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Adequate introduction to Gnostic scriptures,
This review is from: The Gnostic Gospels (Paperback)
This brief but informative study of the cluster of beliefs known as Gnosticism and its differences with Ecclesiastical Christianity is recommended. Until the 1945 discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts very few Gnostic texts were known and those were mostly quotes in hostile treatises attacking these belief systems. Overall there was greater diversity in Christianity in the 1st and 2nd centuries than today, as explained by Bart Ehrman in Lost Christianities. By 200 AD the proto-orthodox version of Ecclesiastical Christianity had triumphed and all other variants were extinguished and their literature destroyed.
Throughout the book, Pagels quotes extensively from Irenaeus, Tertullian and to a lesser extent, Clement of Alexandria and Pope Clement. On the other side, she gives space to Valentinus and Marcion in addition to the unknown authors of NH texts like The Gospels of Mary and Philip, Apocryphon of John and Apocalypse of Peter. A main controversy was the interpretation of the Resurrection -- historical event or symbol? The Orthodox believed in a physical one whilst the Gnostics had various symbolic interpretations. This had significant implications for the development of these two streams of Christianity as a bodily Resurrection promoted a hierarchical institution whilst the symbolic promoted solitary pursuits.
Beliefs about the nature of God always influence earthly authority. The chapter titled Politics of Monotheism reveals how Pope Clement demanded obedience to the institutional church which became supreme. The creation myths of a variety of Nag Hammadi texts are studied here as well as the feminine aspect of deity. Extreme diversity characterizes the Gnostic texts but three main trends may be identified. Note that the ancient mother goddess does not feature at all; there's the Parental Couple, the Spirit and Wisdom (Sophia). Pagels refers to the Gospel to the Hebrews, the Dialogue of the Savior, the Trimorphic Protennoia and The Thunder: Perfect Mind. Similar to the early church, there tended to be gender equality in most Gnostic sects. Montanism had women founders and both Valentinianism and Marcionism had female priests and bishops. With the triumph of the Orthodox at the end of the 2nd century, this equality came to an end.
The chapter on the persecution of Christians draws mainly upon The Second Treatise of the Great Seth and the Acts of John. It's important to relate the two group's views of persecution to their respective views of Christ. Gnostics saw him as a spiritual being (this includes the Docetic view) while the Orthodox considered him a man, therefore they saw blood as the seed of the church and many actively sought martyrdom. Some Gnostics were martyred but various writings opposed martyrdom, fanaticism and what they considered human sacrifice. The author quotes from Tacitus, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius on these persecutions.
Since all Christian writings not legitimized by the Church were destroyed, scholars were only familiar with Orthodox criticism of Gnosticism until the famous NH discovery. One of the most illuminating NH texts against Ecclesiastical Christianity is The Testimony of Truth that attacks the clergy as blind guides that do not seek after God and criticizes the blind conformity of the church. Jesus' command to seek and find is emphasized as the motive for actively pursuing salvific spiritual insight.
Oddly enough, the Gospel of John, a Gnostic text, was taken up in the Canon. Diverse as they are, the NH texts have the following in common, some of which it shares with Psychotherapy: that ignorance (not only sin) causes suffering, that the soul contains within itself the potential for liberation, the possibility of internal transformation and a fascination with the non-literal meaning of words. Pagels quotes extensively from The Gospel of Truth and The Gospel of Thomas in this regard. In contrast with the cryptic replies and aphorisms in Thomas, the book Zostrianos provides a detailed programme on how to pursue self-knowledge whilst The Discourse on the 8th and 9th is a guide with even more specific directions.
Spiritual/Theological ideas manifest as religious experiences. Gnosticism and Orthodoxy articulate different types of these, Pagels points out, that appealed to different kinds of people. Gnosticism was a solitary way, mystical and ecstatic, whilst the Orthodox supported the natural order, encouraged communities and introduced rituals. However, both of these two branches of Christianity emerged as legitimate interpretations of the words of Jesus. For a detailed analysis of which of his words are genuine and authentic, I refer the interested reader to Geza Vermes' Authentic Gospel Of Jesus.
Although these various mystical schools of Christianity had disappeared by the 4th century except for the Mandaeans in Mesopotamia, an underground stream survived as preserved in medieval art and literature. There was the Cathar revival from about 1170 to 1244 and later various individuals emerged during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In the 20th century, the great psychologist Carl Jung was inspired by Gnosticism. More information is available in Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing by Stephan A. Hoeller. The Gnostic Gospels concludes with 22 pages of Notes arranged by chapter and an index.