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The Gnostic Gospels

3.93  ·  Rating details ·  13,888 ratings  ·  638 reviews
The Gnostic Gospels is a landmark study of the long-buried roots of Christianity, a work of luminous scholarship and wide popular appeal. First published in 1979 to critical acclaim, winning the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Gnostic Gospels has continued to grow in reputation and influence over the past two decades. It is now widely ...more
Paperback, 218 pages
Published September 19th 1989 by Vintage (first published November 12th 1979)
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William2
The apocryphal gospels, discovered by a farmer in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, are here explained in the context of late second-century RC church history. Gnostic (gnosis, Gk: knowledge) Christians did not believe that human intermediaries (priests, etc.) were necessary for an individual to find God. For the gnostics, enlightenment was an entirely inward and self-determined process. Gnostic Christians believed that Jesus was not divine but an ordinary man with an extraordinary message. ...more
BlackOxford
The Power of Religious Imagination

The central paradox of the religious imagination is its perennial attempt to constrain religious imagination. Elaine Pagels’s analysis of the so-called gnostic scriptures which were accidentally discovered in 1947 is a case study in the practical consequences of this contradiction. That human beings can hate, persecute and kill one another over poetry is a considerably greater mystery than any of the spiritual narratives contained in these texts.

Orthodoxy
...more
Dan Schwent
Jun 03, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2010
As someone who was subjected to Catholic school for 12 years, I've always been somewhat interested in all the Gnostic texts that didn't get included in the bible. So when I saw this on my girlfriend's bookshelf, I had to give it a read.

Chapter 1: Chapter 1 examines whether or not Christ actually rose from the dead or if it was a symbolic, not literal event.

Chapter 2: Chapter 2 covers the structure of the Catholic church and how it ties back to Peter and the Apostles, one of many church ideas
...more
Eva
Oct 05, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: people who think the bible isn't the last word on Christianity
This book is a classic. It describes, catalogues, quotes, and interprets portions of the secret gnostic gospels which were ordered destroyed in the 4th century after Christ. How, then, did we gain access to them? Some crafty monk shoved bits and pieces of papyrus into a clay jar and buried it, like a time capsule, for 20th century archeologists to discover and historians to argue about for another 16 centuries.

What do the gnostic gospels disclose? Well, read if you want the full story, but let's
...more
Erik Graff
Jan 17, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: students of early Christianity
Recommended to Erik by: Elaine Pagels
Shelves: religion
For over four years I occupied one of the cheapest singles in Union Theological Seminary's Hastings Hall. The room had been used for guests and, so, was larger than any other single, a wall having been apparently torn out. Consequently, it was large enough to accomodate both myself and my girlfriend, Janny, after she transferred from Grinnell to Barnard College a couple of blocks away south on Broadway.

I'd gone to Grinnell also, having done my thesis there on the subject of scholarly theories
...more
Fredstrong
Dec 07, 2007 rated it it was amazing
The Nag Hammadi texts, containing the Gnostic Gospels, were found in Egypt in 1945. These codices were compiled in the 4th century AD, but the gospels themselves date to the 2nd century AD. The Gnostic teachings are quite different from those of the orthodoxy. The Gnostics had an egalitarian approach to the sexes. Sex itself was held a sacrament, and Jesus himself had a consort in Mary Magdalene. All this points to one of the most fundamental differences of Gnosticism to the Orthodox ...more
Jan
Apr 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
Not surprising, a couple hundred years after the death of Christ there were different interpretations on what his life meant and what his essential message was. Christianity was becoming a hierarchical institution that understood itself as the guardian of the true faith. Beliefs and practices outside of the canon was consider heresy and had to be destroyed. A number of documents were buried at that time and not discovered until 1947. These alternative gospels show some of the different ...more
Katie
This is a really fascinating book, and a great introduction to Gnosticism. It's learned, it places theological ideas in a socio-political context, and it's enjoyable to read. Pagel's biggest success is in the way she ties the controversy between gnostic and orthodox ideas into contemporary social and political issues and uses them to explain why orthodox ideas ultimately won out. It paints a picture where orthodox Christianity isn't the camp that won because it's ideas were any 'truer,' but ...more
Mackey
Jan 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The Gnostic Gospels is a well written, thoroughly researched book on the gospels that were purposefully not included in what is now known as the "Christian Bible." These include the famous scrolls found in a cave and known as the "dead seas" scrolls among other writings - all of which have been dated and authenticated.

Having been subjected to an ultra-conservative parochial school education whose science and history never made sense to me and whose religious timeline for history never quite fit
...more
Miles Zarathustra
If you're gullible enough to buy the idea that the Bible is infallible, this book is not for you.

If you're feeling like there has got to be more to the story that what you are told, this book is an wonderful starting place. Elaine Pagels is concise and lively in style, and her scholarship is excellent. Others have filled in with greater bulk and more voluminous scholarship, but this book (and the other I have read) get straight to the point. Her books are short and a good read.

The title refers
...more
Ian
This classic (1979) from religious historian Elaine Pagels not only acts as somewhat of an introduction to the ideas of Christian Gnosticism, but also makes the case how early church politics decided what was to be included and excluded from the Bible.

I find it quite telling how the church fathers took great pains to label works such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Truth, or the Apocalypse of Peter, as heretical and not to be included along with the traditional gospels that are familiar
...more
Barnaby Thieme
This brief introduction to the Gnostic scriptures discovered at Nag Hammadi is instantly recognizable as a classic. It is beautifully written, deeply informative, and utterly fascinating. Pagels presents the Gnostics as representing various competing doctrines in the charged religious landscape of the first few centuries of the first millennium, competing against groups that would eventually ascend as canonical and orthodox representatives of the catholic church of Christ.

Pagels is clearly
...more
Christine Giraud
May 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: any one interested in theology
This book is about how, after JC's death, there was a struggle between heretic believers- those who believed in personal enlightenment and shunned a church hierarchy- and the disciple of John's beievers- patriarchal, hierarchal, congregational- and why John's side won. GG is based on the gnostic gospels which were discovered in urns buried in a cave in Egypt 1950. They had likely been suppressed by the dominant faction.

It does a good job describing how present-day Christianity evolved and, in a
...more
Colin Cordner
Mar 26, 2017 rated it it was ok
As a general introduction to the phenomenon of gnosticism, or to the gnostic texts themselves, Prof. Pagels' famous book is quite flawed. Despite her laudable attempt to recover a sense of neutrality late in the work, her analysis as a whole is afflicted with unscholarly and often frankly political biases. These are further compounded by the simple lack of depth or profundity in her theoretical analysis.

As example of the first bias, the reader can sense the palpable and obvious attempt to
...more
Marvin
May 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I was already familiar with the Gnostic Gospels, mainly through the lectures and writings of Bart Erhmann, before I picked up this earlier book. However Elaine Pagels' study on these writings of Early Christianity is essential in spreading light on this topic. One of the things this book does so well is setting the gnostic idea in its time and how it was at odds with "Orthodox" Christianity. She writes on how Gnosticism simply wasn't equipped to survive amongst an alternative Christianity that ...more
Christian McKay
Mar 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, mystic
Oh. I guess I'm a Gnostic.

I wonder how many of my friends (Christian or otherwise) would feel the same way after reading this book . . . I doubt many of them will. I'd encourage any atheists, agnostics, and especially feminists to check it out. The Gnostic Gospels gives us a view of Christianity had it not become so patriarchal. (Although, there's clear evidence that refusing to adopt a more forceful approach is what made Gnosticism die in the first place.) What's particularly compelling about
...more
Anna
Feb 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
A fascinating look at early Christian writings whose discovery completely changed previously understood Christian history and theology. A great read for anyone interested in religious history or the evolution of western thought and politics.
Czarny Pies
Nov 16, 2018 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Fans of the Da Vinci Code
Shelves: religion
There are enough heresies in Elaine Pagels' "Gnostic gospels" that it would have gotten her burned as a heretic by either the Lutherans or the Catholics in the sixteenth century. However, it was in fact published in 1979 thirty four years after the discovery a library of Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 and two years after the release of a comprehensive English translation in 1977. Pagels succeeded then in being the first writer to reveal the secrets to the general public of the ...more
Ken-ichi
Jul 28, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, religion
Given that my atheism was birthed from a Catholic upbringing, you'd think I'd know a little more about Christian history, but I don't. Enter Elaine Pagels, Christian historian par excellence! I'd heard her discussing Revelations on Fresh Air earlier this year and was intrigued, so I figured I'd give her work a try. Well worth it.

For the uninitiated, the canonical Christian New Testament represents but a handful of documents chosen from numerous texts about the life and times of Jesus written in
...more
Robert Case
Oct 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Lovers of history
Recommended to Robert by: A radio interview of the author
Shelves: non-fiction
I began this book with a fascination with the ancient Minoan civilization, a keen interest in the people and cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, and knowing virtually nothing about Gnosticism. What an enlightening and enjoyable read! The book is based upon Elaine Pagels' interpretations of fragments of early texts, written in Coptic during the first two hundred years following the crucifixion. The author summarizes not just the writings of these early spiritual leaders, but also examines them ...more
Stephen
Apr 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book for a Christian who says the Nicene Creed weekly not really believing large parts of it but wishing he could. The book explores different roads that Christianity might have taken but did not, such as making an equal place for the feminine or tolerating rationalist heresies about the Resurrection. The author explains, so I think, that in its first 200 years there were so many variations of "Christian" thought and practice that as a single religion it would have dissolved into a ...more
David
Jul 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating study showing how much variety there was in early Christian practice. Pagels herself now insists (in more recent works) these early texts should not have been called the "Gnostic Gospels". To classify that way tends to imply a sharp split between Christian and Gnostic, and subsequent work shows that there was no such sharp split at that early time. (Nor was there a sharp split between some Jewish groups and Christians at that early point, rather people who considered themselves to be ...more
Chrisl
Sep 18, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1970s, dewey001-499
One of those automatic buys for the library that I took home to read like a librarian - find out where the author focused, check for issues that might concern some of the fundamentalist Christians that would be borrowing ...

Ended up reading it entirely and learning a lot.
Never got engaged with author's other works.
Ashish Samuel
Feb 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you were instigated to read up on gnostic gospels by fantastic polemic works like that of Ehrman, you are going to find this book somewhat underwhelming. It left me wondering whether Pagels watered down the revolutionary and blasphemous ideas of the gnostic movement or if Ehrman overplayed it. While Ehrman's works have a dramatic quality that captures your imagination (and gets him invited to numerous talks and debates with orthodox scholars), Elaine Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels has a ...more
John
Apr 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
This was a re-read (for Easter!); I can't recall when I first read it, but I'm guessing it's been 15-20 years. On that first read, I found this study of the early Christian texts that didn't make it into the Bible incredibly eye-opening. Many years later, I can see the flaws more easily; it's fairly repetitious, and Pagels bases her arguments about the Gnostics on only a handful of texts, even though many more were available to her (some make a sudden appearance in the final chapter, and you ...more
Zendali
Jun 17, 2008 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: theology
This book was a disappointment.
The writer is obviously biased towards Gnosticism, and the whole book was a comparison between Gnosticism and the ”orthodox” (always in quotes) Christianity. I don’t consider this book to be a good introduction to Gnosticism, because it has an ulterior motive to criticize Catholicism.

She makes all the ”orthodox” doctrines results of social and political issues, and never, not even once mentions theological reasons. I can’t remember when was the last time I wrote
...more
Steven Peterson
Jun 21, 2009 rated it really liked it
A telling line that helps close out the book (page 147): "It is the winners who write history--their way." In December, 1945, an Arab peasant discovered ancient documents near the town of Nag Hammadi. These represent 52 texts of Gnostic works, such as the "Gospel of Thomas," the "Gospel of Philip," the "Gospel of Truth," and so on. The actual works were dated at 350-400 AD, with the likelihood that they were authored by 120-150 AD.

Elaine Pagels does a very nice job of describing the historical
...more
Scatterbooker
Fascinating insight into early Christianity gnostic

In 1945 fifty-two papyrus texts were found in an earthenware jar buried in the desert in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These texts are Coptic translations from Greek texts that were written by gnostic Christians around the same time as the New Testament. They are very different from the Christianity we know, though.

Gnostic Christians had many ideas and beliefs in common with Catholic Christians, but they differed on some key ideas. So much so that they
...more
Davidmcdonnell
May 08, 2009 rated it did not like it
I stopped one-fifth into this book. Elaine Pagels, a PHD in religious studies in from Harvard, gives an mildly interesting back story to the discovery of the "gnostic" gospels of Nag Hammadi. The book is heavy on judgements/opinions and light on facts/justifications. One more interested in getting someone's opinions concerning these actual historical documents may find this book interesting. I was hoping for a more fact-based explanation and dissertation on these gospels, allowing me to form my ...more
Jody Mena
Aug 02, 2011 added it
Shelves: nonfiction
Fascinating and thought provoking. This is a very thorough historical examination of the conflict between the orthodox and gnostic perspectives of Christianity in its first centuries, based on various scriptures (canonical and apocryphal) as well as the writings of religious scholars and historians from that time. At the end, the author disclaims that she doesn't necessarily agree with or 'side' with a gnostic view of Christian philosophy. More's the pity - she demonstrated quite well, in my ...more
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277 followers
Elaine Pagels is a preeminent figure in the theological community whose scholarship has earned her international respect. The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, she was awarded the Rockefeller, Guggenheim & MacArthur Fellowships in three consecutive years.
As a young researcher at Barnard College, she changed forever the historical landscape of the Christian
...more
“The gnostic understands Christ’s message not as offering a set of answers, but as encouragement to engage in a process of searching: “seek and inquire about the ways you should go, since there is nothing else as good as this.”48 The rational soul longs to see with her mind, and perceive her kinsmen, and learn about her root … in order that she might receive what is hers …49 What is the result? The author declares that she attains fulfillment:  … the rational soul who wearied herself in seeking—she learned about God. She labored with inquiring, enduring distress in the body, wearing out her feet after the evangelists, learning about the Inscrutable One.… She came to rest in him who is at rest. She reclined in the bride-chamber. She ate of the banquet for which she had hungered.… She found what she had sought.50” 4 likes
“What interested these gnostics far more than past events attributed to the “historical Jesus” was the possibility of encountering the risen Christ in the present.49 The Gospel of Mary illustrates the contrast between orthodox and gnostic viewpoints. The account recalls what Mark relates: Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene … She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.50 As the Gospel of Mary opens, the disciples are mourning Jesus’ death and terrified for their own lives. Then Mary Magdalene stands up to encourage them, recalling Christ’s continual presence with them: “Do not weep, and do not grieve, and do not doubt; for his grace will be with you completely, and will protect you.”51 Peter invites Mary to “tell us the words of the Savior which you remember.”52 But to Peter’s surprise, Mary does not tell anecdotes from the past; instead, she explains that she has just seen the Lord in a vision received through the mind, and she goes on to tell what he revealed to her. When Mary finishes, she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Savior had spoken with her. But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, “Say what you will about what she has said. I, at least, do not believe that the Savior has said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas!”53 Peter agrees with Andrew, ridiculing the idea that Mary actually saw the Lord in her vision. Then, the story continues, Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart? Do you think I am lying about the Savior?” Levi answered and said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered … If the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her?”54 Finally Mary, vindicated, joins the other apostles as they go out to preach. Peter, apparently representing the orthodox position, looks to past events, suspicious of those who “see the Lord” in visions: Mary, representing the gnostic, claims to experience his continuing presence.55 These gnostics recognized that their theory, like the orthodox one, bore political implications. It suggests that whoever “sees the Lord” through inner vision can claim that his or her own authority equals, or surpasses, that of the Twelve—and of their successors. Consider the political implications of the Gospel of Mary: Peter and Andrew, here representing the leaders of the orthodox group, accuse Mary—the gnostic—of pretending to have seen the Lord in order to justify the strange ideas, fictions, and lies she invents and attributes to divine inspiration. Mary lacks the proper credentials for leadership, from the orthodox viewpoint: she is not one of the “twelve.” But as Mary stands up to Peter, so the gnostics who take her as their prototype challenge the authority of those priests and bishops who claim to be Peter’s successors.” 4 likes
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