Pros:A cogent assessment, brief but thorough
Cons:Not an easy read, it will take time to sink in
The Bottom Line: This might be a tough text for a firm believer, but for those interested in religious history, this is a fantastic primer.
Before getting to anything else, Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Gospels is a work of history, not one advocating or destroying a religion. I must also say that the books chapters interweave in such a way that I could not divide them easily, so my analysis is imbedded with Dr. Pagelss assertions. I apologize in advance if what I write seems stilted; that is not my intent.
The Gnostic gospels were found in 1945 by a shepherdthis is well known. The importance of the find is still being debated. Dr. Pagels uses variations on the canonical gospels as well as some extremely esoteric writings to show two things in particular. First, she uses these documents to explain that Christianity wasnt birthed in whole on the day of the crucifixion; second, she examines the implied politics that occurred as the orthodox structure was at odds with the other groups interpreting the teachings of Jesus in their own way.
To simplify: Gnosis is a type of self-reflexive knowledge that focuses on ideas rather than concrete knowledge. It is a philosophy wherein ideas of all sorts were given credenceand this was the fundamental break between the bishopric and the Gnostics. Not all Gnostic sects believed the same as all the others, but they did give more weight to the philosophy and symbolism rather than community and ritual, by and large.
Early in the book, Dr. Pagels points to a huge divergence between the clergy/laity structure that eventually led to the Catholic Church and the other sects is over whether the resurrection was real or symbolic. The idea that the body of Christ did not ascend to heaven on the third day is so foreign, it is nearly impossible to consider there is any room for discussion here. The debate was simple enough to understand even if it is hard to swallow. However, at the time, the opposite was true. General belief at the time held that you went to Paradise with the body you have. The idea that you would go to Paradise with a body three days decomposed was horrifying. Given that Jesus was divine, though, all things were possible.
A tangential but nevertheless important split was over the role of women. There is debate in the canonical gospels about this, so the idea was not settled between 70 and 200 AD (when the four gospels were written). Since Mary Madeline was, in some traditions, the first person to see the empty tomb and the spirit of the risen Christ, this indicated that women should have some amount of power within the church. Gnostics tended to allow women to sermonize and perform rituals like baptism. The early established church refused to accept this for a host of reasons (most of them obvious).
We now know that there was contact between Palestine and India during the time of Christ. I mention this because another difference was about the nature of God Himself. The reading that won, if you will, is that there is only one God who is highest and maker of all. Gnostics believed Him to be just one of many and that he was not even the most powerful. They point to the idea of God being jealous in the Old Testament. Why, they ask, would He be jealous if there were not others to be jealous of? Logically, the Gnostics had a point, but two thousand years of Jewish tradition accepted the one God, so the idea (probably not totally new) had no traction. It also held no mystery, nothing for faith to grow from. (I do not say that religion is a lie, but that the traditions of the time and the time to follow focused on belief rather than logic: we can worship a God but we cannot know Him; therefore, mystery had a place that seemed to be much higher than logic.)
Further, the ideas some of the Gnostics put forth was that not only was God not the highest creator but also of neither or both genders. Again, this flies in the face of two thousand years of belief. Dr. Pagels suggests that the Gnostics were influenced by the Buddhism that likely passed between Palestine and India. I cannot doubt her conclusion. First, the belief that no central god exists, foreign to Palestine, was one of the basic tenets of Buddhism. Second, the Gnostics placed more importance of a personal relationship with the divine; meditation and prayer were enough to reach this level of spirituality. Finally, the notion of a structure was anathema to nearly all Gnostic beliefs discovered at Nag Hammadi.
The idea that politics shaped the early catholic church (later the Catholic Church) is common and simplistic. Of course politics was involved; show me a group of more than 2 people and you will find politics (I think what you find with just 2 is argument rather than politics, and yes there is a difference). I think that the schism that began in the 15th century in earnest, the holy wars fought both before and after that century, and even the abuses focused mainly on the Catholic Church lately have all colored our vision of what was happening in the Mediterranean area in the first two centuries after the resurrection. Dr. Pagels also quietly implies that the fight was not over souls. What I believe the laity accepts today is quite far from what history now tells.
The debate was about control, but not power exactly. In the conclusion Dr. Pagels says: I believe that we owe the survival of Christian tradition to the organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed. If left to the shifting thoughts of the large number of Gnostic sects, there is every reason to believe that we would look at Christianity as a quaint belief that lasted for a few centuries in Palestine. The same can be said, almost exactly, about the way the thirteen colonies became the United States (without an orthodoxy, there would be nothing solid to fight for).
History gained enormous information after the 1945 discovery of two thousand year old scrolls. I stress history. There is no indication from this brief but well documented and structured text that there is anything in the scrolls that undoes any current (or even ancient) Christian ethos. The scrolls reignited a debate that occurred during the development of the early church but that was suppressed later.
The Gnostic Gospels is not an easy read. The information is not difficult to grasp, but it does require (or at least required of me) time to consider the information presented. The idea that the resurrection was only symbolic and that God was not the sole or even the highest spirit are notions that are easily accepted. I am a neverbeliever, but I had to take a long look at what I was reading and re-read portions so I was certain I didnt miss or misunderstand something. I cannot help but be surrounded by the ancient traditions, so these ideas (while not heretical to me, but still hard to grasp) are still stuck in the consideration phase.
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