What is Gnosticism?
by Karen L. King
The title of Harvard Professor of Ancient Christianity Karen King’s new book What is Gnosticism? is not indented to be an invitation to the reader to come discover what Gnosticism is; instead, it is meant to reflect the on-going debate within academia as to what the boundries of Gnosticism really are, or if the word even has meaning anymore.
Her stated purpose is to demonstrate how the dichotomy between Christian orthodoxy and heresy as deliniated by ancient polemicists such as Tertullian and Irenaeus, has defined a framework by which scholars have analyzed Gnosticism up through the 20th century. As she demonstrates, the wealth of papyrus manuscripts discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945 point to a much more complex view of early Christian beliefs.
She does a masterful job of charting the course of Gnostic scholarship from the 19th century onward.
What I found less satisfying was her overall, postmodernistic view that the only way to examine the existing material is to understand the motivations behind the authors themselves, specifically through the lense of colonialism, Orientalism, race and gender. For King there are no “truths” only perspectives. While there is merit to this argument, it seems as limiting a viewpoint as the central dichotomy which she so forcefully argues against.