Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.26

Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism?.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2003.  Pp. 343.  ISBN 0-674-01071-X.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Nicola Denzey, Bowdoin College (
Word count: 2496 words

An unprepared reader might pick up What is Gnosticism? expecting either a primer or a definitive study of Gnosticism's nature and origins. But this book, written by one of the country's leading scholars of early Christianity, should not be mistaken for an introductory textbook. First of all, it never addresses what Gnosticism is. In a rather subversive move -- given the book's title -- King asserts that "Gnosticism" exists solely as a modern reification, a terminological construct deriving ultimately from an early Christian discourse of orthodoxy and heresy which has now taken on an independent existence. "My purpose in this book," King explains, "is to show how twentieth-century scholarship on Gnosticism has simultaneously reinscribed, elaborated, and deviated from this discourse" (54). The book assumes that readers will have at least a passing familiarity with the sources which have conventionally been called "Gnostic," as well as with contemporary terms of debate and prominent figures. This "ideal audience" of the learned and open-minded has much to gain from reading King's book. Casual readers, however, would likely find King's thesis -- like the book itself -- too sophisticated and too historiographically esoteric to sustain their interest.

Karen King taught at Occidental College in Los Angeles before moving to her current position as Professor of the History of Ancient Christianity at the Harvard University Divinity School. A highly respected scholar of Gnosticism, King's work has often focused on issues of gender. What is Gnosticism? is her second book to appear in 2003, taking its place next to her new translation of the Gospel of Mary (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2003). Here, King identifies her primary research interests as "early Christian identity formation and the critique of current scholarly categories of analysis" (vii-viii). This book has been at least twenty years in the making; we have had tastes of her critical acumen in a series of articles on the topic of Gnosticism and identity formation which she has presented to a variety of scholarly audiences since 1993. Why is a book like King's timely? The past fifty years have witnessed a series of dramatic paradigm shifts in the Academy that have called for the revision and re-articulation of our discipline. The first of these historiographical and hermeneutical shifts which King chronicles is the rise of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule as distinct from Theology with its interested, invested focus, its fixed canon, and its implicit Christian supersessionism. The second shift was initiated by the discovery of a cache of hitherto unknown ancient Christian texts in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Because scholars prior to 1945 had only a very limited number of primary sources which early members of the Christian mainstream had termed "Gnostic," the Nag Hammadi treatises have had a profound impact on our understanding of early Christianity as richly diverse in doctrine and praxis. The third and most recent shift has been the re-evaluation of the History of Religions School by postcolonialist and postmodern scholarship, which drew into question its implicit Orientalism and colonialist orientation. For these three reasons, the work of generations of Gnosticism scholars -- built upon a limited number of primary sources and the polemical writings of a few early Christian heresiologists -- needed to be reassessed. More often than not, this examination has called for substantial revision.

The scope of King's book is ambitious, but necessarily so. She recognizes that it is impossible to take on the conceptual and definitional problem of Gnosticism without tackling the conceptual and definitional problem of "heresy," which then draws into question Christianity's discourse of orthodoxy. She notes, "...a discussion of the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy needs to include polemics aimed at pagans and Jews as well" (21). King then dedicates the book's eight chapters to evaluating and critiquing "the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy" in ancient sources, in the work of early twentieth-century scholars, and in more contemporary scholarship. The book addresses the process of early Christian identity formation as a whole, with results both cogent and incisive. It is refreshing to read an approach that neither marginalizes Judaism or paganism, nor places Christianity in high relief against otherwise "insufficient" religious options in the ancient world.

In her first chapter, "Why Is Gnosticism So Hard to Define?" King outlines two overarching scholarly approaches to Gnosticism, one genealogical and one typological. The first approach locates the origins and developments of Gnosticism over time by looking to and comparing Gnosticism with so-called Oriental religions on the one hand and "Christianity" (i.e. "orthodoxy") on the other. The second approach draws upon phenomenological analyses of primarily literary material to develop a set of coherent and definitive terms, characteristics, and tendencies. Both approaches, King warns us, went considerably astray; most significantly, the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts rendered genealogical and typological analyses of Gnosticism largely moot. Central, too, has been the problem of Gnosticism's infelicitous relationship with Christianity as a whole. King observes, "the problem of defining Gnosticism has been and continues to be primarily an aspect of the ongoing project of defining and maintaining a normative Christianity" (18). In the final words of the chapter, King clarifies the task that lies ahead for the remainder of the volume:

My purpose ... is to consider the ways in which the early Christian polemicists' discourse of orthodoxy and heresy has been intertwined with twentieth-century scholarship on Gnosticism in order to show where and how that involvement has distorted our analysis of the ancient texts. At stake is not only the capacity to write a more accurate history of ancient Christianity in all its multiformity, but also our capacity to engage critically the ancient politics of religious difference rather than unwittingly reproduce its strategies and results (19).
Accordingly, Chapter Two, "Gnosticism as Heresy," focuses on the "rhetorical consolidation" of the broad variety of religious options available to individuals in the ancient world into three recognizable, mutually exclusive, and easily definable groups: Jews, Christians, and pagans (22). What was at stake, King observes, was the discourse of difference and sameness that was crucial to Christian identity-building. In order to exclude those Christians whom members of a nascent orthodoxy opposed, members of this group had to make their competitors look like outsiders; certain doctrinal or practical differences needed to be fabricated, just as real differences needed to be exaggerated. As part of the same strategy of distinction, similarities -- whether between Christians and Jews, Christians and pagans, or different Christian teachers -- were either suppressed or maliciously miscast. So successful were certain Christians in this endeavor, King notes, that even now the terms "heresy" and "orthodoxy" imply only difference, not similarity (23). These two terms are best understood as the consequence of an evaluative process that aimed to "articulate the meaning of self while simultaneously silencing and excluding others within the group" (24). King invokes the examples of Tertullian's Prescription against Heretics, and Irenaeus' Against the Heresies, in a set of rhetorical attitudes she categorizes as "antisyncretism." This discourse functioned to define and defend boundaries (34) and to contribute to the "master narrative" of Christian decline from a time of pure origins to the doctrinal divisiveness of the second century and beyond.

Chapters three and four are explicitly historiographical, as King works through foundational figures and movements of early twentieth-century scholarship on religion. Chapter Three investigates Adolf von Harnack, Chapter Four, the early History of Religions school. Here, modern readers owe perhaps the greatest debt to King, who provides intelligent and useful summaries and analyses of works which are infamously impenetrable and more often than not, only available in their original German. This extended examination of early twentieth-century historiography is central for King to prove her thesis: that modern scholarship has only served to reinscribe a discourse of orthodoxy and heresy established by certain Christians of the second and third centuries. King points out that as a theologian and scholar, for instance, Harnack was perfectly aware of the manifold forms of ancient Christianity, yet like his orthodox predecessors Irenaeus and Tertullian, he employed the term "Gnosticism" as a rhetorical tool to produce a normative vision of Christianity (68).

Chapter five, "Gnosticism Reconsidered," is devoted to a discussion of Walter Bauer --particularly his landmark study Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity -- and to Hans Jonas' Gnosis und Spätantike Geist. King paints Bauer as an innovator, the first to develop an alternative model of Christian historiography away from the master narrative of Christian supersessionism. Jonas, rather differently, was important for his typological reduction of Gnosticism to a series of qualities or characteristics. His work on the "Gnostic experience of self and world" (117) defined Gnosticism as a transhistorical religious movement characterized primarily by the experience of existential alienation and world-abnegation. Thus Jonas proposed seven qualities of Gnosticism: gnosis, dynamic character (pathomorphic crisis), mythological character, dualism, impiety, artificiality, and unique historical locus (120). King discusses each one of these in turn, pointing out their difficulties and shortcomings. The chapter ends with a discussion of the German History of Religions scholar Carsten Colpe. It is not clear what ties these three figures together, however; overall, the chapter division here -- as elsewhere in the book -- seems more arbitrary than seamlessly sewn together into one master narrative.

The last three chapters of the book discuss Gnosticism scholarship following the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts. Here, King spends some time discussing the various sources themselves, particularly the manner in which they defy the tidy systems of classification and categorization established by earlier generations of scholars. Indeed, King is quick to point out that even post-Nag Hammadi typologies of Gnosticism such as "Sethianism" and "Valentinianism" strain to maintain coherence when applied to the tremendous doctrinal diversity we find reflected in Nag Hammadi's forty-six texts. As King notes, "the problem with variety is not variety itself; the problem is trying to force multiform, irregularly shaped objects into square essentialist definitional holes" (168). These chapters are particularly enjoyable because they move away from historiography to the ancient sources themselves; however, it is difficult to assess how a reader not well-versed in the Nag Hammadi texts would follow King's summaries and arguments.

Readers will inevitably compare What is Gnosticism? to Michael Williams' Rethinking "Gnosticism": Arguments for Dismantling a Dubious Category (1996). Williams' provocative work -- which quickly became obligatory reading for all serious students of ancient Gnosticism -- calls for the abandonment of the term "Gnosticism" altogether, stating that it is best not to imagine that anything like "Gnosticism" or "the Gnostic religion" ever existed. Instead, Williams suggests that we remain cognizant of the many diverse groups and individuals that originally comprised Christianity before they were marginalized and de-legitimated by an emergent orthodoxy. It is obvious that Rethinking "Gnosticism" and What is Gnosticism? were written contemporaneously and that King and Williams were deeply engaged in dialogue with one another. They each carefully and graciously acknowledge one another in their forewords; it is clear that their connections have fostered genuine respect and mutual fondness rather than competition. Still, since Rethinking "Gnosticism" was first to appear, the problem for King is whether or not What is Gnosticism? sufficiently advances the approach both scholars bring to the fore, and whether or not she successfully treats the same topic in a way that complements, rather than competes with, Williams' book. As a partial answer to this issue, it is important to note that for all their topical similarity and virtually identical theses, What is Gnosticism? and Rethinking "Gnosticism" are very different books, because the two authors work very differently. Williams applies previously established typological categories of "Gnosticism" to ancient materials, thus highlighting their insufficiencies for understanding ancient materials on their own terms. King carefully builds a sort of historiographic genealogy and keeps her focus consistently on the last century's scholarship, telling the story of how the reification of "Gnosticism" came to be from within the broader social and intellectual matrix of twentieth-century interests and movements. The books differ, too, in their suggestions for future work. In place of "Gnosticism," Williams suggests we adopt when appropriate the more specific term "biblical demiurgical" (Williams, 265). But King rightly points out the problems with this term: it is cumbersome, and it persists in the same process of naming and categorizing she proposes we abandon altogether (168, 214-16). Still, she spends more time critiquing scholars and scholarship than she does solving the essential problem to which the book is devoted. Is there a future for studying Gnosticism without "Gnosticism"? She herself raises the question in her eighth and final chapter, but ends it reflexively: "It is important not so much to eliminate the term per se, but to recognize and correct the ways in which reinscribing the discourses of orthodoxy and heresy distort our reading and reconstruction of ancient religion" (218).

Ultimately, the reader of What is Gnosticism? is left questioning why King doggedly pursues Gnosticism' s historiographical genealogy. What precisely is at stake? And how well does she convey this? King states at the outset that she will reexamine how twentieth-century scholarship of Gnosticism has reinscribed a second-century discourse, but most of her detailed examples (Harnack, Jonas, Bousset, Reitzenstein, Bauer) harken from the first half of the century. The sole contemporary scholar of Gnosticism to receive a detailed discussion is Michael Williams, leaving readers with the impression that no one else is doing the sort of work King advocates. Because she withholds from the reader what the "state of the debate" truly is, she leaves the impression that hers is the sole clarion call for a new hermeneutic. This is misleading, because King's work not so much presents new material as it presents for a broader audience the methodological approach already well entrenched in the academy, certainly among specialists of Nag Hammadi and early Christianity. Perhaps, though, King would argue that there are only a few scholars who take this approach for granted, and this book is clearly not written for them.

While this book tears down the scaffolding upon which many earlier studies of Gnosticism have been built, King stops short of offering a concrete new direction, though her final chapter and "Note on Methodology" seems to suggest that such a direction lies in adopting postmodern and postcolonial reading strategies. It would have been enlightening and stimulating to see examples of what such a new hermeneutic, applied to the Nag Hammadi writings either individually or as a corpus, might yield; there are indeed recent articles and monographs out there from which to draw, but these are neglected. Because she does not address the work of modern scholars of early Christianity who likewise adhere to the New Historicism, King effectively flattens the background, placing her own methodological convictions in stark relief against a century's worth of essentially flawed scholarship. Still, as the only full-length study of the scholarship of Gnosticism that exists, there is surely a place for King's volume. Readers can follow the thread of a story ably told about a relatively new academic discipline now facing the challenge of modernity.

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