The Gnostic Gospels

by Elaine Pagels

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How Pagels Shifts Her Descriptions of Gnosticism Based on Images of Elitism

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Numerous critics have noted that throughout Pagels's book The Gnostic Gospels her intentions are clear— that the reader should come away with a primarily positive impression of how Gnostic Christianity actively involved women in important religious roles and stood as a bulwark against a rising tide of conventional thought as embodied in orthodox Christianity. Hyman Maccoby, writing in Commentary, argues that Pagels wishes for her readers to appreciate Gnostics for "the spontaneity and inwardness of their religious approach,’’ as well as for their "pro-feminist" leanings. Writing for The New York Times Book Review, Raymond E. Brown charges Pagels with leading a rooting section for the Gnostics with futile wishes that ‘‘the narrow-minded orthodox had not won.’’ Indeed, Pagels focuses on drawing flattering comparisons between the Gnostic philosophy and modern lines of thought found in democracy, liberalism, libertarianism, anti-authoritarianism, and even psychotherapy—schools of thought with which her modern readers can identify.

Pagels seems entranced by a romanticized yet almost modern image of the Gnostics throughout most of the book. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to examining how Gnostics incorporated women in their religious images and activities, and Pagels lauds the Gnostics for their independence in such matters. The chapter on the question of Christ's resurrection presents the Gnostics as flexible in their beliefs versus the rigid literalists on the orthodox side. Her book appears to speed along with hardly a disapproving word about Gnostic theology and practice until the book's conclusion, where she offers a surprise disclaimer of her enthusiasm for Gnosticism: "That I have devoted so much of this discussion to gnosticism . .. does not mean that I advocate going back to gnosticism—much less that I 'side with it' against orthodox Christianity.’’ This idea is repeated and expanded upon when, after nearly two hundred pages of casting Gnosticism in a relatively positive light, Pagels states that modern men and women ‘‘owe the survival of the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine I, who made Christianity the Roman Empire's official religion tradition’’ to the successes of the early orthodox church over the Gnostic church and that"anyone as powerfully attracted to Christianity as I am will regard that as a major achievement.’’ This is a woman who cheers Gnosticism throughout her book but then is obviously happy that Gnosticism did not win its struggle against orthodoxy. Is there something that Pagels does object to in Gnosticism? The answer is yes, and it appears when Pagels wrestles with the Gnostics' choice of elitism over egalitarianism.

While many critics simply assume that Pagels has made some kind of huge mistake in her book, failing to think clearly about the message she is sending until the book's conclusion, there may be a kinder way to interpret her exploration of Gnosticism. A close reading will show that the book's tone abruptly shifts close to the end, beginning with the fifth chapter, entitled Whose Church Is the ‘‘True Church?’’ When Pagels sees the Gnostics in the unflattering light of elitism, she begins to see that, as Kathleen McVey writes in Theology Today, "heresy and feminism were not such good bedfellows.''

Before that chapter, Pagels is involved in presenting Gnosticism primarily in a positive light as compared with orthodox Christianity, especially on the subject of women. For example, in the chapter about the role of the feminine in the Gnostic church, Pagels observes that, in contrast to many Gnostic groups, the second century orthodox Christians turned their backs on years of "remarkable openness toward women'' when they denied women any level of equality with men. Tertullian, a well-regarded orthodox thinker writing in the second...

(This entire section contains 1829 words.)

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century, exclaimed in horror when he discovered that Gnostics were allowing women to participate fully in the church's rituals. Pagels quotes him as condemning ‘‘these heretical women... [who] are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures,... even to baptize!''

On the other hand, many (but not all) Christian Gnostics, according to Pagels, considered women as men's equals and allowed them to function even as bishops. This decision may have come from two sources, one theological and another more practical.

On the theological side, a variously described but consistently present "divine Mother'' appears throughout the Nag Hammadi texts. Pagels characterizes these feminine depictions of God in three ways. First, the divine Mother is ‘‘part of the original couple,’’ making God a being with both a feminine and masculine side. "This may be akin to the Eastern view of yin and yang but remains alien to orthodox Judaism and Christianity,’’ she suggests. The second Gnostic characterization of the divine Mother as the ‘‘Holy Spirit’’ creates an alternate version of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Mother. Pagels notes that the Secret Book, one of the texts found at Nag Hammadi, uses the feminine Hebrew term, ruah, to describe the Holy Spirit. The third characterization of the divine Mother is that of Wisdom, considered a feminine power among many Gnostics, according to Pagels. Followers of the two Gnostic teachers Valentinus and Marcus prayed to the divine Mother as "incorruptible Wisdom'' and through her received gnosis, the essential knowledge required to become a full-fledged Gnostic.

The more practical reason for the Gnostics' acceptance of women may be no more than their keen understanding that, if they conferred responsibilities upon women and included feminine images in their worship, this might attract more women to their form of Christianity. Pagels does not directly claim this, but she is at least aware of this possible marketing strategy when she asks "whether gnostic Christians derive any practical, social consequences from their conception of God—and of humanity— in terms that included the feminine element.’’ Her answer to this question is emphatically affirmative.

By bringing up the possibility that Gnostics who approved of women in the church might have been acting out of less than theologically pure motives, Pagels offers one of the first of a few, but significant, criticisms of Gnosticism in the book before the fifth chapter. The reader knows that Pagels is looking at the Gnostics through a less rose-colored lens immediately in the opening of the fifth chapter, when she notes that not only did the orthodox Christians condemn the Gnostics, but the Gnostics were equally adept at condemning orthodoxy. ‘‘Christian tradition has preserved and revered orthodox writings that denounce the gnostics,’’ she writes. ‘‘Now, for the first time, certain texts discovered at Nag Hammadi reveal the other side of the coin: how gnostics denounced the orthodox.'' In the next sentence, she uses the rather strong verb "polemicize'' when noting that the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, one of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts, refers to the orthodox Christians as "pagans'' and ‘‘dumb animals.’’

Earlier in the book, Pagels had given an almost modern cast to Gnosticism, asserting in the first chapter, for example, that just as today's humans take for granted that science and technology will advance, ‘‘so the gnostics anticipated that the present and the future would yield a continual increase in knowledge.’’ She describes them with a democratic tone, noting how they involved women and questioned authority. For second-century inhabitants, Pagels paints them as holding remarkably modern concepts. It is in the fifth chapter that the issue of elitism among the Gnostics arises—and this is where Pagels finds that she cannot continue to support the Gnostics as completely as before. By the time she finishes with chapter five, Pagels is using the anti-democratic and anti-feminist term "elitism''

Ironically enough, Gnostics, who rejected church hierarchy, were themselves involved in a rating system by which some people might be ranked higher than others based on their 'holiness.'’’
when describing Gnosticism. For example, she notes that the Gnostics will not accept just anyone into their fold; they evaluated ‘‘each candidate on the basis of spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness.’’ Not only would this be cumbersome, but it would also make the Gnostics subject to uncomfortable charges of exclusiveness, as Pagels does when she notes that, as opposed to the Gnostic church, the orthodox church rejected ‘‘religious elitism . . . [and] welcomed members from every social class, every racial or cultural origin, whether educated or illiterate,’’ as long as they respected the church's hierarchical authority.

Ironically enough, Gnostics, who rejected church hierarchy, were themselves involved in a rating system by which some people might be ranked higher than others based on their "holiness.’’ According to Pagels, Gnostic teachers themselves often worried that having a group in which membership was based on spiritual maturity and the presence of something as ethereal as ‘‘spiritual gifts’’ would promote a sense of elitism. The author of the Nag Hammadi text Interpretation of the Knowledge expresses concerns that those who had attained enlightenment would separate themselves from ‘‘ignorant,’’ less skilled Christians and might even hesitate to share insights and knowledge.

The charge of elitism sticks especially well to the Gnostics as the book continues into the sixth chapter and conclusion. In the sixth chapter, Pagels stresses Gnosticism's reliance on self-knowledge as the way to know God and on ‘‘one's inner capacity to find one's own direction.’’ The more radical Gnostics rejected any effort to institutionalize religious experience, while the moderate Gnostics, such as the followers of Valentinus, regarded the church "more as an instrument of their own self-discovery,’’ according to Pagels.

Many Gnostics relied on courses of spiritual discipline that were not necessarily written down and that set them apart from other Gnostics as well as orthodox Christians. Pagels notes that a course of discipline that disconnected the practitioner from earthly wants, promoting visions, ascetic practices, and meditation ‘‘would appeal only to a few.’’

Ultimately, as Pagels points out, Gnosticism's elitism and focus on an individual's advancement was its undoing, ‘‘for ideas alone do not make a religion powerful.’’ Because religions are made up of people,"social and political structures that identify and unite people into a common affiliation'' are terribly important, she proclaims at the end of her book. Orthodox Christians created communities that marked major collective events, such as ‘‘the sharing of food, in the eucharist; sexuality, in marriage; childbirth, in baptism; sickness, in anointment; and death, in funerals.’’ The Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas notes that a Gnostic sees himself as "one out of a thousand; two out of ten thousand’’— certainly a startling image of isolation. According to Pagels, early orthodox Christians saw themselves as "one member of the common human family, and as one member of a universal church.’’ It is at exactly that point of distinction—isolation versus community—that Pagels loses her enthusiasm for the Gnostics. While she finds much in Gnosticism to admire, this fault of elitism, she seems to say, outweighs all the weaknesses of orthodox Christianity combined and means that the death of Gnosticism need not be mourned.

Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on The Gnostic Gospels, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer.

How The Orthodox Christian Church was Misguided in its Effort to Supress the Information Contained in the Gnostic Gospels

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Throughout the ages, the suppression of information has been directly connected to the exertion of power and control over the masses. Those who wish to remain in power often feel the need to suppress or destroy certain texts, and the ideas contained therein, so that their authority will not be challenged or called into question. In her book The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels explores how the early Christian Church was guilty of this practice in its effort to establish itself as the single source for the true word of God.

The early Church fathers were particularly threatened by the concepts contained in what we now refer to as the ‘‘Gnostic gospels’’ because they placed the search for enlightenment directly into the hands of each individual, thus eliminating the need for a church hierarchy to deliver and interpret God's word. This was a very dangerous idea to the bishops and priests of the orthodox Church. If Christians could take control of their own search for knowledge, the church fathers would no longer be needed. The "uneducated" masses would be able to find their own answers and the institution of the Church would no longer hold the position of ultimate authority in religious matters. The Gnostic ideas were a particular threat because they opened up the possibility that the Church, as an institution, may become obsolete. As Kurt Rudolph notes in his book Gnosis, "A close relationship to God became possible even for the 'man in the street' without priestly mediation, without temple, without cultic practices.’’ That priests and bishops would no longer be needed was a radical and extremely threatening proposition to those who made their livelihood administering God's word; thus, they found it necessary to refute and suppress the gospels that did not support their unique right to lead others to religious salvation. This is not to suggest that the early bishops and priests were deliberately evil men who were manipulating information for purely political means. Although this may have been the case with certain individuals, most leaders of the church had a real concern for the religious salvation of the people. As Pagels notes, "Their religious views, certainly, bore political implications; yet, at the same time, the practice they urged was based on their beliefs about God.’’

Unfortunately, the suppression of alternate ideas by the Church fathers serves to throw suspicion upon the very religious tradition they represent. In retrospect, their actions may be interpreted as misguided, or even foolish, and can serve to call their doctrine into question. The error of their ways can be especially striking when seen from modern times with the additional knowledge and information we have gained through the centuries. Throughout history, one can point to numerous examples of Church repression that we now recognize as wrong. Take the case of Galileo, for example. In the seventeenth century, Galileo was suspected of heresy by the Church because he reported moons orbiting Jupiter, which he had observed through a telescope he made. From this, he concluded that the earth was not the center of the universe. According to church officials, the idea that the earth was not the center of the universe was a challenge to God's will. They believed that because God had made man in his own image, surely he would have placed his great creation at the center of all things. Here, one can see how religious dogma served to control not only the philosophical issues of the time, but the role and scope of scientific study, as well. In her book Seeing Through the Visible World, June Singer discusses this notion, and its relation to Galileo's case:

Institutionalized religion in the Western world had maintained its strong role in determining what was and was not the province of science, and had exercised its authority to decide what would be legitimate subjects for scientific exploration. The basis for this domination of science by the Church was its view of God's design and purpose for the world, for nature, and for human beings. Thus, areas approved for investigation included both the material and the spiritual domains, with the reservation that the Church must approve the findings wherever they occurred. Galileo challenged that authority.

Galileo was forced to renounce his theories, was put under house arrest for life, and was forbidden to publish. The challenge his theories presented to Church authority could not to be tolerated. Of course, we now know that Galileo's theories were correct. He was able to add to mankind's knowledge because he chose to look beyond the blindly accepted "facts" and to seek out his own answers. This shows how scientific study can also be related to the ideas of the Gnostics, in that it places the responsibility for finding the correct answers upon the individual. In a somewhat ironic twist, Galileo was finally pardoned by the pope in 1992.

There are many who believe that to gain the greatest understanding of a subject, one should consider the greatest amount of information possible. Most scientists have long held this belief, and the idea can be found in many stories and philosophies throughout the world. Take, for example, the famous Indian folk tale of the blind men and the elephant. As the story goes, there are six blind men who are totally unfamiliar with the creature that we know as an elephant. Each man examines a different part of the elephant and then describes the creature from his own experience. The first man touched the elephant's side and declared,"The elephant is smooth and solid like a wall.’’ The second man examines the trunk and comes to the conclusion that the elephant is like a snake. The third feels only the elephant's tusk and decides that the elephant is sharp and pointy, like a spear. The fourth, upon examining the elephant's leg, describes him as "A strong, sturdy tree.’’ The fifth feels the elephant's ear and notes that he is like a fan. The sixth grabs hold of the elephant's tail and proclaims ‘‘The elephant is nothing more than a piece of old rope!'' Because the men do not explore all of the available information, they come to very different, and incorrect, conclusions. Finally, they are told of their error, and the wisest of them says, "To learn the truth, we must put all the parts together.’’ This is a very Gnostic concept. The Gnostics believed that all subjects, including religion, should be open to unlimited personal investigation. Their religious views held that, to learn the ultimate truth, one should gather as much information as possible, and then put it all together.

Those who follow the orthodox view of religion refute the idea that more information is always better. They believe that one should not try to gather additional information in order to understand the teachings of Jesus, but should accept and follow them as they are currently presented in the Bible. There is no need for additional study, or additional texts, because all needed information has already been made available. As Rudolph notes, the orthodox view runs thus,"Since Jesus Christ we have no need of any further investigation, nor of any research since the Gospel has been proclaimed.’’ What this view fails to acknowledge, however, is that additional information, even contradictory or ambiguous information, does not necessarily preclude individuals from reaching the same conclusions as they might have without this information. It is somewhat curious that the Church fathers did not have enough faith in their own reasoning to assume that, if presented with additional ideas and material, others would still come to the same conclusion. After all, the Church fathers were familiar with the ideas of the Gnostics, and yet, that did not serve to change their own faith in any significant way. They were able to sift through the available information and decide for themselves what to believe. Because they were desperate to remain in power, however, the bishops and priests of the time were unwilling to trust that ambiguous teachings would still lead the populace to accept their authority as the true road to ultimate salvation. It is interesting that the early orthodox Church refused to embrace any kind of ambiguity. Even Jesus himself spoke in parables, although it increased the possibility that some may misunderstand his meaning. He had faith, however, that his followers would be able to properly interpret the stories and figure out the correct message. He was not afraid of contradiction and ambiguity. This task of ‘‘figuring out the answers’’ is something that Gnostics wholeheartedly embrace. In fact, Pagels notes, ‘‘The gnostic understands Christ's message not as offering a set of answers, but as encouragement to engage in a process of searching.’’ According to the Gnostics, enlightenment is not reached by learning and accepting preordained facts, it comes from personal study and discovery.

The censorship of information is a "red flag.’’ It signals the fact that something is being hidden and that people are being controlled and manipulated. Censorship is always a political act, no matter whether it is exercised by a religious or a secular institution. The main reason for the censorship of the Gnostic gospels was due to a power struggle in the fledgling Christian Church and the need of the orthodox sect to assert its ultimate authority. In Hidden Gospels, Philip Jenkins describes the struggle: "As orthodoxy won, it proceeded to destroy its rivals and their texts, in which the vindictive mainstream church found so many subversive ideas.’’ Fortunately, the Church was not successful in destroying all of the "radical" and "heretical" texts, although it almost succeeded. As Pagels notes, ‘‘The efforts of the majority to destroy every trace of heretical 'blasphemy' proved so successful that, until the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, nearly all our information concerning alternative forms of early Christianity came from the massive orthodox attacks upon them.’’ Luckily, however, sometimes the best efforts to censor material are thwarted, and the information eventually comes out. The texts discovered at Nag Hammadi are a priceless find. They have opened up a whole new perspective on the Christian religion and, contrary to what some orthodox Christians may claim, serve to strengthen the religion through their additional information. It is fortunate that the keeper of these documents had the foresight to hide them—otherwise they would have been destroyed and thus never available to us. It makes one wonder what other insightful texts have been lost to us forever due to the threatening ideas they contained.

Source: Beth Kattelman, Critical Essay on The Gnostic Gospels, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Kattelman is a freelance writer and holds a Ph.D. in theatre from Ohio State University.

Historical Parallels Between the Nag Hammadi Texts and Pagels's Book on the Subject

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Imagine a number of books written about a recent historical event by a number of different authors who are drawing on the same material... but who approach their subject in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. Imagine also that these books are published at approximately the same time and receive a mixed reception from readers and critics, so that initially no one book or group of books stands above the rest in the public estimation. Now fast-forward a hundred years. The majority of the books are out of print, all-but forgotten, while those that remain have attained the stature of classics and are not only widely read but part of the curriculum in every school. How to explain this phenomenon?

One possibility is that the surviving books are simply the best of the lot. But let's assume that when you examine the works in question, you find that many of them are, in their own ways, as well-written and engaging as those now viewed as classics. In that case, it might occur to you that the reasons for the success of some of the books and the failure of others over time must be looked for as much beyond the books as within them. This seems unobjectionable enough, and under normal circumstances it would be, but imagine finally that the works in question are religious in nature and deal with controversial topics that once had—and perhaps continue to have— immense constructive and destructive potential both for society as a whole and for any number of persons within it. Then, suddenly, the seemingly academic question of which books succeed and which fail can become, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Such was the case with the books that are the subject of Pagels's influential—and controversial—1979 popular study, winner of both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Gnostic Gospels.

In 1945, a treasure trove of ancient Gnostic manuscripts was discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi by a group of local men on their way to commit a murder. That circumstance, worthy of an Indiana Jones movie, was historically apt, for when the manuscripts were hidden over 1,500 years earlier, murder was also in the air. Historians conjecture that in the fourth century A.D., Christian monks from a nearby monastery hid the manuscripts to escape being branded as heretics, and very possibly put to death, by authorities of the Catholic Church, which had forbidden possession of the books in question. Although the Church had become the official religion of the Roman Empire by that time, thanks to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (c. 312 A.D. ), many threats to its power remained. Some lay outside the Church, in competing religions old and new. Others lay closer, even within the bosom of the Church itself, and these threats, from the perspective of the ruling bishops, were the gravest of all because they did not come from men and women who worshipped strange gods but instead from people who claimed to be Christians themselves. These Christians, called Gnostics, saw the life and message of Jesus Christ in terms radically different from the official, orthodox beliefs reflected in the New Testament and the apostolic creed. The early Church fathers were determined to root out the Gnostics and their doctrines at all costs. They succeeded so well that until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, only a handful of Gnostic manuscripts were known to exist, and much of the information available to scholars about the Gnostics and their beliefs came from their orthodox adversaries. As Pagels notes in The Gnostic Gospels, ‘‘It is the winners who write history— their way.’’

Yet Pagels wrote her book during a period when many of history's traditional winners were coming under fresh scrutiny by skeptical scholars like herself. The Gnostic Gospels is concerned with history's losers; as such, although it looks back nearly 2,000 years, it is a revisionist project very much of its own time. In an article about Pagels in Publishers Weekly, critic Jenny Schuessler alludes to this perspective: "Reading her books, one senses a tremendous respect for the power of personal religious experience and an abiding sympathy for dissident movements in conflict with an uncomprehending or hostile culture.’’

The 1970s was an era of profound social, religious, and academic change as many of the revolutionary ideas of the 1960s were carried forward within the system instead of outside it. By 1979, the year The Gnostic Gospels appeared, feminism was midway through its so-called Second Wave and seemed to be riding high. The Equal Rights Amendment was just three states short of ratification (the ERA never gained those votes, failing in 1982). The Supreme Court had legalized abortion in America by its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. Title IX had gone into effect in 1976, and positive results were already being seen in the number of women enrolling in college and participating in school athletics programs. The main branches of the Lutheran Church in the United States had voted to ordain women in 1970; the first woman rabbi, a follower of Reform Judaism, was ordained in 1972; and in 1976, the Episcopal Church voted to allow the ordination of women as bishops and priests—a step the Catholic Church continues to reject on theological grounds, as it has done for nearly 2,000 years.

The effects of the feminist movement in the academic arena were equally profound. Scholars of both sexes looked at traditional disciplines in the humanities and social sciences from the perspective of the voiceless, the powerless, the oppressed, and the forgotten. This revisionist approach also led to the creation of new disciplines such as Women's Studies. It is important to keep this historical background in mind as we consider Pagels's thesis in The Gnostic Gospels and evaluate the critical reception that thesis received.

Armed with the evidence unearthed at Nag Hammadi, Pagels sets out in The Gnostic Gospels to open "a startlingly new perspective on the origins of Christianity.’’ She quotes from the recovered texts to set out the Gnostic positions on some of the central tenets of Christian faith: whether Jesus was human or divine; the meaning of his death and resurrection; the proper roles of the sexes in Christian worship; the composition of the Trinity; even the fundamental nature of God and His creation. By comparing the beliefs of the Gnostics to those of their orthodox opponents, Pagels intends to show that ‘‘these religious debates ... simultaneously bear social and political implications that are crucial to the development of Christianity as an institutional religion.’’ In her insistence on treating ostensibly abstruse theological arguments as both influences on, and reflections of, the social and political ferment of the first centuries of the Christian era, Pagels extends the classic feminist slogan, ‘‘The personal is the political,’’ into the religious sphere. Her aim in doing so is more than simply to deepen our knowledge of the ancient world by adding hitherto suppressed voices to the chorus of history; for Pagels, any re-visioning of the past compels a similar re-visioning of the present, which is its inheritor: ‘‘The Nag Hammadi sources ... challenge us to reinterpret history—and to re-evaluate the present situation.’’

Who were the Gnostics, what did they believe, and why did Orthodox Christians find those beliefs so repugnant theologically and dangerous politically that they proclaimed them heresy and zealously persecuted all who professed them—even as they themselves were being persecuted and put to death by the pagan Roman Empire? The word "gnostic" comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge." As employed here, gnosis should not be understood as rational or physical knowledge derived through the mind or the senses. Rather, it is a form of knowledge that transcends such categories, an inner, spiritually-based knowing that is subjective yet superior to all other sources of knowledge because it is connected directly to the ordering power of the universe, or God. The goal of Gnosticism is to find God by means of an inward-directed spiritual journey leading through and beyond the self. As Pagels points out, ‘‘to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of gnosis.'' Gnosticism predates Christianity and draws from a wide variety of sources and traditions, including non-Western ones, and even Christian Gnostics were far from constituting a single group or movement; on the contrary, Pagels demonstrates that the very inwardness and personal subjectivity of the Gnostic quest for religious truth precluded the kind of organizational and theological homogeneity available to the orthodox.

The Gnostic elevation of personal spiritual experience above the teachings of the Church would have been enough by itself to earn the enmity of the orthodox. But Christian Gnostics went further. They allowed women a role equal to that of men in their churches and ceremonies. They believed that Jesus had imparted secret wisdom to some apostles and disciples and not others, and that Mary Magdalen had been especially favored. Many believed that the God of the Old Testament, whom they called the Demiurge, was an inferior, deluded god, a bungler responsible for a flawed creation. The Demiurge had forgotten the true God, whose representative was Jesus. Thus, orthodox Christians, who believed that the God of the Old Testament was also the God of the New and that Jesus was His son, were themselves deluded and were worshipping a false god. This secret Gnostic wisdom was recorded in gospels that the orthodox refused to admit as genuine. The Nag Hammadi texts contained a number of these gospels, including the most famous, the Gospel of Thomas. They are Pagels's primary sources in The Gnostic Gospels, and she draws from them to demonstrate convincingly not just that the triumph of orthodox Christianity was due to the "organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed’’ in its struggle to survive the oppressions of the Roman state while simultaneously crushing the threat of Gnosticism, but that this triumph resulted in "the impoverishment of Christian tradition.’’

Although Pagels explicitly states that she is not advocating a return to Gnosticism, but merely attempting to clarify "the major issues in the whole debate, then and now,’’ some critics and reviewers found her denial unconvincing. Yet in attacking Pagels's presumed political biases and agendas, critics often betrayed their own. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, B. Cobbey Crisler found Pagels's book one-sided:

Her picture of the Gnostics is considerably idealized in the interests of recommending them to modern libertarians and anti-authoritarians. The darker side of the Gnostics is hardly touched on: their obsession with the evil of this world, their hatred of sex, their elitism, their mystagogic pretension, and at times their 'transcendence' of ordinary morality.

Kathleen McVey, writing in Theology Today, sounded a similar note:

Elaine Pagels' Gnostic Gospels is a book calculated to appeal to the liberal intellectual Christian who feels personally religious but who dislikes ‘‘institutional religion.’’ In the midst of the resurgence of anti-scientific and anti-intellectual currents throughout American Christianity, Pagels has presented us with an appealing portrayal of the Gnostic Christians as a beleaguered minority of creative persons kept ignorant of their rightful historical role by a well-organized but ignorant lot of literalists.

Indeed, it is impossible to read some of the criticism directed toward The Gnostic Gospels without feeling that there is an animus behind it that is actually directed past the book and its author, toward larger cultural and societal forces, such as feminism, which the critics, for whatever reasons, perceive as threatening. A personal, somewhat supercilious tone frequently creeps in, as in this condescending, patronizingly paternalistic put-down by Hyam Maccoby, writing in the magazine Commentary: ‘‘Professor Pagels, unfortunately, has a tedious bee in her bonnet. This is her idea that doctrinal differences between orthodox and Gnostic Christians can often be explained in terms of 'politics.'’’

In his 1992 book, The American Religion, noted literary critic Harold Bloom writes of the emergence of a peculiarly American religion— indeed, an entire culture—that is, as he puts it, ‘‘irretrievably Gnostic.’’ Interestingly, in his Commentary review written some twelve years earlier, Hyam Maccoby agreed, going so far as to state that Gnosticism "may even be regarded as the form of religion most congenial to the modern world.’’ Nor was Pagels herself blind to the many parallels between the tumultuous early centuries of the Christian era and the final decades of the twentieth century, observing in The Gnostic Gospels that"an increasing number of people today'' share the impetus that led the Gnostics on their inner search for self-knowledge and knowledge of God. The fact that her book, the source of some controversy and critical animus upon its publication, has gone on to find wide acceptance as a classic of feminist scholarship and revisionist history could be interpreted as evidence that Bloom is right, and that, in writing about these forgotten religious texts from the distant past, Pagels was also writing not just about the world of 1979 but about the world of the future as well.

Source: Paul Witcover, Critical Essay on The Gnostic Gospels, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Witcover is an editor and writer whose fiction and critical essays appear regularly in magazines and online.


Critical Overview