Read The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels Online


The Gnostic Gospels is a landmark study of the long-buried roots of Christianity, a work of luminous scholarship and wide popular appeal. First published in 1979 to critical acclaim, winning the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Gnostic Gospels has continued to grow in reputation and influence over the past two decades. It is now widely reThe Gnostic Gospels is a landmark study of the long-buried roots of Christianity, a work of luminous scholarship and wide popular appeal. First published in 1979 to critical acclaim, winning the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Gnostic Gospels has continued to grow in reputation and influence over the past two decades. It is now widely recognized as one of the most brilliant and accessible histories of early Christian spirituality published in our time.In 1945 an Egyptian peasant unearthed what proved to be the Gnostic Gospels, thirteen papyrus volumes that expounded a radically different view of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ from that of the New Testament. In this spellbinding book, renowned religious scholar Elaine Pagels elucidates the mysteries and meanings of these sacred texts both in the world of the first Christians and in the context of Christianity today.With insight and passion, Pagels explores a remarkable range of recently discovered gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, to show how a variety of “Christianities” emerged at a time of extraordinary spiritual upheaval. Some Christians questioned the need for clergy and church doctrine, and taught that the divine could be discovered through spiritual search. Many others, like Buddhists and Hindus, sought enlightenment — and access to God — within. Such explorations raised questions: Was the resurrection to be understood symbolically and not literally? Was God to be envisioned only in masculine form, or feminine as well? Was martyrdom a necessary — or worthy — expression of faith? These early Christians dared to ask questions that orthodox Christians later suppressed — and their explorations led to profoundly different visions of Jesus and his message. Brilliant, provocative, and stunning in its implications, The Gnostic Gospels is a radical, eloquent reconsideration of the origins of the Christian faith....

Title : The Gnostic Gospels
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ISBN : 9780679724537
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 218 Pages
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The Gnostic Gospels Reviews

  • William1
    2019-06-03 03:55

    The apocryphal gospels, discovered by a farmer in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, are here explained in the context of late second-century RC church history. Gnostic (gnosis, Gk: knowledge) Christians did not believe that human intermediaries (priests, etc.) were necessary for an individual to find God. For the gnostics, enlightenment was an entirely inward and self-determined process. Gnostic Christians believed that Jesus was not divine but an ordinary man with an extraordinary message. They did not believe in the resurrection of the flesh. They did not believe in the eucharist, nor did they have any eschatalogical beliefs. They believed in a higher supreme god and a lower creator god, Yahweh, the Jewish god, who maliciously made man in his image and demanded to be worshipped by him. They believed that "secret wisdom" was handed down to the Apostles by Jesus, esoteric knowledge which was not vouchsafed to ordinary believers but only to mature ones. The gnostics believed that through their inner way of knowing God that they were then able to exceed the knowledge of the Apostles. There is language in the New Testament to support this idea of Jesus's secret wisdom. For the masses Jesus had only parables, exoteric knowledge appropriate to the less spiritually advanced. Late in the book some of the techniques for achieving gnosis are reviewed and they are surprisingly close to those used by Buddhists. Though Buddhists are nontheistic what they and the gnostics do has uncanny similarities. Elaine Pagels shows us that there was no early Christian golden age. That is to say, an age that had uniform teachings accepted by all. Instead the teachings were far more diverse than they are today, and highly contentious. Moreover, the RC church could have developed radically differently if some of these writings had been accepted, instead of being purged, as they were, so that someone, perhaps a monk belonging to a monastery near Nag Hammadi, buried them in a jar under the sand 1,600 years ago. I found the book fascinating and fun to read. I recommend it highly, as I do herAdam, Eve and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans and Heretics andBeyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.

  • Dan Schwent
    2019-06-25 05:55

    As someone who was subjected to Catholic school for 12 years, I've always been somewhat interested in all the Gnostic texts that didn't get included in the bible. So when I saw this on my girlfriend's bookshelf, I had to give it a read.Chapter 1: Chapter 1 examines whether or not Christ actually rose from the dead or if it was a symbolic, not literal event. Chapter 2: Chapter 2 covers the structure of the Catholic church and how it ties back to Peter and the Apostles, one of many church ideas the Gnostics challenged. It also examines the Gnostic believe that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament weren't the same God, something that formed the basis of Karl Edward Wagner's Kane series.Chapter 3: Chapter 3 examines the lack of female symbolism in Christianity and talks about Gnostic texts that assign female characteristics to the Holy Spirit and other aspects of Christianity, like the creation in Genesis and God's traditional depiction.Chapter 4: Chapter 4 talks about whether or not there were some shenanigans at the crucifixion involving the old switcheroo or Jesus faking his death or even Jesus not being human. It also discusses the persecution of Christians during the early years.Chapter 5:Chapter 5 chronicles the fighting between the various Christian sects during the early years over their beliefs.Chapter 6:Chapter 6 is the real meat of the book, Gnostic teachings and rituals.Like the conclusion of the book says, History is written by the winners. It's easy to see why some of the things in this book weren't included in the bible and perplexing that some of it wasn't. Would it have killed early church leaders to include some pro-female content?I will now return to my regularly scheduled reviews featuring robbery, gun play, magic, and monsters.

  • Eva
    2019-06-15 02:04

    This book is a classic. It describes, catalogues, quotes, and interprets portions of the secret gnostic gospels which were ordered destroyed in the 4th century after Christ. How, then, did we gain access to them? Some crafty monk shoved bits and pieces of papyrus into a clay jar and buried it, like a time capsule, for 20th century archeologists to discover and historians to argue about for another 16 centuries.What do the gnostic gospels disclose? Well, read if you want the full story, but let's just say most mainstream Christians won't like the ambiguity of finding out that there are many versions of the life of Christ and what he actually said and, thus, the implications for his followers, and that the version (aka, the New Testament) we ended up with is the result of censorship by the government of the time, who wanted to use Christianity (previously a radical sect) to control them (hmmmmm, sound familiar?).

  • Hadrian
    2019-06-04 23:47

    Reread.This is one of the most fascinating books on the history of early Christianity. Although it does contain just quotes and selections from the texts themselves, Pagels does a remarkable job analyzing and giving them a greater historical context.The Gnostic texts also gave a radical re-evaluation of the history of early Christianity, the nature of God, the figure Jesus, the resurrection, the role of women and whether or not a 'Church' as it exists in the Catholic tradition, was always extant. Some aspects of the Gospels also resemble Eastern traditions of self-knowledge.On a side note, it also gives an insight into the rewriting of history. Most of these texts were scrubbed from early religious history, as they may have been incompatible with the power structure of the time and the hierarchical church as we know it today.Fascinating stuff. I'll have to give the gospels themselves a reread.

  • Erik Graff
    2019-06-05 04:47

    For over four years I occupied one of the cheapest singles in Union Theological Seminary's Hastings Hall. The room had been used for guests and, so, was larger than any other single, a wall having been apparently torn out. Consequently, it was large enough to accomodate both myself and my girlfriend, Janny, after she transferred from Grinnell to Barnard College a couple of blocks away south on Broadway.I'd gone to Grinnell also, having done my thesis there on the subject of scholarly theories about the origins of Gnosticism. Consequently, I was excited to learn that one of Janny's religion professors was Elaine Pagels, the author whose analysis of the Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis had impressed me years before. Thanks to Janny's position in the department, I was invited along to a party at the Pagels' apartment, having the opportunity to meet the woman and her husband, the physicist, personally.Later, when Pagels came to teach a course on Genesis at Union, I signed up. Although I did the reading and went to the classes, Pagels generously allowed me to do an unrelated term paper, "On the Procession of the Heresiarchs of Gnosis" which was a little encyclopaedia of all references to gnostic teachers and teachings in the patristic literature. Basically, she had afforded me the opportunity to read all of the patristic literature of the first several centuries of the Christian era, a body of material which would have been too boring to read seriously if I hadn't done it with the close attention to the texts which the project required.At the time of graduation from seminary, her The Gnostic Gospels appeared--too late to read it then and, besides, I was deeply immersed in a thesis on Kant and Jung. The reading of it had to wait for some months. Of course, by this point, I was a bit of a lay expert and the book, after all, was an introductory text. Consequently, I read it critically, as a take on the dubious phenomenon. What distinguished it from such earlier works as Hans Jonas', other than her access to more recently available holographs, was its sociological orientation and emphasis on the role of women, both important additions to the tendencies of earlier scholarship.

  • Jan
    2019-06-24 02:51

    Not surprising, a couple hundred years after the death of Christ there were different interpretations on what his life meant and what his essential message was. Christianity was becoming a hierarchical institution that understood itself as the guardian of the true faith. Beliefs and practices outside of the canon was consider heresy and had to be destroyed. A number of documents were buried at that time and not discovered until 1947. These alternative gospels show some of the different interpretations that were in existence at that time. One example, some, especially Gnostics, interpreted the resurrection as symbolic – Christ reappeared as in a spiritual vision. The essential difference between Gnostics and orthodox Christians was that Gnostics believed the test of true Christians was their level of spiritual understanding or enlightenment or knowledge (gnosis). The orthodox authorities believed that approach was too elite as well as too difficult to monitor, and instead required simple adherence to doctrine, ritual, and political structural – which proved to be an amazingly effective system of organization.Gnostics have been called ‘religious solipsists’ since they were more concerned with their own spiritual development. They sometimes have considered those in the Church ignorant, arrogant or self-interested. Gnostics were seekers; orthodox Christians are non-seekers in that they were willing to accept the canon provided to them. (Yet you may recall even in the accepted Church cannon – in the Gospel of Luke, Christ is quoted as saying his followers must give up everything – family, home, children, work, wealth. . .if they are to follow him).The texts discovered at Nag Hammadi (the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Phillip, Apocalypse of Peter, Gospel of Truth and others) containing passages supporting the Gnostic belief in the importance of self-knowledge. Jesus is quoted as saying the Kingdom is inside you. . .When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will realize that you are the sons of the living Father. Pagels suggests that He is implying that the Kingdom of God symbolizes a state of transformed consciousness, not a place in the sky or in another world. Obviously the religious perspectives and methods of Gnosticism did not lend for a mass religion and were no match for the highly effective organization of the new Catholic Church (modeled after the Roman political and military system) and based on a unified canon requiring the initiate only the essentials of faith and rituals – and it has survived twenty centuries.However, others, such as William Blake (in his Everlasting Gospel) and Dostoevsky (most notably through Ivan in Brothers Karamazov) have identified with the vision of the Christ, rejected by the church, who desired man freely choosing the truth of his own conscience over religious certainty.Another interesting side issue is that apparently women participated in early Christian churches even in leadership positions. But by the end of the 2nd Century, the orthodox Christian Church segregated women from men in church and no longer allowed women into leadership positions. This coincided with a market movement of the orthodox Church from the lower classes into the more conservative middle class.

  • Fredstrong
    2019-06-07 05:07

    The Nag Hammadi texts, containing the Gnostic Gospels, were found in Egypt in 1945. These codices were compiled in the 4th century AD, but the gospels themselves date to the 2nd century AD. The Gnostic teachings are quite different from those of the orthodoxy. The Gnostics had an egalitarian approach to the sexes. Sex itself was held a sacrament, and Jesus himself had a consort in Mary Magdalene. All this points to one of the most fundamental differences of Gnosticism to the Orthodox Christianity, which snuffed it out: God is ultimately male and female.A second major difference is the consideration of the scriptures themselves. They were stories, and a fundamentalist interpretation of them was impossible. The very same sect of Gnostics could embrace books that gave two different accounts of the same thing. This was possible because the Gnostics were storytellers, not metaphysical historians. The truth was not in the stories, but in the goal of the stories, which was a direct experience of the divine, or higher spiritual states.This leads us into the most important major difference between the Gnostics and the Orthodoxy; the Gnostics believed the journey to God was a journey within. The connection to divinity was present in the individual, not an exterior church.It is easy to see why Gnosticism was not popular with the emerging Holy Roman Empire during the 4th century. If the church was to retain power, if Rome was to remain an empire in any way, it had to be necessary as a bridge to the divine. Pagles shows how the establishment of what became Catholicism was politically, rather than divinely, inspired. A must read for anyone interested in early Christianity.

  • Katie
    2019-06-09 01:47

    This is a really fascinating book, and a great introduction to Gnosticism. It's learned, it places theological ideas in a socio-political context, and it's enjoyable to read. Pagel's biggest success is in the way she ties the controversy between gnostic and orthodox ideas into contemporary social and political issues and uses them to explain why orthodox ideas ultimately won out. It paints a picture where orthodox Christianity isn't the camp that won because it's ideas were any 'truer,' but because it's ideas were far more widely accessible to the social and political structures that predominated in the 1st through 4th centuries.My only criticism would be that Pagels occasionally over-emphasizes the dichotomy between orthodoxy and gnosticism and skims over any potential overlap. While she does acknowledge that the overlap is there, she doesn't really delve into the issue. At one point she points out that while gnostics tended to be internalized and personal, they also made extensive use of familial and social language in their writings. But she never expands upon it, which is a bit frustrating. But this is designed to be an introductory book, so that's certainly not a large flaw. Definitely worth a read if you're interested in the development of early Christiainty.

  • Mackey St
    2019-06-08 01:42

    The Gnostic Gospels is a well written, thoroughly researched book on the gospels that were purposefully not included in what is now known as the "Christian Bible." These include the famous scrolls found in a cave and known as the "dead seas" scrolls among other writings - all of which have been dated and authenticated. Having been subjected to an ultra-conservative parochial school education whose science and history never made sense to me and whose religious timeline for history never quite fit into that of the learned world, I struggled with those whose only belief is the common Biblical text. After reading The Gnostic Gospels I was opened to a larger interpretation of the texts, a different viewpoint, which then encouraged me to do my own research into these texts and the world's timeline. To say that this book and Elaine Pagels changed my life is literally an understatement.

  • Barnaby Thieme
    2019-06-12 06:45

    This brief introduction to the Gnostic scriptures discovered at Nag Hammadi is instantly recognizable as a classic. It is beautifully written, deeply informative, and utterly fascinating. Pagels presents the Gnostics as representing various competing doctrines in the charged religious landscape of the first few centuries of the first millennium, competing against groups that would eventually ascend as canonical and orthodox representatives of the catholic church of Christ. Pagels is clearly interested in historicizing the process of canon formation as a way of opening contemporary Christians to the possibilities of bringing modern liberal sensibilities to bear on the religious symbology of Christianity. She argues that the Christian church is not intrinsically opposed to an equal role for women and feminine images of the divine. Nor is it closed to placing primary emphasis on personal creative insight and experience as the basis for faith, as opposed to the reliance on dogma and orthodox liturgy. She finds considerable and persuasive historical evidence for her claims by establishing these as core doctrines of the Gnostics, who would eventually be exiled as heretics from the belief space of Christian dogmatics. Pagels persuasively depicts the Gnostic scriptures as akin to contemporary depth analysis or mystical traditions such as Buddhism in their sensibility, evoking the well-known Gospels of Thomas and Philip to portray Jesus as a spiritual teacher who encouraged his disciples to look to their own divinity instead of deifying him. Pagels argues that many of the core doctrines of the Nicene Creed evolved in part as a specific attempt to exclude Gnostic scripture from the canon, including the emphasis placed on the primacy of the church of the Apostolic succession as the vehicle of redemption over and above personal experience. In one fascinating and moving chapter Pagels argues that the image of the crucifixion gained its central position in the first two centuries of the first millennium as a psychological projection and hypostasis of the terrors the early Christians felt at the very real danger they would themselves have to undergo torment and death at the hands of the Romans. The Gnostics faced less danger than their orthodox brethren and in their accounts the crucifixion plays a different role -- it serves as an illustration of the bodily suffering of Christ that left his spiritual being undisturbed. One can easily understand how early Church leaders who watched their own beloved leaders torn apart by animals and burned as torches in the gardens of Nero would be incensed by the suggestion that martyrdom in the model of Christ was anything less than an absolute sign of redemption. Pagels could have -- and I would go so far as to say "should have" -- written a parallel chapter on the evolution of the fever-dream cosmology of the Gnostics as a parallel hypostasization of their own fears of persecution. Indeed, the most striking omission from the book is a meaningful consideration of this central aspect of Gnosticism -- its weird and paranoid view of a universe created by an insane God and governed by malevolent overlords. "Ialdabaoth" receives but one brief entry in the book's index, and "Archon" receives no mention at all. What is one to make of this? The Gnosticism that Pagels represents has clearly been sanitized for popular consumption, with its many bizarre and problematic doctrines minimized, explained symbolically, or ignored altogether. This is rather unfortunate. Despite this glaring weakness, this book will undoubtedly serve as the standard brief introduction to the doctrines espoused in the Nag Hammadi library and should be considered essential reading for those interested in mystical traditions or the evolution of early Christian doctrine. Very highly recommended.

  • Kiarash
    2019-05-29 01:46

    کتاب یک سری عقاید فرقه های گنوسی یا عرفانی مسیحی قرن های اول و دوم میلادی را بر اساس متون یافت شده تپه های ناگ حمادی بررسی میکند. یکی از نکات جالب برای من شباهت زیاد عقاید با عرفان ایرانی بود از جنبه های مختلف از جمله تغییر چهره دین و محدود کردن و کوتاه کردن دست نهاد دین و مرجعیت دینی ارتدوکس.در مورد سرچشمه عقاید عرفانی اختلاف نظر وجود داره گروهی معتقد هستند تحت تاثیر اندیشه های شرق آسیا این افکار شکل گرفته و گروهی ریشه اون رو در اندیشه های زرتشتی و از خاستگاه ایران میدونند.

  • Miles Zarathustra
    2019-06-08 05:05

    If you're gullible enough to buy the idea that the Bible is infallible, this book is not for you.If you're feeling like there has got to be more to the story that what you are told, this book is an wonderful starting place. Elaine Pagels is concise and lively in style, and her scholarship is excellent. Others have filled in with greater bulk and more voluminous scholarship, but this book (and the other I have read) get straight to the point. Her books are short and a good read.The title refers to a sect of Christianity based on the idea that "Gnosis" (Greek for 'knowing') is the correct path to God. In other words, where the mainstream church decided that one must adhere to the teaching of the Bible as interpreted by the hierarchy of the church, the gnostics believed that direct knowledge could bypass all of these political structures. Pagels explains in various ways how the church saw these ideas as a threat to their political power, which is why they were stamped out and all of their books burned... save the tiny fragments of text that survived in Nag Hammadi Egypt, a story almost as amazing as the texts themselves. She also addresses a range of other topics (e.g. the wisdom of the snake in the Garden of Eden, and the role of Women) in an illuminating and entertaining manner.

  • Christine Giraud
    2019-06-03 01:44

    This book is about how, after JC's death, there was a struggle between heretic believers- those who believed in personal enlightenment and shunned a church hierarchy- and the disciple of John's beievers- patriarchal, hierarchal, congregational- and why John's side won. GG is based on the gnostic gospels which were discovered in urns buried in a cave in Egypt 1950. They had likely been suppressed by the dominant faction. It does a good job describing how present-day Christianity evolved and, in a sense, how many other religions evolve, for good or for ill. The pattern is as such: leader dies; followers dispute what his teachings meant and diverge into different paths; one branch gains dominance and spends a lot of it's time exterminating the others. This is the same in Islam, probably also in Judaeism,

  • Ken-ichi
    2019-06-17 02:03

    Given that my atheism was birthed from a Catholic upbringing, you'd think I'd know a little more about Christian history, but I don't. Enter Elaine Pagels, Christian historian par excellence! I'd heard her discussing Revelations on Fresh Air earlier this year and was intrigued, so I figured I'd give her work a try. Well worth it.For the uninitiated, the canonical Christian New Testament represents but a handful of documents chosen from numerous texts about the life and times of Jesus written in the 200 years following his death. This book is about a number of them discovered half a century ago that describe a wild diversity of ideas, most of which adhere to a principle called "gnosticism," which, to put it in terms that will make theologians cringe, holds that divinity should be sought through introspection, not through external sources, e.g. you don't reach God through the church; you need to find him/her yourself (or, as my friend n8 described it in tech terms, "the Bible is SVN and the gnostic gospels are git"). Pagels' thesis is "to show how gnostic forms of Christianity interact with orthodoxy – and what this tells us about the origins of Christianity itself" (p. xxxiv), with the sub-point that texts included in the canonical Bible were often chosen for political and not ideological reasons.Big claims! Obviously it's sort of impossible to prove things like this, but Pagels does a good job of trying. If you're going to unify a church it's pretty clear that rejecting texts that are explicitly anti-authoritarian is a good idea, but there are some less obvious ideas, like the appeal of Christ's literal suffering and resurrection over metaphorical interpretations, or who Jesus appeared to first after rebooting himself.Aside from the many wondrous facts, what interested me most about this book was that it presented more evidence that the spread of good ideas is not inevitable. Reading about the rise of feminism in late-Roman / early-Christian times was a bit like reading that these people flew around in airplanes: if they'd progressed so far toward the present era's state of moral development, why didn't they take it further and abolish slavery (and check Facebook on complimentary airplane WiFi)? My conclusion from Pagels' descriptions of church political machinations is that ideas are only as powerful as the people who believe them. Gnostics believed all kinds of things, but they did not seem to truck much with organization and political power. The orthodoxy did. They won the popularity contest and spawned an ideology that swept the world. The gnostics spawned a few dusty scrolls in an Egyptian urn, and their ideas were extinguished until others could think them up again.It's also a bit absurd reading any of these texts from an atheistic perspective. All of them, including the canonical ones, read like a crazy person's website, or the preachings of a street loony. I watched The Master halfway through reading this and it was hard not to imagine Philip Seymour Hoffman intoning some of this claptrap. I had to keep reminding myself that presumably large numbers of people took this stuff very seriously, so it's worth trying to figure out why.

  • Marvin
    2019-06-01 02:55

    I was already familiar with the Gnostic Gospels, mainly through the lectures and writings of Bart Erhmann, before I picked up this earlier book. However Elaine Pagels' study on these writings of Early Christianity is essential in spreading light on this topic. One of the things this book does so well is setting the gnostic idea in its time and how it was at odds with "Orthodox" Christianity. She writes on how Gnosticism simply wasn't equipped to survive amongst an alternative Christianity that favored structure and hierarchy. She also does an excellent job in describing the tenets of Gnosticism and the writings of various Gnostic authors and how they compared to the early writings of traditional Christianity. Pagels rarely writes opinion but ties her thoughts directly to the actual writings on the time. Nor does she takes sides, conscious that her role as historian is to present the facts no matter how controversial or unusual it may seem to our modern minds. This is possibly the first and best book on the subject of the Gnostic Gospels.

  • Ashish Samuel
    2019-06-08 01:42

    If you were instigated to read up on gnostic gospels by fantastic polemic works like that of Ehrman, you are going to find this book somewhat underwhelming. It left me wondering whether Pagels watered down the revolutionary and blasphemous ideas of the gnostic movement or if Ehrman overplayed it. While Ehrman's works have a dramatic quality that captures your imagination (and gets him invited to numerous talks and debates with orthodox scholars), Elaine Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels has a sobriety that convinces you of a more scholarly outlook. Rather than emphasising on stray opinions of the numerous gnosticists of the antiquity, she compiles the views of the mainstream heretics and puts them in the historical and evolutionary context of orthodox christianity.If you are hoping for some explosive insights into the apocryphal beginnings that might lead to another Dan Brown novel, I doubt you will find any here. Though it is clear she is very much erudite and involved in the subject, she doesn't sound too impressed by the teachings of the gnostics. The focus of the book is more on the relationship between the gnostic and the orthodox branches of Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era rather than the instructions and stories of the gnostic gospels. Only passing references are made to pre-christian gnosticism and its links with near eastern spiritualism. She also doesn't dwell on the groundbreaking gospel of Judas. It is clear her goal was not to milk the controversial gossips that mushroomed in the medieval world but to give an objective overview of gnosticism.That being said, adding more specifics would have made the book more exciting. It's only in the penultimate chapter that she finally gets into the actual teachings and rituals of the gnostics. Even there she uses fair dose of conservatism and caution befitting a scholar approaching a subject that is still in developing phase. Like I said, not so fascinating.In so many words and with much professionalism, Elaine Pagels calls what Gnosticism was - a bunch of self proclaimed intellectuals, each with their own visions and ecstatic trances that rarely fit well with each other. The most enlightening realisation I had from this book was that 'gnosis' means knowledge but not as in 'I know nuclear physics', but as in 'I know my mother'. It is not evidence based, rather insights the real God (and not the demiurge) gives to individuals via Sophia. In fact, seeking evidences that support their claims was akin to insulting those elite knowledge seekers. Maybe some research on the access to cannabis during early centuries of CE in the mediterranean region will shed more light on gnosticism.Hence, even though the book wasn't as thrilling as I hoped, I appreciate Pagels for keeping it real.

  • Ivy-Mabel Fling
    2019-06-02 03:04

    A very clear and fascinating introduction to the subject! I would recommend it.

  • Behnaz
    2019-06-03 23:44

    Sono cresciuta da una madre appartenente ad una minoranza musulmana e un padre laico. Durante gli anni della scuola non ho mai frequentato le lezioni di religione ( questo a prescindere dal paese in cui mi trovavo). Di conseguenza posso dire di essere una perfetta ignorante per quanto riguarda le religioni e in modo particolare il cristianesimo.Il libro di Elaine Pagels offre un'introduzione completa ma allo stesso tempo semplice e scorrevole dell'origine del cristianesimo. Lei stessa, professoressa di Harvard, ha contribuito alla traduzione dei 52 testi gnostici in copto trovati in Egitto. Pur essendo una vera e propria esperta riesce a spiegare il tutto in modo chiaro e conciso e senza perdersi troppo tra le varie teorie.Sono stata particolarmente colpita dal libro. Nell'introduzione Pagels racconta come questi 52 testi sono stati trovati nel 1945 a Nag Hammadi e di come segnarono una nuova epoca per lo studio delle origini del cristianesimo. Per tanti anni i testi scoperti a Nag Hammadi rimasero inutilizzati dagli studiosi per motivi probabilmente politici. Non appena fu permesso agli studiosi di consultare i papiri, un gruppo di professori europei e americani hanno partecipato al restauro dei papiri.Quel che viene riportato nel libro sono gli elementi chiave dello gnosticismo. Dopo una breve introduzione sulla filosofia dello gnosticismo, il libro riporta in ogni capitolo un elemento di disputa tra i cristiani ortodossi e gli gnostici ( capitolo II: la resurrezione va interpretata in modo simbolico o letterale? capitolo III: un unico Dio, un unico vescovo? capitolo IV: c'e' anche un simbolismo femminile per Dio ? ).Lo gnostico crede che in ogni essere umano ci sia un elemento divino che attende una scintilla per ritornare verso la vera patria e verso il supremo creatore dal quale e' venuto e al quale incessantemente dovrebbe sentirsi attratto. La scintilla nella maggior parte dei casi consiste nel conoscere profondamente l'Io, di fatto la conoscenza di se' in quanto creati dal Dio supremo porta anche alla sua conoscenza. Dio per motivi strettamente politici nei molti dei testi gnostici non e' visto come il classico Dio delle religioni monoteiste bensi come una forza suprema nascosta che va cercata e lo si trova solo dopo essersi liberati dalla sfera del Dio demiurgo ( un essere geloso che in realta' puo' solo regnare e punire gli uomini ma che si diverte dicendo di essere lui il vero Dio) attraverso il rito di redenzione. Valentino attraverso questa tattica probabilmente voleva permettere ai propri seguaci di sfidare la chiesa e il suo vescovo in quanto legati al demiurgo e non al vero Padre.Il capitolo legato alla resurrezione l'ho trovato molto interessante anche per il fatto che l'interpretazione offerta dagli gnostici sembra di gran lunga piu' plausibile.Nel libro sono riportate varie opinioni di studiosi che non credono che lo gnosticismo sia una forma di eresia cristiana bensi una religione autonomacon antiche radici orientali ( tra le ipotesi avanzate: fonti babilonesi, radici indiani, buddisti o legati allo zoroastrismo persiano ) , teorie plausibili in quanto molte teorie e il misticismo profondamente penetrato nel credo gnostico hanno molto in comune con la filosofia orientale.Un libro consigliato , consigliatissimo anche per chi pensa di non essere porta a non-fiction storici.

  • John Pistelli
    2019-06-15 04:07

    In this 1979 classic of popular non-fiction, religious scholar Elaine Pagels explains to a broad audience the theological significance of the trove of early Christian writings discovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Not only that, but she also places these documents in their social and political context, largely to explain why the diverse body of thought labeled "gnostic" was so decisively defeated by the ideas and institutions of what would become Christian orthodoxy. Finally, Pagels, while unsurprised by gnosticism's defeat, suggests the perennial appeal—if only to artists, mystics, and other anti-social types—of the gnostic vision, with its emphasis on individual spiritual experience as against all hierarchies and establishments.What is gnosticism? While Pagels is at pains to emphasize the diversity of the Nag Hammadi writings (the "gnostic gospels" of her title), some generalizations can be made. Gnosticism tends to posit the creator God of the Hebrew Bible as a mere demiurge, who fashioned this botched reality we inhabit out of malice or stupidity; the true God lies well beyond nature, and is only evidenced by the sparks of divinity lodged in the souls of human beings, like gems scattered amid offal. Because this world is not merely fallen but evil or illusory, then human hierarchies and institutions are religiously irrelevant, and the believer comes to God not by following someone else's rules but by attaining private knowledge (gnosis) of the God within. Having dismissed nature and the body, the figure of Christ becomes less important as the incarnate God, a God who is also flesh and who died a real death; Christ is rather a kind of alien emissary modeling the ascended human rather than the descended deity: "Jesus was not a human being at all; instead, he was a spiritual being who adapted himself to human perception," Pagels explains. Finally, with hierarchies made irrelevant by the distance of the true God, the gender distinction so important to Christian orthodoxy is de-emphasized and a greater place allotted to female spirituality and indeed female divinity. Gnostics have no need of codes and canons: "like artists, they express their own insight—their own gnosis—by creating new myths, poems, rituals, 'dialogues' with Christ, revelations, and accounts of their visions."The body of thought that would win out over gnosticism stressed, by contrast, an ordered hierarchy:As God reigns in Heaven as master, lord, commander, judge, and king, so on earth he delegates his rule to members of the church hierarchy, who serve as generals who command an army of subordinates; kings who rules over "the people"; judges who preside in God's place.As Christianity expanded, its institutions could not sustain the kind of spiritual anarchy gnosticism portended if it was to organize a mass constituency:Seeking to unify the diverse churches scattered throughout the world into a single network, the bishops eliminated qualitative criteria for church membership. Evaluating each candidate on the basis of spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness, as the gnostics did, would require a far more complex administration.Pagels concludes that "the religious perspectives and methods of gnosticism did not lend themselves to mass religion."The above summary hints at who Pagels seems to be asking us to root for: the plucky anarcho-feminist artists against the stodgy authoritarian bishops. This is a more serious book than that, though. In one chapter, Pagels stresses the importance to believers of Christ's incarnation, especially in the context of Christian persecution: how gravely moving it is to worship a God who was willing to suffer just as you suffer. The gnostic's quasi-Platonic hologram Christ is, in a sense, much less interesting or original, another theophany who doesn't really bleed or weep as we do. Moreover, gnosticism is a private religion, with each member his or her own church, whereas, Pagels explains, "[r]ejecting such religious elitism, orthodox leaders attempted instead to construct a universal church." Pagels understands that in religion (as in politics) there is a necessary tension between the individual and the collective, insight and iteration, agency and structure, anarchy and community. She shows the gnostic traces in orthodox thought from the Gospel of John to the dissents of the church fathers—because even the orthodox sometimes sense the need to make a separate peace with our alien cosmos—just as she carefully notes the less appealing qualities of gnosticism's more chaotic theology.But gnosticism is appealing for all that. Pagels observes that, while it was extirpated by orthodoxy, it survived throughout the Christian era from medieval heresies (e.g., the Cathars) to Protestant mysticism. She several times mentions psychoanalysis as a modern manifestation of gnosticism: "For gnostics, exploring the psyche became explicitly what it is for many people today implicitly—a religious quest." Not to mention the Romantic poets and post-Christian philosophers and proto-Existentialist novelists who have been drawn to a sublime of spiritual insight beyond matter and humanity:William Blake, noting such different portraits of Jesus in the New Testament, sided with the one the gnostics preferred against "the vision of Christ that all men see" […] Nietzsche, who detested what he knew of Christianity, nevertheless wrote: "There was only one Christian, and he died on the cross." Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, attributes to Ivan a vision of the Christ rejected by the church, the Christ who "desired man's free love, that he should follow Thee freely," choosing the truth of one's own conscience over material well-being, social approval, and religious certainty.Pagels does not mention, because, I assume, it was much less visible in 1979, gnosticism's massive influence in late-twentieth-century popular culture, an influence that is probably at least partially attributable to her own book; see a semi-whimsical old Tumblr post of mine for details, and see Victoria Nelson for a more responsible treatment. Most disappointingly to me, she also does not mention the political interpretation of gnosticism: Eric Voeglin, for instance, believed that modern political movements like Marxism and fascism, with their "ruthless critique of everything existing" (per Marx) and their consequent desire to re-organize all human life via the state according to otherworldly ideas of justice, derived essentially from gnostic thought—a controversial idea updated for the post-Cold-War period and its perhaps now collapsing neoconservative/neoliberal consensus by such thinkers as John Gray and Peter Y. Paik. Pagels's focus on gnostic anarchy and individualism may well be an antidote to such attempts to materialize the alien God through the bloody rites of mass politics. Likewise, Herman Melville imagined in his remarkable short lyric "Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century" that gnosticism enjoins withdrawal from all activity, an ineradicable spiritual impulse despite its worse-than-uselessness to the organization of humanity: Found a family, build a state,The pledged event is still the same:Matter in end will never abateHis ancient brutal claim.Indolence is heaven’s ally here,And energy the child of hell:The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clearBut brims the poisoned well.

  • Colin Cordner
    2019-06-04 07:02

    As a general introduction to the phenomenon of gnosticism, or to the gnostic texts themselves, Prof. Pagels' famous book is quite flawed. Despite her laudable attempt to recover a sense of neutrality late in the work, her analysis as a whole is afflicted with unscholarly and often frankly political biases. These are further compounded by the simple lack of depth or profundity in her theoretical analysis.As example of the first bias, the reader can sense the palpable and obvious attempt to juxtapose the gnostic sects versus the proto-orthodox Church as an opposition between democratic versus hierarchical organization. The implication, of course, is that gnosticism is democratic and was therefore somehow more legitimate than the actual authoritarian structure of the Roman Catholic church. This is rather questionable, given the author's own assiduous admission that the orthodox Christianity was and is, in fact, more welcoming and universal in fact, faith, and act than the gnostic sects, whose members considered themselves a spiritual breed apart and above the masses of human beings.This lends itself to an example of a chief theoretical defect: the lack of penetration into the originating experiences which gave rise to gnosis as a symbolic form, and a lack of critical analysis of that form. The substitution of "gnosis" for faith and reason in the classical senses is no small matter, and itself indicative of a radical break with both the classical philosophic tradition of Hellas and the theophanic traditions of Israel and the Gospels. The added aspects of severe alienation from and revolt against the world and the very structure of being (defining characteristics of gnosticism) also remain unanalyzed throughout Pagels' work. This inspite of the fact that these are quite obviously shown in the gnostic repudiation of the Creator and the Old Testament, and the sometimes implied, often overt, anti-Jewish sentiments expressed in the gnostic texts. Pagels mentions the anti-Jewish sentiments only in passing.On the whole, the book is not very well executed, and is better understood as a well-intentioned but ham-fisted political manifesto than a serious historical, theological, or philosopic study.

  • John
    2019-06-08 03:54

    This was a re-read (for Easter!); I can't recall when I first read it, but I'm guessing it's been 15-20 years. On that first read, I found this study of the early Christian texts that didn't make it into the Bible incredibly eye-opening. Many years later, I can see the flaws more easily; it's fairly repetitious, and Pagels bases her arguments about the Gnostics on only a handful of texts, even though many more were available to her (some make a sudden appearance in the final chapter, and you have to wonder why only then), so that you have to wonder if she's cherry-picking her sources. She also spends too little time, for my taste, connecting the Gnostic texts to their obvious kin in both Buddhism and in Greek philosophy; both connections get mentioned, but neither feels sufficiently explored. Still, it's a terrific introduction to a story too few know, about the decentralized, fragmented, almost chaotic nature of early Christianity and its teachings, and about how what eventually emerged as Christianity and the New Testament did so, and at what cost (to both persons and ideas). More than anything, it's the story of how a version of Christianity that would have emphasized universal divinity in all humans and individual spiritual quests as the essence of religious life -- as well as one that made space for a Divine Feminine, a concept notably absent from the Abrahamic religions -- lost out to (and was ruthlessly suppressed by) the version we know, with its emphasis on a perfect God external from mankind, on deity worship, and on adherence to dogma. Pagels knows, and acknowledges, that the version of Christianity that emphasized order, hierarchy, and submission succeeded precisely because of that emphasis, running roughshod over what sound like squabbling packs of proto-hippies trying to "find themselves" (self-actualization is nice, but order, hierarchy, and obedience is what builds an institution that lasts for millennia). Ironically, the ancient and forgotten version(s) of Christianity that vanished with the Gnostics sound a lot like the spirituality modern seekers disaffected with organized religion long for; it's fascinating to imagine what the history of the West would have been if those Christianities had become Christianity itself.

  • Scatterbooker
    2019-06-06 01:00

    Fascinating insight into early Christianity gnosticIn 1945 fifty-two papyrus texts were found in an earthenware jar buried in the desert in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These texts are Coptic translations from Greek texts that were written by gnostic Christians around the same time as the New Testament. They are very different from the Christianity we know, though.Gnostic Christians had many ideas and beliefs in common with Catholic Christians, but they differed on some key ideas. So much so that they eventually were branded as heretics and shunned from Christianity altogether, which is most likely why these texts were buried around the same time the New Testament was being compiled.I believe that the key difference can be found in the names of the two groups. The Greek meaning for gnosis translates to ‘knowledge’ while Catholic translates to ‘universal’. So the Catholics cater for the masses while the Gnostics focus on the self.World renowned religious scholar, Elaine Pagels, examines several of the key differences between the Gnostic and Catholic Christians. These differences include beliefs about Christ’s resurrection, structure/authority in church, the gender of God, the Passion of Christ, and martyrdom. She sees these differences as instrumental in the downfall of the Gnostics and the rise of the Catholics, particularly the structure of the church.I found the Gnostic Gospels absolutely fascinating. It was easy to read and Pagels did a brilliant job bringing these ancient texts to life. I think it says a lot about human nature that the Catholic version of Christianity won out over the much more solipsistic and antiauthoritarian Gnostics were proclaimed heretics!There are a plethora of David Bowie songs that could fit with this novel, but I’m going to go with his last one, Lazarus. Like the Gnostics, Bowie spent a lot of time researching religion, so his last words on the matter are the most appropriate.

  • Robert Case
    2019-06-04 00:50

    I began this book with a fascination with the ancient Minoan civilization, a keen interest in the people and cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, and knowing virtually nothing about Gnosticism. What an enlightening and enjoyable read! The book is based upon Elaine Pagels' interpretations of fragments of early texts, written in Coptic during the first two hundred years following the crucifixion. The author summarizes not just the writings of these early spiritual leaders, but also examines them within the social and political issues of the times.The Gnostic texts, discovered in 1948 in a remote Egyptian cave, describe a spiritual tradition of meditation, inner visions, and self-discovery, rather than a quest for salvation. The author's translation and interpretation from the Gospel of Thomas resonates with me: "There is light within a man of light, and it lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness." In Pagels' reconstruction of the period, another profound distinction between the Gnostics and the orthodox view that became the Roman Catholic church, was the participation of women and men as equals in their religious traditions. Mary Magdalene as apostle, is the prominent example. The texts describe God in both masculine and feminine terms with a complementary description of human nature. The book is a fascinating look into the social and political aspects of the first two hundred years of the Christian church.

  • Jody Mena
    2019-06-24 01:54

    Fascinating and thought provoking. This is a very thorough historical examination of the conflict between the orthodox and gnostic perspectives of Christianity in its first centuries, based on various scriptures (canonical and apocryphal) as well as the writings of religious scholars and historians from that time. At the end, the author disclaims that she doesn't necessarily agree with or 'side' with a gnostic view of Christian philosophy. More's the pity - she demonstrated quite well, in my opinion, that Gnostic Christianity is far more practical, far more spiritually relevant, and makes far more sense than Orthodox Christianity; and this not through her own words, but through the words of the people that shaped the religion themselves. This is definitely a book worth reading, regardless of your religious beliefs, because Christianity has such a huge influence on our world today, and this book well illuminates an alternate perspective that forces us to question many things we've always assumed could only be understood in one way. Definitely pick it up if you come across it, it's a bit dry at times, but full of ideas worth exploring.

  • Dave
    2019-06-12 05:42

    I found the book fascinating. The description of the discovery and coming to light of the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of Gnostic writings including gospels, apocalypses, and other early Christian/Gnostic books called apocryphal that did not make it into the New Testament because of the heretical views expressed. The narrative shows the extreme division among early Christian groups and the struggle between ecclesiastical authority (orthodoxy) and individual conscience (the various heterodox groups called Gnostics). Some pieces of Gnostic philosophy were passed to me in my Mormon Sunday School classes.

  • Mark
    2019-06-26 04:45

    A well written work whose basic thesis is that the modern New Testament exists in its current form for a political reason: because the four gospels trace Divine Authority to the Church and the pope. Other so called Gnostic Gospels were discarded or rejected because they allowed the faithful to find their own salvation within themselves. In short, gnosticism was a threat to Church authority in the same way that Protestantism was: neither require a pope or a church or a priest. Thus, Gnoticism was rejected and Luther was excommunicated.

  • Jason Robinson
    2019-06-05 23:59

    Heady stuff, but still accessible for the layman.

  • Pete daPixie
    2019-06-21 01:40

    One of the few Christian writers I can enjoy reading.

  • Cooper Cooper
    2019-06-16 03:09

    During the first and second centuries, when Christians were still a persecuted minority and stuggling to organize themselves, a zillion sects duked it out ideologically, ginning out a plethora of interpretations of what Christianity actually signified. The Catholic Church as we know it today eventually won out and, after gaining secular as well as religious power when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century, began vigorously persecuting dissident sects as heresies. Many of the “heretical” sects were so-called gnostics who refused to buy the orthodox party line. What, then, did the gnostics believe? Most gnostics believed that Christ spoke not literally but metaphorically (for example, the Resurrection symbolized spiritual rebirth) and that his message was designed not for the masses but for the “spiritually mature” who had gained insight (gnosis) through personal revelation. They thought that through enlightenment a person became Christ (“Christ’s twin”) and therefore could trust his own experience and needed no external authority to explain things spiritual. The gnostics recognized no authority but Christ, and even Christ only as a provisional authority. As for God, many gnostics could not reconcile the cruel God of the Old Testament with the beneficent God of the New Testament; they thought that the true God was unknowable and that what the orthodox Christians mistook for God was actually the Demiurge, a demonic being who created our highly imperfect world. As for sin, most gnostics believed that it consisted not of innate moral turpitude but of ignorance: ignorance was sin and gnosis (spiritual insight) was the way to overcome it. Further, many gnostics were highly democratic: for each meeting different members played the leadership roles (as determined by lot); the gnostics encouraged friendships among equals rather than subservience to leaders. Unlike the patriarchal orthodox Christians, many gnostics treated women as equals. Gnostic ideas were of course extremely threatening to the orthodox Christians (proto-Catholics), who insisted on one God and the dominance of a hierarchy (bishops, priests, deacons) whose absolute authority was derived from Jesus himself by way of the apostles (the so-called “apostolic succession”). The proto-Catholics based their organization on that of the Roman Empire, in which power meant everything. The underlying assumption was that the masses are too ignorant and too unspiritual to imitate Christ; they must be fed simple beliefs (for example, that the one God is good and that man is sinful and that Christ was born of a virgin and that after crucifixion Christ was literally resurrected in the flesh), rules (“canons”) and rituals (the eucharist, for example, and Lent) to alleviate their fear of death, to satisfy their need for security and to keep them in line morally. Many gnostics called proto-Catholicism a phony religion, a shabby imitation that altogether lost the true spirit of (Christ-like) Christianity. What are the “Gnostic Gospels”? They’re the gospels—among them the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Philip—written at the same time as the gospels of the New Testament, but excluded because of their gnostic slant. Why is this a big deal now? Because most of these gospels were not discovered until 1945, when an illiterate Egyptian peasant (named Muhammed Ali ) found them in a cave where they’d sat in a sealed jar for 1800 years. After a protracted delay while academics played their usual me-first power games, these gospels and other documents (those that weren’t used as fireplace fuel by Muhammed Ali’s mother) have been painstakingly translated and published—see for example, The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, edited by Marvin Meyer and introduction by Elaine Pagels. To the spiritually-minded, gnostic Christianity has to seem superior to the Catholic brand because it is more genuine and more democratic and less concerned with power and status—in other words, it’s more Christ-like and less like a quasi-religious version of the Roman Empire. It is ironical that gnosticism failed to prevail precisely because it was a Christ-like religion of the few that preached personal freedom against orthodoxy, and therefore could not and did not develop a tightly-organized, authoritarian, jealous, militant institution strong enough to survive through the ages. And as Pagels says, “History is written by the winners.” However, the discovery of the gnostic gospels is leading to a bit of redaction by the “losers.” Here are some excerpts from Pagel’s book: [The gnostic:] Marcion was struck by what he saw as the contrast between the creator-God of the Old Testament, who demands justice and punishes every violation of his law, and the Father whom Jesus proclaims—the New Testament God of forgiveness and love. Why, he asked, would a God who is “almighty”—all-powerful—create a world that includes suffering, pain, disease—even mosquitoes and scorpions? Marcion concluded that there must be two different Gods. The majority of Christians early condemned this view as dualistic, and identified themselves as orthodox by confessing one God, who is both “Father Almighty” and “Maker of heaven and earth.” It is not God, [the gnostic Valentinus:] explains, but the demiurge who reigns as king and lord, who acts as a military commander, who gives the law and judges those who violate it—in short, he is the “God of Israel.” …some gnostic Christians went so far as to claim that humanity created God—and so, from its own inner potential, discovered for itself the revelation of truth. This conviction may underlie the ironic comment in the Gospel of Philip: “…God created humanity; [but now human beings:] create God. That is the way it is in the world—human beings make gods, and worship their creation. It would be appropriate for the gods to worship human beings!” “One God, one bishop”—this became the orthodox slogan. Ignatius warns “the laity” to revere, honor, and obey the bishop “as if he were God.” For the bishop, standing at the pinnacle of the church hierarchy, presides “in the place of God.” Who, then, stands below God? The divine council, Ignatius replies. And as God rules over that council in heaven, so the bishop on earth rules over a council of priests. The heavenly divine council, in turn, stands above the apostles; so, on earth, the priests rule over the deacons—and all three of these rule over “the laity.” How did members of this circle of “pneumatics” (literally, “those who are spiritual”) conduct their meetings? Irenaeus tells us that when they met, all the members first participated in drawing lots. Whoever received a certain lot apparently was designated to take the role of priest; another was to offer the sacrament, as bishop; another would read the Scriptures for worship, and others would address the group as a prophet, offering contemporaneous spiritual instruction. The next time the group met, they would throw lots again so that the persons taking each role changed continually. …gnostics who regarded the essential part of every person as the “inner spirit” dismissed…physical experience, pleasurable or painful, as a distraction from spiritual reality—indeed, as an illusion. No wonder, then, that far more people identified with the orthodox portrait than with the “bodiless spirit” of gnostic tradition. …solitude derives from the gnostics’ insistence on the primacy of immediate experience. No one can tell another which way to go, what to do, how to act. The gnostic could not accept on faith what others said, except as a provisional measure, until one found one’s own path, for, as the gnostic teacher Heracleon says, “people at first are led to believe in the Savior through others,” but when they become mature “they no longer rely on mere human testimony,” but discover instead their own immediate relationship with “the truth itself.” Most people live, then, in oblivion—or, in contemporary terms, in unconsciousness. Remaining unaware of their own selves, they have “no root.” The Gospel of Truth describes such existence as a nightmare. Those who live in it experience “terror and confusion and instability and doubt and division,” being caught in “many illusions.” Why did the orthodox view of martyrdom—and of Christ’s death as its model—prevail? I suggest that persecution gave impetus to the formation of the organized church structure that developed by the end of the second century. To place the question in a contemporary context, consider what recourse remains to dissidents facing a massive and powerful political system: they attempt to publicize cases of violence and injustice to arouse world-wide public support. We can see, then, how conflicts arose in the formation of Christianity between those restless, inquiring people who marked out a solitary path of self-discovery and the institutional framework that gave to the great majority of people religious sanction for their daily lives. Adopting for its own purposes the model of Roman political and military organization, and gaining, in the fourth century, imperial support, orthodox Christianity grew increasingly stable and enduring.

  • Elizabeth Shafer
    2019-06-08 07:10

    I'm usually bored or indifferent to books about religion. This one, though, is a deep and fascinating account of the first few centuries after Jesus lived, and the controversy between orthodox Christianity and the gnostic gospels. The latter are 52 spiritual texts discovered in 1945 in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These were Coptic translations made in c. 350--400 A.D, of ancient Greek texts. Some, like The Gospel of Thomas, may include traditions even older than the gospels of the New Testament, possibly as early as 50--100 A.D.: as early as, or even earlier than, those of Jesus' disciples. In six concise and eloquent chapters, Pagels describes the controversy over Christ's Resurrection, the politics of Monotheism, views about God the Father vs. God the Mother, the Passion of Christ and the persecution of Christians, the question of whose Church is the 'True' one, and Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God. Pagels gives persuasive hypotheses about the political background for the differences between the strict adherence to dogma and rituals of orthodox Christianity and the inquiring, individualized approach of the gnostics. Apropos of the quest for self-knowledge as knowledge of God, Pagels alludes to a koan-like passage from The Gospel of Thomas: "if you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."