- The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
Weidenfeld, 182 pp, £7.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 297 77709 2
In December 1945 an Egyptian peasant from the village of Al-Qasr in Upper Egypt stumbled across a large jar buried in the soil of an ancient site. It proved to contain, not the treasure he had hoped for, but 13 papyrus codices written towards the end of the fourth century AD in Coptic, the language of the Egyptian Christians, and complete with their leather bindings. After devious and sometimes discreditable transactions, 11 and a half found their way to the Coptic Museum in Cairo, one to the Jung Foundation in Zurich; their publication in photographic facsimile has only recently been completed. They contain no less than 52 tractates, some in duplicate, all of them apparently Gnostic, the majority Christian if usually unorthodox in character, a few pagan; together, they comprise a substantial Gnostic library that probably belonged to a monastic foundation. Apart from two codices, also in Coptic, which had been known to scholars for some time and which include the Gospel of Mary and the Apocryphon of John, they are the first large-scale and direct presentation of Gnostic beliefs: hitherto nearly all our knowledge has come from the descriptions (abusive but on the whole accurate) and excerpts given by their orthodox opponents.