King has done historians of philosophy and religion an immense service with this study. A thorough, comprehensive and closely analysed investigation of the historiography of "Gnosticism", this book will keep students and scholars engaged for some time. Although the title isn't answered in a strict, straightforward manner, the content of the book demonstrates why this is nearly impossible. In fact, King even offers the views of those who would dispense with the term altogether. In the end, the author shows that a tight definition of the term is of less importance than gaining an understanding of what Gnosticism is about.
The author starts from a firm position. "Gnosticism" in the West has long been labelled a "heresy" among the Christian churches. Most of the Christian churches, at least, since there are those who have adopted some tenets of Gnosticism into their creeds. The early Christian movements, striving for survival in the "pagan" Roman Empire, all sought some form of unity and discipline as a foundation. They sought an "orthodoxy" under which to operate. Others, nearly as many in number, granted the individual the primary role. The former group, typified by the bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, laid the beginnings of what would become "orthodox" Christianity. They decreed the "outsiders" as "heretics". King brings Irenaeus and other critics of non-conformity together under the rubric of the "polemicists". For centuries, what we knew of the Gnostics was contained in the writings of those who condemned them.
The era of "Higher Criticism" of biblical texts may have helped foster modern examination of Gnostic writings. Among the leaders of this "wave" of research was Adolf von Harnack. Von Harnack viewed Gnosticism as an offshoot of Greek - or Hellenic - culture and philosophy. If anybody can be named as detaching Gnosticism from being a branch of Christianity, it is this scholar. Casting Christianity against a Hellenic background, von Harnack sought to find elements that would give the movement unique status and explain its expansion.
Following von Harnack, more [mostly] German scholars in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries formed the Religious History School. King examines the work of such figures as Richard Reitzenstein, Wilhelm Bousset, Rudolf Bultmann. Detaching Jesus from traditional Christianity, these scholars developed what has come to be known as the "Gnostic Redeemer" myth. Revising the roots of the Jesus myth, they pushed the story back in time and place to the Persian [Iran] region. It migrated westward to be absorbed by peoples along the Levant, thence into western Europe. The essence of this version of Christianity centres on Jesus lacking a human body, and providing a more direct link to the Deity. King notes how strong a challenge this proved to orthodoxy, since it transformed how followers of this idea viewed their relation to the deity.
For King, two books published in the mid-1930s, set a new course for Gnostic scholarship. Walter Bauer and Hans Jonas reset the definitions [each had his own] of Gnosticism, while at the same time increasing awareness of its impact. Bauer granted Gnosticism a more substantial role than the early Christian condemning writers had done. Jonas wanted a clear identity to define a "movement" within Eastern Mediterranean concepts, but set apart from Hellenist philosophies.
It was the Nag Hammadi finds in 1945 that led to the greatest crisis in definition for Gnosticism. The forty-six books unearthed from an Egyptian hillside has sparked a new wave of scholarship, but little more in clarifying meaning. The Nag Hammadi texts, King notes, vary in definition and relationship to both Jesus and the deity. Although the role of Mary Magdalene has been raised from the licentious woman depicted in the Synoptic gospels, little else is cleansed of confusion. Reflecting on the Nag Hammadi scripts, modern scholarship has attempted new definitions. Although Michael Williams has gone so far to suggest scrubbing the term altogether, King sees his proposed substitute as too cumbersome. Besides, she notes, a new term doesn't make its definition more specific.
There are those who carp that King doesn't answer the question posed in the title. Her answer to that charge lies in the text itself. The vast literature on "Gnosticism" can't answer that question, why should she bear the onus of defining the undefinable? What she has accomplished is an articulate call for either a better term, clearly expressing meaning, or wiser analysis of the writings. Since Gnosticism has been applied to frameworks running from an "Oriental philosophy" to a "competitive Christianity", easy definitions will remain elusive.
A further question, only lightly touched on here, is whether "Christian Gnosticism" is a true challenge to "orthodox" Christianity. Given that the works King cites, from Ireneaus through the Nag Hammadi texts, display a wide variation in how Jesus is to be considered and how humans relate to their deities, it's clear that there is room for yet more scholarship. King proposes finding a pragmatic solution that will shed the ancient duality the polemicists began centuries ago. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]