With "The Gnostic Gospels" Elain Pagels takes the reader into the fascinating world of early christianity before the church structure as implemented in Rome came to predominate the religion. By investigating older texts that have come to light she is able to demonstrate the vibrancy of the various kinds of christianity that were vibrant in the first few centuries after the death of Jesus. These differing teachings of Christ and the concepts of sacrament, salvation and knowledge were just as valid as the final teachings which were allowed into the Holy Bible.
These were the teachings not collected into the Apocrypha, such as the Gospel of Thomas. What went along with these teachings was a belief that knowledge of the world would bring greater knowledge of God. In addition there was an early strain of belief for allowing women to perform the sacred duties and to deny an official power structure that would circumscribe beliefs. It is a telling fact that because of this lack of official structure, these differing belief systems that grew from the root of Christ's teachings would be considered heretical to the Roman Catholic church once it was in power. These 'heretical' sects, of which the Gnostics were but one, were to be slowly marginalized and dispatched by the power of the Roman church with the acquiescence of the state.
The final demonstration of this power of the official church, was its exclusion of these alternate teachings from the final Bible. It must be remembered that these teachings were considered valid by those who worshipped under their strictures. Without a power structure to back them up, however, they had no recourse with the persecution of the Catholic church and these teachings would soon become lost to history as the church banned them. It is only pure luck that some of these teachings were preserved and that we have them to consider in modern times.
This book does not tread lightly on the early Catholic church and it is very pointed about how and why the church used its authority to wipe out alternate belief systems stemming from the teachings of Jesus. An examination of how the concept of self-knowledge as a way to salvation is intimately discussed and how at variance that was with official teachings. In addition this book calls into question the validity of what did and did not get into the final Bible or even preserved in other sanctioned texts. The messiness of real life politics and power struggles are not to be overlooked in the history of christianity, even early to its roots.
For those interested in a somewhat wider scope of history around biblical times, Isaac Asimov's GUIDE TO THE BIBLE (Old and New Testaments, usually both under one cover) is a MUST for those who would expand their view of history and how it shaped judaism and christianity. Mr. Asimov also has a "Chronology of the World" that does cover this era, but not as in-depth and not centered on Gnosticism.
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