Fantastic, thoughtful feature profile about Karen King, by Lydialyle Gibson in the current issue of Harvard Magazine, November-December 2018.
Early Christianity. The bits the Bible Left Out: Karen King. the Harvard University Hollis professor of divinity and a historian of early Christianity, studies texts from Christianity’s first centuries to reinterpret the history of the early church
“…I think a history of Christianity, which is a kind of story, serves us better if it has all the loose ends, the complexities, the multiple voices, the difficulties, the things that don’t add up, the roads not taken—all of that,” she says. “We need complexity for the complexity of our lives.”
“Karen’s book really shifted the discussion,” says Princeton religion scholar Elaine Pagels, Ph.D. ’70, LL.D. ’13, whose 1979 bestseller The Gnostic Gospels dislodged the idea of early Christianity as a unified movement and launched the conversation that What Is Gnosticism? later took up. “Karen’s book showed how those terms”—Gnosticism, heresy, orthodoxy—“were coined, how those concepts were shaped, and how late they came into scholarly discourse,” says Pagels. “It’s like clearing away the brush, so that people could look at these texts with a much more open mind.”
“As an undergraduate at the University of Montana in the early 1970s, King took a religious studies course from John Turner, one of the scholars working to edit and translate the Nag Hammadi texts. In class, she and other students read unpublished drafts of English translations that the wider public wouldn’t see for several years. It was electrifying. King had never imagined that there were early Christian writings beyond the Bible. “Why these texts and not those?” she wondered. And: “Who decided, and why?”