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The Gnostic Gospels Hardcover – November 12, 1979

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The Gnostic Gospels + The Nag Hammadi Scriptures: The Revised and Updated Translation of Sacred Gnostic Texts Complete in One Volume
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 183 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (November 12, 1979)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394502787
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394502786
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (337 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #73,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

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 --This text refers to the Paperback edition.


"The first major and eminently readable book on gnosticism benefiting from the discovery in 1945 of a collection of Gnostic Christian texts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt." --The New York Times Book Review

From the Trade Paperback edition.

More About the Author

After receiving her doctorate from Harvard University in 1970, Elaine Pagels taught at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she chaired the department of religion. She is now the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. Professor Pagels is the author of several books on religious subjects and was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1981. She lives and teaches in Princeton, New Jersey.

Customer Reviews

If you're wondering what gnosticism is all about Pagels' book is a very clear and easy read.
Tommie Tucker
The scholarship and research is evident, and yet it is clearly written so that any interested person can enjoy it without being burdened by the jargon of academia.
Joseph H Pierre
The book provides insights into the history of the early Christian church as well as the philosophical differences between the "orthodox" and "gnostic" Christians.
Howard Rankin

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

802 of 837 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Jolley HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 23, 2003
Format: Paperback
Noted historian of the early church Elaine Pagels has produced a clear, cogent, and very effective introduction to the subject of Gnosticism, a different form of Christianity that was declared heretical and virtually stamped out by the orthodox church by the start of the second century after Christ. Most of what we knew of the Gnostic belief system came from the religious authors who worked so hard to destroy the movement, but that changed drastically with the still relatively recent discovery of a number of lost Gnostic writings near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, this momentous discovery of ancient papyri has received little attention, and I must admit I went into this book knowing virtually nothing about Gnosticism. As an historian by training and a Christian, the information in these "heretical" texts intrigue me, and I believe that Christians should challenge their faith by examining material that does not fall in line with accepted beliefs. I should note that Pagels does not attempt to summarize or examine in detail the Gnostic Gospels in and of themselves; her particular focus here is the way in which Gnosticism affected the rise of the orthodox church that declared the Gnostics heretics. Still, she presents a great deal of information on many of the newly discovered texts and inarguably shows that the Christian church was founded in a society espousing a number of contradictory viewpoints.
Pagels does a good job of presenting the context in which the early Christians lived and eventually argued against one another. The debate was seemingly one over spiritual authority, and social and political issues played a part alongside purely religious disagreements between different factions.
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200 of 212 people found the following review helpful By Anna Reber-Frantz on April 17, 2000
Format: Paperback
The book, The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels presents an easy-reading historical document that reveals the fundamental and theoretical similarities and differences of gnostic and orthodox Christians of the early Christian movement. According to Pagels, the finding of the 52 Coptic texts at Nad Hammadi in 1945, has seemingly shifted our very thoughts about Christianity as a traditional religious movement. Interpretation of the gospels reveals that historically, various diverse forms of Christianity flourished during Christianity's early formative years. Probably the single most threatening movement of the time was a group known as the Gnostics who formed from a variety of sources and traditions and who were often referred to as a heretical movement by the Christian church forefathers. The strength of Pagels work shows that although Gnostic and orthodox Christians believed in God and the value of sharing a relationship with God, they differed greatly in their approach to knowing and understanding God. Gnostics believed that one could know God by gaining insight into oneself, and that by knowing oneself, one might understand human nature and destiny. In general, Gnostics maintained an equality amongst individuals and established no fixed orders of clergy. They allowed all individuals to seek to know God through their own experience and to achieve personal enlightenment through rigorous spiritual discipline and self-discovery. Unlike the Gnostics, the Christian church developed as a religious structure to encourage social interaction amongst individuals and required only that individuals accept the simplest essentials of faith and a variety of celebrated church rituals.Read more ›
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146 of 156 people found the following review helpful By Alex Nichols, author of Shadow Rock on November 24, 2002
Format: Paperback
Elaine Pagels is a first-rate religious historian-- currently a professor at Princeton-- and "The Gnostic Gospels" is her best known work, examining the contents of "secret" gospels written after the death of Jesus which were rejected from canonization and therefore are largely unknown to Bible-reading Christians.
What is most interesting to consider is just how different Christianity might be today if additional writings had been included in the Bible. One theory as to why they weren't was that early bishops wanted only gospels written by Jesus's apostles included in the Bible, although subsequent scholarship has proven that none of the Gospels' authorship is certain. Among the rejected, the Gospel of Thomas is probably the best known, and it is fascinating in its non-literal approach to Christ. Jesus is described as telling his followers that the Kingdom of God is not a realm (Pagels concludes that it is closer to an altered state of consciousness) and makes comments that place him closer in philosophy to the Buddha than to St. Paul.
A lot is covered in just 180 pages -- Pagels gets credit for being among the least self-indulgent writers around. She lays down the facts and then lets the reader mull over them. No matter what your beliefs, you will benefit from reading this book.
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179 of 197 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 8, 1997
Format: Paperback
Christianity has shaped Western civilization much more than we care to believe in these agnostic times. Some of our most basic ways of thinking can be traced back to those chaotic years in the first few centuries of our era when people were trying to form a systematic theology from the teachings of Jesus. The Biblical canon had not yet been formed, and what we now call orthodoxy was just one of many systems. Among the different interpretations in this ferment were those called Gnostic, and I have long tried to understand exactly what Gnosis was. I found Dr. Pagels' short book to be a masterwork of clear and concise scholarly thinking. Gnosis was not so much a doctrine but a way of doing religion that emphasized a very individualistic approach to God, propagated by close mentor-student training. Gnostics tended to exclusive and restricted to intellectuals and ascetics. This was in opposition to the more 'mainstream' church, which wanted to be universal and inclusive, with a well-defined hierachy of priests and bishops. Thus, the struggle was sociological and political as much as it was religious. I have read through Dr. Pagels' work several times, and it is among the best books I have come across on any subject
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