The Gnostic Gospels

 
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The Gnostic Gospels is a landmark study of the long-buried roots of Christianity, a work of luminous scholarship and wide popular appeal. First published in 1979 to critical acclaim, winning the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Gnostic Gospels has continued to grow in reputation and influence over the past two decades. It is now widely recognized as one of the most brilliant and accessible histories of early Christian spirituality published in our time.

In 1945 an Egyptian peasant unearthed what proved to be the Gnostic Gospels, thirteen papyrus volumes that expounded a radically different view of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ from that of the New Testament. In this spellbinding book, renowned religious scholar Elaine Pagels elucidates the mysteries and meanings of these sacred texts both in the world of the first Christians and in the context of Christianity today.

With insight and passion, Pagels explores a remarkable range of recently discovered gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, to show how a variety of ¡°Christianities¡± emerged at a time of extraordinary spiritual upheaval. Some Christians questioned the need for clergy and church doctrine, and taught that the divine could be discovered through spiritual search. Many others, like Buddhists and Hindus, sought enlightenment¡ªand access to God¡ªwithin. Such explorations raised questions: Was the resurrection to be understood symbolically and not literally? Was God to be envisioned only in masculine form, or feminine as well? Was martyrdom a necessary¡ªor worthy¡ªexpression of faith? These early Christians dared to ask questions that orthodox Christians later suppressed¡ªand their explorations led to profoundly different visions of Jesus and his message.

Brilliant, provocative, and stunning in its implications, The Gnostic Gospels is a radical, eloquent reconsideration of the origins of the Christian faith.

Gnosticism's Christian form grew to prominence in the 2nd century A.D. Ultimately denounced as heretical by the early church, Gnosticism proposed a revealed knowledge of God ("gnosis" meaning "knowledge" in Greek), held as a secret tradition of the apostles. In The Gnostic Gospels, author Elaine Pagels suggests that Christianity could have developed quite differently if Gnostic texts had become part of the Christian canon. Without a doubt: Gnosticism celebrates God as both Mother and Father, shows a very human Jesus's relationship to Mary Magdalene, suggests the Resurrection is better understood symbolically, and speaks to self-knowledge as the route to union with God. Pagels argues that Christian orthodoxy grew out of the political considerations of the day, serving to legitimize and consolidate early church leadership. Her contrast of that developing orthodoxy with Gnostic teachings presents an intriguing trajectory on a world faith as it "might have become." The Gnostic Gospels provides engaging reading for those seeking a broader perspective on the early development of Christianity. --F. Hall

Customer Reviews:

  • A wonderful book!!!

    This is a highly interesting book. I also recommend it to anyone looking for speculative "answers" about Christianity.

    You may not agree with everything -- and that's certainly OK.

    But take whatever you get from this book and then go research the possibilities!

    Also recommended: "What Did Jesus Really Say, How Christianity Went Astray: [What To Say To A Born Again Christian Fundamentalist, But Never Had The Information]" by Peter Cayce ...more info
  • Outstanding Scholarship
    Elaine Pagels has done Western Civilzation a good turn by her scholarship on the Gnostic Gospels. She is impeccable in her research and her conclusions flow naturally from her research. This is an underappreciated book that would bear more study....more info
  • A must read into the Church and Gnosism's early history.
    It's been a while since I read this book. But I remember that it was a wonderful, compelling read. Ms. Pagels does a masterful job of taking the reader through a journey of exploration into some of the earliest portions of Christian church history. Once you begin to read you will not be able to easily put this one down. If you ever wanted to explore the issues surrounding the early church and in particular the Gnostics, this is essential reading.
    As a Gnostic myself, I found Ms. Pagel's work important in understanding the events and issues of the day that led to the Gnostic's eventual elimination from the world scene at the hands of the converted Roman Empire and the emerging Pauline Catholic Church and their subsequent purge of both Gospel text and thought outside their rigidly defined dogma. Ms. Pagels presents the historical facts in as fair-minded fashion as possible given that the historical record is written predominantly from the orthodox church's point of view. ...more info
  • Remarkable
    This book is great. Plenty of information to understand gnosticism as well as early church politics. The density of informations requires you read it with a pen or reread it. I will do that as it is so easy to read and engrossing....more info
  • Gnostics Can't Be Easily Written Off
    There is a temptation among "Christians" today to totally write off the "gnostics" becasue they were heretics....which, in reality, means they"they thought differently from the way do...we are right..so they must be wrong..."

    This is not an easy book to read, but it does offer keen insight into the early days of the church, the politics--and there were politics--in putting the Bible together, what was in, what was out.

    Chapters on The Apostle's Creed are exceptional. You will never look at the Apostle's Creed again the same way...it is a much a political statement as it is a statement of faith...

    Not an easy book, but a good book...well worth the read.......more info
  • an excellent primer on the subject
    With all of the discussion around Gnosticism in popular culture, if you'd like to know a little bit more about what Gnosticism actually is from a more scholarly point of view, this is the book for you. It's a primer, and only a primer on the subject, and you will need further study to more fully debate the specifics or know the complete history. I would recommend one of the several compendia of Gnostic gospels out there, if you so desire more info. But, Pagels' book is a good starting place. And if all you need is to know what the big deal is, after an hour or two reading this book, you'll have a pretty good idea....more info
  • History of Christianity
    I enjoyed the book but I think it was titled incorrectly. The book provides insights into the history of the early Christian church as well as the philosophical differences between the "orthodox" and "gnostic" Christians. I was hoping the book contained a translation and interpretation of the Gnostic Gospels. The book discusses the text of the Gnostic Gospels only briefly....more info
  • This book will teach you about knowledge.
    This books describes an early Christian sect. This book does not approach Christianity in a traditional sense. But, it does revive some of the early Christian spirituality, which is essential for living in today's world. This book teaches the reader about knowledge from a very new Christian point of view....more info
  • Well written but a touch disappointing for a Christian
    I'm writing a book and needed a reference on Gnosticism. This book did NOT really provide that material. Gnosticism just came in as a matter of course to prove the author's thesis. That thesis is: that male domination of the "church proper" caused the males who ruled the church to suppress Gnosticism, which has a feminine character as well as male, and grants females equal status in its religious heirarchy. But any Christian familiar with the Bible who reads the content of Gnosticism will readily recognize that Gnosticism may call itself a form of Christianity but it is NOT Christianity. It is such a serious distortion as to be a perversion. Yes, I must say that is my opinion. The author provides just enough Gnosticism as it evolved throughout its history to give you a taste, but not enough to make one knowledgable. I came away feeling she had written the book merely for the sake of being controversial. My greatest disappointment, and there were several, was when I went to the index to find the Gnostic position on "sin" only to discover that she didn't cover the subject in the entire book! I quit reading about half way through. Nevertheless, the book is well written. The history of the Gnostic church in the early centuries is eye opening. If you want a superficial comparison of Gnosticism to mainstream Christianity in the early centuries this is a good book. ...more info
  • Missing the Most Important Thing of All!
    Whatever the merits (or lack thereof) to be found in the historical and political messages this book presents, there remains a primary and singular omission from this book, which, it can be assumed, is not the author's fault. Gnosis, which is the ancient secret knowledge that leads to the direct personal knowledge of the mysteries of life and death, is something so profound, so ground-shaking, so deeply penetrating, and yet its truths and its mysteries are one hundred percent PRACTICAL, meaning that they are accessed not through the intellect or through ideas or even through belief: they are discovered only and exculsively through ACTION. This book presents the ideological and intellectual opinion of a modern day scholar, who clearly knows nothing at all about the real, living, scientific methods of Gnosis. This science did not die some centuries ago, it merely went underground. It has survived. And now, for the first time, that ancient knowledge is being revealed in the English language with the first translations made of such works as The Pistis Sophia Unveiled (coming soon), The Perfect Matrimony, The Three Mountains, The Great Rebellion, and more, all by the Gnostic Master Samael Aun Weor, a man who wrote almost seventy books indicating in detail all the practical steps one must live in order to know for oneself, which is the definition of the word Gnosis. Why waste your time reading more opinions and intellectual arguments or dogmatic, belief-driven arguments, when you can instead discover the method to arrive at direct knowledge? Truly, if only Ms. Pagels and her scholarly fellows were to realize the essential nature of the Gnostic Wisdom, how different her books would be!...more info
  • Visible Structured Dogma vs. Subjective Experience & Choice
    This book is very enlightening and I think highly significant for anyone professing the Christian faith. In the second century of our common era, the Catholic Church, under their interpretation of Christianity, which differed from the Gnostics, as found in the Nag Hammadi. In this they constructed the bible cannon including the 66 books commonly used by all current day Protestants, and in addition, the apocryphal. In turn, they rejected scores of other books that were just as valid expressions of the Christian experience. In this, they omitted crucial variations into the understanding of an experience that went far beyond mere doctrines and dogma. And this is exactly what the Gnostics endorsed, a Christianity that emanated from individual subjective experiences, each having a private interior journey, as in the case of St. Paul, as opposed to prescribed doctrines and organization hierarchy. They supported an invisible brotherhood of inclusive equality as opposed the visible hierarchal organization endorsed by the Orthodox. Thus they violently opposed each other; however there were exceptions made for the Orthodox within different schools of Gnosticism. In this they did not support a physical resurrection, but rather subjective experiential visions as in Christ's (visionary) appearance to Martha and later to St. Paul on the road to Damascus and his vision of being "caught up in a third heaven," which equated to the rejection of Christ's sole appearance to the Apostles, supposedly designating their unique authority and the inherited authority of their so-called successors, the Orthodox Catholic church. While the Gnostics walked in the uncertainty of self discovery and freedom of choice, the Orthodox rested in the fundamentalism of certainty, safety and captured structure.

    What I think makes this book so good is that fact that is comprehendible without the philosophical, theological abstractions and circular semantics you will find in other explanatory expressions in Gnostic scholarship.

    Unlike the Orthodox, the Gnostics did not seek answers, but instead they sought furthering the process of asking questions. This is a major difference. Like the East in various forms of Buddhism and Hinduism, their progression of understanding existed in subjective experience through meditation, contemplation and the search inward as opposed to the external search of traditional monotheism found in various forms of Judaism and the Orthodox. It was an internal search to "know thyself," as Socrates had so stated, as well as the contemporary Plotinus, although he was an objective philosophical metaphysicist, who rejected both Eastern thought, Gnosticism, and all Christianity for that matter, for its simplicity and lack of definitive philosophical explanation, which be believed was the only way to enlightenment.

    In this, the Valentinus school of Gnostic thought rejected the literalization of the Hebrew Scriptures, rejecting the God of Israel's claim of Oneship, perceiving him as a lesser divine being who serves as the instrument of the higher powers, and thus stated in ignorance, "I am the only God, there is no other," and "I am a jealous God." In this, they defined the Creator as Plato's demiurge, the creator was not the same as the divine essence the permeated all Beinghood. Rather, the creator existed as a form apart from the perfect absolute idea that rested beyond the form, as in the case of Sophia, the mother of the demiurge, similar to Paul Tillich's expression of the "God beyond God." Anotherwards, the dualism of Plato's God of Good, the eternal and unchanging in the world of perfect forms of Sophia-Wisdom and the God of Demiurge, the fleeting and impermanent God, Yahweh, in the world of changes. The Creator of the Hebrew Scriptures is not the eternal God, Valentinus explains, but the demiurge who reigns as king and lord, who acts as a military commander, who gives the law and judges those who violate it. Achieving gnosis recognizes the ignorance that dwells both in the demiurge's claims of being the "only God" and that of those who interpret this world of senses as reality. Gnosis involves coming to recognize the true source of divine power, the depth of all being, the Father and Mother. Before gaining gnosis, the candidate worshiped the demiurge, mistaking him for the true God, but now has been released from the demiurge's power, declaring his independence, transcending it. Valentinus' writes to his opponent, Clement:

    "You claim to represent God, but, in reality, you represent only the demiurge, whom you blindly serve and obey, I, however, have passed beyond the sphere of his authority and so, for that matter, beyond yours!"

    In this Valentinus rejected the idea of one creator God of this world of senses, one Bishop and one visible Church to obey, but favored subjective experience, as in visions, dreams, intuitive awareness and flashes of insight and artistic expression.

    Interestingly, they followed the Newtonian cause and effect of a belief system, as in Orthodoxy with gatherings and shared expressions, and yet, they rejected hierarchy, letting the Quantum law of acausal effect take place in that they had no hierarchy, no dogmas and no strict organizational structure. Therefore they drew lots at each meeting to decide on the spot who would be the priest, leader and directors of each meeting, inclusive to all, both male and female.

    Now there were various schools of thought within Gnosticism, Valentinus, Basilides, Marcion and others, not all endorsed the above and they fought amongst themselves, which makes this information much more detailed. This book contains not only information on the Gnostics but various quotes from the well known Orthodox leaders, as Clement, Tertullian (who later left the Orthodox), Irenaeus, Ignatius and others in their views against the Gnostics for a well rounded view of both the Gnostics and its opposing viewpoints, although there were many variations. Also, Pagels has other books on the Gnostics, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis, The Gnostic Paul, The Secret Gospel of Thomas and Beyond Belief, which go further into the Gnostic teachings....more info
  • Is Gnosticism Anti-Christ?
    I very much admire Elaine Pagels for having the courage to enter the controversial and unorthodox realm of Gnosticism. Daring to investigate one's enculturated taboos is never an easy task. First there are one's own fears. Then there is the fact that many of the guardians of the religious status quo will see one as lost at best, or even as an anti-Christ at worst. Spiritual freedom is both a personal and a social issue. No man or woman is an island. The pride of religious certainty is often quick to judge those that question the reason for that certainty. People, myself included, don't like change. Such is the religious mindset in spades. We all have this tendency, to protect or defend our turf, to resist change. The Apostle Paul had to be struck by lightning before he could see the light. To disagree agreeably, rather than the current trend of arguing ideologically, is becoming a lost art. One cannot listen when one is only thinking about what one will say next. In religion, as in politics, communication can be difficult to say the least. Especially in these fractured post-modern times.

    Jesus had very little patience where religiosity is concerned. His criticism of the religious mindset in the 23rd Chapter of Matthew, the Chapter of the "Seven Woes", is damning. The burden of legalism and the hypocrisy of those that fail to practice what they preach had him calling the religious leaders of his community a brood of vipers. Jesus was a rebel with a cause, the prototype for all spiritual freedom fighters everywhere. Man was not made for the law, the Law was made for Man. The highest form of religion is love, and the highest form of government is personal responsibility. The more freedom we have, the more responsibility we have. Balance is fundamental to the spiritual life.

    Jesus disliked pretense intensely. He saw it for the prison that it is. He was far more concerned with the inside than the outside of a person, with what came out of the mouth more than what went in, with the heart. Having the heart of a Lion he looked reality in the eye. Jesus looked at reality from God's perspective, and taught others to do likewise. We need to be more tolerant of each other's religious views, more ecumenical, more loving. God belongs to everyone, and no one. Jesus' message about the reality of the Kingdom of God was not just for one people, it was for anyone that would or will listen with the single eye of their heart. The greatest commandment is love, not doctrine. In that spirit, though I don't always agree with everything she has to say, Elaine's thoughts are worth considering and her heart is in the right place. She just wants to know the truth where Gnosticism is concerned. She has a brave heart. This book is well worth reading.

    To wet your curiosity just a bit I should point out that the word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word 'gnosis'. Gnosis refers to a secret kind of knowledge known only by a few. As Plotinus suggested in the "Ennead", the sanctity of the mystical or religious experience is to be protected from being made common. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah each went into the desert for forty-days and forty-nights to be alone with God. This is an uncommon act. What does this have to do with Gnosticism and Christianity?

    "When Jesus was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, "The secret of the Kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, they may be ever seeing, and never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding;..." Mark 4:10-12. NIV. ...more info
  • Gnostic gospels
    The product arrived quickly and the quality was excellent. I had the subject on hard back, but listening to the subject on CD impacted the delivery and allowed others to join in and listen. Looking for other products like it...on CD...more info
  • Most interging book I read in awile
    I believe this book helps normal Chirstians understand the foundation of our faith. I am fascinated with the history of how our religion formed and flourished. A must read for anyone with an open mind and a curiousity of the truth. ...more info
  • Come gentle reader, rethink your myths
    If someone so obviously sincere and so obviously gifted as Elaine Pagels can look again at what she once also so obviously embraced without question, surely we all can. Each of us is unique. Each is here to experience Life. We've come from somewhere, and someday we shall be going back. In our short span of time it seems criminal to spend it believing only what others believe, thinking thoughts others have thought before us. Even more devastating to the human spirit is to be cowed before Popes or Ayatollahs or Presidents...politicians to a man. Socrates said: the only thoughts that count are a man's (or woman's) own thoughts. Here is Elaine pushing slowly out into the depths of original thought. All power to her. And when she gets there she'll find the water is safe and warm. Mystics from the beginning of time have tried to tell us this...but those listening either cannot hear, or hear instead a way to forge a religion in which they themselves can shine, linking it Law by Law into a Cage for the Human Soul. If you would go further with gnosis which is the direct experience of God, I sincerely recommend reading The Secret Magdalene: A Novel by Ki Longfellow. Longfellow is swimming far out into the deep. As for Elaine, I expect to see her doing the butterfly soon enough....more info
  • The Gnostic Gospels
    Enjoyed listening to this; reading it would have been a hard slog I think....more info
  • Very Informative
    Ms. Pagels discusses the history of the early gnostic christians in the light of the recent(1946) evidence of the Nag Hammandi find. In illuminating the gnostic texts found there, she compares and contrasts them to the extant texts which expressed its early "orthodox" opponents, such as Iraneous. In doing so she stylistically intersperses some of more interesting gnostic stories relevant to the issue at hand, making it a much more pleasant read than the stuffshirt de facto standard of other academic authors. She foot notes (many primary sources) supporting her relevent facts, providing in the appendix the references and sometimes a short survey literature used for each issue.

    A good read for those interested in early Christian history....more info
  • 'The Gnostic Gospels,' a groundbreaking popularization of the Coptic Gnostic Library

    "Dr. Pagels raises questions, both profound and fascinating, and she handles them with the sure and graceful touch of a historian who knows her sources." Kingsley Barett



    An Echo of Gnosis:
    Gnosticism's Christian form grew to prominence in Alexandria, during the 2nd century A.D. Almost all existing original references on Gnosticism are in Coptic; including the Askew codex, the Bruce fragments, codex Berolensis which disappeared after the fall of Berlin, before their rediscovery in Chenoboskion. Long before the Coptic Gnostic Library near Nag Hammadi was discovered, a British scholar, G. Mead translated and explored most of the then known ancient Gnostic texts. Gnosticism, held as a secret tradition, proposed a revealed knowledge of God. The long time hidden Gnostic Archive, now known as the Nag Hammadi Library, was accidentally discovered in 1946, in upper Egypt at Gebel et-Tarif, sealed in an earthen jar for almost 16 centuries. At issue were a total of 52 tractates, in 12 Codices, plus 8 leaves of papyrus documents, written in Sahidic Coptic, buried in a cemetery near an ancient Pachomian monastery.

    Gnosticism in Alexandria*:
    Writing in Greek, the Lingua Franca of Alexandria, Valentinus, Carpocrates, Basilides, and many of the Gnostic masters went far to make it fashionable, into the syncretic impetus that really spawned Gnosticism. The intermingling recipe of ideas and images, utilizing pagan Neo Platonism, included Philo's mystical metaphysical allegory, and initiation rituals of Mystery religions. Basilides was known for his mythological system, well reputed as a prolific author. His Christian Gnostic teachings were developed considerably in the Alexandrian megalopolis, where quotations of his works were discovered. Some of Gnostic detractors, like Clement of Alexandria, applied their vigor into a Christian Theo-Gnosis, while criticizing them, preserved their teachings for the common readers of the time. The Great master, Origen, went further refuting Celsius writings, and thus kept them memorized, decades later.

    Pagels' Comparative exploration:
    The Gnostic Gospels unearthed in Egypt fifty years ago have revitalized the study of early Christianity, with the assumption that the developing religion, at least in Egypt was much more diverse than previously assumed. Elaine Pagels, 'The Gnostic Gospels,' suggests that Christianity could have developed quite differently if the Gnostic texts were included in the early Church canon, a thesis adopted and defended by Ehrman of UNC. Pagels, explores the Gnostic meaning and the echo of apocryphal writings (Gospel of Truth and Thomas,...) as they related to early Christianity two millennia ago and in post WWII. Pagels presents an overview of this seminal material with a post modern perspective, suggests the Resurrection is better understood symbolically, and speaks to self-knowledge as the route to union with God. She argues that orthodox dominant Christianity developed within a political milieu and considerations of the era, legitimized and consolidated early church leadership. Her vividly contrasting comparison of developing orthodox doctrine with Gnostic teachings was presented in five main chapters on: Christ's resurrection, Bishop's central role, God's gender, Christ's Passion, and the 'True Church,' are endorsed by Gnostic Christian teachings central theme, 'Self knowledge as Knowledge of God.' Her conclusion that "THE WINNERS who write history," dominated all accounts on Christian origins is "an intriguing trajectory on a world faith, as it might have become."

    Biographical Introduction:
    Pagels' 29 page thorough introduction to the great discovery, the wrestling academic's maneuvers, touched on the major role of the two Coptic Museum directors Togo Mina, 1947-52, and Pahor Labib, leading Coptic Scholars, in rescuing and preserving the codices from intense personal rivalries and outlaw antiquities dealers, in a turbulent time Egypt. James Robinson's intervention in the UNESCO translation effort, given the rarity of American Coptic scholars, made G. MacRae and H. Koester promoters of learning Coptic to join the exciting project. She tells of her late encounter in 1965 at Harvard, with the manuscripts which changed her life.

    A Quarter Century later:
    Elaine Pagels is perhaps best known for 'The Gnostic Gospels,' a groundbreaking popularization of the Coptic Gnostic Library, but she has also authored several popular works that dealt with the historical and cultural roots of Christian faith, and the Coptic Gnostic books. Pagels, then 36, of a promising 'Ivy career' is best defined by Martin Marty, "...writes with the instincts of a novelist, the skills of a scholar, and the ability to sort out significances that many writers lack." He thus confirms what Paul Mankowski, S.J., of the Pontifical Biblical Institute who has recently asked that, "Pagels should be billed accurately -- not as an expert on Gnosticism or Coptic Christianity but as what she is: a lady novelist. Her oeuvre is that of fiction -- in fact, historical romance." What worries the Roman Catholic scholar is her deductions or allusions not in conformity with Catholic doctrine, in the first five chapters.

    Scholarship and Belief intertwined?
    Professor Pagels, who lived at home and in academia in very challenging scientific milieu, may have changed her deductions, at least partly evident in her encounter in 'Beyond Belief, described by Krister Stendahl as, "It is as generous as it is rare that a first-rate scholar invites the reader to see and sense her scholarship and her religious quest became intertwined."



    * So you'd like to... Encounter The Alexandrian Gnostics by Didaskalex
    ...more info
  • Interesting Read
    I recently finished the book. I found it very interesting and a thought provoking read. At times it was a dragged a bit, but over all worth the effort.
    ...more info
  • Pope Benedict XVI by John L. Allen
    The "picture" presented by John Allen shows the extreme measures
    (Joseph Ratsinger) has taken in not allowing the opposing voices
    of men and women he has either taught as a theologian or as the
    Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to
    "silence" their voices. His fear of women in the priesthood shows insecurity within himself. It's too bad Pope Benedict XVI can't allow this process. Also shows the insecurity of the
    other men who "run" the Catholic Church. What is the insecurity?
    The loss of control and power.
    ...more info
  • A good introductory text
    This is a decent intro text on the Gnostic gospels with some good background information...pretty light reading all-around. After reading this I would probably check out Stephan Hoellers latest "Gnosis: A New Light" and the Nag Hammadi Library. Also Bentley Laytons "Gnostic Scriptures" is excellent. For more modern Gnostic texts, I would suggest "The Seven Sermons to the Dead" by Carl Jung, translated by Stephan Hoeller, and "The Holy Fire of St. Michael" by Richard Michael Willoughby, a modern Gnostic poet/cleric. William Blakes works are also highly recommended....more info
  • gnostic gospels
    I found this book very educational and well written and layed out. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about the gnostic gospels in and easy to follow form. ...more info
  • Good read if you are interested in religious history
    I enjoyed this book, though I really had to concentrate while reading it. It was not exactly what I was expecting. It spoke less about the content of these gospels than it did about the history of the development of christianity, and the early "battle" between the more orthodox church (institution) and the gnostics, who believed in a more individual, less directed experience. I liked it and learned alot about christianity's early days. Only negative is that it could be repetitive at times.

    ...more info
  • A spotlight on controversy
    I have always enjoyed Ms Pagels' commentaries on the History Channel, and found this book expands upon them in a scholarly manner, as she gives not only her conclusions but the path she took to arrive at them. This is a fine volume for anyone interested in early Christian ideas which were discarded.
    J. V. Vaisvil...more info
  • A most excellent and informative book... I loved it!
    Don't listen to all the senseless rambling of those 1 star fanatics. I am a Christian and have been for a long time, and this is one of the best works on Gnosticism that I've had the pleasure to read. Take your time and read through some of the more favorable and intelligent reviews posted on this site, because this book is really enlightening and worth the time and money to read. I agree with the person who recommended "The Nag Hammadi Library" and "The Gnostic Bible". Both of those books were also enlightening. ...more info
  • The Gnostic Gospels
    I found this book very interesting. Professor Pagels digs deeply into her subject and manages to explain in plain and understandable language the thoughts of the early Christian Gnostic thinkers and how they differed from the orthodox Roman church, mainly in believing that churches and priests were not always the path to understanding God, but that one could find God within himself, hence the prevalence of hermit monks who retreated from the world to meditate and seek the understanding of God....more info
  • The Roman Empire lives on in Christianity
    I am not a Christian but I simply wanted to know more about how this great religion evolved. I got it!

    This book is exceptionally well written and convincing. It flows and draws the reader convincingly back to the early documentation on the life of Jesus. She shows how the institution of the church (arguably the vestige of the Roman Empire) enabled this religion from fading with its early diversity of interpretations. As it was under attack, it did two things, create easy entry (unlike the gnostics) and made heretics out of the gnostics.

    She shows how a group of restless inquiring people - those that believed in the primacy of immediate experience; those that believed in humanity's original "sin" was internal emotional distress; and those who believed in the self awakened truth, were overwhelmed and suppressed by the orthodox that saw enlightenment as a body experience. Theirs was a body experience of the fullness of god entering them. The orthodox Christians developed rituals to sanction biological existence and created and created a "family" gaining Roman imperial support and power. The gnostics became the heretics and lived on "like a river driven underground".

    Jesus had a message but ambiguities and imperialism, including the hand of Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons in 180AD, ensured the message created servitude to the system. The church inherited the witness of Jesus's resurrection.

    Elaine Pagels has created an opportunity for people to see a man whose birth and death is celebrated annually who today is wrapped in Imperial dogma and ritual. An outstanding work written in an objective and easy to read style. One of the most riveting books I have read for a while.
    ...more info
  • Good
    Elaine Pagels is a wonderful writer. Her explanation into early Christianity is wonderful. It is definitely worth the time to read this. She delves into the politics of the early church, the Passion, the resurrection, as well as the clashes between Gnostic and Orthodox thinking. Too often, we forget that what we call the canon is not the only writings available. She just reminds us that there is this whole other world of writings that did not make it into the bible for one reason or another. If you want to get an idea of who the Gnostics were, read this....more info
  • History of the Early Church
    The Gnostic Gospels is a scholastic look at some of the forces that threatened to split the early Christian Church. The battle, as portrayed by Pagels, was between Orthodoxy and Gnosticism. Her argument is based on ancient texts discovered in 1945 in Egypt. She talks about the battle between the Orthodox "winners" and the Gnostic "loser" on issues such as the nature of God, the meaning of the resurrection, and the role of the episcopacy. Since the Orthodox won the battle, our understanding of Christianity is descended from Orthodox beliefs.

    Although Pagels puts forth her case strongly, I am left feeling unconvinced by her argument. Although Gnosticism did not win the battle, much of their beliefs have remained vital. Their understanding of approaching God through knowledge has many similarities to mysticism. Process Theologians share Gnosticism's view of God as part of Creation, as opposed to the ultimate source of Creation. In addition, Pagels paints Gnostics as a unified group. In fact, there were many sects that make up those who Pagel calls Gnostics.

    For those who are new to Christianity in the early years following the death of Jesus, this book holds much valuable information. However, I feel that Pagel overstates her case and, as a result, comes off as a bit shallow and uncertain.
    ...more info
  • A great presentation of the early Christian Debate...
    After reading Ms. Pagels' book "Beyond Belief", I had to read this one since it was a reference source. This was really well written and presents historical discussion of whether Jesus was viewed as being in the form of man on the earth or always a divine being. This was separate views which were gnostic vs. orthodox. And the debates between Iraneaus and Valintinus. The inforamtion was neutrally presented from the scrolls found at Nag Hamadi and other sources. I will definitely be reading more from Elaine Pagels! ...more info
  • Why should we have a "holy father" but no mother?
    I was reading a fiction thriller about Jesus having lived in India called The Rozabal Line when I came across a reference to this book and Elaine Pagels inside it. I am glad I did because it prompted me to read Pagels' work. Now, I guess the fact that I read this after the "Jesus in India" story might have possibly made me much more receptive to the possibilities that the original teachings of Jesus were much more to do with self-realization rather than external forms of worship. I was also already appreciative of the fact that Buddhist missionaries from India had already been teaching in many of the Gnostic schools where Jesus is supposed to have studied. I guess, there are many things about Jesus and Christianity that have been obliterated and/or changed in order to give more power to central power figures and structures. For example, it is evident that the resurrection is not to be treated as a literal event where Jesus' physical body arose from the dead but more as a spiritual explanation of the soul leaving the body. The removal of all feminine forms of power from our religion needs to be viewed in the context of the dangers that were seen in the worship of the mother goddess by many in those times... so we were left with a father but no mother. This is an incredibly riveting book and I strongly recommend it....more info
  • A rational concept of spirituality that I can embrace
    Ancient scriptures hidden in vessels and buried in Egypt were unearthed in 1945 revealing information regarding a Christian sect called the Gnostics. Their writings indicate that they held views in striking contrast to orthodox Christianity. They valued self knowledge as the avenue to God, did not adhere to the concept of a virgin birth, rejected the notion of the Trinity and of Jesus as anything other than human, considered the resurrection symbolic, the kingdom of heaven a state of mind, and viewed women as spiritual equals indicating that Mary Magedelene was an apostle favored by Jesus. Not surprisingly, the orthodox Christian church destroyed most of the Gnostic writings. While the author presents the contrasting views dispassionately, I embrace the common sense approach of the Gnostics. For another rational approach to the concept of God read God Without Religion by Sankara Saranam. ...more info
  • Gnosticism and Christian History 101
    This is a great starter book for understanding the truth of early Christian history and Gnosticism. She discusses the amizing find of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 and the effect this had on scholars. This was the first time we could here the Gnostics themselves with out the church fathers slanders and accusations.
    She discusses the great debates and wars in the early church that lead to the destruction of the Gnostic view. She also touches on how the feminine divine was removed from the Catholic tradition.She discusses the early debate on whether the resurrection was symbol of history.
    This is a great educational read, I was disappointed that the Gnostic Gospels were not included in this book. Get lost scriptures by Bart Ehrman to actually be able to read them in length. The Gospel of Thomas may be the closest we will ever get to the historical person of Jesus....more info
  • What makes a "heresy"?
    A fortuitous event occured on an Egyptian hillside nearly half a century ago. The finding of a set of papyrus books might have sundered the Christian world irreparably. Or it might have heralded a new ecumenical movement undreamt of in an earlier day. The books proved to be the writings of a Christian sect known as the Gnostics. This group formed shortly after the death or disappearance of the teacher known as Jesus. The followers of this teacher generated many interpreters in the years after his disappearance, but these were either absorbed in the orthodoxy created by Roman Emperor Constantine or killed or driven into exile by the hierarchy established by his fiat. Most of their writings disappeared with them.

    Pagels, a specialist in the Gnostic gospels, presents the story of the find and outlines the philosophy with sympathy and clarity. In six succinct chapters, she reveals the drastic departure from what we know as Christianity today. Although others have questioned the notion of the Trinity, the Gnostics were firmly opposed to the tripartite division of one spirit into three identities. The "resurrection", so firmly entrenched in today's faith, was viewed in a completely different way by the Gnostics. Their writings contest the notion of Jesus as a deity in human form. Furthermore, the Gnostics couldn't accept the restricted group of "observers" of the resurrected Jesus that orthodox accounts relate. Displays of the spirit would occur down through time, they contested, and to all who were prepared to see it. This universal revelation overturned the sort of hierarchical structure that was developing among other Christians and would be endorsed by Constatine. The Gnostics felt relations with the deity should be universally available. Adding priests, deacons and bishops to "run interference" was contrary to divine will. Pagels doesn't miss the point that much of Reformation thinking was built along similar lines.

    The Gnostics were but one of the Christian sects, but well established throughout the Mediterranean countries by the beginning of the second century of the Common Era [CE]. From the scattered writings that survived the orthodox holocaust against them, there were serious thinkers and writers among them. Only a few commentaries reached modern times, but the vehemence of the orthodox clerics condemning their practices and beliefs has told scholars much. Until the papyrus writings were unearthed, Valentinus' views were the voice of Gnosticism. The Gnostic gospels also demonstrate that unity of opinion was no more prevalent among them than it is with today's Christianity. The role of women, severely constrained by orthodox bishops and theologians, was instead one of equality with the Gnostics. The Gnostics went so far as to rotate the leadership of a congregation among all the members, men and women alike.

    Hierarchy, of course, won the political battle. The victory was nearly absolute, but not easily won until Constantine's interference. Orthodox writers railed against the widespread and clearly popular acceptance of Gnostic practices and teachings. The Gnostics claimed, rightly as the Nag Hammadi books attest, to equal authority in relating Christian origins. Early Gnostic writers laid firm claim to having accounts of events in Jesus' life. Exchanges between the teacher and his apostles familiar to us today, were depicted as vastly different in Gnostic accounts. The major distinction is the role played by Mary Magdelene. The dimunition of her place in the group around Jesus is vigorously overturned by the Gnostics, who placed her first among equals. As Pagels is quick to note, what differences in today's society, religious or secular, would exist had this view prevailed? [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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  • Good overview of gnosticism
    Gnosticism is a term seen frequently in modern literary criticism, but nobody ever bothers to explain what it is exactly; even dictionaries and encyclopedias offer only murky definitions in uncertain terms. Is it a philosophy, a religion, a cult, a method, or simply a devotion to the pursuit of wisdom? Elaine Pagels's treatise "The Gnostic Gospels" goes a long way towards answering this question by not only providing an informative introduction to the concept of gnosticism but discussing its controversial relation to the history of Christianity.

    The principle of gnosticism can be stated very loosely that knowledge of God is attained through knowledge of the self. (This clarifies its connection to literature, the reading and writing of which is the ultimate examination of the self.) An innocent idea, but not one conciliatory to religions organized around fixed clerical hierarchies. The gnostic Christians of the early centuries of the Common Era rejected certain institutional doctrines and particularly the authority of the governing figures of the orthodox, or catholic (that is, universal), church. The orthodox bishops, deacons, and priests, who established their authority by claiming discipleship of the original apostles, condemned the Gnostics as heretics for deviating from orthodoxy by raising questions about whether God is a female as well as a male figure, whether the resurrection should be interpreted literally or symbolically, and whether martyrdom is a legitimate emulation of the passion.

    Pagels bases her book on research of several gnostic texts that were discovered in 1945 sealed in a jar buried near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Hidden probably to prevent their destruction by church censors, these texts comprise gospels other than the four that are canonized in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and which raise the questions mentioned above. Other, but few, gnostic texts had survived expurgation by the early orthodox church, but the Nag Hammadi texts represent the most concentrated body of gnostic works found to date. Pagels tries to identify a common ground among these texts that qualify them all as "gnostic," while acknowledging that gnosticism is not solely a Judeo-Christian offshoot, having some similarities to, and possibly roots in, Hindu and Buddhist teachings.

    "The Gnostic Gospels" is short but thorough, each chapter discussing a crucial topic that was a source of conflict between the gnostics and the orthodox clergy. Although in tone it defends gnosticism from the intolerance of the early church fathers, Pagels stresses that she does not champion gnosticism over traditional Christianity, but as a historian she is obligated to study the available evidence in the formation of the dominant religion of the West. In this context, her book serves to highlight an underservedly obscure phenomenon in our cultural history.
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  • Resurrection and the New Testament
    The Gnostic Gospels is mainly a summary of what the gnostics believed about various subjects, such as the resurrection of Jesus, salvation, martyrdom, and spiritual maturity. Throughout the book Pagels compares the gnostics with "the orthodox," whom she interprets as the catholic church in the late first and early second century. Pagels is well informed on the topic and an engaging writer. However, while Pagels claims to be interested in Christianity and not promoting one view over the other (p.150-151), the focus of her book and her conclusions indicate otherwise. Though her analysis of the gnostics is thorough, there are some problems with her interpretations of the New Testament writers.

    Her treatment of the resurrection of Christ is most critical. She is right to acknowledge that Christianity considers this to be "one unique historical moment" (p.3). Yet she portrays the New Testament writers as giving different views of Jesus' resurrection. In her opinion, some insist on a bodily resurrection while others indicate a "spirit" resurrection. This is simply not the case. The gospels and Paul emphasize the bodily resurrection throughout their writings.

    According to Pagels, Mark and Luke report that Jesus appeared "in another form," meaning something other than a human body. Luke 24:16 says that two disciples were kept from recognizing who Jesus was at first. But this does not prove that Jesus' appearance was something other than human, rather something was done to the disciples to keep them from truly seeing him. Later in the passage it says that "their eyes were opened and they recognized him" (24:31), not that Jesus' appearance changed. Only Mark uses the phrase "in another form" in a passage which does not appear in the earliest manuscripts. Mark 16:12-13 is a brief summary of the events Luke describes in more detail (Luke 24:13-35). Given these facts, it seems warranted to interpret Mark in light of Luke and not the other way around.

    She also uses the incident with Mary in John 20:11-17 as another example of a gospel writer describing something other than a bodily resurrection. Pagels states that Jesus commanded Mary not to touch him. However, the Revised Standard Version (which Pagels uses) does not say this. Jesus actually says, "Do not hold me," (New Revised reads, "Do not hold on to me"). She was clinging to him and Jesus was telling her to let go because he wanted her to report to the other disciples.

    Other passages Pagels sites are the two accounts of Paul's conversion recorded by Luke (Acts 9:3-9; Acts 22:6-11). "One could suggest that certain people, in moments of great emotional stress, suddenly felt that they experienced Jesus' presence. Paul's experience can be read this way" (p.6). But this does not make any sense for Paul. He was not under "great emotional stress;" the Christians he was hunting down and persecuting were the ones under stress. Paul was imprisoning the people who believed Jesus was the Son of God, so he had no predisposition to have hallucinations of Jesus.
    Pagels notes the apparent contradiction in the two passages mentioned above in reporting the incident with Paul. However, in both reports the men with Paul did not see a person as Paul did. As far as the voice, Acts 9 says that they "heard the voice" and in Acts 22 Paul says they "did not hear the voice of the one speaking to me." Acts 9 does not claim that they actually heard what was said to Paul, which is the point Paul is trying to make in Acts 22. Paul's companions heard and saw something indistinguishable, so they were not able to give testimony as to what or who it was. Paul's dramatic life change is best explained by the fact that he did encounter someone on the road to Damascus. Would Paul, a learned Jewish leader, be willing to be persecuted, imprisoned, ostracized, and executed for something he hallucinated or for a feeling of Jesus' presence?

    Finally, Pagels' treatment of Paul's writings on the resurrection greatly misrepresents his view. She intreprets Paul as contradicting himself within a few paragraphs. In 1 Corinthians 15 he both claims that there is a resurrection of the body and that the physical body is raised to a spiritual body. But he is not meaning that the resurrection is that of a disembodied soul when he uses the term "spiritual." This is clearer after reading 1 Corinthians 2 where Paul compares the natural man with the spiritual man. Here he is obviously not refering to one man with a body and one man without. The spiritual person is one who has been filled and enlivened by the Spirit of God (1 Cor.2:11-16). Therefore, when Paul says that Christians will have a spiritual body, it is not a contradiction in terms or a belief in a mere raising of the soul after death. Paul is meaning that the believer will experience a resurrection of a new kind of body; a body that is not prone to decay or death, but will be imperishable and enlivened by God's Spirit to the fullest. Many might disagree with Paul or the gospel writers concerning the resurrection of Jesus, but that does not imply that they did not believe what they wrote or that they were inconsistent in their beliefs.
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  • The Gnostic Gospels
    This is a well written book explaining the Gospel of Thomas as well as some of the other literature found at Nag Hammadi. It includes comparisons of the canonized books of the New Testament to those found in Nag Hammadi....more info
  • The Secret Gospels Introduced
    Elaine Pagels' "The Gnostic Gospels" is a heavy but readable introduction to the priceless Gnostic Christian texts discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. This short book introduces the reader to a more mystical and spiritual form of Christianity that was seen as threatening to the then-forming early church. The author's aim is twofold: to show how Gnostic Christianity interacted with early orthodox Christianity and what this interaction says about the origins of Christianity itself.

    Although the reading can be heavy and academic, it will prove fascinating for those seriously interested in Gnosticism and early Christianity. The Gnostic Gospels are presented largely through a gnostic vs. orthodox prism. Early Christian orthodoxy was based on an apostolic succession in--and unswerving subordination to--the church. Gnostics saw the process of reaching God as more independent and driven by individual spiritual awakening, or "fulfillment." Because of this they presented a direct political threat to the emerging orthodox Christian community and early church leaders labeled them heretics. Through the discussion of this prism the majority of the secret gospels are introduced and discussed.

    In conclusion the author offers her opinion that orthodoxy reached the masses more successfully due to its simple but effective organization and message. Orthodoxy kept the church simple while Gnostics required Buddha-like self-perfection and came off as more eccentric and elitist to the Christian laity. These questions still matter. Ms. Pagels, in this introduction, scratches the surface of these extraordinary texts and illustrates just how relevant and important they are today.
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  • Gnostic Gospels as it relates to Christianity
    Elaine Pagels, a religion professor, discusses the effects the Gnostic gospels have had on Christianity since their discovery in 1945. She explains the gospels view of the life and teachings of Jesus, which differs from that of the New Testament, and deliberates questions raised. Though a well-written book and worth reading, this book does not contain a translation of the Gnostic Gospels.
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  • The Gnostic Gospels
    If you're wondering what gnosticism is all about Pagels' book is a very clear and easy read. I would highly recommend it....more info
  • Walking with Jesus
    Elaine Pagels is a great author and I love learning anything I can about Jesus and his apostles. ...more info
  • Thought provoking
    A telling line that helps close out the book (page 147): "It is the winners who write history--their way." In December, 1945, an Arab peasant discovered ancient documents near the town of Nag Hammadi. These represent 52 texts of Gnostic works, such as the "Gospel of Thomas," the "Gospel of Philip," the "Gospel of Truth," and so on. The actual works were dated at 350-400 AD, with the likelihood that they were authored by 120-150 AD.

    Elaine Pagels does a very nice job of describing the historical context of these documents and the controversy that they engendered in the early Christian era. The early Church leaders worked as hard as they could to suppress and destroy these documents. And, indeed, there was much at stake, as Pagels discusses the matter. Early orthodox Christians denounced these texts as heresy.

    Among the central issues that divided orthodox Christians from Gnostics included:

    1. The resurrection of Jesus Christ: Orthodox Christians define it literally as arising from death; Gnostics had another perspective. Also, Christians defined the leaders of the church as the Apostles and their successors; Gnostics demurred.
    2. Orthodox Christians saw the church hierarchically--religious leaders and then the rank-and-file church members; Gnostics rejected a Church leadership interposed between God and the people.
    3. Orthodox Christians trended to denigrate women; Gnostics saw God as both male and female.
    4. And so on.

    Pagels notes that (page 147): ". . .the discoveries at Nag Hammadi reopen fundamental questions. They suggest that Christianity might have developed in very different directions. . . ."

    Whatever one might think about the specific points of the Gnostics themselves, Pagels' book does a fine job of outlining what the key differences were between Gnostics and Orthodox Christians. For those wanting to understand the issues at stake in the early differences within Christianity, this is an accessible text and well worth looking at.
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  • Informative
    Still reading this but it's very informative because it gives background and history which is different from the other Gnostic Gospels that I have. If you are searching for truth and are willing to open your mind to ALL possibilities, add this to your collection. My motto is, I am searching for the truth and I don't care what clothes it is wearing. Truth is Truth. If you agree, get this book and continue your search. This will help you....more info
  • Thought Provoking
    Elaine Pagels' excellent book titled "The Gnostic Gospels" is about the works of a Christian Coptic Sect discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. Although the Gnostic Gospels were compiled in 140 A.D., scholars say their traditions may be older than the gospels in the New Testament.
    It was interesting to read the manuscript with 118 sayings of Christ gathered by St. Thomas known as the Gospel of St. Thomas. Although many of Christ's sayings are already in the New Testament there is one big difference: Jesus emphasizes salvation through self-knowledge and faith. Salvation through self-knowledge and faith makes more sense to me as salvation without self-knowledge would make us vulnerable to manipulation while salvation without faith could lead grandiosity and isolation.
    "The Gnostic Gospels" invites the reader to deal with the old controversy-was the Bible divinely inspired or did it evolve at the hands of churchmen with various political, social and religious purposes? Why is the Gospel of St. Thomas not included, what constitutes being "divinely inspired" and is the Bible the only book God has written through humankind?
    Solomon Schepps wrote in "The Lost Books of the Bible" that the official Biblical text was completed by two major counsels, in North Africa in Hippo (Augustine Bishopric) in 393, and in Carthage in 397. He said that there had been great difficulty in choosing the Gospels and after much debate, only four were chosen. The Gospel of St. Thomas was rejected as it opened by saying the he who understands the words of Jesus will be saved which is in direct contradiction to the chosen Gospels and Paul's Epistles, which says he who believes will be saved. Schepps said all texts not adhering to the official viewpoint of the churchmen were denounced as heretical and destroyed.
    Pagels' and Schepps' books show what we identify as Christain tradition actually represents a small selection of sources. Thanks to them for the first time we can look at other early Christian writing and determine their value for ourselves.
    Also of interest is how the Gospel of St. Thomas elaborates on Jesus teachings in the Bible. For example, Jesus said in Luke, "For behold, the kingdom of God is within you," indicating to me that heaven is not a place but a state of being. In the Gospel of St. Thomas Jesus goes further and says, "See, if the Kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of heaven will be there before you." Also, "But the Kingdom is within you and it is outside you. The kingdom of the father is spread over the earth and men do not see it."
    Jesus' teachings in the Gnostic Gospels and the Bible are similar concerning how we treat our fellow man: Love your neighbor as yourself, judge not, love your enemies, bless them that curse you and turn the other cheek.
    The Gnostic Gospels makes us question even more how Jesus' message of love and forgiveness has been used to rationalize wars, witch-hunts, murders, and exploitation.
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  • A classic about Gnosticism
    This is a classic book about Gnosticism. First published in 1979 it was amongst the first major books on the subject without the "traditional" anti-Gnostic heresiological bias. Today, though, there are better books available on the subject. This book almost fails to make any notion of Gnosticism's relation to psychology....more info
  • The gnostic gospel
    'couse my first language is not english I encountered some difficulties in reading, but anyway is absolutely wonderful to discover all the truth the official Curch never told us....more info
  • Does Pagels Help Us Understand Ancient History? Where Pagels Ignores Propostitional Claims of Gnosticism and Christianity
    Elaine Pagels offers an interesting segue into the texts of Nag Hammandi and the value of her firsthand experience interpreting the texts is recognized. In her book The Gnostic Gospels Dr. Pagels highlights many important questions that those texts along with the New Testament texts give rise to such as "What role did the beliefs of the gnostic v. the orthodox Christians play in what is now seen as traditional Christianity?" "To what extent did preservation and/or legitimization of power play a role in what was viewed as orthodox teaching?" and "Did Jesus literally rise from the dead?" Yet upon reading her book Pagels falls disappointingly short of grappling with the veracity of the claims being made by both sides and also fails to illuminate the readers to the complex and unique facts relating to the origins of Christianity, such as the difficult to dispute empty tomb of Jesus. Within the content of this book Pagels had a unique opportunity to critique and evaluate afresh the propositions of two diverging worldviews but opted instead to downplay the notion that religious beliefs tend to propose a correlation with reality with direct implication.
    Dr. Pagels fixation with the political structures that legitimize power causes her cynicism towards any individual or institution that claims knowledge of truth to develop into a substantial bias against orthodox teaching and structures. Yet in fairness Pagels should turn the same cynicism towards Gnosticism which although has not been as influential and widespread as Christianity, within its own right claims to have the corner on the market of Truth. But in spite of this Pagels support seems to tend towards those whom she interprets as oppressed or silenced in some way. While I personally empathize with this concern, Pagels should adequately address the true context of the religious, social and political relationships by grounding the distinctions between the beliefs within their historical context. For example, if the resurrection was used chiefly to legitimize the authority of the apostles and those after them over a body of people what about the initial power struggle between the Jewish leaders and the earliest of believers regarding the physical resurrection of Christ? The Jewish leaders did not swiftly stamp out the early claims of an empty tomb by producing a body. Why not? Pagels does not address this in her book which clearly is significant in the interplay between the beliefs of the orthodox Christians and the Gnostics. Furthermore, there is more evidence which accumulates indicating that there was no body to be found in the tomb. However, wouldn't there have been a body to be produced if Jesus' appearances were merely spiritual apparitions or visions as the gnostics claim? Pagels does little to set a context for the empty tomb phenomenon. Also to understand the birth of Christianity we must understand why there was a sudden split of a swarm of men and women from their richly embedded Jewish religious heritage to follow a dead and buried Messiah figure (one of many to make the claim to Messiahship), most curious of all being the conversions of Saul of Tarsus and James, Jesus' brother. Furthermore, it is pertinent that it is not the case that Christians held any kind of structural power over the gnostics before Constantine and that Gnosticism is a rich tradition that precedes Christianity and therefore should be distinctively understood apart from the figure Jesus. Whatever merging of the two that is read in ancient texts is a syncretism of two belief systems. It would also be helpful for Pagels to contend with the unprecedented literary nature of the resurrection accounts in the four New Testament gospels. I would like to see Pagels openly wrestle with the resurrection of Jesus and the aftermath. Should, or better yet, is it possible that all views of the nature of Jesus' resurrection be valid? It is not possible of course. Questioning facts is a healthy, intellectual enterprise but to question without intention of finding concrete answers outside of ones own enlightened interpretive opinion is not intellectual but emotive and fickle anti-scholarship which in one sense characterizes Pagels' Gospels. Perhaps what the resurrection of Jesus means is up for debate but again the nature of Jesus' appearances is of propositional content.
    Again, in sidestepping dealing with propositional beliefs (that is beliefs that are held because they propose to be rooted in a reality that actually exists) Pagels does a disservice to the convictions of both the gnostics and the Christians who hold them. Yet Pagels comes from a line of historians who consider a literal view of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus pragmatic concerns for the immediate community and not propositions of factual content. To what extent do we see this interpretive bias influence this particular book? A frustration some readers will have with this book is that they would be better served reading the New Testament and Gnostic texts firsthand because ultimately Pagels makes no fulfilling analysis other than to say essentially "We now have more examples of beliefs of a particular period of time."
    Either Dr. Pagels is trying to get closer to truth about what actually took place or she is not. I of course grant that it is impossible to relive history in its complex internal and external entirety but certain facts can be understood. There is a great tension between what can be known and what will inevitably remain not fully known. But in order to not know certain things fully we must concede that there is something to in effect know first. Pagels cannot dance around forever about the appearances of Jesus. He lived. He died. He appeared after death. But what was the nature of his appearances? And of course, why? There is no other claim of history that mimics this. After conducting an investigation of claims of this particular nature I found claims of spiritual sightings or claims of spiritual ascensions to the heavens indicating divinity (apotheosis) but no claim that is even similar to what N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham names the "transphysical" bodily appearances of Jesus. It is not enough to say there were too many points of view.
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  • It's a fiction work, but selling itself as true.
    It's all fiction, and nothing from here is remotely true or can be proven, it's fiction, but when I bought this book, it was sold in the religion section of the library. Ba warned !...more info
  • Don't go there
    This book basically says the following: early Christianity was chaotic (period). Although it does provide some insight to the Nag Hammadi findings, it doesn't go where I hoped it would go. But it does tickle me to keep searching. When Pagel tries to summarize why orthodox christianity won over "gnostic" Christianity there isn't really any insight as to why -- other than the way she begins the conclusion: "It is the winners who write history -- their way."
    This book is academia pure. It's a shame because I was hoping to get a bit more spice out of it. Of course, Pagels does her job extremely well. I don't feel that she goes in the right direction though. I wish she would have taken a leap with her research. Instead, the way she writes, the way she formulates, the way she goes around in circles, I can't help but think she's trying to protect something. Like, maybe, her own faith.
    Ok. I came to this book via Holy Blood, Holy Grail (HBHG) and after that I read The Woman with the Alabaster Jar. It seems that HBHG was a pig in mud with it's conspiracy stuff, Alabaster was an interesting take on why men don't let the feminine in, but Gnostic just seems to hang in a void of... academia. After reading the previous two books I felt both inspired and informed.
    If you want a superficial and somewhat biased approach to the Nag Hammadi texts then this might be your book. If you want to know what is in those texts then, like me, it's probably best to read them. ...more info
  • Outstanding scholarly work
    Originally written nearly 30 years ago, this book remains a must-read on the subject. Elaine Pagels is a renowned scholar with a Harvard Ph.D. in religion. She directly studied and translated some of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in the early seventies. Her related research represents the foundation of this book. She later became a Princeton professor. She wrote several seminal books on Christianity. Her lifelong work has significantly advanced our knowledge of early Christianity.

    Each chapter focuses on a specific tenet of Christianity and stresses the differences between Gnostic and orthodox Christians. While the orthodox Christians believe in the physical reality of Jesus' resurrection, the immaculate conception of Jesus, and martyrdom; the Gnostic Christians interpret the resurrection in a spiritual way (not a literal one). They also do not believe in the Immaculate Conception. And, they reject martyrdom as a fanatical practice not reflecting Jesus' teachings.

    The Gnostic Christians don't believe in the orthodox Christians' hierarchy. Gnostic Christians believe each of us has direct access to God. And, that orthodox bishops and priests represent unwanted obstacles to this access. Additionally, Gnostic Christians do not exclude women as the sexes are equal in front of God. They even revere God as both the Father and the Mother. Also, they don't consider Mary Magdalene to be a woman of ill repute, but instead an equal if not a superior to the twelve apostles.

    For Gnostic Christians, the overarching factor is how much gnosis (knowledge) a believer has. This also entails wisdom and maturity. Gnosis is means knowledge based on empirical firsthand experience in Greek. It entails self-knowledge or "know thyself" a key concept in Greek philosophy (Aristotle, Plato, Socrates). For Gnostic Christian this concept is so important that knowing self ultimately leads to knowing God. Thus, there is no separation between God and the individual. This underlines the drastic difference between Gnostic and orthodox Christians. The author mentions that this concept leads to Gnosticism having a significant influence on modern Existentialism.

    Gnostic Christians also considered Jesus to be a spiritual guide more than a divine entity. The author indicates that other historians suggested this concept comes from Buddhism and that early Gnostic Christians may have likely been influenced by Buddhism. They support their arguments by the existing trade routes of the time that linked the relevant regions allowing for the mentioned exchange of spiritual concepts.

    Pagels advances that the orthodox Christians more concrete criteria to join their religion were at the essence of their success over their Gnostic counterparts. For a religion to be successful it needs more than ideas. It needs a strong organizational political structure that promotes its expansion based on principles readily understandable to newcomers. Orthodox Christianity had all these elements enhancing its prospective success. Gnosticism had ideas alone. Within two centuries, the Gnostic movement will have disappeared and orthodox Christianity will flourish presenting a fairly united front for over a millennium until Martin Luther in the 16th century. Oddly enough, Luther's Reformation would adopt certain of the Gnostics concepts including the deemphasizing of a religious hierarchy and implementing the more direct access between each individual and God.

    To this day the majority of Christian movements follow an orthodox Christian structure. Gnostic Christianity has entirely disappeared; But as mentioned some of its ideas have survived within eastern philosophies (Buddhism), classical Greek philosophy, and modern existentialism.

    This is a fascinating book on a subject with an extensive literature. If you like this book, I strongly recommend all the other books written by the same author. I also recommend books written by Michael Baigent. In particular, his latest book "The Jesus Papers" is excellent.
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  • Faith, hope, love, and knowledge
    The Gnostic Gospels was the first popular study of the religion called Gnosticism as seen in the collection of Coptic texts known as the Nag Hammadi Library. Pagels had been working with the texts throughout her graduate studies and translated a number of them for publication. Her thesis this book is a simple one: Every doctrine has a political implication as well as a theological meaning.

    Church historians have normally assumed that the early Christian church was a unified body that was then split by a number of divergent opinions and practices called "heresies". They have assumed this because theologians told them so. The early Church fathers wrote a great deal about the heresies of the Gnostics and other groups, denouncing them as prideful, blasphemous, licentious, and any other vice they could think of. What the texts from Nag Hammadi reveal is an opposite picture: An early church that consisted of a wide variety of movements, all interpreting life, message, and person of Jesus of Nazareth in different ways, that was gradually maneuvered politically into becoming a single unified body which confessed one creed, accepted one list of sacred texts as canonical, and submitted to the authority of one bishop.

    Pagels demonstrates that all of the chief issues over which the Gnostics and the Catholics/orthodox were divided had political implications. A masculine-only deity affirmed male-only authority figures; a monarchic One God authorized the monarchy of one bishop; whether Christ truly suffered in the flesh or not affected how one reacted to persecution and possible execution for one's faith. Pagels implies that the doctrines we now know as orthodox or catholic survived not because they were The Absolute Truth proclaimed by the Holy Spirit, but because they were the doctrines which tended to produce organized communities that would support one another and could weather persecution effectively. The Gnostics were more like the sort of people who meet in someone's living room to discuss Spiritual Matters over coffee and biscuits.

    Nevertheless, Pagels obviously has a good deal of sympathy with the Gnostics, and she conveys this sympathy to her reader. With the discovery of the texts at Nag Hammadi, all the old arguments of the second century C.E. have come back to be argued out again: Who's in charge of the Church? How do we know what Scriptures are the true Word of God? What is the role of women in the Church? What is the place of sexuality? This time around, our answers may be somewhat different....more info
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    Elaine Pagels understood her subject so well that she was able to pack into less than 200 pages what another capable author might have taken 500 pages to convey...and yet this book is readable and suitable for a lay reader.

    I've read it 3 times recently and still don't have my head wrapped around it. Even though its very clear, its even more thought provoking. Until I take notes of the parts that interest me and review them, I won't feel I've digested this work.

    This is not a pro-Gnostic work but it is a work that takes them seriously. Yet Pagels believes orthodox Christianity had to win in order that Christianity survive its early years. Yet she finds some elements of Gnostic Christianity attractive.

    Why didn't the Gnostic Christians reach out to the masses? Buddhism has Gnostic-like aspects but was able to contain both monks and lay people. Those Gnostics who understand the Creator not to be the real God would have trouble connecting with those who worshipped a Creator God. A Gnostic sense of superiority would hardly lead to good relationships with those without gnosis. Whereas Buddhist monks and laity had good relationships, Gnostics seemed to depend too much on an otherness from the masses. Exclusivity led to extinction.

    But Gnostic-like feelings persisted. The "Hermetica" from Alexandria survived destruction by being taken to Islamic territory, later to be introduced to Italy. The Rosicrucians captured much of the Gnostic temperament: Rosicrucian organizations persist to this day. Pagels describes the kind of person attracted to Gnosticism and if you have an inquiring mind and an inwardness , you may feel she is describing you. Gnosticism may have been influenced by Buddhism, but it has a decidedly Western style that may make Gnosticism and Rosicrucianism more agreeable to those baffled by Buddhism's non-theism.

    This book is well footnoted. The historical presentation is tight. As an astute observer, Pagels couldn't miss the peer role woman enjoyed among the Gnostics, a role in the clergy of some churches that is being similarly enjoyed by women today. One key part of this presentation is how large a part politics played in the formative years of Christianity. How Mary Magdalene's role as the first witness of the Resurrection was ignored so that that title could go to Peter remains baffling but highlights the danger of just believing. Pagels has produced an exceptional work which covers far more than I've alluded to here. You may rarely encounter scholarship so thorough yet so accessible. ...more info

 

 
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