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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating new slant on Christianity
For centuries all that we knew about the gnostics was what their opponents wrote. Very little was preserved of the teachings of this most interesting group of early Christians, who were a disparate group but had in common the belief that "God" or "the divine" could be known directly by personal experience. This brought them into conflict with the...
Published on 14 Jan 2001

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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Overview of the differences between gnosticism and orthodoxy
The title may be a slight misnomer, because we don't get more than short snippets of the actual gospels found at Nag Hammadi; rather this is a fairly careful overview of the fundamental differences between gnostic christianity and that of orthodox/catholic christianity and why the latter has reigned supreme in spite of (to modern people) pleasing aspects of...
Published on 19 Feb 2001 by Kai-Mikael Jää-Aro


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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating new slant on Christianity, 14 Jan 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
For centuries all that we knew about the gnostics was what their opponents wrote. Very little was preserved of the teachings of this most interesting group of early Christians, who were a disparate group but had in common the belief that "God" or "the divine" could be known directly by personal experience. This brought them into conflict with the orthodox Christians who were trying to build a church founded on a strict organisational structure, and who taught that the only route to God was via the bishops, priests and deacons of this "official" church. Pagels deals clearly and simply with the major issues that divided the orthodox church from the gnostics, so that you do not have to be a theologian to understand the issues. The result is a fascinating account of early Christianity. It shows how the early church fathers decided what should be "true" Christian teaching and what should be excluded as heresy. The gnostics, who had no time for the highly organised orthodox church, were of course heretics. Pagels shows how in some ways the ideas of the gnostics were more appealing to modern thinking than those of the official church - they allowed women to play an equal part in their rituals, for example, and had much more democracy. No one was put on a pedestal as superior to the rest of the congregation. It was the tight organisation of the orthodox Pauline church, however, which triumphed over the looser, less doctrinaire gnostic groupings. As the winners always write their own history, the ideas of the gnostics have been suppressed and misunderstood over the years. The discovery of the Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi gives us an insight into this alternative strand of Christianity and Pagels helps us to understand what they stood for elegantly and concisely. She wears her scholarship lightly and makes these quite profound ideas accessible to non-experts. A little more detail about the content of the gospels would have gained this book an extra star for me at least, but I have no hesitation in recommending this to anyone even slightly interested in the history of Christianity and how the Church came to exist in its present form
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119 of 125 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Losers' Side of the Story, 6 Feb 2004
By 
Peter Kenney (Birmingham, Alabama, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
The Gnostic Gospels which were discovered in Egypt in 1945 show us the variety of gospels circulated among early adherents during the first few centuries after Christ. In describing the effects of these gospels on the evolution of Christianity Elaine Pagels is able to make a complex subject seem quite understandable.
We always knew that orthodox believers frequently denounced gnostic ideas. The discovery of the gnostic texts has revealed how gnosticism defended itself and in turn attacked orthodox beliefs.
The othodox position was that the generations of Christians who lived after the time of the apostles could not possibly have the same access to Christ as the apostles did during Christ's lifetime. Therefore these later Christians would have to look to the church and its bishops for teaching and leadership. The gnostic attitude was that access to God was available to any believer and some church elders themselves may not yet have had
this same God experience. Many gnostics believed that all who had received this gnosis had transcended the authority of the church's hierarchy. People received gnosis when they came into contact with the living Christ.
The main benefit I have received from reading THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS has been a greater appreciation of the early development of Christianity. I was able to see for the first time the other side of the story - a view of a contentious debate among early Christians from the losing side.
As for the winning side, it had never occurred to me before reading Pagels' book that the structure of the Roman Catholic church was based on an organizational model of the Roman army.
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96 of 101 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not Quite What I Expected, 18 Nov 2002
By 
TheHighlander (Richfield, PA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
This book was not quite what I thought it would be however it was still very good. I was hoping for a printing of the Gnostic Gospels themselves. But what I got was a study of The Gnostic Religion versus the Roman Catholic Church and other orthodox Christian sects. Offering compelling information on the differences of their beliefs in the writings of The New Testament.
The book also explains what Gnosis is, is God male or female? Is there more than one God, proven in the Bible? It talks of how the two Christian Churches were formed in the beginning and how and why the present version won out. Also of interest is a chapter on the Christians suffering under the Roman Empire.
This book was thought provoking and kept my interest throughout. It touched on a lot of subjects for such a short project. While I don't think this book should be considered the final word on any debate about Christianity or the Gnostic Religion I believe that it certainly should be on any list when it comes to understanding Gnostics.
Read with an open mind and this book will lead you down paths you had not considered. Explain an alternate way to read some of the versus in the Bible. Talk of recently found teachings from the days of Jesus and before. Don't miss this one.
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111 of 117 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I know what I know..., 22 Dec 2005
By 
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
In her prize-winning book 'The Gnostic Gospels', a book which has remained in the popular eye for the past two decades since its first publication in 1979, Elaine Pagels has put together a popular treatment of a hitherto (but since more popularly-accessible) academic-only subject. The discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library were very much a topic of conversation, but always topics about which things were spoken, rather than of which things were spoken. This book helped change that in common parlance, and also served as a basic primer for those new to the field who would then proceed to more in-depth study and analysis.
In her relatively substantial introduction, Pagels goes through a history of the coming into light of the texts of Nag Hammadi, contrasting it with the more popularly known Dead Sea Scrolls. However, the Nag Hammadi texts also had their fair share of intrigue and cloak-and-dagger kinds of dealings, until finally coming into the relatively safe hands of museums and academics.
Pagels proceeds from this background with a brief history of Christian thought in the first few centuries after Christ. She particularly highlights the contrasts between orthodoxy and catholic trends, and how each relates to a gnostic point of view. What are the issues of the resurrection? Why was this taken literally? What authority is conferred upon those who saw the risen Lord, and why was it not so evenly spread (Mary Magdalene, alas, seems to have gotten the short end of the stick authority-wise, despite being listed numerous times as the first witness of the resurrection, and indeed the apostle to the apostles, proclaiming his resurrection to the unbelieving men).
Pagels then develops a political idea and structure to her analysis of the way church orthodoxy continued away from and in deliberate, direct opposition to gnostic teachings. Were the gnostics abandoning monotheism, in heretical schism from the teachings of the commonly-accepted New Testament. Complicated in this, of course, is the fact that the New Testament did not as yet exist, so many competing documents claimed authority, among them gnostic texts.
Pagels also explores gender ideas, in the imagery of God, which was much more fluid in the gnostic framework (and only beginning to be recovered in protestant and catholic circles) as we recognise that God does not have a gender, and that the image of God as mother (particularly in creative acts) is as valid in many ways as that of God the father.
The Gospel of Thomas sets up both political and gender controversies in short economy, by showing a small take on the authority struggle between Mary Magdalene and Peter for primacy in the community. Indeed, Peter seems to want to cast Mary out 'for women are not worthy of eternal life'--Jesus defends her, saying that he will 'make her male', and that indeed any who do this will be welcomed in the kingdom.
Gnostics were no fans of martyrdom--this sounds a bit strange, except that the 'proper attitude' toward suffering for the faith was important for the orthodox/catholic hierarchy, and many controversies abounded over those who held true and those who waivered. Gnostics were beyond the pale; roundly ignored and despised to the extent that their martyrs for Christianity were not recognised as being true martyrs.
Perhaps the greatest difference between standard gnostic belief and practice and Christianity as it has come down to us today is the idea that, with gnosis, one can have sufficient self-knowledge for salvation; that somehow, salvation and redeeming characteristics can come from within. This is antithetical to the idea that one is saved only by the grace of God, which comes only from God, from without, not from within. The pledge that priests take today in many denominations, that they believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain all things necessary for salvation, is a left-over from gnostic controversy days, who believed in other forms of knowledge.
Pagels' book is an interesting study, a fairly quick read, not too difficult, just enough for most, and the appetiser for others. Overall it still has integrity and purpose. Read together with Robinson's 'Nag Hammadi Library', it gives a fascinating view into an early Christian world, and food for thought of how different things might be today had reconciliation and dialogue replaced diatribe and exclusion.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Impossible to put down..., 22 Oct 2000
This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
I started reading this book while attempting to write an essay on 'The appeal of Gnosticism' and ended up reading it from cover to cover in about 8 hours. I'm a student and sometimes I feel alienated from my work but this book reminded me of all the questions that interest me.... why we say the apostles creed and why orthodoxy evolved as it has.... how modern churches reflect tendencies that were deemed heretical by the early church ... this book really deals with the theology developed by gnostics and its relation to the mainstream Christianity. Yet it does all this in a thoroughly accessible way, a respectable work that doesn't drown you with references. This is a thoroughly balanced and informative work written in a manner which should entice even the most inexpert non-bookworm to learn more about the 'secret knowledge' gnostic groups claimed to have and how it affected the development of the Christian Church and has continued to do so. I thoroughly recommend it.
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60 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I know what I know..., 28 Sep 2003
By 
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
In her prize-winning book 'The Gnostic Gospels', a book which has remained in the popular eye for the past two decades since its first publication in 1979, Elaine Pagels has put together a popular treatment of a hitherto (but since more popularly-accessible) academic-only subject. The discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library were very much a topic of conversation, but always topics about which things were spoken, rather than of which things were spoken. This book helped change that in common parlance, and also served as a basic primer for those new to the field who would then proceed to more in-depth study and analysis.
In her relatively substantial introduction, Pagels goes through a history of the coming into light of the texts of Nag Hammadi, contrasting it with the more popularly known Dead Sea Scrolls. However, the Nag Hammadi texts also had their fair share of intrigue and cloak-and-dagger kinds of dealings, until finally coming into the relatively safe hands of museums and academics.
Pagels proceeds from this background with a brief history of Christian thought in the first few centuries after Christ. She particularly highlights the contrasts between orthodoxy and catholic trends, and how each relates to a gnostic point of view. What are the issues of the resurrection? Why was this taken literally? What authority is conferred upon those who saw the risen Lord, and why was it not so evenly spread (Mary Magdalene, alas, seems to have gotten the short end of the stick authority-wise, despite being listed numerous times as the first witness of the resurrection, and indeed the apostle to the apostles, proclaiming his resurrection to the unbelieving men).
Pagels then develops a political idea and structure to her analysis of the way church orthodoxy continued away from and in deliberate, direct opposition to gnostic teachings. Were the gnostics abandoning monotheism, in heretical schism from the teachings of the commonly-accepted New Testament. Complicated in this, of course, is the fact that the New Testament did not as yet exist, so many competing documents claimed authority, among them gnostic texts.
Pagels also explores gender ideas, in the imagery of God, which was much more fluid in the gnostic framework (and only beginning to be recovered in protestant and catholic circles) as we recognise that God does not have a gender, and that the image of God as mother (particularly in creative acts) is as valid in many ways as that of God the father.
The Gospel of Thomas sets up both political and gender controversies in short economy, by showing a small take on the authority struggle between Mary Magdalene and Peter for primacy in the community. Indeed, Peter seems to want to cast Mary out 'for women are not worthy of eternal life'--Jesus defends her, saying that he will 'make her male', and that indeed any who do this will be welcomed in the kingdom.
Gnostics were no fans of martyrdom--this sounds a bit strange, except that the 'proper attitude' toward suffering for the faith was important for the orthodox/catholic hierarchy, and many controversies abounded over those who held true and those who waivered. Gnostics were beyond the pale; roundly ignored and despised to the extent that their martyrs for Christianity were not recognised as being true martyrs.
Perhaps the greatest difference between standard gnostic belief and practice and Christianity as it has come down to us today is the idea that, with gnosis, one can have sufficient self-knowledge for salvation; that somehow, salvation and redeeming characteristics can come from within. This is antithetical to the idea that one is saved only by the grace of God, which comes only from God, from without, not from within. The pledge that priests take today in many denominations, that they believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain all things necessary for salvation, is a left-over from gnostic controversy days, who believed in other forms of knowledge.
Pagels' book is an interesting study, a fairly quick read, not too difficult, just enough for most, and the appetiser for others. Overall it still has integrity and purpose. Read together with Robinson's 'Nag Hammadi Library' (please see my review of that), it gives a fascinating view into an early Christian world, and food for thought of how different things might be today had reconciliation and dialogue replaced diatribe and exclusion.
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81 of 89 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A provocative, insightful look at the early Christian church, 24 Dec 2003
By 
Daniel Jolley "darkgenius" (Shelby, North Carolina USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
Noted historian of the early church Elaine Pagels has produced a clear, cogent, and very effective introduction to the subject of Gnosticism, a different form of Christianity that was declared heretical and virtually stamped out by the orthodox church by the start of the second century after Christ. Most of what we knew of the Gnostic belief system came from the religious authors who worked so hard to destroy the movement, but that changed drastically with the still relatively recent discovery of a number of lost Gnostic writings near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, this momentous discovery of ancient papyri has received little attention, and I must admit I went into this book knowing virtually nothing about Gnosticism. As an historian by training and a Christian, the information in these "heretical" texts intrigue me, and I believe that Christians should challenge their faith by examining material that does not fall in line with accepted beliefs. I should note that Pagels does not attempt to summarize or examine in detail the Gnostic Gospels in and of themselves; her particular focus here is the way in which Gnosticism affected the rise of the orthodox church that declared the Gnostics heretics. Still, she presents a great deal of information on many of the newly discovered texts and inarguably shows that the Christian church was founded in a society espousing a number of contradictory viewpoints.
Pagels does a good job of presenting the context in which the early Christians lived and eventually argued against one another. The debate was seemingly one over spiritual authority, and social and political issues played a part alongside purely religious disagreements between different factions. I think she tends to overemphasize the sociopolitical implications of Gnosticism, yet her arguments are certainly sensible and enlightening. One of the problems with Gnosticism as a movement was the disagreement among many so-called Gnostics on a number of issues. In terms of Gnosticism as a whole, however, one can point to a number of thoughts and ideas that ably represent the whole. Gnostics basically saw their faith as an internal thing, a practice based on the secret knowledge Jesus supposedly shared with a select number of individuals, one of whom was Mary Magdalene. Gnostics attracted women in particular because most Gnostics viewed everyone as equal and allowed for the participation of women in any sacred act. The orthodox, arguing that the disciples were men and thus the church held no leadership positions for women, opposed the teachings on these grounds. Gnostics basically believed that one found Christ in oneself; inner visions were the trademarks of true Gnostics. To the orthodox church founded on the basis of Peter's succession as the head of the church, Gnostics thus placed themselves not only on the same footing as the apostles but above even the Twelve. They tried to answer their own questions as to how Christ could be both human and divine, and many of them came to view Christ as a spiritual being who only appeared to suffer and die. Many also interpreted the virgin birth in spiritual rather than human terms. To the orthodox Christians, this was blasphemy, for the church as we know it is basically built on the faith and belief that God's son took on a human form and died in the literal sense on the Cross in order to conquer Death and save all of his followers. Some Gnostics came to believe that the Creator was not God but a demiurge who falsely declared there was no other God but him. Thus, orthodox Christians were seen as following a false god out of ignorance, a charge that did not set well with orthodox Christians. The orthodox beliefs on the subject of resurrection legitimized a hierarchy of persons through whose authority all others must approach God. Gnostic teachings were thus seen as subversive of this social order by offering direct access to God outside of the priests and bishops of the orthodox church.
A true discussion of Gnostic beliefs would take many pages to even begin, and Pagels has jam packed a relatively short book with much information along those lines. Her contrast between the two competing forms of early Christianity clearly explains how and why the orthodox church worked so vehemently to stamp out the heretical Gnostic acolytes. I am of the opinion that Gnosticism would have died out of its own accord had it not been declared heretical; its followers basically practiced a deeply personal and largely unorganized form of worship that excluded the masses. The early church needed organization in order to survive, especially during the times of awful persecution we find in the centuries after Christ's death. This is a deeply provocative book indeed, addressing a subject I will continue to investigate. As a Christian of fundamentalist Southern Baptist persuasion, I will add that nothing I read here posed any threat to my current beliefs or faith. Those Christians who fear the influence of a different type of Christianity should not avoid this book or others like it out of fear; instead, such individuals should test their faith by reading this provocative material because one's faith can actually be strengthened rather than weakened by such endeavors.
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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What is a "heresy"?, 6 Oct 2005
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
A fortuitous event occured on an Egyptian hillside nearly half a century ago. The finding of a set of papyrus books might have sundered the Christian world irreparably. Or it might have heralded a new ecumenical movement undreamt of in an earlier day. The books proved to be the writings of a Christian sect known as the Gnostics. This group formed shortly after the death or disappearance of the teacher known as Jesus. The followers of this teacher generated many interpreters in the years after his disappearance, but these were either absorbed in the orthodoxy created by Roman Emperor Constantine or killed or driven into exile by the hierarchy established by his fiat. Most of their writings disappeared with them.
Pagels, a specialist in the Gnostic gospels, presents the story of the find and outlines the philosophy with sympathy and clarity. In six succinct chapters, she reveals the drastic departure from what we know as Christianity today. Although others have questioned the notion of the Trinity, the Gnostics were firmly opposed to the tripartite division of one spirit into three identities. The "resurrection", so firmly entrenched in today's faith, was viewed in a completely different way by the Gnostics. Their writings contest the notion of Jesus as a deity in human form. Furthermore, the Gnostics couldn't accept the restricted group of "observers" of the resurrected Jesus that orthodox accounts relate. Displays of the spirit would occur down through time, they contested, and to all who were prepared to see it. This universal revelation overturned the sort of hierarchical structure that was developing among other Christians and would be endorsed by Constatine. The Gnostics felt relations with the deity should be universally available. Adding priests, deacons and bishops to "run interference" was contrary to divine will. Pagels doesn't miss the point that much of Reformation thinking was built along similar lines.
The Gnostics were but one of the Christian sects, but well established throughout the Mediterranean countries by the beginning of the second century of the Common Era [CE]. From the scattered writings that survived the orthodox holocaust against them, there were serious thinkers and writers among them. Only a few commentaries reached modern times, but the vehemence of the orthodox clerics condemning their practices and beliefs has told scholars much. Until the papyrus writings were unearthed, Valentinus' views were the voice of Gnosticism. The Gnostic gospels also demonstrate that unity of opinion was no more prevalent among them than it is with today's Christianity. The role of women, severely constrained by orthodox bishops and theologians, was instead one of equality with the Gnostics. The Gnostics went so far as to rotate the leadership of a congregation among all the members, men and women alike.
Hierarchy, of course, won the political battle. The victory was nearly absolute, but not easily won until Constantine's interference. Orthodox writers railed against the widespread and clearly popular acceptance of Gnostic practices and teachings. The Gnostics claimed, rightly as the Nag Hammadi books attest, to equal authority in relating Christian origins. Early Gnostic writers laid firm claim to having accounts of events in Jesus' life. Exchanges between the teacher and his apostles familiar to us today, were depicted as vastly different in Gnostic accounts. The major distinction is the role played by Mary Magdalene. The dimunition of her place in the group around Jesus is vigorously overturned by the Gnostics, who placed her first among equals. As Pagels is quick to note, what differences in today's society, religious or secular, would exist had this view prevailed? [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Overview of the differences between gnosticism and orthodoxy, 19 Feb 2001
This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
The title may be a slight misnomer, because we don't get more than short snippets of the actual gospels found at Nag Hammadi; rather this is a fairly careful overview of the fundamental differences between gnostic christianity and that of orthodox/catholic christianity and why the latter has reigned supreme in spite of (to modern people) pleasing aspects of gnosticism.
I felt that I need to learn more about this time and its thoughts, and really, who could ask for more from a book.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough and accessible, 27 Jan 2008
By 
Origen (London, UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
Elaine Pagels, a Princeton professor who specialises in writing accessible books on heterodox movements in early Christianity, has produced a gem of a book. It reads really well and is thorough enough to be interesting to the academically minded but also accessible enough to the interested lay reader.

Pagels holds some views which some might find controversial about the character of early Christian development. Certainly, she is not afraid to advance theories which would surprise Catholic or evangelical readers about the historical and theological value of 'extra-canonical' or 'heretical' sources. But she makes her case well and uses the evidence judiciously. Of course, her own evident fondness for a Gnosticising religious outlook shines through at times and this - for me at least - was a nice personal touch which didn't detract from her attempts to put forward an objective case.

If you're looking to learn more about Christian origins and want to read a sympathetic portrayal of the often maligned 'Gnostic' currents in early Christian thought, then this book is undoubtedly an excellent place to start. If you're looking for something a bit more advanced, I'd recommend 'Gnosis' by Kurt Rudolph.
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