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Gnostic Paul: Gnostic Exegesis of the Pauline Letters [Paperback]

Elaine Pagels
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Mar 1992
In this highly original work, Elaine Pagels demonstrates how evidence from gnostic sources may challenge the assumption that Paul writes his letters to combat "gnostic opponents" and to repudiate their claims to secret wisdom. Drawing upon evidence from the gnostic exegesis of Paul, including several Nag Hammadi texts, the author examines how gnostic exegetes cite and interpret key passages in the letters they consider Pauline-1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Hebrews. Besides offering new insight into controversies over Paul in the second century, this analysis of gnostic exegesis suggests a new perspective for Pauline study, challenging students and scholars to recognize the presuppositions-hermenuetical and theological-involved in their own reading of Paul's letters. Elaine H. Pagels is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She is the author of The Gnostic Gospels, which won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Johannie Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, and the best-selling Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 194 pages
  • Publisher: Continnuum-3PL; 1st Paperback Ed edition (1 Mar 1992)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1563380390
  • ISBN-13: 978-1563380396
  • Product Dimensions: 22.8 x 15.3 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 270,765 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Relentlessly Searching For The Truth 16 Jun 2004
Format:Paperback
In this book Elaine Pagels takes a systematic look at how certain Pauline letters were interpreted and cited by gnostic exegetes. These epistles are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Hebrews. Pagels uses several gnostic sources such as Valintinus and many gnostic opponents including Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons. One of the benefits of reading THE GNOSTIC PAUL is that we learn even more about the diversity that flourished in early Christianity during the three centuries before Constantine. Pagels is very good at peeling away layer after layer in her study of this period in church history.
The author is an excellent writer and the format of the book is easy to follow. The subject matter, however, requires some prior knowledge of Christian gnosticism and a familiarity with the Nag Hammadi documents. For supplementary reading I recommend especially two other books by Elaine Pagels. They are THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS and BEYOND BELIEF: THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not as good as her Gnostic Gospels 24 May 2003
By J. Mann VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback
The letters of Paul typically have as their theme the difference between Judaism and Christianity. According to Pagels the Gnostics believed Paul was secretly a gnostic and the Jew/Christian divide was actually his way of explaining to other gnostics how gnostics should relate to non-gnostic Christians.
Paul's comments that he needs to visit the Christian churches in order to explain things further is taken as evidence that "true" Gnostic teaching has to be passed on orally and cannot be written down.
The book goes through each letter written by Paul, interpreting it in Gnostic terms. For example the Letter to the Romans is about Gnostics obeying the "law" of the Christian church (where non-Gnostic Christian equals Jew in the letter).
While this line of interpretation is interesting in understanding how the Gnostics read Paul, it doesn't seem particularly convincing. The format of interpreting each letter by Paul leads to a fair amount of repetition in terms of explaining the doctrinal principles, while at the same time never dealing once and for all with any one doctrine.
This is a disappointing book from the author of The Gnostic Gospels (which is a fantastic book). It would have been better if the format of the former book was maintained, with each chapter explaining how the Gnostics read Paul for one particular doctrine, with evidence taken from the different letters to reinforce the detail of the doctrinal belief. Perhaps this combination of evidence would have made the Gnostic position more believable.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
By calmly
Format:Paperback
Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, scholars knew little about Valentinian Christian theology: fragments by Valentinians and anti-Valentinian writings.

Pagels has now also begun applying what she has learned from the Valentinian Nag Hammadi texts in order to carefully present how the Valentinians interpreted the letters of Paul. For passage after passage from Paul's letters, she demonstrates the Valentinian claim that Paul was writing with two audiences in mind: one literal-minded in their understanding of Christianity, the other symbolically-minded. Moreover, we learn that rather than break away from the literal-minded Christians, Valentinians mingled with them, careful not to offend them but privately finding literal beliefs wanting but with the hope that those who held them could be led to a superior, symbolic understanding of Christianity which Valentinus claimed Paul himself had transmitted privately to initiates. This was, of course, not a teaching that literal minded Christians welcomed and the Valentinians, like other Gnostics, were labelled as heretics. Neither group appreciated the other but the Valentinians displayed an acceptance that the other group did not.

Some people may see in the rise of science a threat to Christianity. What seems remarkable (as this book clearly shows) is that as early as the 2nd century of Christianity, far before the rise of modern science, people had rejected a literal belief in Christianity while at the same time recognizing that many people would not be able to benefit from a symbolic understanding without special efforts, if at all.

This division among people into those who understand literally and those who understand symbolically was also noted by Pagels in her earlier book "The Gnostic Gospels".
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Super Seller 7 April 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Brand New , Fine book. Surprised. The print and cover are just fine.
Raedy to bee red and put in your library.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  20 reviews
84 of 87 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An alternate opinion of Paul 4 April 2004
By Seth Aaron Lowry - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
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.
112 of 122 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Presentation of Gnostic Exegesis 1 April 2002
By Sauropod - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Pagels presents Gnostic Christians' interpretations of Paul's letters almost line by line. Not the easiest book to read, but extremely helpful in understanding the Gnostic elements of early Christianity. Some knowledge of Gnosticism is presupposed, and Gnostic terminology is not always defined. FYI, I've compiled a list of key terms below, with my (admittedly non-expert) definitions.
sarkic - earthly, hidebound, ignorant, uninitiated
hylic - similar to sarkic
psychic - "soulful," partially initiated
pneumatic - "spiritual," fully initiated
aion - one of various levels of reality
archon - one of various powers in the cosmos
pleroma - fulfillment, the higher reality of archetypes (related to Plato's realm of Ideas)
kenoma - the visible or manifest cosmos, "lower" than the pleroma
charisma - gift, or energy, bestowed by pneumatics through oral teaching and personal encounters
sophia - "wisdom," worldly understanding; personified as Lady Wisdom
logos - divine ordering principle of the cosmos; personified as Christ
hypostasis - emanation (appearance) of God, known to psychics
ousia - essence of God, known to pneumatics
gnosis - "knowledge," direct insight into God attained by pneumatics
If all this seems baffling, you might want to read "Jesus and the Lost Goddess," an excellent summary of Gnosticism by Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy.
36 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Relentlessly Searching For The Truth 16 Jun 2004
By Peter Kenney - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In this book Elaine Pagels takes a systematic look at how certain Pauline letters were interpreted and cited by gnostic exegetes. These epistles are Romans, l Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Hebrews. Pagels uses several gnostic sources such as Valintinus and many gnostic opponents including Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons. One of the benefits of reading THE GNOSTIC PAUL is that we learn even more about the diversity that flourished in early Christianity during the first three centuries before Constantine. Pagels is very good at peeling away layer after layer in her study of this period in church history.
The author is an excellent writer and the format is easy to follow. The subject matter, however, requires some prior knowledge of Christian gnosticism and a familiarity with the Nag Hammadi documents. For supplementary reading I recommend especially two other books by Elaine Pagels. They are THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS and BEYOND BELIEF: THE SECRET GOSPEL OF THOMAS.
137 of 161 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Know God better 14 Nov 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
If you are open minded you will like this book. Also if you are open minded you will like An Encounter With A Prophet. If you are closed to new spiritual truths or a firm believer in Christian dogma (the same thing really) avoid both books they will just upset you.
44 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars To Go A Step Beyond 23 Sep 2004
By Richard R. Carlton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is a good choice to begin to learn about the amazing history of the Christian Church.

Especially Gnosticism and the early Christian Church, and especially the creation of the New Testament Bible. For a different review....here is my review of books that build on these interests, especially the "lost" books of the New Testament Bible and the concepts of Gnosticism.

Nearly all knowledgeable Biblical scholars realize there have been a wide range of writings attributed to Jesus and his Apostles..... and that some of these were selected for compilation into the book that became known as the Bible.....and that some books have been removed from some versions of the Bible and others have been re-discovered in modern times.

The attention focused on Gnosticism by Dan Brown's DaVinci Code may be debatable, but the fact is that increased attention on academics tends to be predominately positive, so I welcome those with first-time or renewed interest. At least first-timers to Gnosticism are not pursuing the oh-so-popular legends of the Holy Grail, Bloodline of Christ, and Mary Magdalene.

This is great......I seldom quote other reviewers, but there is one reviewer of Pagels' books who confided that he had been a Jesuit candidate and had been required to study a wide range of texts but was never was told about the Nag Hamadi texts. He said:

"Now I know why. The Gospel of Thomas lays waste to the notion that Jesus was `the only begotten Son of God' and obviates the need for a formalized church when he says, `When your leaders tell you that God is in heaven, say rather, God is within you, and without you.' No wonder they suppressed this stuff! The Roman Catholic Church hasn't maintained itself as the oldest institution in the world by allowing individuals to have a clear channel to see the divinity within all of us: they need to put God in a bottle, label the bottle, put that bottle on an altar, build a church around that altar, put a sign over the door, and create rubricks and rituals to keep out the dis-believing riff-raff. Real `Us' versus `them' stuff, the polar opposite from `God is within You.' `My God is bigger than your God' the church(s)seem to say. And you can only get there through "my" door/denomination. But Jesus according to Thomas had it right: just keep it simple, and discover the indwelling Divinity `within you and without you.'"

Here are quickie reviews of what is being bought these days on the Gnostic Gospels and the lost books of the Bible in general:

The Lost Books of the Bible (0517277956) includes 26 apocryphal books from the first 400 years that were not included in the New Testament.

Marvin Meyers' The Secret Teachings of Jesus : Four Gnostic Gospels (0394744330 ) is a new translation without commentary of The Secret Book of James, The Gospel of Thomas, The Book of Thomas, and The Secret Book of John.

James M. Robinson's The Nag Hammadi Library in English : Revised Edition (0060669357) has been around 25 years now and is in 2nd edition. It has introductions to each of the 13 Nag Hammadi Codices and the Papyrus Berioinensis 8502.

The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (0140278079) by Geza Vermes has selected works....a complete work is more difficult to achieve than the publisher's marketing concept indicates. His commentary generates strong reactions.

Elaine Pagels has 2 books (The Gnostic Gospels 0679724532 and Beyond Belief : The Secret Gospel of Thomas 0375501568) that have received considerable attention lately. For many, her work is controversial in that it is written for popular consumption and there is a strong modern interpretation. She does attempt to reinterpret ancient gender relationships in the light of modern feminist thinking. While this is a useful (and entertaining) aspect of college women's studies programs, it is not as unethical as some critics claim. As hard as they may try, all historians interpret the past in the context of the present. Obviously there is value in our attempts to re-interpret the past in the light of our own time.

If you want the full scholarly work it is W. Schneemelcher's 2 volume New Testament Apocrypha.

Also, to understand the Cathars......try Barbara Tuckman's Distant Mirror for an incredible historical commentary on how the Christian Church has handled other points of view
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