What Is Gnosticism? / Edition 1

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A distinctive Christian heresy? A competitor of burgeoning Christianity? A pre-Christian folk religion traceable to "Oriental syncretism"? How do we account for the disparate ideas, writings, and practices that have been placed under the Gnostic rubric? To do so, Karen King says, we must first disentangle modern historiography from the Christian discourse of orthodoxy and heresy that has pervaded--and distorted--the story.

Exciting discoveries of previously unknown ancient writings--especially the forty-six texts found at Nag Hammadi in 1945--are challenging historians of religion to rethink not only what we mean by Gnosticism but also the standard account of Christian origins. The Gospel of Mary and The Secret Book of John, for example, illustrate the variety of early Christianities and are witness to the struggle of Christians to craft an identity in the midst of the culturally pluralistic Roman Empire. King shows how historians have been misled by ancient Christian polemicists who attacked Gnostic beliefs as a "dark double" against which the new faith could define itself. Having identified past distortions, she is able to offer a new and clarifying definition of Gnosticism. Her book is thus both a thorough and innovative introduction to the twentieth-century study of Gnosticism and a revealing exploration of the concept of heresy as a tool in forming religious identity.

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Editorial Reviews

Elaine Pagels
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.
Times Literary Supplement - Robert A. Segal
[King's] is the pithiest and fairest overview to date of the subject.
Anglican Theological Review - Deirdre Good
Essential reading for serious students of Christian origins.
Journal of Theological Studies - Mark J. Edwards
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.
Classical Bulletin - Edward Moore
[King's] volume offers a carefully considered, well-researched reflection on the state of Gnostic scholarship and a clear call for new approaches.
Library Journal
Gnosticism has been notoriously difficult to define yet is vital for understanding early Christian history. The author of several books on Gnosticism and its sources, King (history of ancient Christianity, Harvard Divinity Sch.) offers an absorbing study of Western scholarship's historiography and definition of Gnosticism. Gnosticism as a concept took shape when early church fathers attacked a number of movements and ideas as heretical, drawing on the notion that these movements sought salvation through gnosis, or esoteric spiritual knowledge. King traces the scholarly discourse on Gnosticism, arguing that much scholarship prior to discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts (in 1945 and after) had been colored by the orthodox Christian polemic that created an imaginary monolithic "gnostic" religion as a challenge to Christianity. When the Nag Hammadi texts are viewed as a group, they indicate that there is no distinct religious tradition with well-established doctrines and approaches to the world that can be called Gnosticism. King ably demonstrates that academics have assumed that early Christianity and Gnosticism were each unitary and have failed to read the gnostic sources on their own terms. This outstanding and essential resource is recommended for all academic and religion collections with a serious interest in early Christianity and religion of the ancient Mediterranean world.-William P. Collins, Library of Congress Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674017627
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2005
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 358
  • Sales rank: 516,531
  • Product dimensions: 0.74 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen L. King is Hollis Professor of Divinity at the Divinity School, Harvard University.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Why Is Gnosticism So Hard to Define? 5
2 Gnosticism as Heresy 20
3 Adolf von Harnack and the Essence of Christianity 55
4 The History of Religions School 71
5 Gnosticism Reconsidered 110
6 After Nag Hammadi I: Categories and Origins 149
7 After Nag Hammadi II: Typology 191
8 The End of Gnosticism? 218
Note on Methodology 239
Bibliography 249
Notes 277
Index 341
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