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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.
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on April 17, 2000
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. Pagels work also succinctly shows the interaction between the two forms of Christianity and challenges the reader to explore the very meanings of the movements on the Christian tradition of today. The essence of the book reveals that the survival of the Christian tradition was dependent on the organizational and theological structure of the emerging church and that the emergence of the religious hierarchical structure of the church seemed to mirror the difficult times of the growing social and political forces of the governing body of that time. Furthermore, the movement to institutionalize Christianity, created a leadership structure that consisted of a small band of persons (bishop and priests) who stood in a position of incontestable authority to define how individuals could know God. Pagels postulates that mounting alienation from the world in which the individuals lived combined with a longing for a miraculous salvation as an escape from the constraints of political and social existence of the time, gave the necessary strength and power to create the burgeoning orthodox Christian church. A shortcoming of the book concerns Pagels personal indifference in the final chapter of the very core truths of Gnosticism that she so vividly and explicitly sought to describe in her book. Certainly, Pagels gave a strong voice of support for the movement in terms of it's early beginnings with orthodox Christians and it's impact on Christianity today. Surprisingly, however, she chose to leave the reader hanging by failing to embrace the concepts of Gnosticism that she asked the reader to re-visit regarding some of the major debates surrounding issues of religious authority and God. Despite this shortcoming, the author highly recommends Pagels engaging, richly evocative, well-written, historical text that introduces the amazingly paradoxical development of the early Christian movement.
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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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on June 8, 1997
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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on May 23, 2003
I disagree with the previous reviewer who stated this is only speculation. The author does a good job of documenting her sources. Whether it's true or not I cannot say but it is not pure speculation.
She doesn't go into depth about Gnostic spirituality or mythology but explains the basic Gnostic orientation towards the teachings of Jesus. The orientation she describes is one that encourages individuals to attain knowledge for themselves rather than rely on the authority of the church.
This book might be offensive to traditional Christians and is probably the reason for some of the more unfavorable reviews.
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on November 17, 2002
This book was not quite what I thought it would be however it was still very good. I was hoping for a printing of the Gnostic Gospels themselves. But what I got was a study of The Gnostic Religion versus the Roman Catholic Church and other orthodox Christian sects. Offering compelling information on the differences of their beliefs in the writings of The New Testament.
The book also explains what Gnosis is, is God male or female? Is there more than one God, proven in the Bible? It talks of how the two Christian Churches were formed in the beginning and how and why the present version won out. Also of interest is a chapter on the Christians suffering under the Roman Empire.
This book was thought provoking and kept my interest throughout. It touched on a lot of subjects for such a short project. While I don't think this book should be considered the final word on any debate about Christianity or the Gnostic Religion I believe that it certainly should be on any list when it comes to understanding Gnostics.
Read with an open mind and this book will lead you down paths you had not considered. Explain an alternate way to read some of the versus in the Bible. Talk of recently found teachings from the days of Jesus and before. Don't miss this one.
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on March 18, 2004
For a long time I, like many others I imagine, had the thought that if we could only know what the earliest Jesus followers believed and how they worshiped, we could peel away the layers upon layers of later interpretation and get to something like original beliefs and worship. In this book Elaine Pagels does a wonderful job of showing that it was never that simple. The discoveries of the Nag Hammadi texts and other early writing (which would make the Indiana Jones movies seem tame) show that there was never a consensus about any of what seems from our later perspective to be basic questions. Was Jeus human, divine or both? Is there only one God or are there two or more? Did Jesus rise form the dead physically or did his followers later experience a sense of him being present that was almost palpable? Early church fathers - and mothers too answered the questions in every way imaginable. True believers provided contradictory answers even within the primary organized church. Irenaeus and other developed orthodoxy, i.e. "straight thinking" to correct the heresy of others. When the early Jesus followers were not bein persecuted by the state, they were busy persecuting each other. Pagels suggests that there was a long conflict between self discovery and personal experience as a way to understand God versus investing canonical texts as the "true religion" and the definitive answer to all questions. (Of course there are contradictions between the four gospels and the letters of Paul, but that is another book.) The history of religious convictions and political wrangling that resulted in orthodoxy is fascinating. The author also gives us an outline of the richness of thought, belief and practice that existed in early churches. I suspect the conflicts described are still in play and to understand where we are it helps to review how we got here. This is a very readble and thought-provoking book for non-scholars.
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on May 3, 2005
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.
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on May 5, 2005
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.
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on December 8, 1998
The Gnostic Gospels is a truly mind-liberating, eye-opening piece of historical analysis that I would recommend to anyone, especially those from a "Christian" background. It addresses the fact that our knowledge of modern Christianity is based on four gospels in the New Testament that lay the foundations for Christian doctrine, i.e., that Jesus' resurrection be understood literally, that the Trinity consists of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and that one is "originally" sinful and must accept Jesus as his/her savior. This modern doctrine, in my opinion, leads to self-denial and an "easy way out"- overly simply explanations which lead to close-mindedness. In my experience, mass religion has little value- it is one's personal philosophy and individual spiritual development that I think is essential for one to be truly religious and spiritually alive. For this reason the Gnostic Gospels struck me profoundly. It revealed the fact that these four Gospels (selected by the orthodox church to institute this religion) were among SCORES of gospels about Jesus' teachings, some of which are very likely to be more historically accurate than those found in the Bible. This alternative philosophy and teaching of Jesus encourages bringing out one's true self and coming to know oneself in order to get close to God. It speaks of God as both masculine and feminine. In a sense it resembles Buddhism. More importantly, I believe these gnostic texts (which weren't discovered until 1945 in Egypt) contain a truer, more meaningful message that can be applied to an individual's life. This book has reconciled me with Christianity, for I agree with - and try to learn from - many of the Gnostic teachings. Unfortunately, as these teachings encourage one to ask questions and go one's own way (rather than blindly accepting what society preaches), it was impossible for the church to institutionalize Christianity without selecting only certain, "easy answer" texts which allowed the church to legitimize the Bishops' authority over people. Above all, Pagels's study demands that we reconsider our interpretation of history and realize that what we know of as "Christianity" remains very limited. Anyone even slightly interested in religion should read The Gnostic Gospels; its uncommon ability to help us de-provincialize ourselves requires only one essential tool: an open mind.
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