The Gnostic Gospels

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

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 the Nag Hammadi texts, however, readers now can judge for themselves the main concerns of Gnostic theology and philosophy. It is evident that the...

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Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Christianity in the Second Century
Jerusalem in Palestine served as the originating center of Christianity (until the Roman army...

(The entire section is 622 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Second Century A.D.: The Roman Empire includes much of Europe and other territories and has successfully assimilated people from...

(The entire section is 244 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Pagels argues in The Gnostic Gospels that one of the primary reasons orthodox Christianity survived and flourished over the past two...

(The entire section is 315 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Richard Elliott Friedman's 1997 account in Who Wrote the Bible?? focuses on the first five Old Testament books: Genesis, Exodus,...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Bloom, Harold, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Simon & Schuster, 1992,...

(The entire section is 369 words.)