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Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category [Paperback]

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Item Number 151153  
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Item Specifications...

Pages   360
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9.24" Width: 6.1" Height: 0.89"
Weight:   1.07 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   May 2, 1999
Publisher   Princeton University Press
ISBN  0691005427  
EAN  9780691005423  

Availability  129 units.
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Item Description...
In this lively, penetrating book, Michael Williams challenges the validity of the widely invoked category of ancient "gnosticism" and the ways it has been described. Presenting such famous writings and movements as the Apocryphon of John, Valentinian Christianity, and other sources, Williams uncovers the similarities and differences among some major traditions widely categorized as gnostic. Moreover, he provides an eloquent, systematic argument for a more accurate way to discuss these interpretive approaches.

Publishers Description

Most anyone interested in such topics as creation mythology, Jungian theory, or the idea of "secret teachings" in ancient Judaism and Christianity has found "gnosticism" compelling. Yet the term "gnosticism," which often connotes a single rebellious movement against the prevailing religions of late antiquity, gives the false impression of a monolithic religious phenomenon. Here Michael Williams challenges the validity of the widely invoked category of ancient "gnosticism" and the ways it has been described. Presenting such famous writings and movements as the "Apocryphon of John" and Valentinian Christianity, Williams uncovers the similarities and differences among some major traditions widely categorized as gnostic. He provides an eloquent, systematic argument for a more accurate way to discuss these interpretive approaches.

The modern construct "gnosticism" is not justified by any ancient self-definition, and many of the most commonly cited religious features that supposedly define gnosticism phenomenologically turn out to be questionable. Exploring the sample sets of "gnostic" teachings, Williams refutes generalizations concerning asceticism and libertinism, attitudes toward the body and the created world, and alleged features of protest, parasitism, and elitism. He sketches a fresh model for understanding ancient innovations on more "mainstream" Judaism and Christianity, a model that is informed by modern research on dynamics in new religious movements and is freed from the false stereotypes from which the category "gnosticism" has been constructed.

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More About Michael Allen Williams

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Michael Allen Williams is Professor of Comparative Religion at the University of Washington, and is currently chair of the Department of Near East Languages and Civilzation.

Michael Allen Williams currently resides in Seattle, in the state of Washington. Michael Allen Williams has an academic affiliation as follows - University of Washington.

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
good arumentation, but his way of correcting the problem is wrong  Mar 24, 2008
i agreed with all his notions that gnosticism is such a wide category that cannot be pinned down to one set of characteristics, however his notion that it should all be changed to 'biblical demiurgical traditions' is also wrong. Changing the name of the category will not change the fact that all the old misconceptions will also come along with it. also if he perceive 'gnosticism' to really mean heretical, then whats the problem with using this term?
Taking it a little too far  Apr 3, 2007
Michael Allen William's "Rethinking `Gnosticism': An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category" has become very influential within scholarly circles. Few books or articles about Gnosticism have been written since this book which do not, at the least, address his argument. Scholars are now much more careful to acknowledge that "Gnostic" is a widely varying and loosely constructed model.
In his book, Williams attempts to show that no proposed definition of Gnosticism fits the varying currents and ideologies normally categorized as "Gnostic". His approach is to examine common characteristics attributed to Gnosticism and illustrate Gnostic ideologies where such a trait is absent. His argument is well constructed and persuasive. However, it contains some notable flaws.
Although Williams is absolutely correct that no one definition of Gnosticism can do justice to all the ideologies which fall under it, this is in no way unique. Similar arguments have been made to dismantle terms like "syncretism," "paganism," and even "magic". Yet, as most scholars have argued since the publication of Williams' book, large categories like Gnosticism serve only as a starting point. Few of these umbrella terms could accurately describe all their subsets. The word Gnostic still gives an outline of various movements. Terms such as "Sethian" or "Valentinian" fill in the sketch. In this capacity, Gnosticism is still a useful model.
Another criticism I have for Williams' book is his tendency to straddle the line between a work intended for everyone and one intended for those who already have significant knowledge of the subject matter. His book is probably too complex for a beginner in early Christian studies, yet too much time is spent on explaining concepts which are taken for granted by those who are familiar with them. If there were anything I would change about the book, it would be to write it for the layperson, or for an expert, and not attempt to compromise.
All in all, I highly recommend this book for anyone who has already made some study of early Christian history and/or Gnosticism. If nothing else, it certainly allows one to understand just how variant Gnostic circles could be.
The definitive argument for reviving the spirit   Dec 3, 2006
Michael Allen Williams has produced an outstanding work which I suspect will pull the rug out from under the feet of anyone who thought they understood Gnosticism. His approach is so thorough and so fresh that I still haven't gotten up from off the ground.

Here are just a few of William's observations:

1) That that which we consider Gnostic was not necessarily world rejecting but was often world embracing, a positive effort to make sense of Jewish and Christian teachings in light of Platonism and other teachings current in the world at that time.

2) The myth of the demuirge was not "anticosmic" and may have led those who accepted it to greater, rather than less, involvement in the greater society. The modern label of "anticosmic" seems to Williams a cliche which fails to capture the ethical concerns of the early Christians who consider Gnostic. This calls into question Carl B. Smith's definition of Gnostic in his recent work "No longer Jews" which, though written after Willams work, relies on a negative anticosmicism as a key part of Smith's narrow definition of Gnosticism.

3) Williams notes that "everything we know from these sources [ e.g. those grouped as "gnostic"] themselves suggests not persons who were defiantly indifferent to all questions of right and wrong in human behavior and human relationships, but rather persons who quite often appear to be preoccupied with the very issue of achieving (or restoring) human excellence."

4) William calls into question Carl B. Smith's later view in "No Longer Jews". Williams writes that "I do think that it is probably a mistake to single out Jewish tradition, or those 'fringes' of Jewish tradition, as the locale for the origin of the entire diverse assortment of phenomena usually called 'gnosticism'. It is true that Smith opts for a narrower definition of Gnosticism but that definition is in conflict in its assessment of "anticosmicism" with William's view. Who is right I leave to the scholars but it makes me wonder if Smith's certainty is misplaced when a scholar of the apparent caliber of Williams differs. To be fair to Smith, he often refers to Williams in "No Longer Jews" and appears to constructively challenge Williams assessment but not enough to alleviate my concerns based on the issues Williams raises.

5) Williams see innovation as a key theme for the "Gnostic" groups who have been accused of being parasites. Williams suggests they may have functioned as "antibodies" and not "parasites". Innovation would count if Christian teaching were understood to be dynamic rather than a one-time static dump from heaven to earth. One would wonder reading Williams why Darrell Bock "The Missing Gospels" why Bock went to such lengths to distance the activities of the first century of Christianity with those of the second.

6) That "Gnostics" are characterized by revolt seems misleading to Williams, who favors innovation as a way to understand the efforts of various "Gnostics".

7) Williams favors "biblical demiurgical" as a way of understanding the early Christians who did could not accept that the cosmos was created by their God. The use of a new term (albeit this one a mouthful) avoids the confusion that one might feel when reading on the back cover jacket of "No Longer Jews" that that book provides an extensive survey of the issues surrounding the rise of Gnosticism". Smith's survey doesn't include a great deal about Gnosticsm as most people would understand it to be until one encounters in the book Smith's narrowing definition.

Exposed to Williams and to "Rethinking Gnosticism" I greatly appreciate his scholarship conducted in a spirit of openness. I suspect this is the kind of openness of thought that the early Gnostics aspired to.
Demiurgal urges  Mar 15, 2006
"Gnostics" have had a bad press, especially among orthodox Christian historians. They've been booted out of the household of faith, pontificated over and generalized to death. Williams does the decent thing and brings them out from under the grey clouds of polemic so we can get a clearer view.

Untangling some of the specific groups that have been squeezed into the "gnostic" pigeonhole, it becomes apparent that these people were as different in their day as differing sects in American Christianity are now.

I wouldn't make this my first venture into reading on this subject - but it will be stimulating for anyone who knows the basics. Anyone who wants to make an intelligent comment on "gnosticism" in the early church needs to come to grips with the issues Williams raises.

Readable and provocative... what more could you ask!

A Timely Rethink  Sep 6, 2005
After reading one book which specifically mentions and disagrees with Michael Allen Williams' position, ("No Longer Jews: The Search for Gnostic Origins" by Smith), I figured that "Rethinking 'Gnosticism'" would be an important read.

Williams' basic position is that there is not enough evidence to support and maintain the category of "Gnosticism", and he proposes a term "biblical demiurgic tradition". Throughout the book, Williams systematically addresses central issues that have been cited as making up the Gnostic category, such as Gnostic interpretation, concepts of the body, ethical issues, and so on.

I would like to mention a couple of examples where I find Williams' discussion lacking. These are only examples, and will precede some good points from "Rethinking 'Gnosticism'" as well.

Firstly, Williams largely presents the category of Gnosticism in very simplistic terms, claiming that it is presented as "cliche" or "caricatures" of the religions so categorised. For ethics, Williams presents the ascetic or libertine options as the ones emphasised by previous understandings of Gnosticism. In contrast, while these elements have been discussed by other authors of note, they have not been presented in a way that obscures the complexity of Gnostic ethics in all its range, (a point in reference would be the Valentinians, who were very mild, middle-of-the-road types). In this sense, Williams seems to be shooting at shadows a bit.

Secondly, Williams claims that the Gnostics had, at times, a more positive attitude to the body. While there is great complexity and variation among differing Gnostic sects, the basic negative view is fairly consistent. Even the Valentinians take a reasonably negative view to it, though they are relatively mild by Gnostic standards. The apparent positive statements and knowledge Gnostics found "encoded" in the body that Williams mentions do not negate this underlying negativity to the material world overall and the body in particular.

While I disagree with Williams' overall position, I still feel that this book has definite value for someone studying Gnosticism's history and controversies. Williams reminds us that we must not get trapped by the "cliches and caricatures" that can easily influence our understanding. He does well at reminding the reader of some of the complexities of Gnostic thought.

One aspect I particularly thought Williams handled well was the aspect of asceticism and libertinism. He draws out important details and discusses the evidence in fresh ways. While I do not think the evidence is there to support his position of throwing the category of Gnosticism out of the window, he does make some interesting and strong points in the details. While this is not consistently so, Williams does raise some very good issues.

Despite some of the problems I have with Williams' overall conclusions, his book is an important contribution to the study of Gnosticism. He has dared rock the boat and get some rethinking going, which is always healthy. I would recommend the book to anyone who seeks an understanding of the problematic side of studying Gnosticism.


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