The Gnostic Gospels

by Elaine Pagels

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The Gnostic Gospels

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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 evidence that enables Biblical scholars to reconstruct a previously misunderstood connection between Gnosticism and early Christianity.

Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, winner of the 1980 American Book Award for Religious History, is a penetrating study of the theological significance of the Nag Hammadi texts. Like Edmund Wilson’s popular study, The Scrolls from the Dead Sea (1955), Pagels’ book exposes for a general audience in fairly nontechnical language the basic conceptual framework of the texts. With directness, vigor, and scholarly precision, she treats several major questions that lay readers would like to ask about the gospels. Are the writings relevant to Christian Scriptures? Should the Gnostics, a sect described as heretical by the early Church Fathers, be identified in any way as Christians? And did the Gnostic gospels influence the dogma or structure of the Catholic Church? During the course of her study, Pagels answers these three questions in the affirmative. However her work, unlike Wilson’s book addressed to the common reader, goes well beyond a straightforward exposition of recent scholarship. In matters of Biblical (Hebrew) scholarship, Wilson was an amateur (a word used in the original, nonpejorative sense); Pagels, Head of the Religious Studies Department at Barnard College, Columbia University, is a distinguished scholar of Gnosticism with a specialized knowledge of early Church social and theological history. Her work can be read on two levels: on the popular, as a clear account of the Gnostic texts and their significance; and on the scholarly, as a persuasive argument that establishes Gnosticism as a profoundly important movement influencing and countering orthodox (that is, Catholic) Christian doctrine and ecclesiastical organization.

For the general reader, The Gnostic Gospels reveals an aspect of theological history that had long been buried. Before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, scholars had known about the Gnostics from only a few scattered fragments of their writings or, from an adversary’s viewpoint, condemnations of that sect by the Church Fathers. Tertullian and Irenaeus, among others, had described the Gnostics as blasphemous, heretical, and wicked. Quoting parts of the Gnostic texts, almost always in concert with their own fierce denunciations, the Fathers had represented the sect as apostate from the true faith. On the basis of massive evidence from...

(This entire section contains 1660 words.)

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the Nag Hammadi texts, however, readers now can judge for themselves the main concerns of Gnostic theology and philosophy. It is evident that the Gnostics were not exclusively, as scholars had previously believed, a Hellenistic-oriented sect dabbling with Christian notions; instead, they were assuredly Christians representing a minority movement that challenged the hierarchy and many dogmas of the fledgling Church.

Documenting her case with sound evidence derived from the early social history of the universal Church, Pagels shows how the Gnostic gospels threatened the majority viewpoint on at least six major theological points (to each of which she devotes a chapter): that Christ’s Resurrection should be considered as a symbolic instead of historical event; that no direct Apostolic line of succession should be traced, as proof of divine authority, from Peter to the bishops of the Church; that God the Father has a feminine aspect as Grace; that Christian martyrdom is not a necessary test of salvation; that the universal Church lacks power to guide congregants to spiritual wisdom; and finally, that the surest guide to spirituality is self-knowledge, Gnosis as God-knowledge. As a Church historian, Pagels argues that such a challenge by the Gnostics threatened both the political and theological supremacy of the Apostolic line. To establish upon a secure foundation their spiritual authority, the early Church Fathers reacted against the Gnostics by sharply dogmatizing their own positions. As a result, therefore, of nearly two centuries of antagonism between majority and minority Christian viewpoints, the victorious Catholic theologians formulated a number of arguments partly in opposition to Gnostic teachings.

For the general reader, Pagels’ discussion of early Church history not only illuminates the social and intellectual background of the Gnostic gospels; but her analysis also throws a powerful light upon the canon of Christian Scriptures. She proves, for example, that many “gospels”—not merely the four Gospels of the New Testament—had been extant during the first two centuries and were available both to Christian and Gnostic-oriented communities. Also, she suggests that the selection of texts for the authorized Bible may have been a process involving political as well as theological considerations. More startling to the general reader, perhaps, are Pagels’ remarks, presented casually as though they were common knowledge, upon the authorship of the Greek Scriptures. “Few today believe,” she writes, “that contemporaries of Jesus actually wrote the New Testament gospels. Although Irenaeus, defending their exclusive legitimacy, insisted that they were written by Jesus’ own followers, we know virtually nothing about the persons who wrote the gospels we call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.” Or she describes as “pseudo-Pauline” the Timothy letters ascribed in the New Testament to Paul. To be sure, Pagels has no intention of shocking or antagonizing the lay reader. Her problem is one of communicating to a larger audience of intelligent persons a body of information understood by only a relatively small number of theological scholars who have sufficient technical linguistic mastery of the original writings to examine them as documents.

For this specialized group of scholars, Pagels contributes a major unifying thesis—that the Gnostic gospels can best be understood in their historical setting as a reaction to political forces within early Christianity. Outside the scope of her study are a number of other significant matters: the relationship between the Gnostic gospels and Hellenistic philosophy; between the gospels and Eastern (especially Hindu but also Zoroastrian) religions; between the gospels and first and second century Judaism; between the gospels and mystic cults of various kinds from Persia to Egypt; and between the gospels as they survived in oral tradition and the sixth century Koran, with its apparently Gnostic-influenced view of Jesus. Also Pagels leaves to other scholars some intriguing questions on the exact dating of texts. She quotes, presumably with assent, Harvard professor Helmut H. Koester’s suggestion that the Gospel of Thomas, compiled circa 140, may include some sayings of Jesus even older than those of the Gospels of the New Testament, “possibly as early as the second half of the first century.” If that judgment is accurate, the Gospel of Thomas would contain materials, Pagels writes, “as early as, or earlier than Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.” Such an assessment, obviously, would require a substantial rethinking of New Testament data in the light of Gnostic influence. Yet Pagels usually avoids speculation on subjects outside her own specialty as a social historian of Gnosticism and early Christianity.

Within this highly technical field, she understands and expresses with admirable precision the general message of the Gnostic texts, details the intellectual background of their composition, and contrasts them to orthodox Christian writing. In addition, she shows how the Gnostic gospels, although centuries old, still have modern-day relevance. For these judgments she is bound to incite the most heated dissent among fellow scholars. Although Pagels insists that she does not, “as the casual reader might assume, . . . advocate going back to gnosticism—much less that I ’side with it’ against orthodox Christianity,” her argument does establish an attractive picture of the Gnostics. She sees their independence in many ways resembling that of the historical Protestant movement. With their emphasis upon the light of individual conscience as opposed to the authority of dogma, their opposition to hierarchical ecclesiastic structure, and their “insistence on the primacy of immediate experience” instead of the offices of the Church for salvation, the Gnostics appear to have links to other liberal Christians, both of the past and the present. Moreover, in their insistence upon a strong spiritual role for women, their celebration of the “greatness of human nature,” and their high valuation of self-awareness as the beginning of enlightenment, they seem to resemble modern identity-searchers in a world of psychological stress.

Although Pagels may be guilty of exaggerating a case for the relevancy of the Gnostics to current theological problems, her book clearly demonstrates how the origins of Christianity and Gnosticism had a common root. “If we go back,” she writes, “to the earliest known sources of Christian tradition—the sayings of Jesus (although scholars disagree on the question of which sayings are genuinely authentic), we can see how both gnostic and orthodox forms of Christianity could emerge as variant interpretations of the teaching and significance of Christ.” To explore fully these variant interpretations, Pagels’ book performs the admirable service of showing how and why the two forms of Christianity diverged into competing traditions.

Historical Context

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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 distributed its varied teachings, as mentioned in The Gnostic Gospels. By the sixth century, Gnosticism had almost disappeared.

Early Christianity appeared in many diverse forms, especially in the second and third centuries, but practicing Christianity of any form in the Roman Empire was illegal and occasionally punished by death. Christians usually met in homes. In The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels notes that the decision facing many Christians—whether to admit to being a follower of Jesus and face martyrdom—was one of the issues that divided orthodox Christians from their Gnostic brethren. Few Gnostics went the route of martyrdom and the orthodox Christians saw this as a failure of faith and one more reason to consider them heretics. By the early part of the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity and, by the time of his death in 337, the orthodox Christian church had become the state-supported religion of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire Most agree that the origin of the Roman Empire, a powerful political system that lasted nearly five hundred years, can be traced to 27 B.C., when the Roman Senate gave Gaius Octavius the name Augustus and proclaimed him the first Roman Emperor. Through wars and occupations, the empire grew from lands primarily around Italy and the Mediterranean region to a huge territory stretching to Britain, Spain, North Africa, Romania, Western Asia, and the Middle East. The empire allowed its conquered people to retain most of their varied languages, societies, and religions. In the first and second centuries under Roman rule, Greek art, literature, and philosophy flourished; Babylonian astronomy and astrology thrived; and eventually Christianity became the standard religion after Constantine converted in the early 300s.

Called the ‘‘good emperors,’’ the five emperors who ruled from A.D. 98 to 180 governed during what many historians consider the high point of the Roman Empire. This is approximately when experts believe the Nag Hammadi books were written. Trajan (98-117), for example, displayed concern for the poor, and some historians argue that he did not actively seek to persecute Christians. Hadrian (117-138) reformed the empire's civil service and built an impressive system of roads throughout the empire. During this same period, millions of slaves were captured and imprisoned; women had no political rights; a plague killed one-third of the population in the empire's western regions; and Romans executed Christians and pushed the Jews from their land in the Middle East.

Compare and Contrast

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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 Christians, as the Roman Empire considered burial places sacrosanct by law.

Today: Catacombs all over Europe attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Videotape tours of various catacombs are also available.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources 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 for the Devil,’’ in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 31, pp. 11-59.

Singer, June, ‘‘Frontiers of Science,’’ in Seeing through the Visible World: Jung, Gnosis, and Chaos, Harper & Row, 1990, p. 51.

Further Reading Armstrong, Karen, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Ballantine Books, 1994. Karen Armstrong, a former nun and British journalist, looks at the history of monotheism over the past 4,000 years. In addition to discussing the intertwined histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Armstrong also touches on mysticism, the philosophy of religion, and the death of God.

Meyer, Melvin, trans., The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, 1986. Melvin Meyer offers a new English translation of four early Christian Gnostic texts for general readers.

Robinson, James E., ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Harper, 1990. This is the English translation of the Nag Hammadi texts found in Egypt in 1945, containing numerous Gnostic and other religious documents. The Nag Hammadi Library in English was first published in 1977, and this publication is the revised 1988 edition with introductions to each document.

Scarre, Christopher, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome, Penguin, 1995. This atlas includes graphics and text supplying an overview of Roman history beginning with the eighth century B.C. through the rise of Christianity.


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