Pagels begins her book by describing how, in 1945, an Egyptian peasant, Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman accidentally discovered an earthenware jar containing thirteen papyrus books. These texts were later found to include four gospels that offer accounts of Jesus and his times that are strikingly different from the stories in the New Testament. Included in the discovery at Nag Hammadi are texts purportedly written by Jesus' followers, such as the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Truth. Experts have estimated that the texts were written between A.D. 120 and 150.
The books express ideas about Christianity that were considered heretical in the middle of the second century. Evidence shows that the texts were hidden, as the possession of heretical books was considered a crime in the second century, and the orthodox authorities destroyed any texts they found.
While the books refer to the Old and New Testaments and include many of the same key figures as the New Testament, the Gnostic Christians (from the Greek term gnosis, meaning "knowing’’) who wrote and followed the teachings in these books believed in a religion dramatically different from the orthodox Christianity and Judaism of that period. For example, orthodox believers understood that"a chasm separates humanity from its creator.’’ Gnostics, on the other hand, believed that"self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are...
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