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113 of 119 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I know what I know..., 22 Dec. 2005
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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 16 Apr 2012 19:02:17 BDT
Israilivic says:
I am looking for a book which, at least, has the 5 main gnostic gospels (english translation of course) in it, i have been directed here. Is this the book i am looking for?

In reply to an earlier post on 6 May 2014 11:47:18 BDT
I don't know one that has 5. But one which has 4 is The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels.
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