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Rethinking "Gnosticism"

by Michael Allen Williams

Buy the book: Michael Allen Williams. Rethinking

Release Date: 12 April, 1999

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Michael Allen Williams. Rethinking


Gnosticism: far from the only dubious category

In _Rethinking "Gnosticism"_ Michael Allen Williams offer a formidable challenge to those who wish to continue using the term "gnosticism." There are two proposals that Williams asks his readers to consider. One is to rethink one's characterizations of gnosticism. The second is to replace "gnosticism" as a category altogether.

_Rethinking_ divides fairly neatly into three parts. The first two chapters are Williams' critique of gnosticism as a category. The next six chapters discuss gnostic exegesis and the term used to describe gnosticism. herein lies the bulk of Williams' argument. In the last two chapters Williams discusses the history and legacy of gnosticism.

One would expect Williams to propose an alternative term to gnosticism and, in fact, he does: biblical demiurgical traditions. What are the advantages of the new term? Williams argues that his term would be specific and easy to distinguish, a modern construct, and not burdened by cliches of the past.

In his conclusion, Williams mentions a 1978 paper given by Dr Morton Smith in which the latter argued against the
"appropriateness of this category." At the end of Smith's paper, Williams notes that Smith had resigned himself to the fact that "gnosticism" had become a "brand name with a secure market." In response Williams wonders whether the market is not softer than it once was.

Perhaps it is and probably it is not. One need only read the titles of new books to see the answer. At the same time there is another matter to be considered: does Williams' argument merit the dismantling of the category? I think not. Gnosticism is not the only term which has floating parameters.

For example consider the term "Mesoamerica." The term was adopted by an anthropologist named Paul Kirchhoff to describe the area between southern Mexico and the central American countries and the peoples who lived there. Although there is interaction between the various peoples who lived in this area, there is also a large amount of differences. The term also sets these peoples in contradistinction to other peoples who shared many cultural similarities but who lived outside the proscribed geographical area.

I think one would do well to agree with William that
"gnosticism" is a dubious category, but it is far from being the only one.

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A futile effort

What absolute rot! Diversity is not an argument for abolishing a phenomenon and a category.

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