Elaine Pagels wrote The Gnostic Gospels after working as part of an international team dedicated to studying and translating into English the ancient Gnostic books found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These texts, which date from about A.D. 120 to 150, are considered by many religious experts to be as important a discovery as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Gnostics were early Christians whose beliefs and practices put them at odds with orthodox Christianity. In fact, orthodox Christian church leaders considered the Gnostics to be heretics and made a concerted effort after the second century to destroy Gnostic writings.

Pagels argues in her 1979 book that the primary dispute between the orthodox Christians and the Gnostics was not necessarily theological but centered on the Gnostics' refusal to accept the hierarchy and authority of the church as an institution. Gnostics emphasized an individual's relationship with God and believed that self-knowledge was the key to understanding God. This concept undermined the authority and power of the orthodox church. The Gnostics also rejected the literal death and resurrection of Jesus, through which, Pagels argues, the orthodox church found its authority. As well, the orthodox church embraced nearly anyone who would profess faith in Christ, participate in the church's rituals, and recognize the church's authority; the Gnostics required a member to display signs of spiritual maturity and holiness, and, often, to undergo difficult and time-consuming initiations.

According to Pagels, the orthodox church's hierarchical structure and wide-spread acceptance helped it to surpass Gnosticism and remain a powerful force for many centuries.

Pagels uses many passages from the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi and elsewhere as well as the New Testament. Her goal in writing the book, according to the first chapter, was to give the layman an understanding of how many of the controversies underlying early Christianity are still relevant for discussions today.

The Gnostic Gospels Summary

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 identical.’’ In another example, the New Testament Jesus speaks of sin and repentance, while the Gnostic Jesus speaks of ‘‘illusion and enlightenment,’’ according to Pagels.

Pagels also describes how the rediscovered Gnostic texts were illegally sold to various parties on the black market and how personal rivalries and complicated litigation prevented the general public and scholars from examining their contents. Pagels's stated intention in writing this book is to examine why the Gnostic form of Christianity was discarded in favor of the version that survived.

Chapter 1: The Controversy over Christ's Resurrection: Historical Event or Symbol?
In the first chapter, Pagels examines the story of Christ's resurrection and how the Gnostic and orthodox versions differ. The orthodox Christian authorities adopted the literal view of the resurrection, while the Gnostic texts reveal a more symbolic interpretation, claiming that those who experienced Christ's resurrection did so in a spiritual rather than a physical manner.

Pagels notes, however, that the New Testament includes interpretations of the resurrection similar to the Gnostic view. She argues that one of Jesus' followers, Paul, experienced the resurrection in this fashion and describes the event as a mystery and "the transformation from physical to spiritual existence.’’ Ultimately, Pagels believes, the"doctrine of body resurrection serves an essential political function" in that only those men who claimed to have witnessed Christ's bodily resurrection ‘‘exercise exclusive leadership over the churches as the successors of the apostle Peter.'' Orthodox teaching on the resurrection gave ecclesiastic authority to a limited group of men through whose leadership successive leaders would emerge, limiting the routes and approaches to God.

Chapter 2: ‘‘One God, One Bishop’’: The Politics of Monotheism
In this chapter, Pagels examines how the orthodox Christian doctrine of monotheism set the stage for the adoption of church hierarchy, in which the laity is at the bottom and a ‘‘sole leader’’ rules and makes final judgments.

In the Nag Hammadi books, poet and Gnostic teacher Valentinus wrote of a God of "oneness." Privately, though, Valentinus's followers asserted that God was more than the image of a creator, master, and ruler—he was "understood as the ultimate source of all being,’’ according to Pagels. This concept was heretical because it challenged the governance of the church by ‘‘one bishop.’’ Clement, the Bishop of Rome between about A.D. 90 and 100, addressed a crisis of leadership in the Corinthian Christian community by stating that God delegates his authority only to church leaders— bishops, priests, and deacons. Ignatius, a bishop writing a generation later, argued that these...

(The entire section is 1764 words.)