What Is Gnosticism?

What Is Gnosticism?

What Is Gnosticism?

What Is Gnosticism?

Excerpt

In 1945, an Egyptian farmer named Muhammad Ali went out into the hills near the town of Nag Hammadi to dig for fertilizer. By serendipity, he uncovered a clay jar. In it were fourth-century C.E. papyrus books, containing nearly forty-six different works, most of which had previously been unknown. There were new gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth, recounting unknown sayings of Jesus and interpreting his death and resurrection, not in terms of sin and atonement, but as enlightenment overcoming ignorance and suffering. There were grand myths telling of the creation of the world and humanity by the wicked God of Genesis, who sought only to dominate the divine spark in humanity and imprison it in mortal flesh. There were stories of Mary Magdalene as a spiritual disciple and leader, as well as feminine images of God. There were hymns and prayers, oracles and wisdom sayings, and much more.

Almost from the beginning, the find was characterized as a Gnostic library. But what is Gnosticism? Although scholars have expended considerable effort on determining the origin and development of Gnosticism, delimiting its background and sources and defining its essence, no consensus had been established on any of these issues. The situation has only been aggravated by the discovery of new texts, which are seriously challenging some of the most basic elements of a minimal definition of Gnosticism. Specialists are recognizing more and more that previous definitions of Gnosticism are inadequate to interpret the new textual materials without seriously distorting them.

Why is it so hard to define Gnosticism? The problem, I argue, is that a rhetorical term has been confused with a historical entity. There was and . . .

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