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What is Gnosticism?

What is Gnosticism? By Karen L. King. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 2003. xiv and 343 pages. Cloth. $29.95.

This well-written book is a welcome revisionist discussion of Gnosticism. King reviews the history of its study from the early church through Adolf von Harnack, the History of Religions School (Richard Reitzenstein, Wilhelm Boussett, and Rudolf Bultmann, who develop the Iranian Redeemed-Redeemer myth), the post-Bultmann reconsideration by Walter Bauer, Hans Jonas, and Carsten Colpe (who demonstrate the impossibility of the Gnostic myth), and the effects of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945. The Nag Hammadi documents are so varied that generalizations are all inadequate. Valentinian and Sethian texts cannot be put into a single system. Add that the reports of Gnostic thought by "orthodox" early Christian writers such as Irenaeus differ from what one learns from these texts, and she concludes that the term Gnosticism is so imprecise as to be useless. "In the end I think the term 'Gnosticism' will most likely be abandoned, at least in its present usage" (p. 218).

She is on target in that conclusion. Gnosticism is more diverse, less easily defined, and therefore less useful as an explanatory historical factor. Given the influence that the earlier picture of Gnosticism has had in New Testament studies and early church history, this book should lead to a major historical reconstruction in both areas.

King is Professor of the History of Ancient Christianity at the Divinity School of Harvard University.
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Author:Krentz, Edgar
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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