Campus & Community

Student of early Christianities:

7 min read

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.

Karen L.
Karen King emphasizes that early Christianity was marked by an enormous diversity of beliefs and practices, including what we now call Gnosticism, and that ‘orthodox’ Christianity was simply more successful at defining itself and pushing the other groups to the periphery. (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

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.

Nag Hammadi, a town in Upper Egypt, is near the site of a chance discovery whose impact on the study of Christianity is still being felt. In 1945 a farmer digging for fertilizer found a large clay jar containing dozens of fourth century papyrus books whose contents amazed scholars of the early Christian period. There were previously unknown gospels, collections of the sayings of Jesus, stories about Mary Magdalene portraying her as an important apostle and teacher, alternative creation myths, and poetry about a female deity.

The manuscripts had come from a nearby early Christian monastery and apparently had been buried by monks in the fifth century to prevent them from being found by church authorities engaged in suppressing heresy. What was particularly astounding was that some of these works had been known previously only through the polemical writings of early church authorities. Now scholars had a chance to read the actual texts these “orthodox” writers were condemning.

Although scholars had their own axes of historicism and Orientalism to grind, they took the view of the winning side and assumed these texts were heretical. In so doing, they reproduced the views of the defenders of the orthodox church. The second century bishop of Lyons, St. Irenaeus, for example, used the word “gnosis,” meaning knowledge, in the title of his book, “Detection and Overthrow of the False Knowledge.”

The orthodox defenders denounced these ancient heresies as being influenced by paganism, embodying the idea that spiritual salvation results from the acquisition of secret knowledge imparted by Christ to his disciples. Other “Gnostic” beliefs include the idea that the God of the Old Testament is actually an inferior deity who seeks to ensnare humans in an evil world of matter, and that Christ was a supernatural being who did not really suffer and die on the cross.

Scholars of early Christianity have been studying Gnosticism since the 19th century, but until the Nag Hammadi discovery, they were hampered by the fact that most early Christian heresies were known almost exclusively through the writings of their detractors. In her book King discusses the work of these earlier scholars and shows how the study of Christianity has changed radically since the “heretics” have started speaking to us in their own voices.

In fact, the voices have turned out to be so varied that many contemporary scholars, including King, have questioned whether Gnosticism as a distinct spiritual movement ever existed at all.

“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.”

To explain what she means, King takes several objects from a drawer and sets them up on the corner her desk – a stapler, a set of keys, a paper clamp, an eraser, and a jar of lip balm.

“Let’s say this represents all the different early Christian groups. They agree on some things, disagree on others.”

She then pushes the stapler and the keys to one side.

“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. She points out that the church’s earliest formulations of belief such as the Nicene Creed (325) did not take place in a vacuum.

“The Nicene Creed is a guard against heresy. Every one of its statements is formulated to oppose other views that were prominent at the time.”

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.

In 312, Constantine was preparing for battle with a rival for control of the Roman Empire. According to the Christian historian Eusebius, Constantine saw a cross in the sky inscribed with the words “In this sign thou shalt conquer.” Leading his soldiers into battle under the sign of the cross, Constantine won the battle, and thereafter ended the persecutions and made Christianity legal.

Constantine’s conversion may have been divinely inspired, but his decision to empower the “orthodox” bishops rather than their heretical rivals was a political one.

“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.”

Now the bishops were able to combat their rivals and destroy their writings with the power of the state to back them up. No wonder the Nag Hammadi monks decided to bury their manuscript collection.

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.”