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on 24 May 2014
The collection of writings are amongst those discovered at Hammadi in Egypt and are ealier than or contemporary with some of the writings in the Canonical Scriptures. I found the collection to be very informative and it opened upo for me a whole new world from the Gnostic writings.
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on 24 November 2015
I have ordered three different editions of this book and the type has always been too small for me to be able to read it. I have enjoyed Pagels' Gospel of Thomas book and I'm frustrated to be unable to read this one.
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on 7 October 2007
Elaine Pagels, a religion professor, discusses the effects the Gnostic gospels have had on Christianity since their discovery in 1945. She explains the gospels view of the life and teachings of Jesus, which differs from that of the New Testament, and deliberates questions raised. Though a well-written book and worth reading, this book does not contain a translation of the Gnostic Gospels.
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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.
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on 4 December 2006
This is a very good, thoroughly researched book that objectively explains how the early Roman Emperors and Bishops, in the third and forth century of the Common Era, basically outlawed and banished certain gospels, now known as the the Gnostic gospels, in favour of those very select few which eventually appear in the New Testament, solely because the latter were more effective in commanding an unquestioning obedience, among the ordinary masses, to the authority of the early Christian church and Roman state in general. What Western civilisation subsequently lost, with the secret burial of these competing Gnostic texts, was no less than the original, authentic message of what Christ's coming, death and ressurection actually represented - something which was always meant to be understood symbolically, as a metaphor for the inner transformation of consciousness that every individual has the potential to experience; i.e. the personal, interior birth of the Christhood, resulting in the death of the ego and the metaphysical ressurection of a person spiritually. Originally based on direct experience, the true Christian path is shown to have started off as the search for God within you, not anywhere outside. As true spiritual seekers continue to come into this knowledge and undergo the liberating experience of "gnosis" - and the horror of ALL institutional religion eventually wanes and dies - it's quite likely this important book could rank among the major sources of reference, from a historical perspective. Discovered initially in a clay jar in Egypt in 1945, and kept from the public by private spats among the religious and academic hierarchy until 1972, the re-emergence and now widely available Gnostic texts cannot be underestimated, and is simply invalauble for anyone on the spiritual path. After this, you'll certainly be ready to read and grasp the Gnostic gospels themselves. Congratulations on making this discovery yourself, here and now!
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VINE VOICEon 28 June 2008
Let me start by admitting that I only have myself to blame - I didn't read the Acknowledgements section at the front of the book (pages 9 and 10), and therefore I had no idea that the title of the book is totally misleading.

In fact I read the whole book wondering when the author was going to start discussing the gnostic gospels (a specific subset of the documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945). And I was totally gobsmacked when, on the last but one page, I read the words:

"That I have devoted so much of this discussion to gnosticism does not mean, as the casual reader might assume, that I advocate going back to gnosticism ..."


What sense does that make? The book is supposed to be about the gnostic gospels. That's the title - "The Gnostic Gospels". What else should she be discussing if not the gnostic gospels and the gnostic ideas they present?

And then, in a search for meaning, I started to work through the book from the front cover, and quickly stumbled on the explanation - in the very first sentence of the Acknowledgements:

"The writing of this book began several years ago [I presume that means several years before 1979 when the book was first published] with research into the relation between politics and religion in the origins of Christianity."

Now that does make sense.

The main text is less than 150 pages long, and over half of that text can be summarised as:

1. This author doesn't like the patriarchal and, in her opinion, misogenistic nature of the original, formally organised Christian church, that is,. the foundation of what is nowadays called the Roman Catholic church.

2. She thinks it is contrary to the original intention whereby there would be equality between men and women and everyone could believe anything they liked and still claim to be an orthodox Christian.

3. She appears to hold "salvation by intellectual works" in far higher regard that soppy old "salvation through faith" or "salvation through grace."

I say "appears, on that last point, because to be honest, even after reading the entire book I still don't know exactly how the author defines terms such as "Christian", "Christianity", "Gnostic" or "Gnosticism", etc., etc.

Which makes it very difficult to know what on earth she is trying to say about these topics.

For example, although the book is ostensibly about the gnostic GOSPELS, in most cases they are all but ignored.
(In the list below IL means Index Listing, the number of entries in the index):

Gospel of Mary - 4 IL - just over 1.5 pages of quotes and discussion
Gospel of Philip - 12 IL - named twice plus nearly 2 full pages of quotes and discussion
Gospel of Thomas (in greek) - 5 IL - a little over half a page of quotes and discussion
Gospel of Truth - 9 IE - named 4 tinmes plus 1.75 pages of quotes and text
Gospel of the Egyptians - 1 IL - named
Gospel of the Hebrews - 1 IL - one line of text

Several other Nag Hammadi documents are covered - but they aren't "gospels" - which is what it says on the cover.

In fact the only "gospel" that gets any real attention is the Gospel of Thomas (Nag Hammadi version) which is one of the author's favourite subjects (she has also written a full length book on this gospel).

The only trouble there is that the author doesn't say when she thinks it was written, and she doesn't deal with the question of whether there was in fact an early "orthodox" version of this document (actually a list of sayings), which was subsequently edited (possibly as late as the last part of the second century A.D.) by someone who added in a number of obscure gnostic-style sayings. This being a fairly well-established view in the relevant circles, though of course we are unlikely to ever know for sure one way or t'other.)

In short, the book is a solid lead clunker, not for the obviously pro-gnostic bias (which Pagals sort of denies - page 154), but just because even at 142 pages (including the Introduction), it is merely a long-winded, boring, colourless description of the politiking Pagels thinks went on in the early Roman Catholic church, interlaced with a veritable shopping list of quotations (there are an average of 92 endnotes for chapter (at an average 22 pages per chapter).

Even when the author does get round to quoting and discussing aspects of gnosticism, the book is almost totally devoid of the kind of basic information that any newcomer to the subject needs to know in order to a fair and balanced view of gnostic cults, myths, beliefs, etc. Like what EXACTLY did gnostics mean by "the demiurge"? It is one of the most fundamental issues in gnosticism, but given entirely inadequate coverage here; whilst Aeons, Archons, the seven spheres, etc. aren't even mentioned!

It's appeal will be limited to those who have so little prior knowledge of the subject that they don't realise what has been left out, or how important that information is.
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on 1 September 2016
This looks most interesting - a friend of mine goes to gnostic classes and I have always been interested to know exactly what it means - now I will now (when I've waded through it). Not light reading, but will be most elucidating.
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on 21 August 2015
Incredible book giving the lay person a really good insight into the reasons why orthodox and Gnostic Christians clashed and why one survived and the other didn't, sadly
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on 22 June 2014
Found it to be disappointing. Too much like a reference book for my taste. Did not fully understand the wordung. Felt like there was a secret you were not privileged to know.
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on 22 August 2013
I expected more examples from the gospels. Too much opinion and really not enough examples to make your own decisions
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