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Definitely did not find this translation ‘enlightening’!
on 6 March 2015
I am sorry to disagree with so many reviews on here, but I really did not like this book at all.
The book is very attractively presented, with a beautiful cover, but sadly, for me, this was about the high point of the book.
What we have here described as ‘The Gnostic Gospels’ is a selection of texts, and excerpts from texts, from the Nag Hammadi library discovered in Egypt in 1945. These include the Gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Philip, and the Gospel of Truth (besides other, more esoteric Gnostic texts).
I had two major issues with this book:
(1) In the foreword Alan Jacobs describes his process as follows: “my poetic transcription is in free verse form paraphrased from the widely differing literal prose translations in existence. I have relied on my own practical knowledge of the mystical path in the higher religious traditions to make as much sense as possible of these truly beautiful, ecstatic and awe-inspiring texts.”
What this means in practice, is that we have here a paraphrase of the Nag Hammadi text, in which we are entirely dependent on the author’s whim. How do we know how close what we’re reading is to the source text?
For example, the famous passage in the Gospel of Philip in which Jesus allegedly ‘kisses’ Mary Magdalene, is translated thus:
Of all his disciples he loved
his companion, Mary Magdalene,
the most, and kissed her.
There is no equivocation expressed about this, no footnote to flag to the reader the fact that the key word ‘kissed’ is a conjecture supplying a lacuna in the original.
(2) I did not enjoy the style of the translation. In many places the English poetic rendering doesn’t even make sense. Far from ‘enlightening’ the meaning of the Gnostic texts for 20th-century readers unaccustomed to Gnostic thought, in my opinion this simply obscures it. Since Gnosticism is a theosophy quite alien to most modern readers, you really need a more scholarly translation with explanatory footnotes, rather than this ‘mystical’ but quite baffling ‘translation.’
For anyone really wishing to understand what the Gnostic Gospels are about, can I recommend instead James M. Robinson’s ‘The Nag Hammadi Library’ [978-0060669355], or even St. Irenaeus’ Christian explanation of the Gnostic worldview, Against Heresies (example [978-1480081154]).
For reference, the texts included in this book are:
1. The Fable of the Pearl (10 pages)
2. The Gospel of Thomas (34 pages)
3. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (9 pages)
4. Melchizedek (10 pages)
5. The Gospel of Philip (52 pages)
6. Poimandrés (22 pages)
7. The Apocalypse of the Great Power (16 pages)
8. The Sophia of Jesus Christ (25 pages)
9. Human Suffering (2 pages)
10. The Gospel of Truth (39 pages)
11. The Greatest Human Evil is Forgetfulness of God (4 pages)
12. The Secret Book According to St John I, II & III (10 pages)
13. Thunder (9 pages)