Book Review: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

If you’re reading this blog, then chances are that you have a pretty good grasp on what Christianity is. But did you know that Christianity as we know it almost didn’t succeed in early centuries? You may have heard whispers of various ancient sects of barely recognizable Christian beliefs, and it turns out that the rumors are true. The ancient Christians that we know—whether we love them or hate them—had to struggle against their competitors known as the gnostics, better known to history as heretics.

For centuries, historians have known about the gnostic Christians and their texts only through the writings of their enemies, the orthodox or catholic Christians (which gave rise to the many denominations of Christianity existing today). You can imagine how hard it was to understand the gnostic point of view with their only documentation being from those who despised them. So it was immensely exciting for historians when the gnostic gospels themselves were discovered near Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1946. The discovery was an exercise in patience, though; it would be thirty years until an English translation of the full library would be published in 1977. Elaine Pagels must have gotten to work quickly, then, as her book The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979.

I thought this book was so fascinating. At only 151 pages, it felt like the perfect introduction to what these texts actually are and their context in the world in which they thrived. Gnosticism is one of the most mystical sides of the rich history of Christianity, so I really appreciate this primer and the way it puts into perspective why Christianity is the way it is.

As someone with an interest in Christian history without my own stake in the game, this book really made me think. For context, I believe that there was a historical Jesus and that the gospels of the New Testament are the results of many, many copies based on hearsay passed down from those who knew him. In other words, I believe that they are loosely based on true events but not necessarily accurate. (How can they be, when they contradict one another?) And importantly, I don’t believe that Jesus was resurrected—not spiritually, and especially not physically.

So when you get two wildly different interpretations and even different accounts of the same events that hold roughly equal truth value (that is, not much), how does one win out as “truth”? To me, gnostic Christianity is equally as true as orthodox Christianity, if not more so (save for all the woo). So why did it die out? . . . or did it?

Obviously, to be able to understand this, you have to know what gnostic Christianity is and how it differs from its orthodox cousin. Pagels does a great job of explaining the differences and how they were treated politically. She shows why the bishops would have been motivated to defeat the gnostics out of a powerful mix of political greed and religious conviction.

What is Gnostic Christianity?

The biggest differences between the two flavors of Christianity are as follows:

  • Gnostics believed that Jesus’s eternal spirit, not his body, was resurrected. Orthodox Christians believed that his body rose from the dead and that those who witnessed him alive after the crucifixion were the first in the apostolic succession. Their power gained from the exclusivity of being the only ones to see the risen Christ transfers to the church’s bishops through time. The gnostics viewed Jesus as an immortal soul who temporarily inhabited a human body and is still present to be met and known through gnosis. In its emphasis on gnosis, meditation, and spirituality, gnostic Christianity reminds me (and Elaine Pagels as well as other scholars) of Buddhism.
  • Gnostics did not believe strictly in the concept of God the Father, Jesus the Son. Instead they viewed the orthodox creator god as a false god, when the true Father was the higher being, whom one could attain equality with by achieving gnosis. (Pagels compares this to seeing the bishops, who identify as the holiest people, as frauds who did not know the true God as the gnostics did.)
  • The gnostics did not have a church hierarchy of clergy people and laypeople. Instead, they rotated who was the leader during their various meetings. This practice enraged the orthodox Christians, as it meant that the women in the group were equal to the men and could lead.
  • Although the gnostic texts are not free of misogyny, one could say they are a lot more feminist than the New Testament gospels and the Hebrew bible. In some places their god is seen as a “male-female power” or even nonbinary. In other places, the orthodox creator god is the son of a great Mother or male-female Couple. The gnostic texts also tend to put more emphasis on the place of Mary Magdalene among the apostles.
  • In its early centuries, Christian persecution in Rome was at an all-time high. This persecution for being perceived as conspiratorial dissidents became a central part of the Christian identity, and one doesn’t have to look far to see that attitude continuing to this day. During this period, the orthodox Christians actually embraced the persecution and execution, seeing themselves as martyrs. Being a martyr was justified only because it would make one more like Jesus who physically died and rose again. They also managed to convert many to their religion this way, as people figured that if the Christians were willing to go through so much for their faith, then there must be an appeal to it.
  • The sentiment of contempt went both ways: the gnostic Christians saw the orthodox Christians as illegitimate in that all they had to do to be a member of the church was agree to a few creeds and do a couple sacraments. On the other hand, the gnostics each had to work very hard to become mature in their faith and reach gnosis. There was more individualized mentoring to reach spiritual maturity.
  • The gnostics were much more freethinking than the orthodox. They didn’t find their validation in the recitation of creeds but in introspection and self-reflection. They encouraged asking questions rather than accepting the bishop’s word as gospel. Everyone had equal access to the divine instead of having to rely on the claims of the clergy.
  • We know that the orthodox Christians ordered the destruction of the gnostic texts (hence why the surviving ones were hidden), but there are several reasons why the orthodox church was the one that survived. Pagels explains that the individualized attention to each member in gnosticism may have contributed to its demise because it was unsustainable. The simpler requirements of the orthodox church and its emphasis on community and everyday life made it easier to expand.

The Return of Gnosticism

As I read this book, one thought kept occurring to me again and again: “I’ve seen this all before!” Between the lack of hierarchy, the vision of a nonbinary god, the use of divine revelation, and the freethinking nature of gnosticism, I couldn’t help but think, “This is progressive Christianity!”

Recently I have come to admire progressive Christianity. The progressive Christians that I know have been the first whose values I have really aligned with. The way I see it, we agree on everything that really matters—like equality, science, sustainability, and social justice—even though they also believe in God. Progressive Christianity is basically what you get when one deconverts from the harm of religion and rebuilds their belief without the dogma and hatred from circles like Evangelical Christianity.

Since meeting more progressive Christians, their beliefs have fascinated me. This is in large part due to the fact that they don’t really have strict theological requirements of what one must believe. I’ve met progressive Christians who believe in all four of the tenets of gnosticism that I listed above. Progressive Christians often see each other’s diversity as worth celebrating and their theological differences as valid. They don’t have leaders whose word is more worth listening to than anyone else’s. Despite all this, they are still some of the most passionate Christians I have ever met.

This is what I was reminded of when learning about gnosticism. For a moment, I wondered if progressive Christians, upon learning about gnosticism for themselves, might take up the label of gnostic Christian? (“Gnostic” just sounds so much cooler than “progressive Christian”.) I realized, of course, that they likely wouldn’t, because the two groups still have their differences, most notably pertaining to the belief that Jesus physically returned from the dead. You never know, though. Perhaps progressive Christianity is so diverse that there are even some who believe only in the spiritual resurrection.

Nonetheless, I still find it fascinating that even though gnostic Christianity initially lost to its opponent the orthodox, after 1,800 years gnosticism in this novel form has found its way back to us. I know that progressive Christians sometimes struggle with feeling like “true Christians,” but it must comfort them to know that there were ancient Christians that were so much like them. Those in power may have defeated the gnostics once, but they could not silence them forever.

If you are a progressive Christian, then I would love to know your thoughts: had you ever heard of gnosticism before? What do you think of it? Is it a label you would ever consider taking or is it too different from your beliefs? Let me know!

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

  • An interesting read. I had heard about Gnosticism from reading the Bible but had never actually given it much thought (though the Bible doesn’t say much to be fair). While it was portrayed as pagan, it ironically does have a bit in common with some of the more liberal sects of Christianity (at least from my experience). In some of the Pentecostal and liberal Baptist denominations, Christ is someone who can be known personally if you seek him (not through knowledge necessarily but Bible reading was encouraged as well). While some may disagree I also liken the experience of praying to a form of meditation. Also while some of these churches have leaders, they weren’t the only ones encouraged to speak or ‘run the show’ as it were. Of course Gnosticism does have it’s differences (I don’t know of any churches with a big emphasis on pursuing knowledge as an end goal), but it is interesting to see some of the similarities.

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  • Okay I had no idea gnostic Christians were even a thing! This is so fascinating! I saw the progressive Christian similarities as I was reading your overview too. Honestly, I feel like it would be easier for me to believe in the spiritual-only resurrection that Gnostics believe and I love the similarities to Buddhism. Adding this to my TBR immediately!

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  • Your comparison of the Gnostic’s and the Progressive Christian church is not far off, and that is coming from a believer. For this reason many Christians today are going back to the roots of the Orthodox church.

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  • I haven’t read Elaine Pagel’s book, but I do have a copy of the English Translation of the Nag Hammadi Library, and have read most of it. It’s quite a trip. The first item I’d have on my list of differences between gnostics and orthodox christians that the orthodox have their main focus on correct belief, while the gnostics focus on gaining the correct knowledge. (This is right there in their names.)

    The gnostic cosmic system makes somewhat more sense than the familiar christian one: in their system the things supernatural beings create are always less perfect than the beings themselves. If our world was created by a lesser imperfect being, then that gets rid of the “problem of evil”. That lesser being is the jealous, smitey, genocidal god of the OT, who becomes the Satan of the NT. Jesus comes from the real god to give us the secret knowledge of how to escape this broken place and go to the “real heaven” when you die. I can see why the early catholics would want to stamp this stuff out – once you have the secret knowledge you’re all set, and have no need of popes or priests or tithes.

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  • Your progression through this literature has been similar to mine, although I am much older and had to wait for these books to be published first :o). And I have one comment re “The gnostics did not have a church hierarchy of clergy people and laypeople. Instead, they rotated who was the leader during their various meetings. This practice enraged the orthodox Christians, as it meant that the women in the group were equal to the men and could lead.”

    This is not quite right. The “church history” indicating that Christianity was wildly successful right from the start is an obvious lie (Acts claims of “thousands” of followers was a gross exaggeration). They are just trying to connect their efforts all of the way back. Christianity, on the other hand, struggled just like any other sect. It started out small and stayed that way. But they did grow. But they had no churches, so they all met in the houses of the more well-to-do members of their group (the only ones who owned houses large enough for such gatherings) and that same wealthier member was the de facto leader as they were likely to be the only one in their group who could read and write, reading “letters” and other “documents” was most of what they shared. There was no music, no “separation” of lay and clergy as there was no clergy, little in the way of ritual except the Lord’s supper, which was an actual meal.

    Only when the Romans got involved, making Christianity “a” state religion in the early 300’s and finally “the” Roman state religion in the later 300’s did a lot of the trappings of what we see now get instituted. Since the Roman cults all had worship buildings, the Christians were gifted with such buildings by their Roman sponsors. This is when music got started. This is when the clergy got rolling. (It is interesting to note that clerical garb was very similar to that of Roman administrators at that time.) This is when “preaching” got its start. Yep, most of the Christian practices of today have Roman, aka pagan, roots.

    And the Gnostics were a larger segment of Christianity than is acknowledged then or now. Some say it is the earliest form of Christianity, etc. Prior to the adoption by the Roman state, prominent Christians begged for tolerance from Roman authority. Once they got the whip hand, those Christians close to Roman power started being intolerant in spades, beginning the great heretic hunt. Of course heretics were any who disagreed with them. There were battles (yes, actual battles) to determine dogma to have the right to declare others to be wrong and to use Roman state power to persecute them out of business. This was a nasty and shameful business that today’s “church” almost never mentions. Heretics were killed. Their documents were burned. The Romans determined the “winners” in this effort. (Shameful isn’t it . . . if you are a believer. The Romans, who killed Jesus, shaped Christianity to their liking.)

    If you are interested in this, there is a good place to start and that is the book “Pagan Christianity” and also “Jesus Wars.”

    Enjoy.

    Liked by 5 people

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