What Is Gnosticism?

Article excerpt

What is Gnosticism? By Karen L. King. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. xii + 343 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Caveat emptor would be my advice to a buyer or reader expecting an easy introductory text to a topic that has received recent publicity. To be sure, there are prizes for the one who reads to the end: a survey of twentieth-century scholarship on Gnosticism critiquing the scholarly construct of the category "Gnosticism" within the larger category of identity formation in early Christianity for example, but easy going the book is not. Yet by the end of the book, the reader will have "the capacity to write a more accurate history of ancient Christianity . . . and be able to engage critically the ancient politics of religious difference rather than unwittingly reproduce its strategies and results" (p. 19). Could there be any more important exercise for anyone interested in early Christianity?

Like early Christian writers, modern scholars of Gnosticism understand it to be a particular kind of heresy. In this regard, Gnosticism denned (and continues to define) the boundaries of normative Christianity by offering a single category to refer to a vast range of ideas, literary works, individuals, and groups (p. 7). Thus one cannot, King argues, examine a definition of Gnosticism without examining a definition of heresy. Since boundaries of normative Christianity were established in distinction from other forms of belief and practice, particularly Judaism and paganism, "a discussion of the discourse of orthodoxy and heresy needs to include polemics aimed at pagans and Jews as well."

Chapters 1 and 2 describe ways and means by which early Christian writers like Tertullian and Irenaeus denned and defended boundaries through strategies giving voice to identity while simultaneously excluding others within the group. Writers like these created a "master narrative" (myth oi origins) for Christian history: decline into doctrinal dissension from earlier pure beginnings. …