The Gnostic Gospels 
by Elaine Pagels.
Weidenfeld, 182 pp., £7.95, March 1980, 0 297 77709 2
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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.

The roots of Gnosticism, a widely diffused and fluid amalgam of religious sentiment and theosophical speculation, lie in Greek, Jewish and possibly Eastern religious beliefs; as identifiable groups, the Gnostics are met with for the first time in the second century AD, when they constituted the most serious challenge, in belief and practice, that the Church had yet had to face. Indeed, the history of Christian theology in the second century is largely that of the conflict between Gnostics and orthodox which ended in the Gnostics’ separation or expulsion from the Church. Gnostic teaching varied greatly from group to group. At one extreme, some remained within the Church, at the other sympathies were with the pagan Hermetic groups and the practitioners of magic, while the majority, represented by the teachings in this book, come in between. So great is the diversity that almost any statement about them has to be qualified, but common to all of them is the belief that esoteric knowledge (gnosis) of a non-rational order is vouchsafed only to the few in whom the divine spark is still capable, in a world largely evil, of being rekindled; redemption was effected through mystical doctrines often clothed in elaborate mythologies and visions. Their concern, in the words of one of their leaders quoted here, was to find the answers to the questions ‘who we were, and what we have become; where we were ... whither we are hastening; from what we are being released; what birth is, and what rebirth’. Intellectuals and élitist, they had little use for organisations; the dualism that in varying degrees marks most of their teaching was to find its most famous representative in the next century in the founder of Manichaeism.

The importance of the discovery for the history of religious ideas and specifically for that of the early Church needs no emphasis. The book under review is the first written for the general reader on the significance of the discovery for early Christianity since publication of the texts was completed. Professor Pagels, who has been closely associated with the work on the manuscripts, gives us here a fascinating account, with quotations from the texts, of Gnostic beliefs, of the conflict with the Church authorities and its consequence for the development of the social and institutional life of the Church; she rightly stresses that the religious ideas of the two parties did not exist in a vacuum but were intimately related to how they lived and arranged their lives. She has a deep sympathy with many of the Gnostics. This is a very real merit, for not only, to many of us, does Plotinus’ tart comment that they were men who thought very well of themselves and very poorly of the Universe come too easily to mind, but it takes imagination and sympathy to penetrate behind the involuted mythology in which their ideas are often veiled. As it is, I know no other book, at once learned and readable, that brings home to us what was at stake in the conflict, and how relevant some of the ideas and attitudes involved still are.

A word of warning may be in place. Professor Pagels often sets these Gospels, Secret Books, Epistles, Revelations (following her I shall refer to them collectively as Gospels) in parallel with the canonical Gospels – rightly, in a sense, since this is what the Gnostics themselves did. But the unwary reader may be misled into thinking (though the attentive will find pointers in the right direction) that because they share the same title they are the same kind of book, whereas they are radically different in status, character and purpose. Most if not all of the Gnostic writers quoted here knew of, or alluded to, the three synoptic Gospels, or at any rate to one of them, if only sometimes to depreciate them; all four canonical Gospels were known to the pupils of the Gnostic Valentinus in the later second century. It is highly unlikely that any of the Gnostic Gospels were composed before the second third of the century and some are later: Mark, if not written before AD 70, as many scholars think, was written very little later. Again, these new Gospels often boast of being secret, revelations for the few illuminati, a claim that contrasts with the open character of the canonical four. It is not difficult to see how these Gnostic Gospels could be grafted onto the original stock: the reverse process is very hard to envisage.

More important is the difference in objective. What these writers are interested in is ‘the secrets of the Universe’, not the life or even the teaching of the earthly Jesus. As Professor Pagels points out, it was the spiritual being, the risen Christ known in vision, not ‘the obscure Rabbi from Nazareth’, who fascinated them. Some of them draw on and develop passages in the canonical Gospels or the Pauline Epistles that lend themselves to Gnostic interpretation; others boast that the gnosis revealed in their books is the product of their own creative imagination. (That they are often ascribed to apostles or disciples with whose names they make free in the text is for the most part no more than a literary convention, but it goes some way to explaining the anger of the orthodox.)

There are frequent allusions to the secret tradition, handed down orally to the select few; this could be correct – passages in support of the existence of such a tradition can be found in the canonical Gospels – and oral tradition, if not secret teaching, played a large part in the early Church, but the claim would be more persuasive did not the teaching vary so greatly. The Gospel of Thomas, probably composed about the middle of the century, consists of short sayings and parables of Jesus, some of them derived from, or at any rate parallel to, those known from the New Testament, others hitherto unknown and including a few which may well be ancient: while unmistakably Gnostic, it thus has closer links than any of the other new texts with the canonical Gospels, but even here there is practically no narrative, no interest in what happened or what was done. Another of the new discoveries is the Gospel of Truth, which may be identical with a work under this title ascribed to the most celebrated of the Gnostic teachers, Valentinus: this is different again, in that it is a meditation or sermon on salvation through gnosis and the mission of Christ, with occasional references to the Gospels, but no narrative, and no claim to transmitting esoteric wisdom.

From this an important corollary follows. The texts, or many of them, are deeply interesting in their own right and cast a sharp light on the crisis of the second-century Church, both aspects well brought out by Professor Pagels. But, contrary to the claims of both author and editor, they have little if anything to tell us about the origins of Christianity, if by that we mean what happened in the first century. It would, after all, be surprising if sects that depreciated the world of space and time were to display an interest in history. To say with Professor Pagels that these Gospels make us recognise that early Christianity was more diverse than we thought is hardly correct: apart from the evidence of the early Fathers, modern scholarship has been in no doubt on this point. Some years ago, C.F.D. Moule wrote that a traveller going from Jerusalem to Ephesus about AD 60 would meet such a wide range of doctrine and practice among communities claiming some attachment to Jesus of Nazareth that the problem would be to decide what was the minimum requirement for a community to be a Christian one at all.

In her treatment of a number of selected topics, Professor Pagels brings to light the differences in belief between Catholics and Gnostics, and the consequent differences in practice and organisation; the link between doctrine and life is one of the principal themes of her book. Thus the orthodox account of the Resurrection depended on those who witnessed it: hence their authority, and hence the authority devolved by them to their successors. If with some Gnostics you thought of the Resurrection as a purely spiritual event reenacted in the believer at the moment of his enlightenment, then the sole source of authority was either the individual vision or the teaching, itself based either on a vision or on a secret tradition, that gave rise to it.

I find less convincing the connection that she sees between the strict monotheism of the orthodox and the monarchical bishop whose power at this period she tends to exaggerate. But the contrast with some at least of the Gnostics is clear enough: for them, the Supreme Being was distinct from the inferior if not malevolent creator god or Demiurge, the God of the Old Testament, and true gnosis freed you equally from the power of the bishop and that of the Demiurge. Not all Gnostics took this view: Valentinus was not a dualist in this sense, and only left the Church or was made to leave it (accounts differ) late in his career, and his beliefs would have passed muster in not a few Protestant circles.

Her third topic has a surprisingly contemporary air about it. Some, perhaps most, Gnostics reacted strongly against what they saw as an unduly masculine conception of deity in both Judaism and Christianity, either by stressing the femininity of the Spirit (the Hebrew word, unlike the Greek, being feminine) or by addressing their prayers to an androgynous Wisdom or to God the Father and God the Mother. At a practical level, women were on an equal footing with men in these circles, and there being little or no distinction between laity and clergy, could exercise priestly functions. The parallel with later Nonconformist bodies is striking. The antagonism this aroused helps to account for what may be seen as a hardening of the Church’s line on the position of women which Professor Pagels sees – rightly, I think – as contrasting with the unconventional approach of Jesus as portrayed in the canonical Gospels.

Of contemporary interest in a different context is her discussion of Gnostic psychology – in particular, the belief that to know yourself at a deep level is to know the divine. If this looks back to Greek intellectualism and the view that what separates the soul from God is not sin, but ignorance or error, she points out that it also looks forward : the myths and symbols in which the belief is clothed have attracted the attention of modern psychologists – in particular, of Jung.

Again, different beliefs involved different attittudes in what was a crucial issue for the Church – conduct in time of persecution. To docetic Gnostics, for whom Jesus was a purely spiritual being whose birth, passion and death was an illusion, there was no scope for imitatio Christi and no reason why they themselves should suffer. While these were immune from persecution, other Gnostics taking the orthodox position were liable to persecution, and some were martyred : they did not, however, as did some of their opponents, invite martyrdom. Here the ground for antagonism is clear enough : in times of persecution, the Church closed its ranks and those who were not with it were against it.

At the end of the book, Professor Pagels goes back to a question she asks in her introduction : why did Christianity not take the Gnostic path, why does it ‘represent only a small selection of specific sources, chosen from among dozens of others’? She rightly concludes that such a diversity of sects was not a viable alternative to Catholic Christianity, however disruptive they may have been of it, in the sense that, composed of them, it would not have survived : but this is not a sufficient explanation. The question implies a view of the earliest Christianity which I think mistaken, in that it ignores, as the Gnostics did, the actual and historical element : she finds the earliest known source of Christian tradition in the sayings of Jesus, whereas the kerugma, the basic teaching of the earliest Church as seen in the opening chapters of Acts, is concerned with the narration of events, particularly that of the Passion and Resurrection. Henry Chadwick has described Gnosticism as the Doppelgänger of Christianity : it was a movement originally extraneous, represented perhaps in the first century by Simon Magus as well as by some unnamed individuals, which in the second century formed into groups, greatly extended its influence, and, developing some elements present in Christian teaching while ignoring others, made a takeover bid for the Church. To the related question, why none of these Gospels were admitted into the New Testament, the answer is not far to seek : their character as books for the few, their relatively late date, written as they were when the canon was already in process of formation – above all, the absence of the narrative and historical element – all told against them.

If this book does not provide us with a new perspective on the origins of Christianity, it is a vivid and lucid account of documents which at once illuminate a major crisis in the history of the Church and exemplify some beliefs and attitudes which recur throughout its history – among Catholics, those of the Albigensians and of Joachim of Flora, and, among Protestants, those of George Fox and William Blake. It is this as much as its archaeological interest that gives the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices, and with it this account of some of the contents, its significance.

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