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A provocative, insightful look at the early Christian church
on December 23, 2003
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. I think she tends to overemphasize the sociopolitical implications of Gnosticism, yet her arguments are certainly sensible and enlightening. One of the problems with Gnosticism as a movement was the disagreement among many so-called Gnostics on a number of issues. In terms of Gnosticism as a whole, however, one can point to a number of thoughts and ideas that ably represent the whole. Gnostics basically saw their faith as an internal thing, a practice based on the secret knowledge Jesus supposedly shared with a select number of individuals, one of whom was Mary Magdalene. Gnostics attracted women in particular because most Gnostics viewed everyone as equal and allowed for the participation of women in any sacred act. The orthodox, arguing that the disciples were men and thus the church held no leadership positions for women, opposed the teachings on these grounds. Gnostics basically believed that one found Christ in oneself; inner visions were the trademarks of true Gnostics. To the orthodox church founded on the basis of Peter's succession as the head of the church, Gnostics thus placed themselves not only on the same footing as the apostles but above even the Twelve. They tried to answer their own questions as to how Christ could be both human and divine, and many of them came to view Christ as a spiritual being who only appeared to suffer and die. Many also interpreted the virgin birth in spiritual rather than human terms. To the orthodox Christians, this was blasphemy, for the church as we know it is basically built on the faith and belief that God's son took on a human form and died in the literal sense on the Cross in order to conquer Death and save all of his followers. Some Gnostics came to believe that the Creator was not God but a demiurge who falsely declared there was no other God but him. Thus, orthodox Christians were seen as following a false god out of ignorance, a charge that did not set well with orthodox Christians. The orthodox beliefs on the subject of resurrection legitimized a hierarchy of persons through whose authority all others must approach God. Gnostic teachings were thus seen as subversive of this social order by offering direct access to God outside of the priests and bishops of the orthodox church.
A true discussion of Gnostic beliefs would take many pages to even begin, and Pagels has jam packed a relatively short book with much information along those lines. Her contrast between the two competing forms of early Christianity clearly explains how and why the orthodox church worked so vehemently to stamp out the heretical Gnostic acolytes. I am of the opinion that Gnosticism would have died out of its own accord had it not been declared heretical; its followers basically practiced a deeply personal and largely unorganized form of worship that excluded the masses. The early church needed organization in order to survive, especially during the times of awful persecution we find in the centuries after Christ's death. This is a deeply provocative book indeed, addressing a subject I will continue to investigate. As a Christian of fundamentalist Southern Baptist persuasion, I will add that nothing I read here posed any threat to my current beliefs or faith. Those Christians who fear the influence of a different type of Christianity should not avoid this book or others like it out of fear; instead, such individuals should test their faith by reading this provocative material because one's faith can actually be strengthened rather than weakened by such endeavors.