After reading several other book written by Pagels concerning gnosticism and gnostic beliefs, I have to say that this offering is definitely her finest. First, Pagels doesn't polemicize the issue by claiming that Paul was a gnostic or that he was strictly orthodox, but instead shows how 2nd century exegetes, both gnostic and orthodox, understood Paul. Furthermore, one of the great strengths of this work resides in the fact that Pagels allows the gnostic followers to speak for themselves by citing frequently from newly discovered gnostic texts. Instead of telling us what she believes the gnostics considered true she permits the gnostics to tell us themselves.
The book itself is broken is broken up into seven chapters and each chapter deals with an individual Pauline epistle. Interestingly enough, the gnostics, like the orthodox, also accepted Colossians, Ephesians, and Hebrews as Pauline, but they did reject the pastorals epistles. The first two chapters deal with Romans and I Corinthians and are by far the best sections of the book. Instead of interpreting the book literally as their orthodox counterparts did, the gnostics read the epistle to the Romans allegorically. Therefore, what was perceived as a treatise commenting on Jewish/Gentile relations in the church by the orthodox, the gnostics believed the text spoke about pneumatic/psychic relations. They believed Paul used such terminology secretly and that only the initiated believers could understand the real meaning behind the text. Also, of great interest to the gnostics were passages stressing grace and faith in the life of the christian. The gnostics utilized chapters 4 and 9 to stress that they themselves were saved totally by grace and the will of the Father; There was nothing they could do to lose their status because they were children of the Father.
The other interesting chapter delves into I Corinthians and attempts to uncover the gnostic meaning of the text. I thought Pagels brought up some excellent points that really seemed to strengthen the gnostic case. First, chapter 2 was heavily valued by the gnostics because in it Paul talks about wisdom and knowledge and at times seems to buttress the gnostic case. Later in chapter 15, Paul speaks of several things that the gnostics believed were absolutely damning to the orthodox case. Paul says that flesh and blood and cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven, and that corruption cannot inherit incorruption. This verse was used to condemn the idea of a physical bodily resurrection since Paul frankly states flesh and blood cannot inherit heaven. Instead, the gnostics believed the resurrection consisted of an awakening from ignorance towards God. Moreover, the idea of baptism for the dead 15:29 is something that has plagued orthodox scholars for over 20 centuries. Yet, the gnostics easily handled this verse by saying that baptism for the dead meant gnostics being baptised in the place of psyhics for their eventual salvation. Since it was the psychics who were dead, ignorant towards God, a pneumatic could be baptized in their stead and effect their awakening and journey into gnosis. The rest of the chapters deal with the other epistles listed earlier, but most of what is discussed are themes that appear in these two chapters.
One thing I noted when reading this book was the striking similarity between some gnostic beliefs and the beliefs held by the Calvinist variety of Christianity. Both groups stress man's deadness towards God and their inability to move towards God, both believe in divine election and reprobation, both believe that God's will is supreme in deciding who will be saved and who will be lost, and both believe in God's absolute sovereingty over His creation. Moreover, both believed that since salvation was effected totally by God and was a result of His election, that a believer with a divine or new nature could not be lost. These two groups even stress the same chapters of Scripture in their debates with their opponents. Chapters such as Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 were favorites of the gnostics in their disputes with the orthodox, and they are not favorites of the Calvinist's in their current disputes with Arminians. I wish I would have read this book earlier when I myself was struggling with the very same issues.