New Blog Series on Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism?

“Why is it so hard to define Gnosticism? The problem, I argue, is that a rhetorical term has been confused with a historical entity.” —Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism?

Many provocative and wonderful—and some admittedly bizarre—texts never made it into the New Testament. Some that were excluded told wild stories about the young Jesus; in others, individual disciples of ill repute, like Mary Magdala and even Judas Iscariot, are depicted as the ones who truly understood Jesus’ teachings. Still others took heavily philosophical or poetic turns that offer very different ideas of God, Jesus, and humanity’s relationship to both. In popular pious terms, all these texts are considered “heretical,” supportive of ideas that fall outside acceptable limits of belief.

Scholars have known for over a hundred years that they couldn’t describe these texts as “heretical” in historical study. History is not theology. Historians must make some attempt to acknowledge and minimize bias and value judgments. For example, a historian doesn’t ask, “Was Jesus the son of God?” Rather, a historian might ask, “Did followers of Jesus believe he was the son of God?” Or, to be more open-ended, “How did first- and second-century followers of Jesus interpret who he was?”

At risk of oversimplifying, we might consider gnosticism to be the politically correct term in biblical studies for heresy. Indeed, the word gnosticism has taken on a life of its own, and so these days it is possible to be “for” gnostic teachings, however defined. You can even belong to a modern gnostic community. 

Join us in reading Karen King’s What Is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2005)

But was there ever an actual gnostic movement in the earliest generations of the Jesus movement? Did any group actually describe itself that way, for example? Where did this word even come from? King explains that there is no single ancient group that called itself “gnostic.” This is a modern term that has basically supplanted “heretical” without altering form and function. It continues to hold up traditional/orthodox Christianity as normal and lump everything else outside the fold. One can be “for” or “against” it, but none of this alters the paradigm. Quite simply, this is too limiting for historical inquiry. We need a more useful paradigm.

As I read this book, I also happen to be reading Bart Ehrman’s Forgery and Counterforgery (Oxford, 2012). Something these two books share is an emphasis on the fact that there was no obvious consensus in the first and second centuries about what Christianity was, and the disputes about it were anything but mild. While there were conflicts with outside groups like non-Christian Jews and pagans, intramural arguments reigned the day. “The writings of ancient Christian polemicists fostered the search for a single origin based on their claim that heresy had one author, Satan, even as truth had one author, God,” writes King (7). Ehrman elaborates: “Throughout antiquity it was standard polemical fare to charge one’s opponents with the most nefarious of crimes against nature and humanity, in particular indiscriminate sex, infanticide, and cannibalism” (23). To be described as gnostic in this context was not complimentary. In works as early as the second-century writings of Irenaeus, gnosis came to stand “for false knowledge, in short, for heresy” (King, 7). Unfortunately, rather than breaking out of this Christian infighting, “scholars accepted in principle that all the manifold expressions of Gnosticism could be traced to a single origin, but they searched for the source in more historical places” (7).

Key to breaking free of this all-too-easy error, King argues, is understanding why we might want to define gnosticism. Definitions need context. What is the goal, however provisional?

So what do we wish to know from a study of Gnosticism? Christianity in all its variety? Why? To provide more options for contemporary theological reflection? To put normative Christianity on a firm historical foundation by showing the superiority of its particular structures and traditions? To legitimate changes to the definitional norms and practices of contemporary Christians (feminist, liberationist, evangelical)? To understand Gnostic phenomena as exempla of the religious experiences of humanity and thus for us? To plumb the depths of human intellectual folly? (19)

So why are you interested? What drives you to this subject? In my case, having grown up in Idaho, I am driven by my early experiences of “intramural” debates with my high school friends, who were members of the LDS (Mormon) church. I also used to attend the services of both the mainline Presbyterian church of my grandparents and the local Pentecostal church, usually on the same Sunday, so I became naturally curious about how two such radically different communities both called themselves Christian and yet refused to acknowledge that Mormons were Christian, too. How odd, I thought. The religious beliefs have left me, but the curiosity remains. Now I want to know about the earliest generations of people who followed Jesus, and their diverse answers to, “Why?”

And yes, I want to know because I want to offer alternatives to my friends and community, which remains just as conservative as it was when I was a child. Not even a month ago I attended two different church services, both of which preached miracles, the end of the world in a violent apocalypse, and Satan as a living entity, none of which I accept, even though the people who attend these services are people I dearly love. This is how I know the fight for a different future is by no means over. Whether they should or not, people are invested in the historical roots for their beliefs, so that’s where I must look, too.

This is the first post in a blog series on Karen L. King’s book, What Is Gnosticism? This book will form the basis of the Fall 2014 Christianity Seminar in San Diego concurrent with the Society of Biblical Literature conference. Don’t leave the last word to me. Share your thoughts below ↓

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

18 replies
  1. Brian says:

    “Not even a month ago I attended two different church services…the people who attend these services are people I dearly love.”

    For a while after I left, I went back occasionally on Sundays. My cousin came up to after one service and said, They want me to tell you to stop coming.

    • Cassandra says:

      That’s awful, Brian! I have not had that experience, but then again I’m usually there as a guest of a friend or family member so it feels awkward to put them in a bad position by opening my big mouth. I tend to just say, a little ironically, “If they knew what I did for a living, they probably wouldn’t like having me here.”

  2. Brian says:

    “Whether they should or not, people are invested in the historical roots for their beliefs, so that’s where I must look, too.”

    More and more I find that traditional Christians are anti-historical. Their investment, and efforts, are in turning people away from history, and looking squarely into the headlights of the myth. Is that what you mean when you say that you must look at the history? History has certainly been MY antidote, but it is nothing to them.

    • Cassandra says:

      Brian, when I think about the interactions I’ve had with people of a fundamentalist outlook, they’ve overwhelmingly believed they are on the side of history. It’s true, though, that some (okay, many) avoid it when pressed. It’s like a combination of wanting simplicity but also wanting the reassurance that history provides. I would say enough patient people brought up historical issues to me that they collectively changed my outlook. That may be all you or I can do.

  3. Gene Stecher says:

    Related to this matter, I’ve read Pagels’ ‘Gnostic Gospels’ and ‘Beyond Belief’ and the texts in Taussig’s ‘A New New Testament.’ Pagels, in recent interviews has acknowledged the difficulty in identifying a referent for the term ‘gnostic/ gnosticism’ and Taussig would like to throw it out altogether. The problem is that it’s become close to a catch-all for just about any non-canonical text in the first several centuries C.E.

  4. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    It’s probably a mistake to think the newly found second century “offensive” writings came from thin air. They seem to be ancillary to what became canon. G.Truth & G.Philip seemed to use John, Mt & the Paulines.SecJohn is an exegesis of Gen 1-4, a veiled reference to the Roman govt. RevAdam builds on SecJohn.None are as “bizarre” & incomprehensible as Tertullian or Athenagorus trying to explain the Trinity! (Fulgentius was even odder!)

    • Cassandra says:

      That’s an important clarification, Dennis. There should be no implication here that the 2nd century attacks (not to mention forgeries) came out of the blue. We see evidence of intramural fighting even in the canonical writings, not the least of which include Paul’s letters. Rather, King is tackling the problem of how modern scholarship uses what we have to create new categories without historical anchors.

      • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

        No, what I was saying is that they were used in addition to gospel material, to support their understanding of the religion.Practically all the canonical material from Gen to Rev, if one wants to use the term ‘forgery’ is forgery (false attribution).I tend to think it all is, but that involves a Dutch Radical view of the Paulines.

  5. Gene Stecher says:

    Ehrman/King agree: “…there was no obvious consensus in the 1st/2nd centuries about what Christianity was.” One sees this statement all the time, but how accurate is it? Marcion chose a canon by the first quarter of the second century; it included most all the Paulines and a proto-Luke which included about all of Mark and Matthew. I’d say that’s a pretty solid consensus. “Gnosticism” was a predictable break from the middle in the same sense as, say, Mormonism.

  6. Gene Stecher says:

    Cassandra listed a number of reasons why it is appropriate to study the phenomena of gnosticism.
    The reason that should head the list, in my opinion, is to establish an accurate history, which can then be drawn upon by both scholars of religion and persons of faith.

    • Cassandra says:

      Gene, that is one reason that has been on my list, too, owing to the circumstances I gave above. What Karen King seems to be cautioning specifically on this point is that there is no neutral, umbrella history that will work for everybody. Framing it–that is, knowing why we want it–helps us keep our definitions in view.

      • RoseKeister says:

        “establish an accurate history, which can then be drawn upon by both scholars of religion and persons of faith”

        “There is no neutral, umbrella history”

        I hope that is one of Westar’s primary goals and that of the early Christianity Seminars, though of course it will not work for everybody. It’s frustrating to read so many Pre-Nicene histories that place their emphasis on how it lead to the victory of orthodoxy rather than on the original diversity of beliefs and their interactions without privileging orthodoxy. “What is Gnosticism” was eye-opening to me on how to handle the diversity of early Christianity.

        • Cassandra says:

          Rose, thanks for joining the conversation! I also appreciated King’s emphasis that you need to know WHY you are defining a term, what purpose it has in your overall project. I sometimes find it hard to see beyond the seemingly inevitable path of orthodoxy, because it has been so integral to Western cultural stories, including the story here in the United States (like Manifest Destiny, our “right” to the “promised land”). It’s amazing how you see it sneaking into fairly everyday sentiments in American culture.

  7. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    Gene,my thought is that it depended on where you were as to what you believed.I think it is difficult even for scholars to grasp the idea of orthodoxy as a matter of geo. location.For instance when I read Irenaeus (France) I get a positive ‘history’ of Luke. Tertullian (N.Africa I think) was not so kind, saying if Luke’s was the only gospel it wouldn’t be sufficient.

    • Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

      To finish: It depended quite a bit on the audience, perhaps the cultural group. (Don’t you hate this 500 word limit? Not even enough room to quote or cite sources. I reckon a sound bite is the only dialogue wanted.

      • Cassandra says:

        Sorry, Dennis, I’m aware of the comments problem! I just need time to deal with it. Thanks for your patience.

  8. Dennis Dean Carpenter says:

    I have a book “Gnostic Truth and Christian Heresy” Alastair Logan (1996). His point is that some Nag Hammadi books are not as close to what 2nd century “gnostics” believed as what is found particularly in Irenaeus. He sees NH as having undergone “progressive development” “largely as a response to ‘orthodox’ Christian criticism,” that this was a “Sethian reinterpretation.” Interesting POV.

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