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  • Paperback: 366 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; New Ed edition (6 May 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674017625
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674017627
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.2 x 23.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 630,854 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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[King's] is the pithiest and fairest overview to date of the subject. -- Robert A. Segal Times Literary Supplement 20031121 Essential reading for serious students of Christian origins. -- Deirdre Good Anglican Theological Review King's exposure of the confessional prejudices which have shaped the accounts of Gnosticism in Harnack and his successors is a valuable supplement to previous studies which have shown how our modern nomenclature fails to match the ancient sources. Where others have shown how scholarship has gone astray, she sets out to tell us why. -- Mark J. Edwards Journal of Theological Studies 20050401 [King's] volume offers a carefully considered, well-researched reflection on the state of Gnostic scholarship and a clear call for new approaches. -- Edward Moore Classical Bulletin 20060101

About the Author

Karen L. King is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the Divinity School, Harvard University.

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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on 6 Mar. 2006
Format: Paperback
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.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By calmly on 25 Oct. 2007
Format: Hardcover
Here's a chance to experience a gifted scholar struggling to come to terms with a challenging subject without compromising any of its difficulties.

At the very conclusion of the book, King explicitly states what this book was about: "This book by no means offers a complete analysis of the twentieth-century study of Gnosticism. Its aim was more limited - to locate some of the incrongruities in the construction of Gnosticism in order to aid in 'thinking hard and speaking differently' about religious identity formation." The book is basically an examination of how the study of Gnosticism has gotten in the way of the study of Gnosticism. Speculations have piled up upon each other, hardened in apparent facts, and made discerning what may have been happening in early Christianity difficult.

"What is Gnosticism?" is essentially "What is Scholarship?" when scholarship has gone awry and clouded our way of evaluating the facts. It's to her credit that King highlights this problem, which is not unique to the study of Gnosticism. A particular problem with Gnosticism is that the term was coined relatively recently and implies a unity. Another problem is that so little has been known about the early Christians held to be heretics by those who "won", even with the finding of Nag Hammadi texts, themselves hard to assess due to previous scholary speculations. The orthodox Church knew what they were doing when they destroyed such texts or discouraged their being copied. But what may be a barrier for scholars focused on the past needn't stop seekers today whose heartfelt longings carry them beyond the blinders of orthodoxy.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By E. L. Wisty TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 27 Jun. 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Having recently read King's The Secret Revelation of John, I was impressed to, just for once, read a scholar who didn't find it necessary to analyse Gnosticism purely in terms of rubbishing Irenaeus and the other heresiologists and say that Gnosticism is everything that the heresiologists say it isn't. So I was eager to read her analysis of wider Gnosticism as opposed to that of a single work.

It wouldn't be at all facetious however to say that King's answer to the question posited in the title is "I don't know". So what does she give us instead?

Firstly she begins with a different question, "What is heresy?". Then most of the rest of the book is taken up with the history of study of Gnosticism, from Harnack and his definition of Gnosticism as "acute Hellenisation of Christianity", through to the present day. Nag Hammadi has not cleared anything up at all, if anything it has just made the matter worse.

In the final chapter King argues that the current methods of study are not able to help us arrive at our destination of defining Gnosticism. Even supposedly radical works such as Williams' Rethinking Gnosticism are still attempting to view Gnosticism through the framework of categories derived from the ancient heresiologists, and not getting us anywhere. So we need new methods, and we are still no closer to the answer.

A valuable contribution to Gnostic studies indeed, but you won't find Gnosticism defined. If you really want to get closer to an answer to the question from King's viewpoint, I recommend going to her somewhat more readable later work, the aforementioned Secret Revelation of John.
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Amazon.com: 21 reviews
62 of 67 people found the following review helpful
Gnosticism - there's no such thing! 28 Oct. 2003
By Don Smith - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a good book for those who are fascinated with early Christianity and wish to know more about the diversity of the "Jesus Movement(s)" before Constantine and the Roman Empire made their famous "deal" with the mainstream group of the Christian Church in the fourth century.
Karen King's primary thesis in this book, if I understand it correctly, is that the term "gnosticism" is becoming useless in early Christian studies as it carries a whole bunch of baggage which does not illuminate our understanding of many of the early movements which, while considering themselves Christian (in a broad sense of the word), did not fit into what came to be the orthodox view of what it meant to be Christian.
To discard, ignore or discredit whole works by early Christians because they contain a few references to "gnostic" ideas (for example, finding God within or not accepting the Pauline version of salvation) is an unnecessary putdown in scholarly terms according to King.
King's book is written primarily to influence her scholarly colleagues who are actively writing books and papers on the (relatively) recent discoveries at Nag Hammadi and who are re-visiting other early non-canonical Christian material.
As a lay person, it makes sense to me not to "tag" a text as "gnostic" and thus automatically diminish its relevance to the study of early Christian development. King argues that each text needs to be read and understood in its own context rather than lumping it in with other "gnostic" stuff.
The study of early Christian origins and the related texts has helped me in my faith journey as I now see that diverse understandings of Jesus have ALWAYS been a part of our tradition. This may be scary for the orthodox believer, but books like Karen King's are liberating and enlightening for me.
I give the book only 4 stars out of 5 as it is a bit dense for the lay person and certainly is, by and large, focused on making key scholarly arguments relevant to the study of early Christianity. Recommended for anyone interested in the Nag Hammadi texts or early Christian texts in general.
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
From polemics to pragmatics 6 Mar. 2006
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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]
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Sometimes it is necessary to clean 24 Jun. 2005
By calmly - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Here's a chance to experience a gifted scholar struggling to come to terms with a challenging subject without compromising any of its difficulties.

At the very conclusion of the book, King explicitly states what this book was about: "This book by no means offers a complete analysis of the twentieth-century study of Gnosticism. Its aim was more limited - to locate some of the incrongruities in the construction of Gnosticism in order to aid in 'thinking hard and speaking differently' about religious identity formation." The book is basically an examination of how the study of Gnosticism has gotten in the way of the study of Gnosticism. Speculations have piled up upon each other, hardened in apparent facts, and made discerning what may have been happening in early Christianity difficult.

"What is Gnosticism?" is essentially "What is Scholarship?" when scholarship has gone awry and clouded our way of evaluating the facts. It's to her credit that King highlights this problem, which is not unique to the study of Gnosticism. A particular problem with Gnosticism is that the term was coined relatively recently and implies a unity. Another problem is that so little has been known about the early Christians held to be heretics by those who "won", even with the finding of Nag Hammadi texts, themselves hard to assess due to previous scholary speculations. The orthodox Church knew what they were doing when they destroyed such texts or discouraged their being copied. But what may be a barrier for scholars focused on the past needn't stop seekers today whose heartfelt longings carry them beyond the blinders of orthodoxy. When Elaine Pagels suggested in her "The Gnostic Gospels" that orthodoxy needed to win in order to insure the survival of Christianity, she didn't reflect on whether a survival of that kind was really positive. It's good news that nowadays Gnosticism, however defined or even if undefined, lives. In what forms Christianity survives remains open. Perhaps orthodoxy was indeed needed back then so that Gnostic Christianity would be alive today.

"What is Gnosticism?" is a clearing of the way in preparation to studying what was going on in early Christianity that led to charges of heresy at a time when "What is Christianity?" was also at best hard to answer and hard to find a unity within. Even today, in a world of Roman Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Baptists, capturing a single sense for "Christian" may not be that easy or even possible. Whatever the names or how well they apply, there has been something going on in ancient AND MODERN times that can be addressed as gnostic and that will always go beyond the efforts of scholars to grasp. Whether intentionally or not, King has thankfully revealed that.

P.S. I just read King's thrilling "The Gospel of Mary of Magdala". She also addresses there the problems she has with the term "Gnosticism". The two books go together well, with "The Gospel of Mary of Magdala" providing a concrete and compelling example of King's argument that term "Gnosticism" gets in the way. More importantly, it also relates that issue not just to scholarly concerns about early Christianity but also to current issues that any Christian might have. Reading both these books has been a treat and an eyeopener: these books provide a real teaching.
68 of 87 people found the following review helpful
Gnosticism: the shocking vagueness 2 Sept. 2003
By pnotley@hotmail.com - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
What is Gnosticism? That's a good question, and one that this book does not satisfactorily answer. Like the term "paganism," gnosticism is a term imposed by orthodox Christians, not one used by its supposed practitioners. "Gnostic" is the term of abuse coined by Christian orthodoxy starting with Irenaeus, and "Gnosticism" dates to the early Enlightenment. With the rise of a more scientific history of Christianity scholars have asked themselves where did Gnosticism come from and what influence did it have on Christianity? Was it a pernicious heresy or was it close to what some early Christians actually believed? For centuries scholars had to answer these questions based not on what Gnostics actually thought and said, but what orthodox polemicists said about them. But then in 1945 a library of apparently Gnostic writings was found in the desert near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Karen King's book looks first at the orthodox who damned it is a heresy. Then she looks those scholars who, like the Liberal Protestant von Harnack, viewed it as a Hellenistic corruption, or like the historians of religions, thought it was a sort of Oriental decadence. After looking at the scholar Hans Jonas, she actually compares the supposedly Gnostic with the actual Nag Hammadi materials.
The result is not entirely successful. The most useful chapter is the seventh one. Before that King has discussed some of the differences within the Nag Hammadi material. Not finding many Greek or Persian Gnostic pre-Christian texts, some scholars have argued that Gnosticism's origins are to be found in Judaism. King points out some problems with this theory, some more valid than others. For a start, few if any purely Jewish Gnostic texts exist, although many use the first chapters of Genesis as a starting point. Attempts at source criticism by Birger Pearson appear confused and arbitrary. None of the Gnostics appear to be Jewish, though in the whole book King probably names only a dozen people who could possibly fit that category. King also suggests that it would be uncomfortable to argue for a Jewish origin of Gnosticism, since much of Gnosticism was based on the belief that the God of Jewish scriptures was an evil spiteful God, which leads to the "irony" that Jews were responsible for a major anti-Jewish argument. On the other hand, Christianity began with unequivocally Jewish origins and ended up cursing Jews for their "ingratitude", so such a perverse twist is not unprecedented.
Is there a unified phenomenon of Gnosticism? In looking at the Nag Hammadi material, King argues that it cannot be all described as dualistic, showing the struggle between the true God and the evil creator God. The Gospel of Truth does not fit into this category. The Book of Thomas shows hatred for the body, but it does not show either a distinction between the True God and the Creator God, or assert that Gnostics are saved by nature or moral endeavour. The Gospel of Thomas does not mention a wicked Demiurge. It may advocate celibacy, but it more clearly rejects wealth and power, while fasting, prayer, almsgiving and other ascetic practices are viewed ambiguously. King makes the point that though The Gospel of Thomas could be interpreted in a Gnostic matter, that does not necessarily mean it was originally so. (She could have added that Gnostics interpreted the Gospel of John and the Pauline epistles as Gnostic texts.) Even the Apocryphon of John, which is most clear about malevolent creation and the need for a heroic rescue, is not unambiguously Gnostic. Its constant discussion of the demons who infect the body show not that the body is evil but how to give "practical" advice on how to exorcise them. Salvation still requires moral effort, nor is it reserved for an elite. King is more successful in showing that the accusation of libertinism is not supported by the texts. Nor is the complementary accusation of asceticism entirely fair. Gnostic ascetics were often similar to orthodox Christian ascetics, not simply acting out of a blind hatred for creation and material existence. Nor were all Gnostic texts docetist. The Apocryphon of James and the Letter of Peter to Philip state that a real Jesus faced real suffering and a real death.
This is not an easy book to read and many eyes will glaze over as they read King's less than pellucid descriptions of "genealogy" and "typology". Rather than answering the questions that I have mentioned above, King in her final chapter prefers to riff on the advantage of a Foucaultian history. Such an approach would find a way of getting around the theological biases that have infected the study of gnosticism. I am not convinced by this. It is true that von Harnack's belief that a supposedly Hellenistic Gnosticism was corrupting and parasitic on Christianity is based on his Protestant belief that Jesus was the appearance of God in history and that any secular influences would bound to be impious and imperfect. It is true that the history of religions school were influenced by Orientalist contempt for the East. But the main problem with the study of Gnosticism is the scarcity of evidence. We have texts, but we have almost nothing on who believed in them or interpreted them and how they influenced Christianity. A Foucaultian methodology is not going to get around that problem. King's argument that there is too much diversity to use the common term of Gnosticism is not altogether convincing. If we take away the idea of libertine/ascetic ideals or "salvation by nature" as orthodox Christian misunderstandings, we still have a cosmological myth that is sufficiently different to get some sort of coherent undestanding. King's emphasis on writing a more diverse, non-narrative account of Christianity's history seems less a corrective to the limitations of orthodoxy. Instead, it appears an indulgence in heterogeneity and diversity for their own sake.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Understand ancient religion, not the unreal polemical category "Gnosticism" 1 Jun. 2006
By Michael Hoffman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This book by Karen King is not about Gnosticism, because Gnosticism never existed. This book is about the history of the modern folly of inventing an unreal category and then purporting to describe it. This book is about the history of modern scholarship of a fabricated construct labelled 'Gnosticism'. King reveals Gnosticism as an artificial, synthetic, nonexistent entity. Ancient and modern studies of Gnosticism have approached the subject with motives of defining true Christianity. No individual writing fits the various definitions of Gnosticism. Gnosticism is an unreal, artificial, false, and harmful category. All definitions of 'Gnosticism' have always been artificial and unreal and have heavily misrepresented, to the point of complete polemical fantasy, the writings they purport to generally categorize.

The only way we can begin to understand the writings that have been lumped together into the fantastically ill-fitting category of 'Gnosticism' is to read each individual writing and analyze it in its cultural context. Individual writings must be considered individually on their own terms: what was the actual context for the writing? What did the author mean and mean to accomplish? How did various audiences of that writing read it; what did that particular writing mean to them? King provides a concrete example of such an approach to understanding ancient religious thought on its own terms, in her subsequent book The Secret Revelation of John.

Michael A. Williams falls into the same kind of trap as other scholars in his advice to rename the chimera of Gnosticism 'Biblical Demiurgicalism'. We can hint at the problem by stating that there were diverse Chrisitianities, diverse Judaisms, diverse Gnosticisms, and diverse paganisms, but such a move isn't effective; grossly oversimplifying reification instantly sets in again. It's not merely that there were diverse variants of Gnosticism. Rather, there were diverse combinations of philosophy, quasi-Christian, quasi-Jewish, quasi-Hellenistic, and quasi-Persian elements all over the map. It is not the case that certain of these combinations clearly group together forming a distinct, discernible religion that was or should be called 'Gnosticism'.

King reveals it as embarrassing how modern scholars were so uninterested in understanding each so-called 'gnostic' writing on its own terms, and were wholly motivated by polemic and apologetic concerns, to define who are the true Christians. They have been motivated by theological concerns, while claiming to be presenting scientific history. Various groups of ancient writers were involved in a project of deliberate hermeneutic and polemical reinterpretation of various venerable source materials; modern scholars need to read the resulting writings as such.

King provides various other detailed points about the modern and ancient folly that has brought about the completely problematic framework that is now failing and collapsing, for defining a category of 'Gnosticism'. This book stands to become a classic, a turning point, in conjunction with Michael A. Williams' book Rethinking 'Gnosticism'.

Readers might feel that this book fails to provide a definition of Gnosticism. The publisher doesn't seem to understand the book; they miss the point of the book: the front flap claims that 'she is able to offer a new and clarifying definition of Gnosticism'. She does not; she disproves that the category 'Gnosticism' maps to a set of writings or distinct grouping of ancient practices. King predicts that the term 'Gnosticism' will fall into disuse as providing no explanatory value, and calls for understanding ancient religious practice and individual writings on their own terms, with special attention to hermeneutic and polemical strategy in the writings.
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