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The Gnostic Gospels Paperback – 6 Apr 2006
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If you must buy one of the many books being pumped out this season to capitalise on the film of the mega-selling book [THE DA VINCI CODE], this is the one to get. (SUNDAY HERALD (7.5.06))
As discussed in The Da Vinci Code... Long buried and suppressed, the Gnostic Gospels contain the secret writings attributed to the followers of Jesus.See all Product description
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For millennia, the Gnostics were mostly known through polemics written by their orthodox opponents. This changed when a sensational manuscript find was made in a cave outside Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The Nag Hammadi Library, as the manuscript collection is usually called, contains long lost Gnostic scriptures, including the famous “Gospel of Thomas”. The manuscripts show that Gnosticism as such must have been older than Christianity, since some of the preserved texts are Jewish or “pagan” in orientation. Nobody knows exactly how Gnosticism first emerged or when it became entangled with Christian ideas, and Pagels says relatively little about this in her book. The texts further show that the Christian Gnostics really were fundamentally different from orthodox Christianity. Pagels has a tendency to paint Gnosticism as a kind of ancient “New Age”, which may or may not be anachronistic, but it's a fact that the Gnostics did have traits more reminiscent of Eastern religions: secret teachings, mantras, meditation exercises, “God within” and an emphasis on mystical insight (gnosis) rather than sin and redemption in Christ crucified.
The Gnostics weren't strictly homogenous, and Pagels does her best to distinguish the various factions within the milieu. The followers of Valentinus were the “moderates” and belonged to the official Church, while simultaneously having their own separate gatherings. More “radical” groups rejected the emerging Church en toto. All Gnostics had theological ideas which must seem downright baffling to main-line Christians, including the notion that the material world is evil and created by an inferior god known as the Demiurge. The Demiurge is often identified with both Jahve and Satan, while the snake in Eden is identified with Jesus Christ, who represents the true god, often depicted as androgynous or female! The Gnostics treated the Gospel stories very freely, emphasized their spiritual message over the literal meaning, and frequently wrote their own “gospels”. It's not entirely clear whether the Gnostics even regarded Jesus as a real historical person – their mythos was more important than the literal truth of the Biblical Gospels.
Pagels main point in the book, however, is not to analyze the weird Gnostic theology (which may be allegorical anyway), but to put both orthodox and Gnostic traditions in a social and political context. To put it very simply, the orthodox won the day since the Church combined a centralized authority structure with a broad popular appeal. The authoritarian structure helped the Church survive the Roman persecutions, while the popular appeal included community solidarity, an emphasis on ethics rather than mysticism, and the belief in the physical resurrection of the body. The male dominance within the Church appealed to strata in Roman society skeptical of women's emancipation. Pagels believes that the Church appealed both to the underclass and middle class of the Roman Empire, while the Gnostics appealed mostly to more privileged groups, often a kind of “bohemians”! The Gnostic groups, somewhat paradoxically, were “anti-authoritarian” and elitist at the same time. They often lacked a clear authority structure, while simultaneously being elitist due to their emphasis on mysticism, secret knowledge and hard-to-get theology or allegory. Some believed in predestination (their own predestination, of course). Their morality was more lax, since spiritual ignorance rather than “sin” was seen as the central problem. Women played prominent roles in some Gnostic groups, which apparently rubbed many people (or men!) the wrong way.
While Pagels book is well-argued, I nevertheless have some objections to it. It's frankly hard to believe that a movement based on the idea of esoteric knowledge can be completely “anti-authoritarian”. Another problem is that Pagels paints a picture of “real” Christianity being diverse until about AD 200, when a new orthodoxy redefines the meaning of “Christian” and goes on excluding the Gnostics. This, however, is simply not true. Orthodox or proto-orthodox Christianity existed already around AD 100. The Johannine corpus contains explicit or implicit attacks on Gnostics, and so do the Pastorals (attributed to Paul but probably written later). Likewise, Ignatius sharply attacks the Docetists (a Gnostic current). There simply was no period during which Gnostics were considered “legitimate” by their proto-orthodox opponents. Pagels should know this, and I think she does know it, but I think she wants to paint an inclusive picture of the early Christian Church as a hint about what should be done today.
That being said, I nevertheless believe that “The Gnostic Gospels” is a good introduction to the subject at hand, and I therefore give it four stars.
This small book gives a great overview of the numerous Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi. It touches on those texts that are considered highly relevant for one reason or another. Numerous quotes are provided throughout. Although the book covers a topic that is considered to be heresy by Orthodox Christianity, I found the way it is presented by Pagels to be non biased and respectful. Pagels seems to have no covert agenda here, unlike many others who seem to want to convince the reader that mainstream Christianity is actually the heresy. The reader is left wondering whether it was the influence of the Eastern religions that impacted Neoplatonism or whether it was the other way around, as there are stark similarities. Nevertheless it was out of this matrix that gave rise to Gnosric Christianity and I am far from convinced that this form of Christianity offers any better means to salvation/enlightened than the form that continues to exist today. However, I have no doubt that those who prefer to rely on their own efforts or who are adverse to dogma will be attracted to this form, and in such cases this book would be a great benefit to them in enabling a more profoundly understanding of the 'general' Gnostic message that was actually far from uniform.
It was interesting to read the manuscript with 118 sayings of Christ gathered by St. Thomas known as the Gospel of St. Thomas. Although many of Christ's sayings are already in the New Testament there is one big difference: Jesus emphasizes salvation through self-knowledge and faith. Salvation through self-knowledge and faith makes more sense to me as salvation without self-knowledge would make us vulnerable to manipulation while salvation without faith could lead grandiosity and isolation.
"The Gnostic Gospels" invites the reader to deal with the old controversy-was the Bible divinely inspired or did it evolve at the hands of churchmen with various political, social and religious purposes? Why is the Gospel of St. Thomas not included, what constitutes being "divinely inspired" and is the Bible the only book God has written through humankind?
Solomon Schepps wrote in "The Lost Books of the Bible" that the official Biblical text was completed by two major counsels, in North Africa in Hippo (Augustine Bishopric) in 393, and in Carthage in 397. He said that there had been great difficulty in choosing the Gospels and after much debate, only four were chosen. The Gospel of St. Thomas was rejected as it opened by saying the he who understands the words of Jesus will be saved which is in direct contradiction to the chosen Gospels and Paul's Epistles, which says he who believes will be saved. Schepps said all texts not adhering to the official viewpoint of the churchmen were denounced as heretical and destroyed.
Pagels' and Schepps' books show what we identify as Christain tradition actually represents a small selection of sources. Thanks to them for the first time we can look at other early Christian writing and determine their value for ourselves.
Also of interest is how the Gospel of St. Thomas elaborates on Jesus teachings in the Bible. For example, Jesus said in Luke, "For behold, the kingdom of God is within you," indicating to me that heaven is not a place but a state of being. In the Gospel of St. Thomas Jesus goes further and says, "See, if the Kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of heaven will be there before you." Also, "But the Kingdom is within you and it is outside you. The kingdom of the father is spread over the earth and men do not see it."
Jesus' teachings in the Gnostic Gospels and the Bible are similar concerning how we treat our fellow man: Love your neighbor as yourself, judge not, love your enemies, bless them that curse you and turn the other cheek.
The Gnostic Gospels makes us question even more how Jesus' message of love and forgiveness has been used to rationalize wars, witch-hunts, murders, and exploitation.
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