Friday, July 18, 2003


Student of early Christianities:

Karen L. King doesn't want to rewrite the Bible. But she does want people to take another look at the parts that got left out.
By Ken Gewertz
Gazette staff

King, the Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the Divinity School, is the author of a new book, "What Is Gnosticism?" (Harvard University Press, 2003), which offers a provocative look at Christianity during its formative centuries and the heterogeneous array of groups, doctrines, and beliefs that all claimed to be inspired in some way by Jesus.

At the beginning, each of these groups claimed to represent the true Christianity, although they disagreed over basic issues. It wasn't until later that one group succeeded in labeling the others as heretics and driving them out of the fold.

"I wanted to rewrite the history of early Christianity without writing backwards, without looking at it as a process that culminated inevitably in the Christianity we know today. How did things look to the people who were around at that time? How do you go about inventing a new religion?"

It is a book King has been thinking about and working on for at least 20 years, ever since she was a graduate student in Germany studying under Hans-Martin Schenke, one of the first editors of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts.


"Gnosticism is a blanket term that covers a lot of early Christian movements. There wasn't a distinct religion called Gnosticism. It only existed as a tool of orthodox identity formation."


"Now this one group defines itself as orthodox, and all the rest get lumped together as heretical. Modern scholars then divide them up into two groups, Jewish Christians if they stay too close to Judaism, and Gnostics if they seem to reject Judaism and move toward Greek philosophy and mysticism. It gives each an identity and a unity they never actually had."

While King questions the existence of an early Christian sect identifying itself as Gnostic, her research does show that a wide diversity of groups flourished in the early Christian era. The picture contradicts long-cherished assumptions that early or "primitive" Christianity possessed a salutary purity and simplicity.


If such doctrinal diversity existed among early Christians, how is it that the version of the religion we call orthodox eventually vanquished its rivals? While the answer is extraordinarily complex, King believes a crucial factor was the influence of one man - the emperor Constantine.


"Constantine picked the kind of Christianity that best suited his political needs," King said. "He had a huge influence on the subsequent development of the religion."


But now that 1,500 years have passed, King suggests it may be time to reconsider some of the writings that the early Fathers of the Church decided were noncanonical.

"Are those choices that were made in the fourth and fifth centuries the right ones for Christians living today? Maybe we should go back and look at those early choices. As a feminist theologian, I think there are some texts that it would be good to recover."

The texts King has her eye on include "The Gospel of Mary," in which Mary Magdalene plays a prominent role as an apostle in spreading the faith; "The Gospel of Thomas," which leaves out traditional features of the Jesus story like the virgin birth and the resurrection but portrays Jesus as a divine teacher of wisdom; and "The Secret Book of John," which criticizes the violence, deceit, and materialism of society.

King doesn't expect or want these texts to achieve biblical status, but she thinks they are worth studying for a sense of the alternative voices that are still part of the Christian heritage.

"All religions have within them plural possibilities, which means we are always selecting materials to apply to the situations in which we find ourselves, and so people are responsible for what they appropriate and how they interpret tradition."

Students who are committed to particular Christian traditions sometimes find King's probing, questioning attitude toward scripture disturbing. For them she has a message that is part reassurance, part challenge.

"I'm not trying to take the canon away from them, but to bring it to their attention. I believe that if these texts are important to you, then you need to know what theological controversies and political events shaped them, and who decided that they should be authoritative for you."

As an experiment, I'm blogging from our local Internet cafe this morning. My coffee is finished and I think I've had enough for now, so I'm headed back to my office.

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