar allow us to entertain the rich contents as we move forward in our historical reconstructive work. Thus we will build on this work in future seminars by asking the following questions: What do texts discovered at Nag Hammadi and other texts classified under “gnosticism” offer as historical sources on their own terms? How do they challenge our preconceived notions of the social and theological investments of the people we think of as “early Christians”? How do they recast the more familiar literature of the NT, for example, when put into explicit conversation with it? That is to say, this seminar on gnosticism paved the way for more integrative and grand-scale historical inquiry. Our conversation was thick and earnest, but excited and sometimes befuddled in addressing the larger question of what we might do when categories of all kinds (not just gnosticism, or heresy and orthodoxy, but Christianity itself) fall apart.

The papers published here offer a taste of this conversation, one which not only opens up the seminar’s work to myriad possibilities for new textual, social, and practical connections operating in the ancient world, but also presents us with new challenges to our traditional thinking about what the object of our study might really be.

Maia Kotrosits
Denison University in Ohio

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Contents - Purchase This Issue

Questioning the Category of Gnosticism for the Rewriting of the History of Early Christianity: An Appreciation and Extension of the Work of Karen King (Hal Taussig)

But What Do We Call It?: The Secret Revelation of John and Crises of Categories (Maia Kotrosits)

What Categories Are Left?: A Conversation with Karen King’s What is Gnosticism? (Bernard Brandon Scott)

“Are you, or have you ever been, a gnostic?”: Caricatures, Blacklists, and Understanding the Aspirations and Lives of Real People (Michael Williams)