The Gnostic Gospels

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The Gnostic Gospels

Elaine Pagels 1979

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Elaine Pagels wrote The Gnostic Gospels after working as part of an international team dedicated to studying and translating into English the ancient Gnostic books found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. These texts, which date from about a.d. 120 to 150, are considered by many religious experts to be as important a discovery as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Gnostics were early Christians whose beliefs and practices put them at odds with orthodox Christianity. In fact, orthodox Christian church leaders considered the Gnostics to be heretics and made a concerted effort after the second century to destroy Gnostic writings.

Pagels argues in her 1979 book that the primary dispute between the orthodox Christians and the Gnostics was not necessarily theological but centered on the Gnostics' refusal to accept the hierarchy and authority of the church as an institution. Gnostics emphasized an individual's relationship with God and believed that self-knowledge was the key to understanding God. This concept undermined the authority and power of the orthodox church. The Gnostics also rejected the literal death and resurrection of Jesus, through which, Pagels argues, the orthodox church found its authority. As well, the orthodox church embraced nearly anyone who would profess faith in Christ, participate in the church's rituals, and recognize the church's authority; the Gnostics required a member to display signs of spiritual maturity and holiness, and, often, to undergo difficult and time-consuming initiations. According to Pagels, the orthodox church's hierarchical structure and wide-spread acceptance helped it to surpass Gnosticism and remain a powerful force for many centuries.

Pagels uses many passages from the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi and elsewhere as well as the New Testament. Her goal in writing the book, according to the first chapter, was to give the layman an understanding of how many of the controversies underlying early Christianity are still relevant for discussions today.

Author Biography

Elaine Pagels's career as an academic interested in religion has been highlighted by numerous publications and awards. An Episcopalian, Pagels was born on February 13, 1943, in Palo Alto, California, to William McKinley, a research biologist, and Louise Sophia van Druten Hiesey. She received her bachelor's degree in 1964 and a master's degree in 1965, both from Stanford University. Harvard University awarded her a doctorate in 1970. In 1969, Pagels married Heinz Pagels, a theoretical physicist who died nine years later. They had three children together, one of whom died in 1987. In 1995, she married Kent Greenwalt, a law professor.

After receiving her doctorate, Pagels began teaching at Barnard College and Columbia University. Later, she served as a professor of religion and department head at Princeton University, where she is currently the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion. In 1978, she was part of an international team of scholars involved in studying and translating the Nag Hammadi texts, a collection of ancient Gnostic and other documents found in Egypt in 1945, for the publication The Nag Hammadi Library in English. This work informed the writing of her third book, The Gnostic Gospels, an effort to make the complicated religious texts more accessible to a wider audience.

The 1979 publication of The Gnostic Gospels received varying responses from critics and scholars. Many objected to her proposition that the main difference between the orthodox Christians and the heretical Gnostics was an argument over the structure of the church. Others have argued that Pagels's picture of Gnostics supporting women's participation in religious activities is far too ideal and is not necessarily supported by the source material she cites. Some have lauded her efforts to present the difficult but important findings in the Nag Hammadi texts to non-academic readers.

In 1980, The Gnostic Gospels received the National Book Award. Pagels has received numerous awards for her works, including a MacArthur Prize in 1981. She currently lives in New York City.

Plot Summary


Pagels begins her book by describing how, in 1945, an Egyptian peasant, Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman accidentally discovered an earthenware jar containing thirteen papyrus books. These texts were later found to include four gospels that offer accounts of Jesus and his times that are strikingly different from the stories in the New Testament. Included in the discovery at Nag Hammadi are texts purportedly written by Jesus' followers, such as the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Truth. Experts have estimated that the texts were written between a.d. 120 and 150.

The books express ideas about Christianity that were considered heretical in the middle of the second century. Evidence shows that the texts were hidden, as the possession of heretical books was considered a crime in the second century, and the orthodox authorities destroyed any texts they found.

While the books refer to the Old and New Testaments and include many of the same key figures as the New Testament, the Gnostic Christians (from the Greek term gnosis, meaning "knowing") who wrote and followed the teachings in these books believed in a religion dramatically different from the orthodox Christianity and Judaism of that period. For example, orthodox believers understood that "a chasm separates humanity from its creator." Gnostics, on the other hand, believed that "self-knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical." In another example, the New Testament Jesus speaks of sin and repentance, while the Gnostic Jesus speaks of "illusion and enlightenment," according to Pagels.

Pagels also describes how the rediscovered Gnostic texts were illegally sold to various parties on the black market and how personal rivalries and complicated litigation prevented the general public and scholars from examining their contents. Pagels's stated intention in writing this book is to examine why the Gnostic form of Christianity was discarded in favor of the version that survived.

Chapter 1: The Controversy over Christ's Resurrection: Historical Event or Symbol?

In the first chapter, Pagels examines the story of Christ's resurrection and how the Gnostic and orthodox versions differ. The orthodox Christian authorities adopted the literal view of the resurrection, while the Gnostic texts reveal a more symbolic interpretation, claiming that those who experienced Christ's resurrection did so in a spiritual rather than a physical manner.

Pagels notes, however, that the New Testament includes interpretations of the resurrection similar to the Gnostic view. She argues that one of Jesus' followers, Paul, experienced the resurrection in this fashion and describes the event as a mystery and "the transformation from physical to spiritual existence." Ultimately, Pagels believes, the "doctrine of body resurrection serves an essential political function" in that only those men who claimed to have witnessed Christ's bodily resurrection "exercise exclusive leadership over the churches as the successors of the apostle Peter." Orthodox teaching on the resurrection gave ecclesiastic authority to a limited group of men through whose leadership successive leaders would emerge, limiting the routes and approaches to God.

Chapter 2: "One God, One Bishop": The Politics of Monotheism

In this chapter, Pagels examines how the orthodox Christian doctrine of monotheism set the stage for the adoption of church hierarchy, in which the laity is at the bottom and a "sole leader" rules and makes final judgments.

In the Nag Hammadi books, poet and Gnostic teacher Valentinus wrote of a God of "oneness." Privately, though, Valentinus's followers asserted that God was more than the image of a creator, master, and ruler—he was "understood as the ultimate source of all being," according to Pagels. This concept was heretical because it challenged the governance of the church by "one bishop." Clement, the Bishop of Rome between about a.d. 90 and 100, addressed a crisis of leadership in the Corinthian Christian community by stating that God delegates his authority only to church leaders—bishops, priests, and deacons. Ignatius, a bishop writing a generation later, argued that these three church positions reflected the structure of heaven's divine hierarchy, as well.

Valentinus's Gnostics believed that the God who was master and creator was a lesser "divine being," a demiurge, and that those who worshipped this image of God were mistaken in their devotion. This God was simply one who served "as the instrument of the higher powers," notes Pagels. Through special initiations and a secret sacrament, Gnostics could receive the gnosis, or insight, that would free them from the demiurge's power and allow them to worship "the higher powers." Orthodox Christianity had every reason to fear this for, according to Pagels, the gnosis"offers nothing less than the theological justification for refusing to obey the bishops and the priests!"

Chapter 3: God the Father/God the Mother

Despite the fact that many religions contemporary with Christianity feature a female divinity, Christianity has none. In the Gnostic texts, however, God is often a "dyad" who displays both male and female characteristics. According to Pagels, the Gnostic texts are diverse in their descriptions of the divine Mother but align along three main lines: first, "the divine Mother is part of the original couple"; second, she is one-third of the Christian trinity as a spirit; and third, she represents wisdom and enlightens humans through her actions.

Pagels wonders why nearly all female imagery had disappeared from Christianity by the end of the second century. She notes that the heretical Gnostics derived positive consequences from their inclusion of the feminine in God. Specifically, the Gnostic sects attracted many women as members, for they often allowed women to participate more directly in teaching, prophesying, and leadership activities than did orthodox Christians. The second century was a period of social change involving gender roles and Christianity's "move up the social scale from lower to middle class." The Gnostic gospels reflect these changes when describing the relationship between Jesus' male and female followers.

Chapter 4: The Passion of Christ and the Persecution of Christians

Early Christians interpreted Christ's death on the cross in a number of different ways. Many Gnostic Christians believed that Christ did not die an actual physical death, as he was not truly a physical (human) being but a purely spiritual being who only appeared to have a physical body. This view is found in one of the Gnostic texts, the Acts of John, discovered before the find at Nag Hammadi. Other Gnostics, such as the followers of Valentinus, believed that, because Christ encompassed both humanness and divinity, he suffered and died like a human but "the divine spirit within him could not die." In a sense, Christ transcended death. Orthodox Christianity required that its followers believe that Christ suffered as a human, that his crucifixion was an historical and literal event, and that any other interpretation was heretical.

During the first and second centuries, Roman authorities persecuted and put to death many Christians—both orthodox and Gnostic. Pagels writes that both groups had members who responded variously to the possibility of torture, death, and martyrdom, based on their interpretation of Christ's death and martyrdom. Martyrdom, however, rarely occurred among the Gnostics. Furthermore, Gnostics believed that Christ's crucifixion was "an occasion for discovering the divine within," while orthodox Christians believed that it redeemed humanity from sin. Pagels argues that the orthodox view of martyrdom and of Christ's death prevailed because the news of Christian persecutions served to unify the far-flung members of the orthodoxy and also to impress and ultimately convert many who watched and wondered at the Christians' devotion to Christ. The orthodox teachings of Christ's life and death focused on his body and humanness, and "far more people identified with the orthodox portrait than with the 'bodiless spirit' of Gnostic tradition."

Chapter 5: Whose Church Is the "True Church?"

Some of the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi have revealed that the Gnostics condemned orthodox Christianity. Both sides believed strongly that their church and their approach to spirituality was singularly correct.

The orthodox Christians accepted as members anyone who would profess to a belief in Christ, take baptism, participate in worship, accept the New Testament, and, most importantly, respect the authority of the church's hierarchy. The Gnostics, on the other hand, saw these requirements as invalid. They limited their membership to those who could show evidence of "spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness." According to Pagels, the orthodox church—seeking to be more universal, or catholic—"rejected all forms of elitism, attempting to include as many as possible within its embrace." She indicates that their successful efforts at unification and inclusion helped to suppress Gnosticism and maintain an institutional form of Christianity for centuries to come.

Chapter 6: Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God

Both Gnostic and orthodox Christians used the New Testament's Gospel of John as a teaching source, but each interpreted the text very differently. Orthodox Christians found support in John for their argument that one can find God and enlightenment only through Jesus and the institution of the church. The Gnostics included John along with other Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas and Dialogue of the Savior, to support their view that men and women can find God and direction within themselves.

Gnostics also believed that ignorance was the cause of man's suffering—not sin, as the orthodox Christians believed. If man could incorporate self-knowledge, then suffering would be limited or cease. Pagels notes that in this sense, "the gnostic movement shared certain affinities with contemporary methods of exploring the self through psychotherapeutic techniques." Along those same lines, Gnostics often ridiculed the orthodox assumption that the kingdom of God was an actual place and that its arrival would be an actual historical event. Pagels argues that Gnosticism, though, must be seen as more than a mere rebellion against orthodoxy but instead as "a religious perspective that implicitly opposed the development of the kind of institution that became the early catholic church." Gnosticism was "no match" for the highly organized institution into which the orthodox church matured, "for ideas alone do not make a religion powerful, … equally important are social and political structures that identify and unite a people into a common affiliation," Pagels asserts.


Pagels notes that "it is the winners who write history—their way" and that the Nag Hammadi books suggest that had Christianity remained "multiform" and not Catholic, it might have developed very differently or might even have died centuries ago. The Gnostics followed a line of thought that encouraged individual pursuit of religious enlightenment, while the orthodox Christians pursued one that was more communitarian—and this was its strength and reason for success. The Nag Hammadi books highlight the controversies that marked early Christianity and still define much of contemporary religious discussion.

Key Figures


Adam appears with Eve in the Old Testament, in the Book of Genesis, in the Garden of Eden. He also appears in a number of the Nag Hammadi texts, such as the Testimony of Truth, as a character in versions of the creation story that vary from the one in Genesis.

al-Qummus Basiliyusi Abd al-Masih

Al-Qummus Basiliyusi Abd al-Masih was a priest who hid some of the Gnostic books for Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman. He gave one to the history teacher Raghib.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome in the second half of the second century. He has been described as an educated and erudite ruler, but Christians were still persecuted under his regime. According to Pagels, he "despised the Christians as morbid and misguided exhibitionists."

Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria, a revered orthodox Christian scholar writing in Egypt around the last part of the second century, expressed many sympathies toward women and their role in religion. Some suspected that he was actually a Gnostic initiate.

Pope Clement, I

Clement I was Bishop of Rome and Pope between a.d. 90 and 100. His letters to the Christian community in Corinth offer an early example of a hierarchy forming within the church. In his letters he states that there is a difference between the clergy and the laity and that God delegates authority to "rulers and leaders on earth." He also notes in his letters to the Corinthians that women should "remain in the rule of subjugation" to their husbands.


Constantine was the emperor of Rome in the first half of the fourth century. He was converted to orthodox Christianity. Soon, Christianity became the empire's official state religion, and the penalties for heresy "escalated," according to Pagels.


Eve appears with Adam in the story of the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament's Book of Genesis. She also appears in the varied creation stories in the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts. In Genesis, she is born from the rib of Adam, but in many of the Gnostic texts she is created by God separately from Adam.

George Fox

George Fox founded the Quaker Church in England during the 1600s. Pagels notes that he, like the ancient Christian Gnostics, rejected the church's authority and sought to find his own "inner light."

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud was a physician in Austria who developed the concept of psychoanalysis in the early part of the twentieth century. Pagels mentions him in the book because she sees many correlations between Gnostic efforts to understand the self and Freud's work on the unconscious.


Heracleon was a student of Valentinus in the middle of the second century and became a Gnostic teacher. He believed that Christians could confess their faith in two ways: before a magistrate and in the daily actions of their lives. He taught that Christians could understand their relationship with Jesus and God through self-reflection and did not necessarily need the guidance of the church.


Hippolytus was a Greek Christian teacher who lived in Rome at the end of the second century and the beginning of the third century. He wrote the Refutation of All Heresies in which he explains, among other things, the origin of the universe. Pagels notes that his "zeal for martyrdom … was matched by his hatred of heresy." In a.d. 235, the Roman emperor Maximin had him deported to Sardinia, where he died. Hippolytus objected to Callistus being named Pope and Bishop of Rome so much that he perpetrated numerous slanders about his character and separated himself from the church while Callistus was Pope.


Ignatius was the orthodox Bishop of Antioch in Syria until his death in a.d. 110. He declared that because there was only one God in heaven, there could be only one bishop for each church, and that the bishop stands in the place of God on Earth. Eventually, Roman officials condemned him to death for undermining Rome's civil authority. According to Pagels, he "accepted the death sentence with joyful exaltation" and saw it as a way to imitate his God and Jesus.


Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp and became the orthodox Bishop of Lyons in France. He wrote a five-volume treatise against Gnosticism and heresy entitled The Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-Called Knowledge. He believed that there could be no salvation outside the orthodox church and that the church must be united and universal. Irenaeus especially hated those who "outwardly acted like orthodox Christians, but who were privately members of Gnostic circles." He was also particularly alarmed that women were attracted to Gnostic groups and allowed to participate fully. Pagels uses his words extensively throughout her book to underline accepted Christian orthodox beliefs.

Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot was one of Jesus' disciples. Iscariot committed suicide after betraying Jesus.


James was Jesus' brother and, eventually, a Christian martyr. Some early Christian traditions believed James to be the first witness of Jesus' resurrection. Gnostics refer to James's teachings as critical, and there are two Gnostic books that explore his ideas.


James (not Jesus' brother) was one of Jesus' disciples and was executed for his faith.


Jesus was a Jewish teacher in Palestine whose teachings launched Christianity. The early orthodox Christians believed that he was an actual historic figure who suffered and died on the cross as a human being and that he literally rose from the dead; many Gnostics believed that his resurrection was more a spiritual event than a literal one.


John was one of Jesus' disciples. The Gnostic Apocryphon of John purports to reveal Jesus' secret teachings to John.


Justin was a Platonic philosopher who converted to Christianity in the middle of the second century after witnessing the faith of persecuted Christians. He encouraged the Roman officials to be on guard against those who would use the charge of Christianity against anyone to settle a personal grudge. Eventually, he became a martyr for his faith.


Marcion was a Gnostic teacher who concluded that there must be two separate Gods because, as Pagels notes, two different divinities must have created a world in which both suffering and beauty are found. He appointed women as bishops and priests, upsetting the orthodox clergy, who often referred to Gnostics as Marcionites.


Marcus was a student of Valentinus and eventually became a Gnostic teacher. Irenaeus accused Marcus of holding meetings without the authority of a church bishop, violating many orthodox strictures, and seducing women so that they would follow him. Marcus's followers prayed to the divine Mother for insight and believed that God was composed of both masculine and feminine aspects.


Martha and her sister Mary (not Jesus' mother) were contemporaries of Jesus. The Carpocratians, a Gnostic group, claimed to have received secret teachings from Martha and Mary.


Mary was Jesus' mother. According to the early Christians, Jesus was born to Mary in a virgin birth, although most of the Gnostics ridiculed this notion.


Mary (not Jesus' mother) and her sister Martha were contemporaries of Jesus. The Carpocratians, a Gnostic group, claimed to have received secret teachings from Mary and Martha.

Mary Magdalen

Mary Magdalen, a contemporary of Jesus, is depicted in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary as someone who received visions and insights from Jesus. These visions and insights are said to surpass those of Peter. Some Gnostic traditions recognized Mary Magdalen as an apostle, and the Gnostic Gospel of Philip indicates that she had an intimate relationship with Jesus.


Matthew was a disciple of Jesus and was thought by the Gnostics to have received special secret teachings from him.

Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman

In 1945, Egyptian farmer Muhammad 'Ali al-Samman found the thirteen papyrus books that scholars later realized were a collection of primarily Gnostic Christian writings written between a.d. 120 and 150. He uncovered the clay jar containing the books while digging for a type of soft soil used for fertilizing crops and thought that the jars possibly contained gold. When he saw the books, he brought them home to his mother, who burned some of the pages in their oven. A few weeks later, Muhammad 'Ali and his brothers killed the suspected murderer of their father. Before the police came to investigate the crime, Muhammad 'Ali hid the books with a local priest, thinking that they might be valuable.


Nero was the Roman emperor in the middle of the first century and was infamous for his cruelty. He supposedly started numerous fires around Rome and blamed them on the Christians. He used these fires as an excuse to torture and kill large numbers of Christians in public arenas.


Paul was a Jew who lived at the time of Jesus and converted to Christianity after Jesus was crucified because of a dramatic incident in which he saw a blinding white light and a vision of Jesus. He preached and taught Christianity. Scholars disagree as to whether Paul, through his visions and insights, could claim a "secret wisdom" about Jesus and God.


The New Testament gospels portray Peter as the leader among all the disciples of Jesus. Roman Empire officials eventually arrested Peter and put him to death.

Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate is the Roman official who tried Jesus and condemned him to death by crucifixion.


Plotinus was a Platonic philosopher who criticized Gnosticism for having no program to teach enlightenment and self-knowledge.


Polycarp was the Bishop of Smyrna and the orthodox Christian teacher of Irenaeus. He was burned alive in a public arena for professing Christianity.


Ptolemy was one of the leading Gnostic teachers. Roman officials put him to death for teaching Christianity.

Gilles Quispel

Gilles Quispel was a professor of religion in the Netherlands. In 1955, after hearing about the find at Nag Hammadi, Quispel flew to Cairo to investigate photocopies of the ancient documents. He also successfully encouraged the Jung Foundation to secure some of the Nag Hammadi texts in the 1950s.


Raghib was the Egyptian history teacher who received one of the Nag Hammadi books from the priest who hid them for Muhammad 'Ali. Realizing that they must have some value, Raghib sent the book to a friend in Cairo, who assisted in selling the text on the black market.


Salome was a contemporary of Jesus. The Gnostic group the Carpocratians claimed to have received secret teachings from her.

Simon Magus

Simon Magus was a Gnostic teacher who became cursed when he supposedly tried to buy the apostle Peter's spiritual power. Pagels describes him as "Peter's archenemy."


Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived in the last half of the first century and into the second century. Pagels refers to his accounts of Nero and the fires that almost destroyed Rome.


Tertullian, a "brilliantly talented writer" and orthodox Christian thinker living in the second century, ridiculed the Gnostics for their elaborate cosmologies. He considered insubordination of the bishops one of the greatest dangers facing the orthodox church. Tertullian rejected the idea of women as priests or bishops and stressed the differences between the clergy and the laity in the church. Tertullian also felt that martyrdom was a critical part of being a Christian. At the end of his life, he broke with the orthodox church and became a Montanist, part of a "radical prophetic circle" that honored two women as its founders, according to Pagels.


Theodotus was a Gnostic teacher in Asia Minor during the middle of the second century. He was a Valentinian Gnostic and believed that his fellow members were part of a chosen race.


Thomas was one of Jesus' disciples. In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Thomas indicates that Jesus was not distinct from the rest of humanity and that both "received their being from the same place," according to Pagels. Other Gnostic sources describe Thomas as one of Jesus' disciples who received a special teaching.

Judas Thomas

Judas Thomas was Jesus' twin brother according to one of the Gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi. Some sources claim that he wrote the Gnostic text Thomas the Contender.


The Egyptian Valentinus was a poet and one of the most respected Gnostic teachers in the second century. He claimed to have received Paul's secret teachings through one of Paul's disciples. The followers of Valentinus, the Valentinians, were a moderate Gnostic group, and some orthodox leaders complained that many Christians could not see the difference between Valentinianism and orthodoxy.


The Relationship between Gnosticism and Contemporary Religious Issues

Pagels wrote The Gnostic Gospels to offer the lay public a glance at a series of ancient religious documents and to make the argument that Gnosticism's demise was due to orthodox Christianity's success in building a universal, catholic community. She also wants her readers to use the discovery of the Gnostic documents as a launching pad for current conversations about Christianity, religious authority, humanity, and spirituality. Because of the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, "all the old questions—the original questions, sharply debated at the beginning of Christianity—are being reopened," Pagels asserts.

Pagels believes that the discovery and analyses of the Nag Hammadi documents should encourage modern men and women to revisit "the controversies that occupied early Christianity." These debates are as alive today as they were in the second century and focus on one question: From where does the church take its authority? The late discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in the twentieth century is a fortunate accident; if they had been found one thousand years earlier, Pagels muses, they may have been destroyed for their heretical statements. Their discovery today allows a large number of people to read them and reconsider the theological and philosophical underpinnings of Gnosticism in a different light.

The Gnostic texts raise other issues related to contemporary life besides simply religious issues, according to Pagels. She argues that psychotherapy shows a strong similarity to the Gnostic view of human nature. Both psychotherapeutic practice and Gnosticism agree, in opposition to orthodox Christianity, "that the psyche bears within itself the potential for liberation or destruction," according to Pagels.

Egalitarianism in Early Christianity

Pagels is careful to note that Gnosticism in the second century a.d. incorporated a wide variety of religious and philosophic thinking. However, she does stress that most Gnostics had difficulty with the standard church hierarchy and considered each member of their flock to be as accomplished in spirituality as the next. Theoretically, when Gnostics met, each person had the same amount of authority. Gnostic members drew lots to decide who would hold a position during a meeting, for they believed that "since God directs everything in the universe, the way the lots fell expressed his choice." On the other hand, by the second century, a three-level hierarchy was fairly prominent in most orthodox Christian communities: at the top were bishops, then priests, and finally deacons. The laity existed at the bottom of the church's institutional structure.

Topics for Further Study

  • Pagels argues in The Gnostic Gospels that one of the primary reasons orthodox Christianity survived and flourished over the past two thousand years is because of its structure and organization. Write a short essay explaining why you agree or disagree with her thesis, using specific examples from her book and other sources. If you disagree with her argument, offer your own reason why you think Gnostic Christianity did not last more than a few hundred years and orthodox Christianity did.
  • Investigate the rulers of the Roman Empire during the second century. What were their policies about Christians? Did they actively seek out Christians to persecute or did they tolerate Christians? Create a timeline of that century showing all of the emperors and add pertinent information about how they dealt with Christians.
  • Pagels discusses how women were involved in Christianity during the second century. Research the role of women in all aspects of life during the Roman Empire, focusing on the first through third centuries. What kinds of rights did women have? Were their roles and rights dependent upon other factors, such as social or economic status? Write a short essay on women during this period in the Roman Empire, touching on whether their social and political status was related to their religious activities.
  • Different groups of people living under the Roman Empire practiced many religions other than Judaism and Christianity. Investigate the religions practiced during this period (aside from Judaism and Christianity) and create a chart that answers a few basic questions about each religion, such as: What were the major defining features of this religion? What were the primary rites or rituals of this religion? Who could and could not participate? How many people were members of this religion; i.e., was it common or uncommon? Was it legal to practice this religion during the Roman Empire? Do people still practice this religion today?

When Gnostics drew the lots to see who would hold leadership positions during meetings, they included both men and women, according to Pagels. Not all Gnostic groups included women on an equal footing with men, but many at least considered God to be "a dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements," she asserts. She adds that the Nag Hammadi texts include numerous mentions of a "divine Mother" figure in addition to God, but because Gnostics were never unified into one belief and practice, these descriptions of her are diverse. The divine Mother of the texts can be characterized in three primary ways: as the feminine half of God; as the Holy Spirit, creating an alternate trinity of "Father, Mother, and Son"; and as Wisdom, or the creator of the universe who also shapes and manages her creations.

In fact, women were reported to have been especially attracted to Gnostic groups, Pagels notes, possibly because of the Gnostic willingness to incorporate the feminine into the nature of God. A number of Gnostic groups had women serving alongside men as priests, bishops, prophets, healers, and teachers. In its very early years, the orthodox Christian church displayed a similar openness to women, she claims, but from the year a.d. 200, "we have no evidence for women taking prophetic, priestly, and episcopal roles among orthodox churches."


Pagels's writing style is conversational and is directed toward lay readers as opposed to academics. When discussing the purposes and goals of the book, Pagels uses the first person. For example, in the introduction she notes, "I intend here to show how Gnostic forms of Christianity interact with orthodoxy," giving the reader a clear picture of the book's subject. Pagels makes a personal connection with the subject matter, especially in the book's conclusion. This writing technique is rarely found in books on ancient history and religion. She proclaims, "I find the discoveries at Nag Hammadi enormously exciting."

Pagels also uses the first person to express personal feelings about her subject matter specifically and about Christianity in general. In the conclusion, she writes with a strong voice:

I believe that we owe the survival of Christian tradition to the organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed. Anyone as powerfully attracted to Christianity as I am will regard that as a major achievement.

Pagels provides an authoritative tone to her book by including hundreds of passages from the New Testament and various Gnostic texts. She uses these passages to support her argument delineating the reasons for the failure of Gnosticism and the enduring success of orthodox Christianity.

Historical Context

Christianity in the Second Century

Jerusalem in Palestine served as the originating center of Christianity (until the Roman army destroyed the city around a.d. 70), and the new religion spread from the city to outposts around the Mediterranean region and the rest of the Roman Empire. Up until the second century, its main practitioners were Jews who saw Christianity as part of what God had promised in the Old Testament. By the middle of the second century, orthodox Christian communities began to function under very specific hierarchies with bishops assuming authority.

Gnostic Christians claimed to have secret knowledge about God and spirituality that separated them from orthodox Christians. The philosophical elements in Gnosticism came from a wide array of sources, including Asian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greek religions as well as Judaism and Christianity. Orthodox Christians considered Gnostics heretics for a number of reasons, including the Gnostic interpretation of the Bible, the rejection of church hierarchy, and the insistence that knowledge of God can come from within and does not rely upon intervention from the church. Unlike orthodox Christians, Gnostics were very particular about whom they allowed into their groups, requiring that a member show evidence of religious maturity, holiness, and a deep understanding of the secret teachings. There was no central organization for Gnosticism, but teachers such as Valentinus and Marcion distributed its varied teachings, as mentioned in The Gnostic Gospels. By the sixth century, Gnosticism had almost disappeared.

Early Christianity appeared in many diverse forms, especially in the second and third centuries, but practicing Christianity of any form in the Roman Empire was illegal and occasionally punished by death. Christians usually met in homes. In The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels notes that the decision facing many Christians—whether to admit to being a follower of Jesus and face martyrdom—was one of the issues that divided orthodox Christians from their Gnostic brethren. Few Gnostics went the route of martyrdom and the orthodox Christians saw this as a failure of faith and one more reason to consider them heretics. By the early part of the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine had converted to Christianity and, by the time of his death in 337, the orthodox Christian church had become the state-supported religion of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire

Most agree that the origin of the Roman Empire, a powerful political system that lasted nearly five hundred years, can be traced to 27 b.c., when the Roman Senate gave Gaius Octavius the name Augustus and proclaimed him the first Roman Emperor. Through wars and occupations, the empire grew from lands primarily around Italy and the Mediterranean region to a huge territory stretching to Britain, Spain, North Africa, Romania, Western Asia, and the Middle East. The empire allowed its conquered people to retain most of their varied languages, societies, and religions. In the first and second centuries under Roman rule, Greek art, literature, and philosophy flourished; Babylonian astronomy and astrology thrived; and eventually Christianity became the standard religion after Constantine converted in the early 300s.

Compare & Contrast

  • Second Century a.d. : The Roman Empire includes much of Europe and other territories and has successfully assimilated people from numerous cultures, many of which have a their own local language.

    Today: There are numerous different languages spoken in Europe, and most students are taught at least one foreign language in addition to their national language. The European Union is in the process of regulating trade by introducing the euro as the standard form of currency for most of Europe.

  • Second Century a.d. : While aristocratic women in the Roman Empire can influence politics through their husbands or sons, they cannot hold political office.

    Today: Women hold many positions in the parliaments of Europe. For example, Italy's ministers for Equal Opportunity and Education are both women, and 18 percent of the members of the British Parliament are women.

  • Second Century a.d. : Christians in the Roman Empire are a small minority, persecuted and tortured for refusing to participate in the religious practices of Roman pantheistic religions and the emperor cult.

    Today: Christianity is the most common religion in Europe, with about 80 percent of the continent's population calling themselves Christians.

  • Second Century a.d. : Christians bury their dead in underground catacombs decorated with beautiful wall paintings. These are also places of refuge for persecuted Christians, as the Roman Empire considered burial places sacrosanct by law.

    Today: Catacombs all over Europe attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Videotape tours of various catacombs are also available.

Called the "good emperors," the five emperors who ruled from a.d. 98 to 180 governed during what many historians consider the high point of the Roman Empire. This is approximately when experts believe the Nag Hammadi books were written. Trajan (98-117), for example, displayed concern for the poor, and some historians argue that he did not actively seek to persecute Christians. Hadrian (117-138) reformed the empire's civil service and built an impressive system of roads throughout the empire. During this same period, millions of slaves were captured and imprisoned; women had no political rights; a plague killed one-third of the population in the empire's western regions; and Romans executed Christians and pushed the Jews from their land in the Middle East.

Critical Overview

Critical response to Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels varied from admiration for her writing abilities to accusations that she was inaccurate in numerous aspects of the book. B. Cobbey Crisler's article in The Christian Science Monitor calls Pagels's efforts "refreshing" and "a challenge, especially when 'gnosticism' was regarded by its own adherents to be for the initiated only."

Henry Chadwick, writing in the Times Literary Supplement a decade after the book's publication, compliments Pagels's writing skills, noting that she is a "gifted, clever communicator" and has "an enviable gift for writing easily." He accuses her, though, of lacking "full rigour," particularly when she attempts to show that the Gnostics were sympathetic to women's religious roles and that their exclusion from the orthodoxy deprived Christianity of a particular richness. "But for most readers that will matter little," he laments.

Kathleen McVey, in Theology Today, recognizes that Pagels's book is geared toward an audience with minimal knowledge of Gnosticism and early Christianity, but she also complains that The Gnostic Gospels is "calculated to appeal to the liberal intellectual Christian who feels personally religious but dislikes 'institutional religion."' Similar to Chadwick, McVey is not impressed with Pagels's analysis of the ancient sources and believes that she makes mistakes in her interpretations. "I hope that the intellectually curious will refuse to be swept along" by Pagels's arguments, McVey writes, "but will instead investigate the matter for themselves."

Many critics, including McVey and Chadwick, are doubtful that Pagels's work has succeeded in showing Gnostics in a sympathetic light, as they suspect she wishes them to be. Like Raymond E. Brown, writing in The New York Times Book Review, some reviewers tend to be of two minds about Pagels's work: that she should be praised for introducing a difficult and important topic to average readers, but that her methods are suspect. For example, Brown writes that he can "only applaud Professor Pagels's intention" to explore the evidence about Gnosticism, but he is doubtful of her sincerity. He argues that "about nine-tenths" of the book consists of Pagels's "sympathetic effort to understand the gnostics's side, which will leave the reader cheering for them and wishing that the narrow-minded orthodox had not won." Brown goes on to wonder whether she is actually doing a disservice to the reader not fully apprised of the history of early Christianity.

Hyam Maccoby also sees both promise and failure in Pagels's writing. In his Commentary article, Maccoby notes that Pagels's book "is to be commended" for bringing an important subject to light for the general audience in "a readable fashion," but ultimately he evaluates the work as "disappointing." According to Maccoby, Pagels barely scratches the surface of Gnosticism and presents an idealized picture of Gnostics. "The darker side of gnosticism is hardly touched on" in Pagels's book, as she skips over "their obsession with the evil of this world, their hatred of sex, their elitism, [and] their mystagogic pretension," he claims. Maccoby does praise her descriptions of the Valentinians, one of the more moderate Gnostic groups.

Pagels's handling of the relationship between women and Gnosticism is a popular area of examination for critics. Chadwick mentions in his article that she must "exert gentle pressure on the surviving evidence" that could point to Gnostic acceptance of women in teaching and priestly roles, as he believes that the Nag Hammadi material "offers only a few grains of encouragement to liberated women readers." Maccoby asserts that Pagels has exaggerated "the feminism of the gnostics," for their feminism, he believes, often "amounted to a contempt for sex and a desire to reduce all mankind to neuter beings."

Pagels's critics are varied in their response to her book, but one complaint rises to the surface of almost every review: the inaccurate nature of the book's title. Chadwick notes that modern scholars consider only four of the fifty-two Nag Hammadi documents to be gospels, and Brown asserts that not all of the Nag Hammadi texts are even considered Gnostic in their content. "The title of her book thus might lead us to anticipate new knowledge about the historical Jesus," but that is not the case, according to Brown. Crisler suggests that the title might have been "an editorial choice" designed for "market appeal."


Susan Sanderson

Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, Sanderson examines how Pagels, throughout her book, shifts her descriptions of Gnosticism based on images of elitism.

Numerous critics have noted that throughout Pagels's book The Gnostic Gospels her intentions are clear—that the reader should come away with a primarily positive impression of how Gnostic Christianity actively involved women in important religious roles and stood as a bulwark against a rising tide of conventional thought as embodied in orthodox Christianity. Hyman Maccoby, writing in Commentary, argues that Pagels wishes for her readers to appreciate Gnostics for "the spontaneity and inwardness of their religious approach," as well as for their "profeminist" leanings. Writing for The New York Times Book Review, Raymond E. Brown charges Pagels with leading a rooting section for the Gnostics with futile wishes that "the narrow-minded orthodox had not won." Indeed, Pagels focuses on drawing flattering comparisons between the Gnostic philosophy and modern lines of thought found in democracy, liberalism, libertarianism, anti-authoritarianism, and even psychotherapy—schools of thought with which her modern readers can identify.

Pagels seems entranced by a romanticized yet almost modern image of the Gnostics throughout most of the book. For example, an entire chapter is devoted to examining how Gnostics incorporated women in their religious images and activities, and Pagels lauds the Gnostics for their independence in such matters. The chapter on the question of Christ's resurrection presents the Gnostics as flexible in their beliefs versus the rigid literalists on the orthodox side. Her book appears to speed along with hardly a disapproving word about Gnostic theology and practice until the book's conclusion, where she offers a surprise disclaimer of her enthusiasm for Gnosticism: "That I have devoted so much of this discussion to gnosticism … does not mean that I advocate going back to gnosticism—much less that I 'side with it' against orthodox Christianity." This idea is repeated and expanded upon when, after nearly two hundred pages of casting Gnosticism in a relatively positive light, Pagels states that modern men and women "owe the survival of the Christian tradition" to the successes of the early orthodox church over the Gnostic church and that "anyone as powerfully attracted to Christianity as I am will regard that as a major achievement." This is a woman who cheers Gnosticism throughout her book but then is obviously happy that Gnosticism did not win its struggle against orthodoxy. Is there something that Pagels does object to in Gnosticism? The answer is yes, and it appears when Pagels wrestles with the Gnostics' choice of elitism over egalitarianism.

While many critics simply assume that Pagels has made some kind of huge mistake in her book, failing to think clearly about the message she is sending until the book's conclusion, there may be a kinder way to interpret her exploration of Gnosticism. A close reading will show that the book's tone abruptly shifts close to the end, beginning with the fifth chapter, entitled Whose Church Is the "True Church?" When Pagels sees the Gnostics in the unflattering light of elitism, she begins to see that, as Kathleen McVey writes in Theology Today,"heresy and feminism were not such good bedfellows."

Before that chapter, Pagels is involved in presenting Gnosticism primarily in a positive light as compared with orthodox Christianity, especially on the subject of women. For example, in the chapter about the role of the feminine in the Gnostic church, Pagels observes that, in contrast to many Gnostic groups, the second century orthodox Christians turned their backs on years of "remarkable openness toward women" when they denied women any level of equality with men. Tertullian, a well-regarded orthodox thinker writing in the second century, exclaimed in horror when he discovered that Gnostics were allowing women to participate fully in the church's rituals. Pagels quotes him as condemning "these heretical women … [who] are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, … even to baptize!"

On the other hand, many (but not all) Christian Gnostics, according to Pagels, considered women as men's equals and allowed them to function even as bishops. This decision may have come from two sources, one theological and another more practical.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Richard Elliott Friedman's 1997 account in Who Wrote the Bible ? focuses on the first five Old Testament books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Friedman looks to biblical and archaeological evidence to discover who authored these immensely important documents and offers the reader a sense of what life was like thousands of years ago.
  • The six volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were originally published between 1776 and 1788. In this historical standard, author Edward Gibbon writes a literary-style narrative that begins with the second century a.d. and ends with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
  • The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, by Burton L. Mack, is a collection of Jesus' sayings, proverbs, aphorisms, and parables—what many believe to be a "lost gospel" written by one or more of his followers. Mack's 1994 book is his own translation of this material that portrays Jesus to be more of a Jewish Socrates than a Christ.
  • Elaine Pagels's most recent book The Origin of Satan: The New Testament Origins of Christianity's Demonization of Jews, Pagans, and Heretics (1995) offers an interpretation of Satan's historical role in Christianity. The book looks at the dark side of Christianity and how irrational hatreds continue to plague Christians and non-Christians.
  • Robert A. Segal has pulled together a collection of C. G. Jung's essays on Gnosticism in The Gnostic Jung (1992). The book also contains essays by two well-known writers on Jungian psychology and Gnosticism, Victor White and Gilles Quispel. Segal's introduction covers Jung's interest in Gnosticism and why Jung often characterized himself as a modern-day Gnostic.

On the theological side, a variously described but consistently present "divine Mother" appears throughout the Nag Hammadi texts. Pagels characterizes these feminine depictions of God in three ways. First, the divine Mother is "part of the original couple," making God a being with both a feminine and masculine side. "This may be akin to the Eastern view of yin and yang but remains alien to orthodox Judaism and Christianity," she suggests. The second Gnostic characterization of the divine Mother as the "Holy Spirit" creates an alternate version of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Mother. Pagels notes that the Secret Book, one of the texts found at Nag Hammadi, uses the feminine Hebrew term, ruah, to describe the Holy Spirit. The third characterization of the divine Mother is that of Wisdom, considered a feminine power among many Gnostics, according to Pagels. Followers of the two Gnostic teachers Valentinus and Marcus prayed to the divine Mother as "incorruptible Wisdom" and through her received gnosis, the essential knowledge required to become a full-fledged Gnostic.

The more practical reason for the Gnostics' acceptance of women may be no more than their keen understanding that, if they conferred responsibilities upon women and included feminine images in their worship, this might attract more women to their form of Christianity. Pagels does not directly claim this, but she is at least aware of this possible marketing strategy when she asks "whether gnostic Christians derive any practical, social consequences from their conception of God—and of humanity—in terms that included the feminine element." Her answer to this question is emphatically affirmative.

By bringing up the possibility that Gnostics who approved of women in the church might have been acting out of less than theologically pure motives, Pagels offers one of the first of a few, but significant, criticisms of Gnosticism in the book before the fifth chapter. The reader knows that Pagels is looking at the Gnostics through a less rosecolored lens immediately in the opening of the fifth chapter, when she notes that not only did the orthodox Christians condemn the Gnostics, but the Gnostics were equally adept at condemning orthodoxy. "Christian tradition has preserved and revered orthodox writings that denounce the gnostics," she writes. "Now, for the first time, certain texts discovered at Nag Hammadi reveal the other side of the coin: how gnostics denounced the orthodox." In the next sentence, she uses the rather strong verb "polemicize" when noting that the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, one of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts, refers to the orthodox Christians as "pagans" and "dumb animals."

Earlier in the book, Pagels had given an almost modern cast to Gnosticism, asserting in the first chapter, for example, that just as today's humans take for granted that science and technology will advance, "so the gnostics anticipated that the present and the future would yield a continual increase in knowledge." She describes them with a democratic tone, noting how they involved women and questioned authority. For second-century inhabitants, Pagels paints them as holding remarkably modern concepts. It is in the fifth chapter that the issue of elitism among the Gnostics arises—and this is where Pagels finds that she cannot continue to support the Gnostics as completely as before. By the time she finishes with chapter five, Pagels is using the anti-democratic and anti-feminist term "elitism" when describing Gnosticism. For example, she notes that the Gnostics will not accept just anyone into their fold; they evaluated "each candidate on the basis of spiritual maturity, insight, or personal holiness." Not only would this be cumbersome, but it would also make the Gnostics subject to uncomfortable charges of exclusiveness, as Pagels does when she notes that, as opposed to the Gnostic church, the orthodox church rejected "religious elitism … [and] welcomed members from every social class, every racial or cultural origin, whether educated or illiterate," as long as they respected the church's hierarchical authority.

Ironically enough, Gnostics, who rejected church hierarchy, were themselves involved in a rating system by which some people might be ranked higher than others based on their "holiness." According to Pagels, Gnostic teachers themselves often worried that having a group in which membership was based on spiritual maturity and the presence of something as ethereal as "spiritual gifts" would promote a sense of elitism. The author of the Nag Hammadi text Interpretation of the Knowledge expresses concerns that those who had attained enlightenment would separate themselves from "ignorant," less skilled Christians and might even hesitate to share insights and knowledge.

"Ironically enough, Gnostics, who rejected church hierarchy, were themselves involved in a rating system by which some people might be ranked higher than others based on their 'holiness."'

The charge of elitism sticks especially well to the Gnostics as the book continues into the sixth chapter and conclusion. In the sixth chapter, Pagels stresses Gnosticism's reliance on self-knowledge as the way to know God and on "one's inner capacity to find one's own direction." The more radical Gnostics rejected any effort to institutionalize religious experience, while the moderate Gnostics, such as the followers of Valentinus, regarded the church "more as an instrument of their own self-discovery," according to Pagels.

Many Gnostics relied on courses of spiritual discipline that were not necessarily written down and that set them apart from other Gnostics as well as orthodox Christians. Pagels notes that a course of discipline that disconnected the practitioner from earthly wants, promoting visions, ascetic practices, and meditation "would appeal only to a few."

Ultimately, as Pagels points out, Gnosticism's elitism and focus on an individual's advancement was its undoing, "for ideas alone do not make a religion powerful." Because religions are made up of people, "social and political structures that identify and unite people into a common affiliation" are terribly important, she proclaims at the end of her book. Orthodox Christians created communities that marked major collective events, such as "the sharing of food, in the eucharist; sexuality, in marriage; childbirth, in baptism; sickness, in anointment; and death, in funerals." The Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas notes that a Gnostic sees himself as "one out of a thousand; two out of ten thousand"—certainly a startling image of isolation. According to Pagels, early orthodox Christians saw themselves as "one member of the common human family, and as one member of a universal church." It is at exactly that point of distinction—isolation versus community—that Pagels loses her enthusiasm for the Gnostics. While she finds much in Gnosticism to admire, this fault of elitism, she seems to say, outweighs all the weaknesses of orthodox Christianity combined and means that the death of Gnosticism need not be mourned.


Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on The Gnostic Gospels, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Beth Kattelman

Kattelman is a freelance writer and holds a Ph.D. in theatre from Ohio State University. In this essay, Kattelman discusses how the orthodox Christian Church was misguided in its effort to suppress the information contained in the Gnostic gospels.

Throughout the ages, the suppression of information has been directly connected to the exertion of power and control over the masses. Those who wish to remain in power often feel the need to suppress or destroy certain texts, and the ideas contained therein, so that their authority will not be challenged or called into question. In her book The Gnostic Gospels, Pagels explores how the early Christian Church was guilty of this practice in its effort to establish itself as the single source for the true word of God.

The early Church fathers were particularly threatened by the concepts contained in what we now refer to as the "Gnostic gospels" because they placed the search for enlightenment directly into the hands of each individual, thus eliminating the need for a church hierarchy to deliver and interpret God's word. This was a very dangerous idea to the bishops and priests of the orthodox Church. If Christians could take control of their own search for knowledge, the church fathers would no longer be needed. The "uneducated" masses would be able to find their own answers and the institution of the Church would no longer hold the position of ultimate authority in religious matters. The Gnostic ideas were a particular threat because they opened up the possibility that the Church, as an institution, may become obsolete. As Kurt Rudolph notes in his book Gnosis,"A close relationship to God became possible even for the 'man in the street' without priestly mediation, without temple, without cultic practices." That priests and bishops would no longer be needed was a radical and extremely threatening proposition to those who made their livelihood administering God's word; thus, they found it necessary to refute and suppress the gospels that did not support their unique right to lead others to religious salvation. This is not to suggest that the early bishops and priests were deliberately evil men who were manipulating information for purely political means. Although this may have been the case with certain individuals, most leaders of the church had a real concern for the religious salvation of the people. As Pagels notes, "Their religious views, certainly, bore political implications; yet, at the same time, the practice they urged was based on their beliefs about God."

Unfortunately, the suppression of alternate ideas by the Church fathers serves to throw suspicion upon the very religious tradition they represent. In retrospect, their actions may be interpreted as misguided, or even foolish, and can serve to call their doctrine into question. The error of their ways can be especially striking when seen from modern times with the additional knowledge and information we have gained through the centuries. Throughout history, one can point to numerous examples of Church repression that we now recognize as wrong. Take the case of Galileo, for example. In the seventeenth century, Galileo was suspected of heresy by the Church because he reported moons orbiting Jupiter, which he had observed through a telescope he made. From this, he concluded that the earth was not the center of the universe. According to church officials, the idea that the earth was not the center of the universe was a challenge to God's will. They believed that because God had made man in his own image, surely he would have placed his great creation at the center of all things. Here, one can see how religious dogma served to control not only the philosophical issues of the time, but the role and scope of scientific study, as well. In her book Seeing Through the Visible World, June Singer discusses this notion, and its relation to Galileo's case:

Institutionalized religion in the Western world had maintained its strong role in determining what was and was not the province of science, and had exercised its authority to decide what would be legitimate subjects for scientific exploration. The basis for this domination of science by the Church was its view of God's design and purpose for the world, for nature, and for human beings. Thus, areas approved for investigation included both the material and the spiritual domains, with the reservation that the Church must approve the findings wherever they occurred. Galileo challenged that authority.

Galileo was forced to renounce his theories, was put under house arrest for life, and was forbidden to publish. The challenge his theories presented to Church authority could not to be tolerated. Of course, we now know that Galileo's theories were correct. He was able to add to mankind's knowledge because he chose to look beyond the blindly accepted "facts" and to seek out his own answers. This shows how scientific study can also be related to the ideas of the Gnostics, in that it places the responsibility for finding the correct answers upon the individual. In a somewhat ironic twist, Galileo was finally pardoned by the pope in 1992.

There are many who believe that to gain the greatest understanding of a subject, one should consider the greatest amount of information possible. Most scientists have long held this belief, and the idea can be found in many stories and philosophies throughout the world. Take, for example, the famous Indian folk tale of the blind men and the elephant. As the story goes, there are six blind men who are totally unfamiliar with the creature that we know as an elephant. Each man examines a different part of the elephant and then describes the creature from his own experience. The first man touched the elephant's side and declared, "The elephant is smooth and solid like a wall." The second man examines the trunk and comes to the conclusion that the elephant is like a snake. The third feels only the elephant's tusk and decides that the elephant is sharp and pointy, like a spear. The fourth, upon examining the elephant's leg, describes him as "A strong, sturdy tree." The fifth feels the elephant's ear and notes that he is like a fan. The sixth grabs hold of the elephant's tail and proclaims "The elephant is nothing more than a piece of old rope!" Because the men do not explore all of the available information, they come to very different, and incorrect, conclusions. Finally, they are told of their error, and the wisest of them says, "To learn the truth, we must put all the parts together." This is a very Gnostic concept. The Gnostics believed that all subjects, including religion, should be open to unlimited personal investigation. Their religious views held that, to learn the ultimate truth, one should gather as much information as possible, and then put it all together.

"The texts discovered at Nag Hammadi are a priceless find. They have opened up a whole new perspective on the Christian religion and, contrary to what some orthodox Christians may claim, serve to strengthen the religion through their additional information."

Those who follow the orthodox view of religion refute the idea that more information is always better. They believe that one should not try to gather additional information in order to understand the teachings of Jesus, but should accept and follow them as they are currently presented in the Bible. There is no need for additional study, or additional texts, because all needed information has already been made available. As Rudolph notes, the orthodox view runs thus, "Since Jesus Christ we have no need of any further investigation, nor of any research since the Gospel has been proclaimed." What this view fails to acknowledge, however, is that additional information, even contradictory or ambiguous information, does not necessarily preclude individuals from reaching the same conclusions as they might have without this information. It is somewhat curious that the Church fathers did not have enough faith in their own reasoning to assume that, if presented with additional ideas and material, others would still come to the same conclusion. After all, the Church fathers were familiar with the ideas of the Gnostics, and yet, that did not serve to change their own faith in any significant way. They were able to sift through the available information and decide for themselves what to believe. Because they were desperate to remain in power, however, the bishops and priests of the time were unwilling to trust that ambiguous teachings would still lead the populace to accept their authority as the true road to ultimate salvation. It is interesting that the early orthodox Church refused to embrace any kind of ambiguity. Even Jesus himself spoke in parables, although it increased the possibility that some may misunderstand his meaning. He had faith, however, that his followers would be able to properly interpret the stories and figure out the correct message. He was not afraid of contradiction and ambiguity. This task of "figuring out the answers" is something that Gnostics wholeheartedly embrace. In fact, Pagels notes, "The gnostic understands Christ's message not as offering a set of answers, but as encouragement to engage in a process of searching." According to the Gnostics, enlightenment is not reached by learning and accepting preordained facts, it comes from personal study and discovery.

The censorship of information is a "red flag." It signals the fact that something is being hidden and that people are being controlled and manipulated. Censorship is always a political act, no matter whether it is exercised by a religious or a secular institution. The main reason for the censorship of the Gnostic gospels was due to a power struggle in the fledgling Christian Church and the need of the orthodox sect to assert its ultimate authority. In Hidden Gospels, Philip Jenkins describes the struggle: "As orthodoxy won, it proceeded to destroy its rivals and their texts, in which the vindictive mainstream church found so many subversive ideas." Fortunately, the Church was not successful in destroying all of the "radical" and "heretical" texts, although it almost succeeded. As Pagels notes, "The efforts of the majority to destroy every trace of heretical 'blasphemy' proved so successful that, until the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, nearly all our information concerning alternative forms of early Christianity came from the massive orthodox attacks upon them." Luckily, however, sometimes the best efforts to censor material are thwarted, and the information eventually comes out. The texts discovered at Nag Hammadi are a priceless find. They have opened up a whole new perspective on the Christian religion and, contrary to what some orthodox Christians may claim, serve to strengthen the religion through their additional information. It is fortunate that the keeper of these documents had the foresight to hide them—otherwise they would have been destroyed and thus never available to us. It makes one wonder what other insightful texts have been lost to us forever due to the threatening ideas they contained.


Beth Kattelman, Critical Essay on The Gnostic Gospels, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Paul Witcover

Witcover is an editor and writer whose fiction and critical essays appear regularly in magazines and online. In the following essay, Witcover draws historical parallels between the Nag Hammadi texts and Pagels's book on the subject.

Imagine a number of books written about a recent historical event by a number of different authors who are drawing on the same material … but who approach their subject in a variety of ways, for a variety of reasons. Imagine also that these books are published at approximately the same time and receive a mixed reception from readers and critics, so that initially no one book or group of books stands above the rest in the public estimation. Now fastforward a hundred years. The majority of the books are out of print, all-but forgotten, while those that remain have attained the stature of classics and are not only widely read but part of the curriculum in every school. How to explain this phenomenon?

One possibility is that the surviving books are simply the best of the lot. But let's assume that when you examine the works in question, you find that many of them are, in their own ways, as well-written and engaging as those now viewed as classics. In that case, it might occur to you that the reasons for the success of some of the books and the failure of others over time must be looked for as much beyond the books as within them. This seems unobjectionable enough, and under normal circumstances it would be, but imagine finally that the works in question are religious in nature and deal with controversial topics that once had—and perhaps continue to have—immense constructive and destructive potential both for society as a whole and for any number of persons within it. Then, suddenly, the seemingly academic question of which books succeed and which fail can become, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

Such was the case with the books that are the subject of Pagels's influential—and controversial— 1979 popular study, winner of both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Gnostic Gospels.

In 1945, a treasure trove of ancient Gnostic manuscripts was discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi by a group of local men on their way to commit a murder. That circumstance, worthy of an Indiana Jones movie, was historically apt, for when the manuscripts were hidden over 1,500 years earlier, murder was also in the air. Historians conjecture that in the fourth century a.d., Christian monks from a nearby monastery hid the manuscripts to escape being branded as heretics, and very possibly put to death, by authorities of the Catholic Church, which had forbidden possession of the books in question. Although the Church had become the official religion of the Roman Empire by that time, thanks to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (c. 312 a.d.), many threats to its power remained. Some lay outside the Church, in competing religions old and new. Others lay closer, even within the bosom of the Church itself, and these threats, from the perspective of the ruling bishops, were the gravest of all because they did not come from men and women who worshipped strange gods but instead from people who claimed to be Christians themselves. These Christians, called Gnostics, saw the life and message of Jesus Christ in terms radically different from the official, orthodox beliefs reflected in the New Testament and the apostolic creed. The early Church fathers were determined to root out the Gnostics and their doctrines at all costs. They succeeded so well that until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, only a handful of Gnostic manuscripts were known to exist, and much of the information available to scholars about the Gnostics and their beliefs came from their orthodox adversaries. As Pagels notes in The Gnostic Gospels, "It is the winners who write history—their way."

Yet Pagels wrote her book during a period when many of history's traditional winners were coming under fresh scrutiny by skeptical scholars like herself. The Gnostic Gospels is concerned with history's losers; as such, although it looks back nearly 2,000 years, it is a revisionist project very much of its own time. In an article about Pagels in Publishers Weekly, critic Jenny Schuessler alludes to this perspective: "Reading her books, one senses a tremendous respect for the power of personal religious experience and an abiding sympathy for dissident movements in conflict with an uncomprehending or hostile culture."

The 1970s was an era of profound social, religious, and academic change as many of the revolutionary ideas of the 1960s were carried forward within the system instead of outside it. By 1979, the year The Gnostic Gospels appeared, feminism was midway through its so-called Second Wave and seemed to be riding high. The Equal Rights Amendment was just three states short of ratification (the ERA never gained those votes, failing in 1982). The Supreme Court had legalized abortion in America by its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. Title IX had gone into effect in 1976, and positive results were already being seen in the number of women enrolling in college and participating in school athletics programs. The main branches of the Lutheran Church in the United States had voted to ordain women in 1970; the first woman rabbi, a follower of Reform Judaism, was ordained in 1972; and in 1976, the Episcopal Church voted to allow the ordination of women as bishops and priests—a step the Catholic Church continues to reject on theological grounds, as it has done for nearly 2,000 years.

The effects of the feminist movement in the academic arena were equally profound. Scholars of both sexes looked at traditional disciplines in the humanities and social sciences from the perspective of the voiceless, the powerless, the oppressed, and the forgotten. This revisionist approach also led to the creation of new disciplines such as Women's Studies. It is important to keep this historical background in mind as we consider Pagels's thesis in The Gnostic Gospels and evaluate the critical reception that thesis received.

Armed with the evidence unearthed at Nag Hammadi, Pagels sets out in The Gnostic Gospels to open "a startlingly new perspective on the origins of Christianity." She quotes from the recovered texts to set out the Gnostic positions on some of the central tenets of Christian faith: whether Jesus was human or divine; the meaning of his death and resurrection; the proper roles of the sexes in Christian worship; the composition of the Trinity; even the fundamental nature of God and His creation. By comparing the beliefs of the Gnostics to those of their orthodox opponents, Pagels intends to show that "these religious debates … simultaneously bear social and political implications that are crucial to the development of Christianity as an institutional religion." In her insistence on treating ostensibly abstruse theological arguments as both influences on, and reflections of, the social and political ferment of the first centuries of the Christian era, Pagels extends the classic feminist slogan, "The personal is the political," into the religious sphere. Her aim in doing so is more than simply to deepen our knowledge of the ancient world by adding hitherto suppressed voices to the chorus of history; for Pagels, any re-visioning of the past compels a similar re-visioning of the present, which is its inheritor: "The Nag Hammadi sources … challenge us to reinterpret history—and to re-evaluate the present situation."

Who were the Gnostics, what did they believe, and why did Orthodox Christians find those beliefs so repugnant theologically and dangerous politically that they proclaimed them heresy and zealously persecuted all who professed them—even as they themselves were being persecuted and put to death by the pagan Roman Empire? The word "gnostic" comes from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge." As employed here, gnosis should not be understood as rational or physical knowledge derived through the mind or the senses. Rather, it is a form of knowledge that transcends such categories, an inner, spiritually-based knowing that is subjective yet superior to all other sources of knowledge because it is connected directly to the ordering power of the universe, or God. The goal of Gnosticism is to find God by means of an inward-directed spiritual journey leading through and beyond the self. As Pagels points out, "to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of gnosis." Gnosticism predates Christianity and draws from a wide variety of sources and traditions, including non-Western ones, and even Christian Gnostics were far from constituting a single group or movement; on the contrary, Pagels demonstrates that the very inwardness and personal subjectivity of the Gnostic quest for religious truth precluded the kind of organizational and theological homogeneity available to the orthodox.

"In 1945, a treasure trove of ancient Gnostic manuscripts was discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi by a group of local men on their way to commit a murder."

The Gnostic elevation of personal spiritual experience above the teachings of the Church would have been enough by itself to earn the enmity of the orthodox. But Christian Gnostics went further. They allowed women a role equal to that of men in their churches and ceremonies. They believed that Jesus had imparted secret wisdom to some apostles and disciples and not others, and that Mary Magdalen had been especially favored. Many believed that the God of the Old Testament, whom they called the Demiurge, was an inferior, deluded god, a bungler responsible for a flawed creation. The Demiurge had forgotten the true God, whose representative was Jesus. Thus, orthodox Christians, who believed that the God of the Old Testament was also the God of the New and that Jesus was His son, were themselves deluded and were worshipping a false god. This secret Gnostic wisdom was recorded in gospels that the orthodox refused to admit as genuine. The Nag Hammadi texts contained a number of these gospels, including the most famous, the Gospel of Thomas. They are Pagels's primary sources in The Gnostic Gospels, and she draws from them to demonstrate convincingly not just that the triumph of orthodox Christianity was due to the "organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed" in its struggle to survive the oppressions of the Roman state while simultaneously crushing the threat of Gnosticism, but that this triumph resulted in "the impoverishment of Christian tradition."

Although Pagels explicitly states that she is not advocating a return to Gnosticism, but merely attempting to clarify "the major issues in the whole debate, then and now," some critics and reviewers found her denial unconvincing. Yet in attacking Pagels's presumed political biases and agendas, critics often betrayed their own. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, B. Cobbey Crisler found Pagels's book one-sided:

Her picture of the Gnostics is considerably idealized in the interests of recommending them to modern libertarians and anti-authoritarians. The darker side of the Gnostics is hardly touched on: their obsession with the evil of this world, their hatred of sex, their elitism, their mystagogic pretension, and at times their 'transcendence' of ordinary morality.

Kathleen McVey, writing in Theology Today, sounded a similar note:

Elaine Pagels' Gnostic Gospels is a book calculated to appeal to the liberal intellectual Christian who feels personally religious but who dislikes "institutional religion." In the midst of the resurgence of anti-scientific and anti-intellectual currents throughout American Christianity, Pagels has presented us with an appealing portrayal of the Gnostic Christians as a beleaguered minority of creative persons kept ignorant of their rightful historical role by a well-organized but ignorant lot of literalists.

Indeed, it is impossible to read some of the criticism directed toward The Gnostic Gospels without feeling that there is an animus behind it that is actually directed past the book and its author, toward larger cultural and societal forces, such as feminism, which the critics, for whatever reasons, perceive as threatening. A personal, somewhat supercilious tone frequently creeps in, as in this condescending, patronizingly paternalistic put-down by Hyam Maccoby, writing in the magazine Commentary: "Professor Pagels, unfortunately, has a tedious bee in her bonnet. This is her idea that doctrinal differences between orthodox and Gnostic Christians can often be explained in terms of 'politics."'

In his 1992 book, The American Religion, noted literary critic Harold Bloom writes of the emergence of a peculiarly American religion—indeed, an entire culture—that is, as he puts it, "irretrievably Gnostic." Interestingly, in his Commentary review written some twelve years earlier, Hyam Maccoby agreed, going so far as to state that Gnosticism "may even be regarded as the form of religion most congenial to the modern world." Nor was Pagels herself blind to the many parallels between the tumultuous early centuries of the Christian era and the final decades of the twentieth century, observing in The Gnostic Gospels that "an increasing number of people today" share the impetus that led the Gnostics on their inner search for self-knowledge and knowledge of God. The fact that her book, the source of some controversy and critical animus upon its publication, has gone on to find wide acceptance as a classic of feminist scholarship and revisionist history could be interpreted as evidence that Bloom is right, and that, in writing about these forgotten religious texts from the distant past, Pagels was also writing not just about the world of 1979 but about the world of the future as well.


Paul Witcover, Critical Essay on The Gnostic Gospels, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.


Bloom, Harold, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, Simon & Schuster, 1992, pp.11-49.

Brown, Raymond E., "The Christians Who Lost Out," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 85, January 20, 1980, pp. 3, 33.

Chadwick, Henry, "The Paths of Heresy," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4017, March 21, 1990, p. 309.

Crisler, B. Cobbey, "Gnostic 'Books,"' in the Christian Science Monitor, December 3, 1979, p. B6.

Jenkins, Philip, "Hiding and Seeking," in Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 7.

Maccoby, Hyam, "Counter-Church," in Commentary, Vol. 69, No. 6, June, 1980, pp. 86-88.

McVey, Kathleen, "Gnosticism, Feminism, and Elaine Pagels," in Theology Today, Vol. 37, No. 4, January 1981, pp. 498-501.

Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels, Random House, 1979, pp. xi—xix, xxxvi, 69, 142, 149, 150, 151.

Rudolph, Kurt, "The Heresiological Literature and the Older History of Research," in Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, HarperCollins, 1984, p. 15.

———, "Presuppositions and Causes: The Problem of Origins," in Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism, HarperCollins, 1984, p. 291.

Schuessler, Jenny, "No Sympathy for the Devil," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 31, pp.11-59.

Singer, June, "Frontiers of Science," in Seeing through the Visible World: Jung, Gnosis, and Chaos, Harper & Row, 1990, p. 51.

Further Reading

Armstrong, Karen, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Ballantine Books, 1994.

Karen Armstrong, a former nun and British journalist, looks at the history of monotheism over the past 4,000 years. In addition to discussing the intertwined histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Armstrong also touches on mysticism, the philosophy of religion, and the death of God.

Meyer, Melvin, trans., The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels, Vintage Books, 1986.

Melvin Meyer offers a new English translation of four early Christian Gnostic texts for general readers.

Robinson, James E., ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Harper, 1990.

This is the English translation of the Nag Hammadi texts found in Egypt in 1945, containing numerous Gnostic and other religious documents. The Nag Hammadi Library in English was first published in 1977, and this publication is the revised 1988 edition with introductions to each document.

Scarre, Christopher, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome, Penguin, 1995.

This atlas includes graphics and text supplying an overview of Roman history beginning with the eighth century b.c. through the rise of Christianity.