Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Gnostic Gospels” as Want to Read:
The Gnostic Gospels
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Gnostic Gospels

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  15,411 ratings  ·  703 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 re ...more
Paperback, 218 pages
Published September 19th 1989 by Vintage (first published November 12th 1979)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Gnostic Gospels, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Gnostic Gospels

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.91  · 
Rating details
 ·  15,411 ratings  ·  703 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of The Gnostic Gospels
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. Th ...more
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 mean
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 th
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
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 ab
Published in 1979, this award-winning book is still an excellent introduction to the Nag Hammadi library, discovered in Egypt in 1945, consisting of 52 Coptic texts bound in 13 codices. Nearly all of the works are of gnostic origin, and represent the most complete record of this sect that flourished during the earliest centuries of the Christian era.

Pagels focuses on how these gnostic texts present strikingly different constructs of God, Jesus, and the church from those of the institutional Chri
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 Christianit ...more
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 interpret ...more
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 beca ...more
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
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 juxtap
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 t
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 t
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 inte
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
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 f ...more
Christian McKay
Mar 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 18, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1970s, dew01-499
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.
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.
Nov 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I found everything discussed within to be fascinating and couldn’t put it down. Very accessible and considering my mediocre knowledge of Christianity I thought it did a great job of explaining scripture and gospel so that you can understand the different arguments/points of view between orthodoxy and Gnosticism. If you are interested in discussions around enlightenment rather than original sin and/or how politics shaped the early development of spiritualism and religion of Christianity, this is ...more
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 m ...more
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
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 hav ...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
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 d ...more
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
Aug 22, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a relatively short book that I wish had been shorter. A magazine article would have been more than enough for me.

The thought of newly discovered hidden gospels dating back nearly 2,000 years is the stuff of intrigue. And yet the excerpts in the book were profoundly uninteresting to me. The gnostic gospels, with their emphasis on self discovery, felt much like a mystical self-help book. The writing leans toward the academic. It's generally accessible but very dry.

The Gnostic Gospels was p
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 sobriet ...more
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
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
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Advantages Of Xtra Pure Garcinia 1 3 Jan 07, 2019 10:37PM  
What The Manufacturer Claims Of Alpha Titan Testo? 1 2 Jan 05, 2019 10:27PM  
Goodreads Librari...: Add info 8 142 Sep 07, 2016 12:17PM  
Hey Marcel... 3 40 Jun 23, 2012 06:43PM  

Readers also enjoyed

  • Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
  • The Nag Hammadi Library
  • The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
  • Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
  • The Gnostic Bible
  • The World's Religions
  • A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience
  • The Gospel of Mary of Magdala
  • The Gospel of Judas
  • The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus
  • Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible & Why We Don't Know About Them
  • The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts
  • Who Wrote the Bible?
  • The Power of Myth
  • Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowing
  • The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed
  • The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion
See similar books…
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 relig

News & Interviews

Are you spending this season bundling up against the chill or enjoying summery southern hemisphere vibes (in which case we are...
100 likes · 32 comments
“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” 5 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
More quotes…