Review Elaine Pagels Gnostic Gospels

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Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (London: Phoenix Book, 2006)

Reviewed by Greg Jenks

Recent interest in Christian origins seems to explain the republication of this classic study by Elaine Pagels. Originally published in 1979 the book now appears in a paperback edition but without any revision of its contents.

The Da Vinci Code phenomenon is doubtless part of the reason for the new release, but interest in long-lost Gnostic texts was also raised by the publication of the Gospel of Judas in April this year. Books such as The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur have also played in their part in the development of general interest in the Gnostic gospels.

After more than 25 years, it is remarkable that Pagel’s book serves so well as an introduction to the confusing world of early Christianity.

Since the original edition was published, Pagels has developed her reputation as an international expert in esoteric Christianity from ancient times. Her major publications have included The Gnostic Paul (1992), Adam, Eve and the Serpent (1987), The Origin of Satan (1995) and Beyond Belief (2003). She is currently the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University.

Where the popular titles and their associated media promotions have excited excessive expectations about suppressed teachings and secret documents, Pagels sets out to describe the people, the ideas and the politics of Christianity in the second and third centuries.

Pagels begins with a brief description of the Nag Hammadi texts discovered in Egypt in 1945, after which she sets them deftly in the context of ancient Gnostic Christianity and tells the shabby story of personal jealousies which delayed their publication for more than 20 years. She then explores the significance of these texts by tracing several themes, always with attention fixed on the social and political implications of the theological disputes reflected in the texts.

The orthodox side of those arguments is well known to us as the writings of Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian and other authors have been preserved. With the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts we now have a better appreciation for the Gnostic perspective.

Pagels takes the reader through a series of issues where the orthodox and Gnostic Christians found themselves in conflict, and some of them sound like contemporary disputes in our own time: Is the resurrection of Jesus best understood literally or as a symbol? Is spiritual authority vested in the office of a bishop or in the experience of the believer? How is the faith and ministry of women expressed and validated? What is the meaning of the death of Jesus? Is the church for all the baptised or just for those who demonstrate certain moral and spiritual qualities? Is the deepest human dilemma our sinfulness or our failure to understand our true selves?

In tracing each of these disputes within primitive Christianity, Pagels gives extensive quotations from both Gnostic and orthodox writers. Most importantly she repeatedly asks why these debates mattered in the way they did for the people at the time? Her answer often comes down to a struggle over the nature of church and how authority is exercised within its life.

I was struck by the many parallels between ancient Gnostics and contemporary believers whose immediate personal experiences of faith can generate a sense of superiority over less spiritual Christians. At the same time, I could see other parallels between the Gnostics and the “New Age” spirituality of our own times. Some of the social and political dynamics also seem to be similar, even though the cultural and historical context is entirely different.

Pagels has provided an accessible and well-informed introduction to the troubled second and third centuries when Christians found themselves in serious dispute over matters of faith. In addition to its many pertinent insights into ancient Christianity, this book invites us to think about why our own theological disputes mean so much to us. What is at stake? Why does it matter? Are our religious arguments sometimes a smokescreen for other concerns?