A recent thread, titled 'Carrier on "gnosticism",'
based on a web-post by Richard Carrier largely touting what gnostic scholars have been saying about the term, created a bit of commentary and debate on this Forum. I just found this paper which covers a bit of the history and which I think clarifies the situation (underlining
and some ' ' added by me) -
Gnosticism Historicized: Historical Figures and Movements
Tuomas Rasimus, Associate Professor, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies Université Laval, Québec City, Québec, Canada
Chapter 4 (pp. 55–71) in Religion: Secret Religion
. Edited by April DeConick. Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks: Religion series. Farmington Hills, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2016.
https://www.academia.edu/28488542/Gnost ... _Movements
Writing about historical gnostic figures and movements is much trickier today than it was twenty-five years ago. Then one knew that gnosticism existed, and one knew what it was. Now one is not so certain. Of course, there were ancient Christians who identified as gnostics, including the famous Christian Platonist from Alexandria, Clement (c. 150 – c. 215 CE), and the many teachers and groups who, according to hostile witnesses, claimed to be gnostics, such as the followers of one female prophet Marcellina (flourished c. 150 CE) and members of a supposed Christian snake cult, the Naasseni. And there were numerous teachers and groups —Valentinus, Basilides, followers of Simon the Magician, worshippers of the female deity Barbelo, and others (all discussed later)— who were labeled as 'gnostics' by outsiders, namely, Christian heresy hunters and academic Neoplatonists.
But these gnostics didn’t all teach the same doctrine or practice. In fact, the term gnostic (Greek: gnôstikos) originated within academic Platonic discourse as technical jargon and meant something like “resulting in knowledge.”
It was first used as a self-designation by [supposed] early Christians and then took on the meaning “the one who knows.” As such, it need not mean anything more than an “intellectual.” Surely one would not consider all intellectual Christians — and there are many who self-identify as such! — as representatives of a more or less unified movement or subculture within today’s many churches, always teaching more or less the same thing.
Differences in doctrinal positions did not, however, bother (too much) the scholars of previous generations. They ignored the above-mentioned Clement and accepted the information of ancient heresy hunters such as Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons (c. 180 CE) who asserted that since heretics rely on false knowledge, that is, 'false gnosis', then practically all heretics are also gnostics (although “falsely so-called,” a phrase Irenaeus borrowed from 1 Tim 6:22). In Against Heresies (see Unger’s 1992 translation), Irenaeus launched a massive attack on Valentinian Christianity (discussed below) and, in addition to exposing the Valentinian teachings in detail, he compiled a catalog of heresies to expose their true ancestry. Irenaeus’s work has exerted a huge influence on how heresy and gnosticism have been construed for the past 1,800 years, and his catalog is critically examined in this essay.
Some scholars, especially in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany, considered gnosticism (or gnosis) to be a religion in its own right or, alternatively, a widespread "parasitical” religious current that could attach itself to several different religions, such as Judaism or Christianity; even other religions, such as Mandaeism or Manichaeism, were often grouped under the umbrella term gnosticism.
Hallmarks of gnosticism thus defined included a dualistic worldview (good versus evil),hatred of the world and of the body, extreme ethics (either strictly ascetic or purely libertine), and especially the doctrines of an evil creator (demiurge) below the true God and the idea of a fallen divine spark in need of a wakeup call. Researcher Kurt Rudolph’s (1929–) still influential book, Gnosis ( 1987), is a good example of such an approach, and gnostic scholar Karen King’s (1954–) What Is Gnosticism? (2003) aptly summarizes much of the older scholarship.
The discovery of thirteen papyrus codices near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 and their publication in the 1960s and 1970s began to change things (see Robinson 2000). The codices were soon identified as mainly gnostic, and suddenly scholars had ready access to the ancient gnostics’ own voices.
A colloquium of scholars was held in Messina, Italy, in 1966, where a somewhat failed attempt was made to redefine gnosticism by zeroing in on the idea of a fallen divine spark (see Bianchi 1967). Thirty years later, Michael Williams (1946–) suggested abandoning the misunderstood and misused term and category gnosticism altogether and replacing it with a new, heuristic one of biblical demiurgy (1996). Karen King has also recommended abandoning the term and category, as they tend to perpetuate the hostile, ancient discourse that attempted to define Christian orthodoxy and heresy (King 2003).
< . . . big snip . . >
Modern scholars are divided on the definition of gnosticism. Some recommend abandoning the term completely (King), whereas others propose renaming the category (Williams) or narrowing the use down to what many have called Sethianism (Layton, Rasimus, Brakke).
This chapter has briefly studied the two most important collections of data, Irenaeus’s heresy catalog and the Nag Hammadi papyrus codices. Irenaeus construed heresy as a threefold entity: (1) the Valentinians —his main target— and their spiritual ancestors; (2) the Simonians from Simon to Tatian; and (3) the “multitude of gnostics.”
This last entity has the best chance of being identified as gnostic today. Irenaeus knew a version of an important text that he ascribed to these gnostics, the Secret Book of John, that is now available in four Coptic manuscripts. The Secret Book tells the story of the unfolding divine Intellect that loses part of itself to a beastly creator who, in turn, loses the divine spark to humanity. The author of the Secret Book rewrote stories from the opening chapters of Genesis and was greatly influenced by contemporary Pythagorean and Platonic ideas. Similar myths are found in the Nag Hammadi collection, but also in the Valentinian and Simonian (Saturninus and Basilides) sections of Irenaeus’s catalog.
Nonetheless, how these ideas were invented, transmitted, adapted, and readapted, and how exactly they should be classified, are still, to some extent, unanswered questions. Whether one considers the Valentinians and their Simonian and gnostic ancestors as truly “gnostic” today is a matter of opinion. If one sticks to Michael Williams’s definition of “biblical demiurgy,” most of them fit the bill. If one adopts Bentley Layton’s hypothesis,then only the “multitude of gnostics,” perhaps together with Saturninus and Basilides, would qualify. But if one follows Karen King, then one should simply abandon the term and category altogether. It’s your choice.