The Gnostic Gospels

by Elaine Pagels

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2072

Adam appears with Eve in the Old Testament, in the Book of Genesis, in the Garden of Eden. He also appears in a number of the Nag Hammadi texts, such as the Testimony of Truth, as a character in versions of the creation story that vary from the one in Genesis.

al-Qummus Basiliyusi Abd al-Masih
Al-Qummus Basiliyusi Abd al-Masih was a priest who hid some of the Gnostic books for Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman. He gave one to the history teacher Raghib.

Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome in the second half of the second century. He has been described as an educated and erudite ruler, but Christians were still persecuted under his regime.
According to Pagels, he "despised the Christians as morbid and misguided exhibitionists.’’

Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria, a revered orthodox Christian scholar writing in Egypt around the last part of the second century, expressed many sympathies toward women and their role in religion. Some suspected that he was actually a Gnostic initiate.

Pope Clement, I
Clement I was Bishop of Rome and Pope between A.D. 90 and 100. His letters to the Christian community in Corinth offer an early example of a hierarchy forming within the church. In his letters he states that there is a difference between the clergy and the laity and that God delegates authority to ‘‘rulers and leaders on earth.’’ He also notes in his letters to the Corinthians that women should ‘‘remain in the rule of subjugation’’ to their husbands.

Constantine was the emperor of Rome in the first half of the fourth century. He was converted to orthodox Christianity. Soon, Christianity became the empire's official state religion, and the penalties for heresy "escalated," according to Pagels.

Eve appears with Adam in the story of the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament's Book of Genesis. She also appears in the varied creation stories in the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts. In Genesis, she is born from the rib of Adam, but in many of the Gnostic texts she is created by God separately from Adam.

George Fox
George Fox founded the Quaker Church in England during the 1600s. Pagels notes that he, like the ancient Christian Gnostics, rejected the church's authority and sought to find his own ‘‘inner light.’’

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud was a physician in Austria who developed the concept of psychoanalysis in the early part of the twentieth century. Pagels mentions him in the book because she sees many correlations between Gnostic efforts to understand the self and Freud's work on the unconscious.

Heracleon was a student of Valentinus in the middle of the second century and became a Gnostic teacher. He believed that Christians could confess their faith in two ways: before a magistrate and in the daily actions of their lives. He taught that Christians could understand their relationship with Jesus and God through self-reflection and did not necessarily need the guidance of the church.

Hippolytus was a Greek Christian teacher who lived in Rome at the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century. He wrote the Refutation of All Heresies in which he explains, among other things, the origin of the universe. Pagels notes that his "zeal for martyrdom ... was matched by his hatred of heresy.’’ In A.D. 235, the Roman emperor Maximin had him deported to Sardinia, where he died. Hippolytus objected to Callistus being named Pope and Bishop of Rome so much that he perpetrated numerous slanders about his character and separated himself from the church while Callistus was Pope.

Ignatius was the orthodox Bishop of Antioch in Syria until his death in A.D. 110. He declared that because there was only one God in heaven, there could be only one bishop for each church, and that the bishop stands in the place of God on Earth. Eventually, Roman officials condemned him to death for undermining Rome's civil authority. According to Pagels, he ‘‘accepted the death sentence with joyful exaltation'' and saw it as a way to imitate his God and Jesus.

Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp and became the orthodox Bishop of Lyons in France. He wrote a five-volume treatise against Gnosticism and heresy entitled The Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge. He believed that there could be no salvation outside the orthodox church and that the church must be united and universal. Irenaeus especially hated those who ‘‘outwardly acted like orthodox Christians, but who were privately members of Gnostic circles.’’ He was also particularly alarmed that women were attracted to Gnostic groups and allowed to participate fully. Pagels uses his words extensively throughout her book to underline accepted Christian orthodox beliefs.

Judas Iscariot
Judas Iscariot was one of Jesus' disciples. Iscariot committed suicide after betraying Jesus.

James was Jesus' brother and, eventually, a Christian martyr. Some early Christian traditions believed James to be the first witness of Jesus' resurrection. Gnostics refer to James's teachings as critical, and there are two Gnostic books that explore his ideas.

James (not Jesus' brother) was one of Jesus' disciples and was executed for his faith.

Jesus was a Jewish teacher in Palestine whose teachings launched Christianity. The early orthodox Christians believed that he was an actual historic figure who suffered and died on the cross as a human being and that he literally rose from the dead; many Gnostics believed that his resurrection was more a spiritual event than a literal one.

John was one of Jesus' disciples. The Gnostic Apocryphon of John purports to reveal Jesus' secret teachings to John.

Justin was a Platonic philosopher who converted to Christianity in the middle of the second century after witnessing the faith of persecuted Christians. He encouraged the Roman officials to be on guard against those who would use the charge of Christianity against anyone to settle a personal grudge. Eventually, he became a martyr for his faith.

Marcion was a Gnostic teacher who concluded that there must be two separate Gods because, as Pagels notes, two different divinities must have created a world in which both suffering and beauty are found. He appointed women as bishops and priests, upsetting the orthodox clergy, who often referred to Gnostics as Marcionites.

Marcus was a student of Valentinus and eventually became a Gnostic teacher. Irenaeus accused Marcus of holding meetings without the authority of a church bishop, violating many orthodox strictures, and seducing women so that they would follow him. Marcus's followers prayed to the divine Mother for insight and believed that God was composed of both masculine and feminine aspects.

Martha and her sister Mary (not Jesus' mother) were contemporaries of Jesus. The Carpocratians, a Gnostic group, claimed to have received secret teachings from Martha and Mary.

Mary was Jesus' mother. According to the early Christians, Jesus was born to Mary in a virgin birth, although most of the Gnostics ridiculed this notion.

Mary (not Jesus' mother) and her sister Martha were contemporaries of Jesus. The Carpocratians, a Gnostic group, claimed to have received secret teachings from Mary and Martha.

Mary Magdalen
Mary Magdalen, a contemporary of Jesus, is depicted in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary as someone who received visions and insights from Jesus. These visions and insights are said to surpass those of Peter. Some Gnostic traditions recognized Mary Magdalen as an apostle, and the Gnostic Gospel of Philip indicates that she had an intimate relationship with Jesus.

Matthew was a disciple of Jesus and was thought by the Gnostics to have received special secret teachings from him.

Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman
In 1945, Egyptian farmer Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman found the thirteen papyrus books that scholars later realized were a collection of primarily Gnostic Christian writings written between A.D. 120 and 150. He uncovered the clay jar containing the books while digging for a type of soft soil used for fertilizing crops and thought that the jars possibly contained gold. When he saw the books, he brought them home to his mother, who burned some of the pages in their oven. A few weeks later, Muhammad 'Ali and his brothers killed the suspected murderer of their father. Before the police came to investigate the crime, Muhammad 'Ali hid the books with a local priest, thinking that they might be valuable.

Nero was the Roman emperor in the middle of the first century and was infamous for his cruelty. He supposedly started numerous fires around Rome and blamed them on the Christians. He used these fires as an excuse to torture and kill large numbers of Christians in public arenas.

Paul was a Jew who lived at the time of Jesus and converted to Christianity after Jesus was crucified because of a dramatic incident in which he saw a blinding white light and a vision of Jesus. He preached and taught Christianity. Scholars disagree as to whether Paul, through his visions and insights, could claim a "secret wisdom'' about Jesus and God.

The New Testament gospels portray Peter as the leader among all the disciples of Jesus. Roman Empire officials eventually arrested Peter and put him to death.

Pontius Pilate
Pontius Pilate is the Roman official who tried Jesus and condemned him to death by crucifixion.

Plotinus was a Platonic philosopher who criticized Gnosticism for having no program to teach enlightenment and self-knowledge.

Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna and the orthodox Christian teacher of Irenaeus. He was burned alive in a public arena for professing Christianity.

Ptolemy was one of the leading Gnostic teachers. Roman officials put him to death for teaching Christianity.

Gilles Quispel
Gilles Quispel was a professor of religion in the Netherlands. In 1955, after hearing about the find at Nag Hammadi, Quispel flew to Cairo to investigate photocopies of the ancient documents. He also successfully encouraged the Jung Foundation to secure some of the Nag Hammadi texts in the 1950s.

Raghib was the Egyptian history teacher who received one of the Nag Hammadi books from the priest who hid them for Muhammad 'Ali. Realizing that they must have some value, Raghib sent the book to a friend in Cairo, who assisted in selling the text on the black market.

Salome was a contemporary of Jesus. The Gnostic group the Carpocratians claimed to have received secret teachings from her.

Simon Magus
Simon Magus was a Gnostic teacher who became cursed when he supposedly tried to buy the apostle Peter's spiritual power. Pagels describes him as ‘‘Peter's archenemy.’’

Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived in the last half of the first century and into the second century. Pagels refers to his accounts of Nero and the fires that almost destroyed Rome.

Tertullian, a ‘‘brilliantly talented writer’’ and orthodox Christian thinker living in the second century, ridiculed the Gnostics for their elaborate cosmologies. He considered insubordination of the bishops one of the greatest dangers facing the orthodox church. Tertullian rejected the idea of women as priests or bishops and stressed the differences between the clergy and the laity in the church. Tertullian also felt that martyrdom was a critical part of being a Christian. At the end of his life, he broke with the orthodox church and became a Montanist, part of a "radical prophetic circle'' that honored two women as its founders, according to Pagels.

Theodotus was a Gnostic teacher in Asia Minor during the middle of the second century. He was a Valentinian Gnostic and believed that his fellow members were part of a chosen race.

Thomas was one of Jesus' disciples. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Thomas indicates that
Jesus was not distinct from the rest of humanity and that both ‘‘received their being from the same place,’’ according to Pagels. Other Gnostic sources describe Thomas as one of Jesus' disciples who received a special teaching.

Judas Thomas
Judas Thomas was Jesus' twin brother according to one of the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi. Some sources claim that he wrote the Gnostic text Thomas the Contender.

The Egyptian Valentinus was a poet and one of the most respected Gnostic teachers in the second century. He claimed to have received Paul's secret teachings through one of Paul's disciples. The followers of Valentinus, the Valentinians, were a moderate Gnostic group, and some orthodox leaders complained that many Christians could not see the difference between Valentinianism and orthodoxy.

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