Beyond Heresy

October 15, 2013
Beyond Heresy

Heresy. That's the way many in the Catholic and Protestant church hierarchies described the Coptic Christian literature discovered in Egypt during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that has been called "Gnostic." For Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King, however, these texts may hold the key to a more accurate account of Christianity's early years.

"When you step out into this new literature, early Christianity explodes into much, much greater diversity than we had before," she says. "Before you can get there, though, you have to get rid of the old categories of orthodoxy and heresy that get in the way."

King's work on the Coptic literature of Egypt has earned her recognition as one of the world's leading authorities on early Christianity. Her many awards and honors include a Henry Luce III Fellowship in Theology, as well as grants from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. King is the first woman appointed Hollis Professor of Divinity, the oldest endowed chair in the United States (1721).

At the same time, King's research has made her no stranger to controversy. The new Coptic texts, for example, offer perspectives on gender that are sometimes much different from mainstream Christian literature. King explored one of these in her 2003 book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, which adds a chapter to scholarship that is upending the traditional notion that women played little if any part in the development of Christianity.

"So you see, for example, a figure like Mary Magdalene, who has her own gospel and is presented there and in other literature as a leading disciple of Jesus, not only during his ministry, but also afterwards," King explains. "You see images of the feminine use for the deity. God is discussed both in terms of masculine and feminine imagery."

In What Is Gnosticism? King addressed ideas of heresy and orthodoxy head on. She argued that the recently discovered Christian literature undoes the artificial division between orthodox narratives of early Christianity and traditional notions of heretical Gnosticism. Because they defied these categories, the new texts have inspired King to explore afresh the diverse ways that Christians across the spectrum talked about the teachings of Jesus and the practice of their faith.

"If we look at early Christianity—not just the heretics, but also inside the New Testament itself—we can see a diversity of points of view, of practices, and of theologies," she says. "The conclusion I came to is that Gnosticism, as it has been used in modern scholarship, was basically reproducing the way that early Christians talked about difference in terms of right and wrong—that is to say orthodoxy and heresy. I call this 'the discourse of normativity.' How might we talk in other ways about what's normative, in talking about difference?"

King is currently working on a book that will explore notions of martyrdom in the new Coptic literature. She says that the work will shed new light on the way that early Christians thought about suffering and persecution.

"Few Christians stood up to being tortured and killed," she says. "Most ran away or fled. But Christians also asked, 'Is this what God wants? Who is this God? How do we gain salvation? How do we understand Jesus's teaching and healing? How do we understand the value of suffering and what it means?' You can see Christians struggling with these kinds of enormously difficult questions that have deep roots for our own attitudes about torture and martyrdom, suicide bombing versus martyrdom, and so forth. All this is deeply alive today."

Ultimately, King hopes that her work will inspire people to embrace the richness of the ways that early Christians thought about God and their faith in order to think critically and constructively about our own beliefs and practices.

"If you think you know what orthodoxy and heresy are, then you've turned a set of dynamic social, intellectual, and theological movements into something fixed and unchanging. A more complex history of Christianity provides richer resources for contemporary thinking about everything."

—by Paul Massari