“To be in her presence and just to listen to her think was just incredibly stimulating, and it excited students,” Wright said.
Cindy Wolf, who graduated from Occidental in 1989 and now lives in Orcas Island, Wash., recalls King, her thesis adviser, pushing her toward primary sources and insisting that she keep narrowing her scope so she could examine the material more deeply.
“She is very precise, and incisive — she says exactly what she means,” Wolf said. “And if she has chosen to say it, you know that she has really, really thought it through and has taken great pains to make sure she has good reasons for believing what she believes.”
When King, Wright, and another colleague in the religion department at Occidental had to create an introductory religion class, they rented a bus. Los Angeles, they reasoned, was one of the most religiously diverse cities in the world — why not take advantage of it? Together, they visited Pentacostal gatherings, an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, Hindu temples, a Buddhist center, the temporary synagogue of recent Russian Jewish immigrants.
The class was a turning point for King. It was the first time she had studied religion out in the world, as a living, breathing thing. The city’s vibrance and diversity dazzled the self-described “country girl.” Seeing ultra-Orthodox Jewish children wearing kippot, or caps, with Disney figures on them and hearing Buddhist kids singing “Buddha loves me” to the tune of “Jesus Loves Me ” made her think deeply about the ways in which social and cultural environments shape the practice of religion.
“You realize being Hindu in LA is not the same as being Hindu in Calcutta,” she said.
King began to consider how this insight might apply to the Nag Hammadi literature and other ancient Coptic texts discovered since the late 1800s, which included prayers, revelations, and teachings of Jesus that ultimately did not make it into the New Testament canon in later centuries. The “Gospel of Mary of Magdala,” for example, presents Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ favorite disciple and has her relating a strange vision she alone received from him.
All these texts had been lumped together as “heretical” or “Gnostic.” King began to argue that those labels were misnomers. When the texts were written, there was no such thing as orthodox Christianity — or Gnosticism, she argued. There were only tiny communities of a minority faith, scattered across the ancient Mediterranean, each caught up in their own political and cultural realities, and struggling to make sense of Jesus’ teachings and death.
“I started seeing that the lines that were being drawn between orthodox or correct Christianity and heretical Christianity couldn’t be drawn that way,” she said. “I had to step back and start sort of fresh and say, ‘What are the similarities and differences among [ancient] Christians, and how might we account for them, in terms of them belonging to this place?’ ”
King argued that these texts should be seen as part of the story of Christianity, not as distortions of a complete belief system articulated by the Gospels and handed down by the fathers of the early church. She contends that the early history of Christianity needs to be rewritten to include these previously marginalized voices, taking into account how “a limited set of perspectives has shaped what people believe.”
“She’s made her mark on the field by doing that,” said Mark Goodacre, a New Testament scholar at Duke University. “It’s a massive contribution to scholarship.”
Reconsidering these ancient texts is important to King not only as a scholar but as a Christian (she is an observant Episcopalian). “Responsible believers” who refuse to blindly accept dogma, she says, need the most accurate history of their faith possible.
In addition to presenting her work at elite scholarly conferences, she frequently gives talks to Bible study groups at churches, where the questions of people who sit in the pews help direct her research.
“If religion is as important in one’s life as it is for me, it’s important to have that capacity to think . . . both constructively and critically,” she said.
Scholars of early Christianity never know when a lost or previously unknown text — a small, badly damaged fragment or, as in the case of the Gospel of Judas , an entire book — might appear out of nowhere. They then have to figure out whether it is authentic, what it means, and how it relates to other texts.
“They are a huge detective story for all of us,” said Elaine Pagels, a renowned historian of religion at Princeton University who coauthored a book on the Gospel of Judas with King in 2007. “It’s a lot of fun, and a challenge.”Continued...