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ISBN/ASIN : 0140134689
Manufacturer : Penguin Books Ltd|
Release data : 06 December, 1990
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A provocative, insightful look at the early Christian church
Noted historian of the early church Elaine Pagels has produced a clear, cogent, and very effective introduction to the subject of Gnosticism, a different form of Christianity that was declared heretical and virtually stamped out by the orthodox church by the start of the second century after Christ. Most of what we knew of the Gnostic belief system came from the religious authors who worked so hard to destroy the movement, but that changed drastically with the still relatively recent discovery of a number of lost Gnostic writings near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, this momentous discovery of ancient papyri has received little attention, and I must admit I went into this book knowing virtually nothing about Gnosticism. As an historian by training and a Christian, the information in these "heretical" texts intrigue me, and I believe that Christians should challenge their faith by examining material that does not fall in line with accepted beliefs. I should note that Pagels does not attempt to summarize or examine in detail the Gnostic Gospels in and of themselves; her particular focus here is the way in which Gnosticism affected the rise of the orthodox church that declared the Gnostics heretics. Still, she presents a great deal of information on many of the newly discovered texts and inarguably shows that the Christian church was founded in a society espousing a number of contradictory viewpoints.
Pagels does a good job of presenting the context in which the early Christians lived and eventually argued against one another. The debate was seemingly one over spiritual authority, and social and political issues played a part alongside purely religious disagreements between different factions. I think she tends to overemphasize the sociopolitical implications of Gnosticism, yet her arguments are certainly sensible and enlightening. One of the problems with Gnosticism as a movement was the disagreement among many so-called Gnostics on a number of issues. In terms of Gnosticism as a whole, however, one can point to a number of thoughts and ideas that ably represent the whole. Gnostics basically saw their faith as an internal thing, a practice based on the secret knowledge Jesus supposedly shared with a select number of individuals, one of whom was Mary Magdalene. Gnostics attracted women in particular because most Gnostics viewed everyone as equal and allowed for the participation of women in any sacred act. The orthodox, arguing that the disciples were men and thus the church held no leadership positions for women, opposed the teachings on these grounds. Gnostics basically believed that one found Christ in oneself; inner visions were the trademarks of true Gnostics. To the orthodox church founded on the basis of Peter's succession as the head of the church, Gnostics thus placed themselves not only on the same footing as the apostles but above even the Twelve. They tried to answer their own questions as to how Christ could be both human and divine, and many of them came to view Christ as a spiritual being who only appeared to suffer and die. Many also interpreted the virgin birth in spiritual rather than human terms. To the orthodox Christians, this was blasphemy, for the church as we know it is basically built on the faith and belief that God's son took on a human form and died in the literal sense on the Cross in order to conquer Death and save all of his followers. Some Gnostics came to believe that the Creator was not God but a demiurge who falsely declared there was no other God but him. Thus, orthodox Christians were seen as following a false god out of ignorance, a charge that did not set well with orthodox Christians. The orthodox beliefs on the subject of resurrection legitimized a hierarchy of persons through whose authority all others must approach God. Gnostic teachings were thus seen as subversive of this social order by offering direct access to God outside of the priests and bishops of the orthodox church.
A true discussion of Gnostic beliefs would take many pages to even begin, and Pagels has jam packed a relatively short book with much information along those lines. Her contrast between the two competing forms of early Christianity clearly explains how and why the orthodox church worked so vehemently to stamp out the heretical Gnostic acolytes. I am of the opinion that Gnosticism would have died out of its own accord had it not been declared heretical; its followers basically practiced a deeply personal and largely unorganized form of worship that excluded the masses. The early church needed organization in order to survive, especially during the times of awful persecution we find in the centuries after Christ's death. This is a deeply provocative book indeed, addressing a subject I will continue to investigate. As a Christian of fundamentalist Southern Baptist persuasion, I will add that nothing I read here posed any threat to my current beliefs or faith. Those Christians who fear the influence of a different type of Christianity should not avoid this book or others like it out of fear; instead, such individuals should test their faith by reading this provocative material because one's faith can actually be strengthened rather than weakened by such endeavors.
I know what I know...
In her prize-winning book 'The Gnostic Gospels', a book which has remained in the popular eye for the past two decades since its first publication in 1979, Elaine Pagels has put together a popular treatment of a hitherto (but since more popularly-accessible) academic-only subject. The discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library were very much a topic of conversation, but always topics about which things were spoken, rather than of which things were spoken. This book helped change that in common parlance, and also served as a basic primer for those new to the field who would then proceed to more in-depth study and analysis.
In her relatively substantial introduction, Pagels goes through a history of the coming into light of the texts of Nag Hammadi, contrasting it with the more popularly known Dead Sea Scrolls. However, the Nag Hammadi texts also had their fair share of intrigue and cloak-and-dagger kinds of dealings, until finally coming into the relatively safe hands of museums and academics.
Pagels proceeds from this background with a brief history of Christian thought in the first few centuries after Christ. She particularly highlights the contrasts between orthodoxy and catholic trends, and how each relates to a gnostic point of view. What are the issues of the resurrection? Why was this taken literally? What authority is conferred upon those who saw the risen Lord, and why was it not so evenly spread (Mary Magdalene, alas, seems to have gotten the short end of the stick authority-wise, despite being listed numerous times as the first witness of the resurrection, and indeed the apostle to the apostles, proclaiming his resurrection to the unbelieving men).
Pagels then develops a political idea and structure to her analysis of the way church orthodoxy continued away from and in deliberate, direct opposition to gnostic teachings. Were the gnostics abandoning monotheism, in heretical schism from the teachings of the commonly-accepted New Testament. Complicated in this, of course, is the fact that the New Testament did not as yet exist, so many competing documents claimed authority, among them gnostic texts.
Pagels also explores gender ideas, in the imagery of God, which was much more fluid in the gnostic framework (and only beginning to be recovered in protestant and catholic circles) as we recognise that God does not have a gender, and that the image of God as mother (particularly in creative acts) is as valid in many ways as that of God the father.
The Gospel of Thomas sets up both political and gender controversies in short economy, by showing a small take on the authority struggle between Mary Magdalene and Peter for primacy in the community. Indeed, Peter seems to want to cast Mary out 'for women are not worthy of eternal life'--Jesus defends her, saying that he will 'make her male', and that indeed any who do this will be welcomed in the kingdom.
Gnostics were no fans of martyrdom--this sounds a bit strange, except that the 'proper attitude' toward suffering for the faith was important for the orthodox/catholic hierarchy, and many controversies abounded over those who held true and those who waivered. Gnostics were beyond the pale; roundly ignored and despised to the extent that their martyrs for Christianity were not recognised as being true martyrs.
Perhaps the greatest difference between standard gnostic belief and practice and Christianity as it has come down to us today is the idea that, with gnosis, one can have sufficient self-knowledge for salvation; that somehow, salvation and redeeming characteristics can come from within. This is antithetical to the idea that one is saved only by the grace of God, which comes only from God, from without, not from within. The pledge that priests take today in many denominations, that they believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain all things necessary for salvation, is a left-over from gnostic controversy days, who believed in other forms of knowledge.
Pagels' book is an interesting study, a fairly quick read, not too difficult, just enough for most, and the appetiser for others. Overall it still has integrity and purpose. Read together with Robinson's 'Nag Hammadi Library' (please see my review of that), it gives a fascinating view into an early Christian world, and food for thought of how different things might be today had reconciliation and dialogue replaced diatribe and exclusion.
The Losers' Side of the Story
The Gnostic Gospels which were discovered in Egypt in 1945 show us the variety of gospels circulated among early adherents during the first few centuries after Christ. In describing the effects of these gospels on the evolution of Christianity Elaine Pagels is able to make a complex subject seem quite understandable.
We always knew that orthodox believers frequently denounced gnostic ideas. The discovery of the gnostic texts has revealed how gnosticism defended itself and in turn attacked orthodox beliefs.
The othodox position was that the generations of Christians who lived after the time of the apostles could not possibly have the same access to Christ as the apostles did during Christ's lifetime. Therefore these later Christians would have to look to the church and its bishops for teaching and leadership. The gnostic attitude was that access to God was available to any believer and some church elders themselves may not yet have had
this same God experience. Many gnostics believed that all who had received this gnosis had transcended the authority of the church's hierarchy. People received gnosis when they came into contact with the living Christ.
The main benefit I have received from reading THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS has been a greater appreciation of the early development of Christianity. I was able to see for the first time the other side of the story - a view of a contentious debate among early Christians from the losing side.
As for the winning side, it had never occurred to me before reading Pagels' book that the structure of the Roman Catholic church was based on an organizational model of the Roman army.