- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Belknap Press; Revised ed. edition (April 30, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674017625
- ISBN-13: 978-0674017627
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 24 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #249,359 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What Is Gnosticism? Revised ed. Edition
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What is Gnosticism? offers an original and persuasive account of how we have come to speak of "gnosticism," and what various people have meant by that. Karen King's important new book transforms our understanding of the origins of Christianity. (Elaine Pagels, Princeton University)
[King's] is the pithiest and fairest overview to date of the subject. (Robert A. Segal Times Literary Supplement 2003-11-21)
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 2005-04-01)
[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 2006-01-01)
About the Author
Karen L. King is Hollis Professor of Divinity at the Divinity School, Harvard University.
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She wrote in the Preface to this 2003 book, "My own interest, which lies primarily in early Christian identity formation... has been shaped largely through the study of Gnostic heresy... This book does not provide a description of all the groups, texts, and ideas that have been attributed to Gnosticism... Rather, it aims to contribute to the larger enterprise of rewriting the history of Christianity by examining how modern historiography came to invent a new religion, Gnosticism, largely out of early Christian polemics intersecting with post-Enlightenment historicism..." (Pg. vii-viii)
She begins the book by stating, "There was and is no such thing as Gnosticism, if we mean by that some kind of ancient religious entity with a single origin and a distinct set of characteristics. Gnosticism is, rather, a term invented in the early modern period to aid in defining the boundaries of normative Christianity... But having said that no religion called Gnosticism existed in antiquity, we still have to account for all the ideas, writings, persons, and practices described by ancient polemicists, not to mention the texts found at Nag Hammadi and elsewhere. If they are not Gnostic, what are they? How are we to locate them historically and interpret them?" (Pg. 1-2)
Of the Nag Hammadi library, she asks, "How did such a variety of materials come to be classified under the single heading of Gnosticism? Modern scholars have tended to group together a wide variety of ancient persons, ideas, and texts described in the writings of the ancient Christian polemicists. With a few exceptions, early Christian polemicists did not call such groups Gnostics; rather, they labeled them heretics." (Pg. 6-7)
She observes, "When we look at early Christian interpretation of Scripture, a remarkable plurality of approaches and positions comes into view. Works like the 'Gospel of Mary' or the 'Gospel of Truth' built their theologies and Christologies with hardly any reference to Jewish Scripture at all. In contrast, the author of [the Epistle of Barnabas] sharply distingished between Christian and Jewish interpretation of Scripture by insisting that the Jews misunderstood Scripture by reading it literally." (Pg. 44)
She concludes, "In the end, I think the term 'Gnosticism' will most likely be abandoned, at least in its present usage... It is important ... to recognize and correct the ways in which reinscribing the discourses of orthodoxy and heresy distort our reading and reconstruction of ancient religion." (Pg. 218) She adds, "Throughout this book, I have tried to show that religions are not fixed entities with a determinate essence or decisive moment of pure origination. They are constructions that require assiduous, ongoing labor to maintain in the face of both contested power relations within, and porous, overlapping boundaries with traditions without. Relations among such traditions therefore cannot properly be conceived as stable or neat." (Pg. 229-230)
This book will be of keen interest to anyone studying early Christian history and theology, or anyone interested in the new manuscript discoveries (e.g., Nag Hammadi).
There were those whose different experiences with Jesus and their understanding collided with others. Some of this early salade of belief wanted to have a literal interpretation of their memory while others, influenced by the mythology tradition of religion, from a variety of sources preferred a more spiritual interpretation from myth.Hellenistic spiritual followers tended to be better educated and abstract in their thinking and embraced an equality of women and men in leadership while others with less education often craved and followed a literal interpretation of the memory. There was an almost 300 year struggle between these two basic streams of interpretation. The male centered, literalist group won out due to the support of Constantine, this group became the state church, the Roman Catholic Church. Quickly, the writings of the other group were destroyed, their members scattered and in some cases murdered. The dominant group had already branded the mythos group as heretic and labelled them Gnostic.
Their beliefs and understanding was then defined only by those who mocked them until 1945 when a cache of their early writings were found in Egypt. This library was translated from Coptic into English and published in English in 1977. Dr. King lifts the veil in this work and takes us on a journey of deeper understanding allowing the Gnostics to speak for themselves.
If you are interested in spirituality, myth and co-equal female-male spiritual leadership as well as history, this book is for you. It will shine a light on a broader foundation of Christian understanding and practice. It is worth the read and then a critical reflection. We now live in an age of Spirit. " What is Gnosticism" will speak greatly into this new world that has moved beyond correct belief to one of post-modern spiritual understanding.