Those familiar with Karen King’s research and writings will recognize the argument. Her 2003 book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, argued that another text from the era presented Mary Magdalene as the very model for apostleship.

A Preference for Heterodoxy

The thread that ties all these texts and arguments together is the 1945 discovery of some 52 ancient texts near the town of Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These texts are known to scholars as Gnostic literature. The texts present heretical narratives and claims about Jesus and his message, and they have been a treasure trove for those seeking to replace orthodox Christianity with something very different. Several ambitions drive this effort. Feminists have sought to use the Nag Hammadi texts to argue that women have been sidelined by the orthodox tradition, and that these Gnostic texts prove that women were central to the leadership of the early church, perhaps even superior to the men. Others have used the Nag Hammadi texts to argue that Christianity was diverse movement marked by few doctrinal concerns until it was hijacked by political and ecclesiastical leaders, who constructed theological orthodoxy as a way of establishing churchly power in the Roman Empire and then stifling dissent. Still others argue that Christianity’s moral prohibitions concerning sexuality, and especially homosexuality, were part of this forced orthodoxy which, they argue, was not the essence of true Christianity. More than anything else, many have used the Nag Hammadi texts as leverage for their argument that Christianity was originally a way of spirituality centered in the teachings of a merely human Christ — not a message of salvation through faith in a divine Jesus who saves sinners through the atonement he accomplished in his death and resurrection.

Karen King, along with Princeton’s Elaine Pagels, has argued that the politically powerful leaders who established what became orthodox Christianity silenced other voices, but that these voices now speak through the Nag Hammadi texts and other Gnostic writings. Writing together, King and Pagels argue that “the traditional history of Christianity is written almost solely from the viewpoint of the side that won, which was remarkably successful in silencing or distorting other voices, destroying their writings, and suppressing any who disagreed with them as dangerous and obstinate ‘heretics.’”

King and Pagels have both rejected traditional Christianity, and they clearly prefer the voices of the heretics. They argue for the superiority of heterodoxy over orthodoxy. In the Smithsonian article, King’s scholarship is described as “a kind of sustained critique of what she called the ‘master story’ of Christianity: a narrative that casts the canonical texts of the New Testament as a divine revelation that passed through Jesus in ‘an unbroken chain’ to the apostles and their successors — church fathers, ministers, priests and bishops who carried  these truths into the present day.”

King actually argues against the use of terms like “heresy” and even “Gnostic,” claiming that the very use of these terms gives power to the forces of orthodoxy and normative Christianity. Nevertheless, she cannot avoid using the terms herself (even in the titles of her own books). She told Ariel Sabar of Smithsonian, “You’re talking to someone who’s trying to integrate a whole set of ‘heretical’ literature into the standard history.”

Orthodoxy and Heresy: The Continual Struggle

Those who use Gnostic texts like those found at Nag Hammadi are attempting to redefine Christianity so that classic, biblical, orthodox Christianity is replaced with a very different religion. The Gnostic texts reduce Jesus to the status of a worldly teacher who instructs his followers to look within themselves for the truth. These texts promise salvation through enlightenment, not through faith and repentance. Their Jesus is not the fully human and fully divine Savior and there is no bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead.