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The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

The Gnostic Gospels (original 1979; edition 2006)

by Elaine Pagels (Author)

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4,920512,266 (3.89)1 / 67
"A startling account of the meaning of Jesus and the origin of Christianity based on gnostic gospels and other secret texts, written almost 2,000 years ago, recently discovered near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt"--Jacket subtitle.
Title:The Gnostic Gospels
Authors:Elaine Pagels (Author)
Info:W&N (2006), Edition: Reprint, 192 pages
Collections:Your library

Work Information

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels (1979)

  1. 30
    The Essential Gnostic Gospels: Including the Gospel of Thomas & the Gospel of Mary by Alan Jacobs (riverwillow)
  2. 20
    The Gnostic Religion by Hans Jonas (haven1)
  3. 10
    Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Ehrman (Panairjdde)
    Panairjdde: This is actually a recommendation by Elaine Pagels herself, written inside her book Beyond Belief
  4. 10
    Secret Gospels: Essays on Thomas and the Secret Gospel of Mark by Marvin W. Meyer (Panairjdde)
    Panairjdde: This is actually a recommendation by Elaine Pagels herself, written inside her book Beyond Belief
  5. 00
    The Gospel of Thomas (New Testament Readings) by Richard Valantasis (Panairjdde)
    Panairjdde: This is actually a recommendation by Elaine Pagels herself, written inside her book Beyond Belief

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 75 Books Challenge for 2012: Gnostic Gospels Group Read33 unread / 33The_Hibernator, April 2012

» See also 67 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 46 (next | show all)
I remember first hearing about the Gnostic Gospels during the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code craze of the early aughts. At that time, the gospels were offered up as sort of legitimate “source material” for some of the wilder imaginings in Brown’s novel. I was curious about them, so I bought Pagels’ book. At the time, I simply wasn’t educated enough to understand what I was reading. I’m not sure I even finished her book. It sat on my shelf for many years. After reading the Bible and excerpts from the Talmud, in addition to two histories of the Bible, I figured that rereading Pagels’ book would enrich my understanding of early Christianity. I was not wrong.

Pagles helped me understand something that I had been curious about for much of my adult life. As someone who grew up influenced by Christian grandparents, but who was not raised Christian myself, I could never fully understand how early Christianity quickly surpassed its mother religion, Judaism, and became so dominant in the world within a span less than four hundred years. What Pagels helped to explain is that this phenomenon was not accidental. She makes her point by exploring the contrast between Christian orthodoxy and gnosticism. Her book is less about the gnostic texts themselves and more about their place in the building of the early Christian church.

But first, what does “gnostic” mean and what are the gnostic gospels? Gnostic, at its most rudimentary, means knowledge. As the term relates to religious or philosophical thought, it describes the intuitive process of getting to know oneself. This process includes continual questioning and was influenced by the Greek philosophers. There wasn’t a separate gnostic religion, rather there were diverse groups within early Christianity (long before “the Church” had been established) who shared the belief that to know oneself at the deepest level is to know God.

The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of thirteen papyrus books discovered in a huge earthenware jar in Upper Egypt in 1945 by an Arab farmer. After scholarly examination, they were determined to be Coptic (Egyptian dialect) translations from c. 350-400 CE of original Greek texts that dated from no later than c. 120 CE. They included texts from the earliest century of the Christian era: previously unknown gospels of Thomas and Philip as well as other apocalyptic gospels and letters.

The one criticism I have of Pagels’ book is that we don’t get a full sense of what any one of the gnostic gospels was like to read. She quotes from the texts, however, in fairness, her purpose is not to offer up a translation of them. Her intent is to show how the gnostic and orthodox forms interacted and to explain what the interaction tells us about the origin of Christianity.

The Christian religion did not develop in a vacuum; instead it was a religious, social and political movement. During its early centuries, Christians were persecuted in the most horrific ways. In response, Christian leaders intentionally set out to develop an orthodoxy that would “rally the troops”. There was a need for Christians to coalesce and defend themselves. Christians were being persecuted while they were simultaneously growing in large numbers across large geographical swaths. An orthodox canon was critical to the development of a strong Christian social and political identity. Gnosticism, with its diverse beliefs, did not lend itself to strength in numbers. It would almost seem that no two gnostics could agree on anything because they wanted to keep asking questions and explore deeper for knowledge. Gnosticism appealed to only a certain type of intellectual believer. Orthodoxy was relatively more straightforward and in some ways simpler. It relied on a commitment to the apostolic creed rather than endless questioning and seeking. It appealed to the masses. Orthodox leaders, people such as Clement, Bishop of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, over time developed concepts that evolved into the hierarchy that still exists today in Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Pagels shows that it was this orthodoxy and this church architecture, that strengthened the early church. Once the Roman emperor, Constantine, converted, the structure was in place that enabled Christianity to spread and take lasting hold so effectively.

And while Gnosticism itself did not take hold as a competing religion, remnants of it have survived. For example, gnostics attributed some of their religious traditions to figures who stood outside the twelve apostles - Paul, Mary Magdalene, and James, the brother of Jesus. These figures did not “die” with the supremacy of orthodoxy and still live on today as important early Christians. The Gospel of John, one of the four orthodox gospels, was also an important gospel to gnostics, though for different reasons.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the Gnostic Gospels. I do wish that Pagels had included more examples of gnostic texts, so that I could start to formulate my own opinions. I also believe that there was an opportunity to show that while the gnostic churches themselves may have died out, there must be connections to later developments in the Reformation and beyond. One wonders if Luther or any of the Protestant reformers used any of the same arguments as the gnostics against the heavy hierarchy of the church. Perhaps the subject of another book… ( )
  Mortybanks | Feb 19, 2024 |
An overview of the document cache found at Nag Hammadi in 1945, this turned into an excellent overview of early church history, and how orthodoxy finally triumphed. Very well written, footnoted and indexed, the best description of the real gist of this book is a quote from the end of chapter 6: "For ideas alone do not make a religion powerful, although it cannot succeed without them; equally important are social and political structures that identify and unite people into a common affiliation." ( )
  dhaxton | Jan 24, 2024 |
The 1945 discovery of the Gnostic Gospels, the screeds of a dissident Christian group in the first couple of centuries after Christ's death inform this superb book, which is at once concise and comprehensive, and is by any measure one of the best of its kind yet produced. Professor Pagels enjoys an authoritative command of her sources. She discusses the implications of the Nag Hammadi find, without putting too fine a point on it, for disciplines as diverse as psychology and literary criticism. This is a work of profound scholarship that can be read casually, such are the author's gifts as an historian and prose stylist. I found this book an unmitigated and edifying pleasure, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
  Mark_Feltskog | Dec 23, 2023 |
This was a really informative look at the early days of Christianity. The Gnostic teachings were similar to Buddhist teachings, in that they felt that the divine was within each individual, and could only be reached by contemplation and the unwritten teachings of a mentor or teacher. During the early stages of a religion, this does not lend itself well to becoming a mass phenomenon, which in turn leads to the formation of most Christian churches as we know them today. As Pagels states, "the religious perspectives and methods of gnosticism did not lend themselves to mass religion. In this respect, it was no match for the highly effective system of organization of the catholic church."

Really interesting book for those interested in the beginnings of the Christian church, or anyone interested in the formation of any religion in general. ( )
  rumbledethumps | Nov 25, 2023 |
reconsiders origins of Christianity
  SrMaryLea | Aug 23, 2023 |
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elaine Pagelsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bergane, TorbjørnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Holbein, JohanCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lehtipuu, OutiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Quispel, GillesPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tran, DavidCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Verseput, E.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Elizabeth Diggs and Sharon Olds in loving friendship
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In December 1945 an Arab peasant made an astonishing archeological discovery in Upper Egypt.
"Jesus Christ rose from the grave."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Please do not combine Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels (in Italian, I vangeli gnostici) with Luigi Moraldi's I vangeli gnostici. Vangeli di Tomaso, Maria, Verità, Filippo (ISBN 8845910091). Thank you.
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"A startling account of the meaning of Jesus and the origin of Christianity based on gnostic gospels and other secret texts, written almost 2,000 years ago, recently discovered near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt"--Jacket subtitle.

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