The Gnostic Gospels

by Elaine Pagels

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The Relationship between Gnosticism and Contemporary Religious Issues Pagels wrote The Gnostic Gospels to offer the lay public a glance at a series of ancient religious documents and to make the argument that Gnosticism's demise was due to orthodox Christianity's success in building a universal, catholic community. She also wants her readers to use the discovery of the Gnostic documents as a launching pad for current conversations about Christianity, religious authority, humanity, and spirituality. Because of the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, "all the old questions—the original questions, sharply debated at the beginning of Christianity—are being reopened,’’ Pagels asserts.

Pagels believes that the discovery and analyses of the Nag Hammadi documents should encourage modern men and women to revisit "the controversies that occupied early Christianity.’’ These debates are as alive today as they were in the second century and focus on one question: From where does the church take its authority? The late discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in the twentieth century is a fortunate accident; if they had been found one thousand years earlier, Pagels muses, they may have been destroyed for their heretical statements. Their discovery today allows a large number of people to read them and reconsider the theological and philosophical underpinnings of Gnosticism in a different light.

The Gnostic texts raise other issues related to contemporary life besides simply religious issues, according to Pagels. She argues that psychotherapy shows a strong similarity to the Gnostic view of human nature. Both psychotherapeutic practice and Gnosticism agree, in opposition to orthodox Christianity, "that the psyche bears within itself the potential for liberation or destruction,'' according to Pagels.

Egalitarianism in Early Christianity Pagels is careful to note that Gnosticism in the second century A.D. incorporated a wide variety of religious and philosophic thinking. However, she does stress that most Gnostics had difficulty with the standard church hierarchy and considered each member of their flock to be as accomplished in spirituality as the next. Theoretically, when Gnostics met, each person had the same amount of authority. Gnostic members drew lots to decide who would hold a position during a meeting, for they believed that"since God directs everything in the universe, the way the lots fell expressed his choice.’’ On the other hand, by the second century, a three-level hierarchy was fairly prominent in most orthodox Christian communities: at the top were bishops, then priests, and finally deacons. The laity existed at the bottom of the church's institutional structure.

When Gnostics drew the lots to see who would hold leadership positions during meetings, they included both men and women, according to Pagels. Not all Gnostic groups included women on an equal footing with men, but many at least considered God to be ‘‘a dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements,’’ she asserts. She adds that the Nag Hammadi texts include numerous mentions of a ‘‘divine Mother’’ figure in addition to God, but because Gnostics were never unified into one belief and practice, these descriptions of her are diverse. The divine Mother of the texts can be characterized in three primary ways: as the feminine half of God; as the Holy Spirit, creating an alternate trinity of ‘‘Father, Mother, and Son’’; and as Wisdom, or the creator of the universe who also shapes and manages her creations.

In fact, women were reported to have been especially attracted to Gnostic groups, Pagels notes, possibly because of the Gnostic willingness to incorporate the feminine into the nature of God. A number of Gnostic groups had women serving alongside men as priests, bishops, prophets, healers, and teachers. In its very early years, the orthodox...

(This entire section contains 845 words.)

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Christian church displayed a similar openness to women, she claims, but from the year A.D. 200, ''we have no evidence for women taking prophetic, priestly, and episcopal roles among orthodox churches.’’

Style Pagels's writing style is conversational and is directed toward lay readers as opposed to academics. When discussing the purposes and goals of the book, Pagels uses the first person. For example, in the introduction she notes, "I intend here to show how Gnostic forms of Christianity interact with orthodoxy,'' giving the reader a clear picture of the book's subject. Pagels makes a personal connection with the subject matter, especially in the book's conclusion. This writing technique is rarely found in books on ancient history and religion. She proclaims, ‘‘I find the discoveries at Nag Hammadi enormously exciting.’’

Pagels also uses the first person to express personal feelings about her subject matter specifically and about Christianity in general. In the conclusion, she writes with a strong voice:

I believe that we owe the survival of Christian tradition to the organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed. Anyone as powerfully attracted to Christianity as I am will regard that as a major achievement.

Pagels provides an authoritative tone to her book by including hundreds of passages from the New Testament and various Gnostic texts. She uses

these passages to support her argument delineating the reasons for the failure of Gnosticism and the enduring success of orthodox Christianity.