The Gnostic Gospels (Magill's Literary Annual 1980)
Digging for “sabakh,” a soft soil used in Upper Egypt for fertilizer, an obscure Arab peasant uncovered in 1945, near the village of Nag Hammadi, a large reddish earthenware jar. With his mattock he smashed the top of the jar to discover inside thirteen papyrus books bound in leather. Some of the outer leaves of these books were later carelessly burned, but the bulk of the manuscripts was eventually sold to antiquities dealers, smuggled out of Egypt, or retained by the Egyptian government and placed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Following more than thirty years of controversy among scholars, museums, and universities over the property and publication rights to these documents, the American scholar J. M. Robinson finally published in 1977 a complete edition of The Nag Hammadi Library. Although philologists are still vigorously laboring over many unresolved problems in dating, reconstructing, and evaluating the texts, the work as a whole is now available to scholars and general readers alike. Identified as Gnostic writings from the first three centuries of the Christian era, the Nag Hammadi manuscripts consist of fifty-two texts that are without question the most significant archaeological discovery of our time. Like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have made possible a convincing reconstruction of first century Zadokite Judaism and have revealed links to Christian origins, the Gnostic Writings, or “gospels,” have been hailed as primary...
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Christianity in the Second Century
Jerusalem in Palestine served as the originating center of Christianity (until the Roman army destroyed the city around A.D. 70), and the new religion spread from the city to outposts around the Mediterranean region and the rest of the Roman Empire. Up until the second century, its main practitioners were Jews who saw Christianity as part of what God had promised in the Old Testament. By the middle of the second century, orthodox Christian communities began to function under very specific hierarchies with bishops assuming authority.
Gnostic Christians claimed to have secret knowledge about God and spirituality that separated them from orthodox Christians. The philosophical elements in Gnosticism came from a wide array of sources, including Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greek religions as well as Judaism and Christianity. Orthodox Christians considered Gnostics heretics for a number of reasons, including the Gnostic interpretation of the Bible, the rejection of church hierarchy, and the insistence that knowledge of God can come from within and does not rely upon intervention from the church. Unlike orthodox Christians, Gnostics were very particular about whom they allowed into their groups, requiring that a member show evidence of religious maturity, holiness, and a deep understanding of the secret teachings. There was no central organization for Gnosticism, but teachers such as Valentinus and Marcion...
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Compare and Contrast
Second Century A.D.: The Roman Empire includes much of Europe and other territories and has successfully assimilated people from numerous cultures, many of which have a their own local language.
Today: There are numerous different languages spoken in Europe, and most students are taught at least one foreign language in addition to their national language. The European Union is in the process of regulating trade by introducing the euro as the standard form of currency for most of Europe.
Second Century A.D.: While aristocratic women in the Roman Empire can influence politics through their husbands or sons, they cannot hold political office.
Today: Women hold many positions in the parliaments of Europe. For example, Italy's ministers for Equal Opportunity and Education are both women, and 18 percent of the members of the British Parliament are women.
Second Century A.D.: Christians in the Roman Empire are a small minority, persecuted and tortured for refusing to participate in the religious practices of Roman pantheistic religions and the emperor cult.
Today: Christianity is the most common religion in Europe, with about 80 percent of the continent's population calling themselves Christians.
Second Century A.D.: Christians bury their dead in underground catacombs decorated with beautiful wall paintings. These are also places of refuge for persecuted...
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Topics for Further Study
Pagels argues in The Gnostic Gospels that one of the primary reasons orthodox Christianity survived and flourished over the past two thousand years is because of its structure and organization. Write a short essay explaining why you agree or disagree with her thesis, using specific examples from her book and other sources. If you disagree with her argument, offer your own reason why you think Gnostic Christianity did not last more than a few hundred years and orthodox Christianity did.
Investigate the rulers of the Roman Empire during the second century. What were their policies about Christians? Did they actively seek out Christians to persecute or did they tolerate Christians? Create a timeline of that century showing all of the emperors and add pertinent information about how they dealt with Christians.
Pagels discusses how women were involved in Christianity during the second century. Research the role of women in all aspects of life during the Roman Empire, focusing on the first through third centuries. What kinds of rights did women have? Were their roles and rights dependent upon other factors, such as social or economic status? Write a short essay on women during this period in the Roman Empire, touching on whether their social and political status was related to their religious activities.
Different groups of people living under the Roman Empire practiced many religions other than Judaism and Christianity....
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What Do I Read Next?
Richard Elliott Friedman's 1997 account in Who Wrote the Bible?? focuses on the first five Old Testament books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Friedman looks to biblical and archaeological evidence to discover who authored these immensely important documents and offers the reader a sense of what life was like thousands of years ago.
The six volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were originally published between 1776 and 1788. In this historical standard, author Edward Gibbon writes a literary-style narrative that begins with the second century A.D. and ends with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, by Burton L. Mack, is a collection of Jesus' sayings, proverbs, aphorisms, and parables—what many believe to be a "lost gospel'' written by one or more of his followers. Mack's 1994 book is his own translation of this material that portrays Jesus to be more of a Jewish Socrates than a Christ.
Elaine Pagels's most recent book The Origin of Satan: The New Testament Origins of Christianity's Demonization of Jews, Pagans, and Heretics (1995) offers an interpretation of Satan's historical role in Christianity. The book looks at the dark side of Christianity and how irrational hatreds continue to plague Christians and non-Christians.
Robert A. Segal has pulled together a collection of C. G. Jung's...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bloom, Harold, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Simon & Schuster, 1992, pp.11–49.
Brown, Raymond E., ‘‘The Christians Who Lost Out,’’ in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 85, January 20,1980, pp. 3,33.
Chadwick, Henry,"The Paths of Heresy,'' in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4017, March 21, 1990, p. 309.
Crisler, B. Cobbey, ‘‘Gnostic 'Books,'’’ in the Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1979, p. B6.
Jenkins, Philip, ‘‘Hiding and Seeking,’’ in Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 7.
Maccoby, Hyam, "Counter-Church," in Commentary, Vol. 69, No. 6, June, 1980, pp. 86-88.
McVey, Kathleen, ‘‘Gnosticism, Feminism, and Elaine Pagels,’’ in Theology Today, Vol. 37, No. 4, January 1981, pp. 498-501.
Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Random House, 1979, pp. xi-xix, xxxvi, 69, 142, 149, 150, 151.
Rudolph, Kurt, ‘‘The Heresiological Literature and the Older History of Research,’’ in Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, HarperCollins, 1984, p. 15.
----, ‘‘Presuppositions and Causes: The Problem of Ori gins,’’ in Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, Harper Collins, 1984, p. 291.
Schuessler, Jenny, ‘‘No Sympathy...
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