A conversation with a friend who is far more religiously astute than I led me to ask him to recommend a book or two about the origins of Christianity. He suggested Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels, a book as informative and provocative today as it was when first published more than thirty-five years ago. The book’s impetus came from the 1945 discovery of an earthenware jar containing thirteen ancient manuscripts. These Gnostic Gospels, as they came to be called, detail a different strain of Christianity, one that is relatively unknown to our modern world.
Chapter by chapter, Pagels outlines a faith with deep theological roots but with alternative interpretations of what we have conventionally been taught by the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant religions. “Gnosis,” in effect, is “self-knowledge as knowledge of God.” A way of perceiving faith by turning inward, it presumes “one’s inner capacity to find one’s own direction, to the ‘light within.’” Most significantly, it turns away from a prescriptive sense of religion, and thus limits the need for formalized religious structures. As Pagels summarizes in her conclusion, “It is the winners who write history—their way.” My religious training, and probably yours, has been dictated by those winners. The Gnostic Gospels posits a different possibility.
Pagels begins by discussing what once was controversial. Did Christ’s resurrection actually occur? Many early authors separated Christ’s physical crucifixion from the spiritual, presenting the resurrection mythically, or symbolically, not concretely. She then describes how the patriarchy took hold of religion, first by reaffirming the hierarchy of religious fathers, such as the bishop, the priest, and the deacon, and of course the pope, and then by prohibiting women from all direct participation. Those who questioned those decisions were deemed heretics, excluded from religious activities and, often, shunned or even put to death. Reading Pagels, I learned an entirely new way of interpreting early Christian martyrdom. And I regularly questioned my own Christian indoctrination.
If indoctrination sounds too strong, do read The Gnostic Gospels. I promise that you’ll never view your own early religious training—protestant Sunday School and colorful Bible stories, in my case—in quite the same perspective. Finally, Pagels asks a pertinent question—“whose church is the true church?” The answer leads to her tacit conclusion, that the true church is the one anointed by the historic winners. All the other possible ‘true churches’ have fallen by the wayside. On the other hand, she argues that the codification of Christianity probably saved it from extinction. Its various strands might have been too weak to prevail independently, whereas a centralized catholic (I use an un-capitalized ‘c’ on purpose) church was positioned to sustain itself.
Elaine Pagels is a gifted writer, an acclaimed scholar who can explain complex ideas and complicated intellectual interrelationships in accessible, everyday language. I found myself somewhat overwhelmed by the names of so many theologians and writers and thinkers I didn’t know existed, but I was never confused by Pagels’ presentation of their arguments, their similarities, and their contradictions. I think I’ll read The Gnostic Gospels again. Not only will I learn things I undoubtedly missed the first time through, but I also want to give myself the opportunity to balance my own thinking against the teachings of these original Christian theorists. Would that some of our righteous leaders today take time to read The Gnostic Gospels, too, and then re-evaluate, and perhaps re-consider, their authoritarian beliefs.
Also available by Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief, The Secret Gospel of Thomas; Revelations: Visions, Prophesy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation; The Origin of Satan; Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity; The Gnostic Paul; Reading Judas, The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity; The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis.