The gnostic Gospels

by Elaine H. Pagels

Paperback, 1979



Call number




Harmondsworth : Penguin Books, 1982, c1979

User reviews

LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
This must have been a very difficult book to write: I know that it was a hard one to read. The twenty-first century is hard enough on any established religion, without doubt being cast from within: on the other hand, the Gnostic Gospels were a time bomb waiting to inflict its damage from the moment, around 400 A.D., when a group of "leading Christians" made the decision to crop the texts to be included within the Bible.

The Gnostic Gospels are a very strange collection of texts; some are not too disparate from their Synoptic cousins but some suggest that Jesus was not human, did not rise bodily from the grave and/or that He did not offer eternal life. These may seem to be odd arguments to make, if one believes Jesus to be the Son of God and I find it almost impossible to read these Gospels with an open mind: however, that does NOT mean that they can, or should, be easily dismissed. These books have as much right to exist as the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - the latter of whom very nearly met the same fate as Thomas, Mary et al! Elaine Pagels walks the line in an admirable fashion. She gives respect to these works, but at the same time, is understanding to the orthodox view.

The chief reason for the cognoscenti to cull the Gospels was to make a credible, flowing text with everyone pulling in a single direction. Almost inevitably, the chance was taken to remove Mary (a woman claiming to be Christ's favoured disciple, what ever next?) and to hone the life of this maverick prophet into a form acceptable to people of the age. It is undoubtedly true that this sanitised version allowed Christianity to flourish and, with one more compromise (selecting Constantine as leader of the church on earth), Christianity spread to the four corners of the planet. Times change, and views that were normal become staid, it is no longer stretching credulity to think that a woman might have been a significant disciple, to question Christ's status is not punishable by death and, perhaps we need to address these issues.

This is a very good book for someone, such as myself, who knew next to nothing about the Gnostic Gospels. It introduces them, gives an historical backdrop and leaves the reader to make the final decision as to whether these texts have anything to offer. I believe, that anyone believing in God, or with an interest in religion should read both the Gnostic Gospels and also, this excellent explanation of them.
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LibraryThing member The_Hibernator
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member prismcat
This classic book provides an overview of the gnostic gospels and the historical evolution of the early church. It reveals how the early "organized" church dealt with the differing views of Christ and how the religious elite silenced any dissenting voices to strengthen the structure that ensured their power base. Ms. Pagels elicits a sympathetic tone towards those rebels who were more concerned with following Christ than those in seeking power in His name. Ms. Pagels makes a scholarly subject accessible to the average reader. For all that, her conclusion is rather startling. As a Catholic, Ms. Pagels explicitly argues that the ends justified the means. In this early edition, her inner-conflict is apparent at the end. Regardless, if this is the only edition you can get hold of, it is absolutely worth your time.… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind

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.
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LibraryThing member annbury
This is an exciting read for a work of scholarship. In this book Ms Pagels
does not side with the gnostics, which she manages to define properly, but she devastates the catholic church's abuse of people that disagreed with them, especially on the resurrection and the role of women in the church. She is doubtless correct that the church would not have survived as a gnostic institution, because it needed form and simplicity and structure, which it could only get by destroying all of its enemies.… (more)
LibraryThing member GTTexas
A change of pace read that turned out to be even more interesting than I expected. Being in Rome during the time I read it seemed to make it even more interesting. One of a dozen or so I read on a Mediterranean cruise.
LibraryThing member mldavis2
The author uses the 1945 Nag Hammadi library find to examine the historical significance of the orthodox Catholic church's success as compared to the gnostics whose view of God failed to survive.
LibraryThing member NateJordon
A brief and poignant investigation into the origins of Christianity (Organized Christianity) . . . and its tragic evolution. It can be summed up by the following passage from the "Dialogue of the Savior":

". . . If one does not [understand] how the fire came to be, he will burn in it, because he does not know his root. If one does not first understand the water, he does not know anything. . . . If one does not understand how the wind that blows came to be, he will run with it. If one does not understand how the body that he wears came to be, he will perish with it. . . . Whoever does not understand how he came will not understand how he will go . . . "… (more)
LibraryThing member Devil_llama
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.
LibraryThing member redswirl3
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.
LibraryThing member EliseP
In December 1945 and Arab peasant made an astonishing discovery in Upper Egypt. In this jar were scrolls that scholars found to be some of the gnostic writings from the early church. The Gnostics were crushed by the Orthodox church. This book explains how orthodoxy won out over gnosticism. First, the gnostics denied the fact of Christ's resurrection. They considered jesus completely spirit, not human (symbol, not historical event). Second, they denied the idea of one God, one bishop, because they didn't like the idea of hierarchy. The gnostics also saw a greater role of women in their beliefs, even calling the Holy Spirit a woman. They allowed women to participate in liturgy. Next they denied the concept of martyrdom as automatically allowing someone into heaven. Orthodox christians "insisted that humanity needs a way beyond its own power - divine- to approach god." The gostics also felt that they could only depend on inner knowledge, or light, to mean communion with god. They believe men invented God, and thus are greater than God. Interesting note: the New Testament term for sin, hamartia, comes from the sport of archery -- means "missing the mark."… (more)
LibraryThing member kranbollin
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.
LibraryThing member madamejeanie
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 in
religious history. My curiosity was piqued by "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" to
want to learn more about these documents discovered at Qumran, and commonly
known as the Nag Hammadi library. These texts were determined to be
"heresy" by the Catholic Church in the second and third centuries and were
ordered destroyed. But a small group of monks who studied these heretic
teachings managed to hide them away, hiding them so well, in fact, that they
were not "discovered" until the middle of last century. The timing might
well be considered divine providence because had they been unearthed in any
other time or in any other way, they likely would have been destroyed and
lost forever.

This book is an exhaustive study of exactly why they were considered
heretical and why they were banned. The documents themselves were written
in the same time period and very likely by some of the same people as the
texts 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 are
gospels, telling basically the same story of Christ's life, death, and
resurrection as the four gospels we are all familiar with, yet they reveal a
side of Christ and His teachings that went against orthodox theology.

The main reason I purchased this book in the first place was that I wanted
to read these documents for myself, see what they said, and frankly, see if
they "spoke" to me. Alas, the documents themselves are not included in this
work, so I was disappointed in that. (I have since discovered that some of
them can be found online and hope to spend some time doing some deep reading
when I find myself alone at home again shortly.) But I must say that, dry
as this tome was, it was enlightening.

I would never recommend this particular book as light reading. It is hardly
that. It took me nearly two weeks to finish this slender volume because I
found myself reading and rereading passages so that I was positive I
understood them. But, if you are interested in the history of religion,
this would be a great place to start or to further your understanding of
early Christianity when it was finding its legs and learning to stand alone
as a viable life philosophy. In this book, I came to understand a little
better exactly what Christ was all about and how he inspired people in very
different ways. It didn't slake my thirst for such knowledge, but it did
serve as a good overview for the actual documents themselves.

I'd give this book a 3.5.
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LibraryThing member riverwillow
Interesting and scholarly analysis of the Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi. Pagels tries to keep her analysis of these texts as objective as possible as she explores the conflict between the orthodox christians, who eventually triumphed, and the followers of Gnosticism. This is an insightful read which puts the development of the early Christian church into context. This is a 'must' read for anyone interested in Christianity.… (more)
LibraryThing member jguidry
I checked this audiobook out thinking it would give a description of the gospels discovered in Egypt that weren't included in the Bible. It actually ended up being a history of the Catholic Church and a comparison between the Orthodox Church and the Gnostic beliefs. The comparisons were very interesting, but the audiobook did drag at points. I found myself "tuning out" periodically. I mostly enjoyed the history and the research done in the text, but I should have tried the print version. I probably would have focused more and gotten more from my reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member Brasidas
The so-called apocryphal gospels, discovered by a farmer in 1975 at Nag Hammedi, are here explained in the context of late second-century Church history. The gnostics Christians did not believe that human intermediaries (bishops, priests, etc.) were necessary for an individual to find God. For the gnostics enlightenment was an entirely inner and self-determined process. Late in the book some of the techniques for achieving gnosis are reviewed and they are surprisingly close to those used by modern Buddhists. I could not find a place for myself in the Christian church for reasons that were never clear to me until a book by Karen Armstrong called THE CASE FOR GOD came into my hands. What Elaine Pagels' books show us is that Christianity could have developed far differently if these writings had been accepted by the Church, instead of being purged, as they were, so that someone, perhaps the members of a monastery near Nag Hammedi, buried them for 1600 years.… (more)
LibraryThing member abirdman
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.
LibraryThing member daniesq
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".)… (more)
LibraryThing member SLuce
Very interesting. New learning for me. I know nothing about early stages of bible.
LibraryThing member jburlinson
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.… (more)


Original publication date



0140223584 / 9780140223583

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