The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic Gospels

by Elaine Pagels


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A provocative study of the gnostic gospels and the world of early Christianity as revealed through the Nag Hammadi texts.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679724537
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/1989
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 41,030
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Elaine Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She is the author of several books, including Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, the New York Times bestseller Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, and The Gnostic Gospels, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award. Professor Pagels lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

The Controversy over Christ’s Resurrection: Historical Event or Symbol?
“JESUS CHRIST ROSE from the grave.” With this proclamation, the Christian church began. This may be the fundamental element of Christian faith; certainly it is the most radical. Other religions celebrate cycles of birth and death: Christianity insists that in one unique historical moment, the cycle reversed, and a dead man came back to life! For Jesus’ followers this was the turning point in world history, the sign of its coming end. Orthodox Christians since then have confessed in the creed that Jesus of Nazareth, “crucified, dead, and buried,” was raised “on the third day.” Many today recite that creed without thinking about what they are saying, much less actually believing it. Recently some ministers, theologians, and scholars have challenged the literal view of resurrection. To account for this doctrine, they point out its psychological appeal to our deepest fears and hopes; to explain it, they offer symbolic interpretations.
But much of the early tradition insists literally that a man—Jesus—had come back to life. What makes these Christian accounts so extraordinary is not the claim that his friends had “seen” Jesus after his death—ghost stories, hallucinations, and visions were even more commonplace then than now—but that they saw an actual human being. At first, according to Luke, the disciples themselves, in their astonishment and terror at the appearance of Jesus among them, immediately assumed that they were seeing his ghost. But Jesus challenged them: “Handle me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones, as you see that I have.” Since they remained incredulous, he asked for something to eat; as they watched in amazement, he ate a piece of broiled fish. The point is clear: no ghost could do that.
Had they said that Jesus’ spirit lived on, surviving bodily decay, their contemporaries might have thought that their stories made sense. Five hundred years before, Socrates’ disciples had claimed that their teacher’s soul was immortal. But what the Christians said was different, and, in ordinary terms, wholly implausible. The finality of death, which had always been a part of the human experience, was being transformed. Peter contrasts King David, who died and was buried, and whose tomb was well known, with Jesus, who, although killed, rose from the grave, “because it was not possible for him to be held by it”—that is, by death.3 Luke says that Peter excluded metaphorical interpretation of the event he said he witnessed: “[We] ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
Tertullian, a brilliantly talented writer (A.D. C. 190), speaking for the majority, defines the orthodox position: as Christ rose bodily from the grave, so every believer should anticipate the resurrection of the flesh. He leaves no room for doubt. He is not, he says, talking about the immortality of the soul: “The salvation of the soul I believe needs no discussion: for almost all heretics, in whatever way they accept it, at least do not deny it.” What is raised is “this flesh, suffused with blood, built up with bones, interwoven with nerves, entwined with veins, (a flesh) which … was born, and … dies, undoubtedly human.” Tertullian expects the idea of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection to shock his readers; he insists that “it must be believed, because it is absurd!”
Yet some Christians—those he calls heretics—dissent. Without denying the resurrection, they reject the literal interpretation; some find it “extremely revolting, repugnant, and impossible.” Gnostic Christians interpret resurrection in various ways. Some say that the person who experiences the resurrection does not meet Jesus raised physically back to life; rather, he encounters Christ on a spiritual level. This may occur in dreams, in ecstatic trance, in visions, or in moments of spiritual illumination. But the orthodox condemn all such interpretations; Tertullian declares that anyone who denies the resurrection of the flesh is a heretic, not a Christian.
Why did orthodox tradition adopt the literal view of resurrection? The question becomes even more puzzling when we look at what the New Testament says about it. Some accounts, like the story we noted from Luke, tell how Jesus appears to his disciples in the form they know from his earthly life; he eats with them, and invites them to touch him, to prove that he is not a ghost.” John tells a similar story: Thomas declares that he will not believe that Jesus had actually risen from the grave unless he personally can see and touch him. When Jesus appears, he tells Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” But other stories, directly juxtaposed with these, suggest “different views of the resurrection. Luke and Mark both relate that Jesus appeared “in another form”—not his former earthly form—to two disciples as they walked on the road to Emmaus. Luke says that the disciples, deeply troubled about Jesus’ death, talked with the stranger, apparently for several hours. They invited him to dinner; when he sat down with them to bless the bread, suddenly they recognized him as Jesus. At that moment “he vanished out of their sight.” John, too, places directly before the story of “doubting Thomas” another of a very different kind: Mary Magdalene, mourning for Jesus near his grave, sees a man she takes to be the gardener. When he speaks her name, suddenly she recognizes the presence of Jesus—but he orders her not to touch him.
So if some of the New Testament stories insist on a literal view of resurrection, others lend themselves to different interpretations. One could suggest that certain people, in moments of great emotional stress, suddenly felt that they experienced Jesus’ presence. Paul’s experience can be read this way. As he traveled on the Damascus road, intent on arresting Christians, “suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground,” hearing the voice of Jesus rebuking him for the intended persecution. One version of this story says, “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one”; another says the opposite (as Luke tells it, Paul said that “those who were with me saw the light, but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me”). Paul himself, of course, later defended the teaching on resurrection as fundamental to Christian faith. But although his discussion often is read as an argument for bodily resurrection, it concludes with the words “I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable [that is, the mortal body] inherit the imperishable.” Paul describes the resurrection as “a mystery,” the transformation from physical to spiritual existence.
If the New Testament accounts could support a range of interpretations, why did orthodox Christians in the second century insist on a literal view of resurrection and reject all others as heretical? I suggest that we cannot answer this question adequately as long as we consider the doctrine only in terms of its religious content. But when we examine its practical effect on the Christian movement, we can see, paradoxically, that the doctrine of bodily resurrection also serves an essential political function: it legitimizes the authority of certain men who claim to exercise exclusive leadership over the churches as the successors of the apostle Peter. From the second century, the doctrine has served to validate the apostolic succession of bishops, the basis of papal authority to this day. Gnostic Christians who interpret resurrection in other ways have a lesser claim to authority: when they claim priority over the orthodox, they are denounced as heretics.
Such political and religious authority developed in a most remarkable way. As we have noted, diverse forms of Christianity flourished in the early years of the Christian movement. Hundreds of rival teachers all claimed to teach the “true doctrine of Christ” and denounced one another as frauds. Christians in churches scattered from Asia Minor to Greece, Jerusalem, and Rome split into factions, arguing over church leadership. All claimed to represent “the authentic tradition.”
How could Christians resolve such contrary claims? Jesus himself was the only authority they all recognized. Even during his lifetime, among the small group traveling through Palestine with him, no one challenged—and no one matched—the authority of Jesus himself. Independent and assertive a leader as he was, Jesus censured such traits among his followers. Mark relates that when James and John came to him privately to ask for special positions in his administration, he spoke out sharply against their ambition:
You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.

Table of Contents


1. The Controversy over Christ's Resurrection: Historical Event or Symbol?
2. "One God, One Bishop": The Politics of Monotheism
3. God the Father/God the Mother
4. The Passion of Christ and the Persecution of Christians
5. Whose Church Is the "True Church"?
6. Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God


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The Gnostic Gospels 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 52 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book, as well as Gnosticism as a subject, is something to digest, not sample and rebuke when it doesn't concur with your average tastes. Gnosticism does make sense, and each variance on it has some sort of valid point. Orthodox Christianity may not have faith in these points, and may even believe the opposite, but that doesn't discredit the matter at hand, only the reader and sect's ability to consider other opinions. No one knows for certain exactly what went down so many moons ago. We have our gut instincts, logical conclusions, and maybe even a little evidence but in the end there will always be loose ends to tie up in this or any belief system. I think Pagels and the Gospels themselves do a fair job of posing possible scenarios, and fresh (albeit ancient) ideas are certainly needed in a perhaps stale field. My belief is that texts such as this, along with the ideas they convey, will increase in number, even if not in quality. They pose questions that must be answered, if that means breaking our piggy bank of spiritual coinage to see what we've really been rattling at for two thousand years, then so be it. May not be fun, may not be pretty, but thoughts are unstoppable, so we might as well read things like The Gnostic Gospels with a grain of salt. I really liked the book's format, as well the text seemed chronological, but varied enough for prolonged interest. Pagel's vault of knowledge has also been dilligently concentrated and made accessible to the layperson in a similar manner to The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. There are certainly things missing in our collage of information regarding Gnosticism it is very likely some key pieces have been long converted to dust, and I think Pagels has artfully painted in the gaps with good reason and scholarly prudence. All in all, the main point of distaste for this book so far has been the topic, so I must ask this: If you by nature have an inclination toward rejecting an idea, why commit so much time to reading about it?
Guest More than 1 year ago
Most of the reviews for this claim that this book as well as other Gnostic writings are inaccurate because the bible which is 'truthful' says something different. Don't believe them, Gnostics were not pagans, they were a sect of christians that had a different interpretation of Christ and who were declared evil by the early church for it. If you want to get a different perspective don't blindly follow, read, learn, think for yourself.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is an excellent and enlightening book; however, I recommend before purchasing this book you choose another introductory book or source about Gnosticism. It is imperative you have a good, basic understanding of who the Christian Gnostics were and how they differed from the early Christians. Once you have that understanding, purchase this book and keep it permanently in your library. This book delves into the fascinating specifics of why these two groups held opposing opinions about Jesus' mission, teachings, and life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Elaine Pagels deserves all the kudos she won with her 1979 study of early Christianity. Her research into the many documents comprising the Nag Hammadi Library is marvelously thorough and perceptive. Mentioning her own involvement via personal comments adds another dimension to the enjoyment of the book. What emerges is a revelation of just why the followers of gnosis and self-realization were branded as heretics and why these original texts were excluded from the 'orthodox' Christian canon. Seekers of the true, or 'lost' Christianities, will be rewarded. Pagels wonders in print whether perhaps gnosticism was influenced by Hindu teachings, by the spiritual science of yoga, but never asks where Christ was between the ages of 14 and 30. The answer to that question is revealed in a new book from Self-Realization Fellowship, see below.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I first heard of the Nag Hammadi find, in the Egyptian desert in 1945, I was entranced. It was as significant as the Dead Sea scrolls, because of the determined attempt to destroy all evidence of the Gnostics and their literature by the Constantinians.

So, I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet with Dr. Pagels briefly, in 1981, in New York, accompanied by my friend Dr. John Kiley.

I highly recommend this book. The scholarship and research is evident, and yet it is clearly written so that any interested person can enjoy it without being burdened by the jargon of academia.

A fascinating book, which will increase your knowledge of the Gnostics exponentially.

SLuce on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very interesting. New learning for me. I know nothing about early stages of bible.
kranbollin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Extremely lucid and to the point, and speaks clearly to the general reader. Pagels is the only author you need to read on this topic, and is a superb antedote to all this DaVinci nonsense. The MacArthur Foundation is to be lauded for supporting her work.
abirdman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the most important and read books of theology ever published. Perhaps the seminal work on Gnosticism, it sheds an interesting light on where Christianity could have gone.
Arctic-Stranger on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
With all the fuss that the Da Vinci Code code raised, this should be required reading. Pagels places the gnostic texts in their theological and historical context, without sensationalizing them. (Jesus Marries Mary! Read It Here!) Good scholarly work, yet very accessible for the lay reader who is not schooled in first century studies.
randoymwords on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
the philosophical and political battles that went into deciding what would become the orthodox church. The question arises whether Christianity would have survived if the so-called gnostic movements hadn't been banned from the official church. Is the development of a powerful community worth the loss of freedom of religion and philosophy?
Devil_llama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Probably the best known work on the gnostics. The author approaches her topic with enthusiasm, and does a good job of explaining the state of knowledge about gnostic Christians. A good introductory work.
madamejeanie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If I had to sum up this slim volume in one word, that word would be "dry."I think this very possibly was Ms. Pagels dissertation for a degree inreligious history. My curiosity was piqued by "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" towant to learn more about these documents discovered at Qumran, and commonlyknown as the Nag Hammadi library. These texts were determined to be"heresy" by the Catholic Church in the second and third centuries and wereordered destroyed. But a small group of monks who studied these hereticteachings managed to hide them away, hiding them so well, in fact, that theywere not "discovered" until the middle of last century. The timing mightwell be considered divine providence because had they been unearthed in anyother time or in any other way, they likely would have been destroyed andlost forever.This book is an exhaustive study of exactly why they were consideredheretical and why they were banned. The documents themselves were writtenin the same time period and very likely by some of the same people as thetexts that were chosen to be part of what we know today as The Holy Bible.Why, then, were these rejected and the others included? Many of them aregospels, telling basically the same story of Christ's life, death, andresurrection as the four gospels we are all familiar with, yet they reveal aside of Christ and His teachings that went against orthodox theology.The main reason I purchased this book in the first place was that I wantedto read these documents for myself, see what they said, and frankly, see ifthey "spoke" to me. Alas, the documents themselves are not included in thiswork, so I was disappointed in that. (I have since discovered that some ofthem can be found online and hope to spend some time doing some deep readingwhen I find myself alone at home again shortly.) But I must say that, dryas this tome was, it was enlightening.I would never recommend this particular book as light reading. It is hardlythat. It took me nearly two weeks to finish this slender volume because Ifound myself reading and rereading passages so that I was positive Iunderstood them. But, if you are interested in the history of religion,this would be a great place to start or to further your understanding ofearly Christianity when it was finding its legs and learning to stand aloneas a viable life philosophy. In this book, I came to understand a littlebetter exactly what Christ was all about and how he inspired people in verydifferent ways. It didn't slake my thirst for such knowledge, but it didserve as a good overview for the actual documents themselves.I'd give this book a 3.5.
redswirl3 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Excellent intro into the gnostic gospels. The book was engaging and full (FULL) of information. Pagels writing style and topic kept me interested from cover to cover. I recommend the book to anyone interested in early christian history.
The_Hibernator on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Pagels objectively introduces the subject of the Gnostic Gospels¿she describes the history of the texts, some basic differences between Gnostic beliefs and Orthodox beliefs, and then summarizes by saying that Christianity would have developed quite differently (or perhaps even fizzled out like other mystic fad religions) if Gnosticism had survived. She supports neither Orthodoxy or Gnosticism in this book, but provides an objective historian¿s view on the two faiths. This is a fantastic introduction to Gnosticism, and it lacks the sensationalism of many Gnostic scholars today. Highly recommended.
jburlinson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Tragic irony of cosmic proportions is the theme of this book. Lovingly preserved texts written two millennia ago were found in 1945 by an Arab peasant near the town of Nag Hammadi. The documents were written in an attempt to communicate the incommunicable: the nature of the kingdom of heaven and the wisdom of the Christ. The person who found them was soon to murder a man as part of a vendetta. After killing his victim, he and his brothers ""hacked off his limbs . . . ripped out his heart, and devoured it among them, as the ultimate act of blood revenge." Shortly afterwards, the killers' mother would burn most of the texts in the family's oven; perhaps to sauté the leftovers? The fate of these documents at the dawn of the Common Era wasn't much better; for they served as the occasion for furious controversy between, on the one hand, the community that came to be called "the orthodox" and, on the other, every other follower of Jesus who considered a different spiritual path. Pagel's pioneering book chronicles the sociopolitical (which went under the name of "theological") struggles that characterized the first centuries of Christian history. The tale ends with the triumph of the Roman Church and the burial of the sacred texts of the losers, in the vain hope that these precious documents would resurface in a more enlightened era.
daniesq on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
So far, so good. I am currently listening to the Audible unabridged version of this book, and have to agree with the reader who said that the first part of this book is very academic. However, I didn't feel it was dry, although the endless citations of sources is probably more suited to the print edition. (Will post more as I "read".)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Open your mind...
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The_hibernators More than 1 year ago
Pagels objectively introduces the subject of the Gnostic Gospels—she describes the history of the texts, some basic differences between Gnostic beliefs and Orthodox beliefs, and then summarizes by saying that Christianity would have developed quite differently (or perhaps even fizzled out like other mystic fad religions) if Gnosticism had survived. She supports neither Orthodoxy or Gnosticism in this book, but provides an objective historian’s view on the two faiths. This is a fantastic introduction to Gnosticism, and it lacks the sensationalism of many Gnostic scholars today. Highly recommended.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A must read for anyone curious about the books that did not make it into the Bible.