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Wed, 20 Aug 2003

The Gnostic Gospels

— SjG @ 4:08 pm

Elaine Pagels, 1979, Vintage Books, nonfiction.

I’ve seen many references to the Gnostic writings of Nag Hammadi, whether in “counterculture” literature from the likes of Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs, in lit-crit rantings like the work of Hakim Bey, or in more popular literature like The DaVinci Code (see review, if you so desire). I had a vague idea that there was controversy surrounding this collection of texts, just as there was around the Dead Sea Scrolls. But I knew very little about the texts themselves.
This book deals with the texts from Nag Hammadi, but specifically with regard to what they tell us about early Christianity and the formation of the Church. It does not go into great depth in describing general Gnostic philosophy outside of these concerns.
The book is fascinating. Many of the Gnostic Gospels had vanished, having been purged from the historical and religious record when they were declared heretical and apocryphal. In fact, as Pagels describes it, much of the previous understanding of Gnostic Christianity came from the Church polemics against it. With the discovery of some of the original writings, the picture of early Christianity and the doctrinal divisions becomes clearer. Pagels does a remarkable job of articulating these differences, and bringing back to life the diverse interpretations of faith that defined early Christianity. We even get to hear the words of the opposition: Gnostic Christian polemics directed at the orthodoxy of the Church and criticism of their interpretations. Early attitudes towards the individual’s relationship with God, with Jesus, and with the hierarchy of the Church are explored, as are differences in the value of martyrdom, mystical revelation, and validity of the non-apostolic writings.
Recommended reading for anyone who is interested in the development of religious ideas and ideology.

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