Religious Studies 535 (University of Pennsylvania) 15 February 2005

Review by Douglas Finkbeiner of


Elaine Pagels

The Gnostic Gospels

Random House, 1979


Introduction: In this volume, Pagels discusses the debate between the gnostics and the "orthodox" church.    While recognizing that there were theological reasons for strongly opposing each other, Pagels explores the political and social reasons for such intense opposition.  An overview of her six chapters is followed by an analysis of her perspective.


I. An overview of The Gnostic Gospels


      *Her volume is composed of six chapters sandwiched between a lengthy introduction and a brief conclusion.


      A. Introduction:


            Pagels discusses the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, the possible explanations for its original burial, the difficulty with getting the manuscripts translated for a larger audience, and the ramifications of the discovery for understanding the diversity of Early Christianity and Hellenistic philosophy.  She, then, raises the issue of the political dimension for understanding the intense opposition between the gnostics and the orthodox.


      B. Chapter One: The Controversy over Christ's Resurrection: Historical Event or Symbol?


            *Pagels explains the difference between orthodox and gnostic teaching concerning the resurrection of Jesus.  While the orthodox position supports a literal resurrection, the gnostic position argues for a non-literal view, in which the resurrection symbolically represents the ongoing personal encounters that people can have with the spiritual Christ (5, 15-16).  Since Pagels believes both perspectives can be found in the NT itself (6, 14-15), she wonders why "orthodox Christians in the second century insist on a literal view of resurrection and reject all others as heretical?"(6) She sees the primary reason as political.  If authority resided with the apostles and their teaching because they witnessed the literal resurrection of Jesus and with subsequently endorsed leadership, then leadership was restricted to a few for the orthodox.  If anyone's personal encounter with the spiritual Christ was equally valid, then there could be no claim to a hierarchical structure for the gnostic.  Thus, Pagels argues that the gnostic position was a threat to orthodox hierarchy (14).


      C. Chapter Two: One God, One Bishop: The Politics of Monotheism


            *While gnostics differ over plurality of gods or the ultimate oneness of God (31), they were in agreement that the creator god was inferior and foolish.  Conversely, the orthodox were in strong support of the creator god as the only true God.  Again, Pagels argues that the intense opposition between the groups cannot be exhausted by merely arguing from each group's religious conviction (33, 46).  She again sees a strong political dimension.  The orthodox believed that "the bishop ruled over the community 'as God rules in heaven'"(38).  If a gnostic would attack the demiurgos, then he/she could subsequently attack the authority of the bishop. 


      D. Chapter Three: God the Father/God the Mother


            *This chapter breaks down into two basic sections.  In the first section, Pagels presents the gnostic view of god as a dyad (i.e. masculine and feminine; cf. Gen. 1:27) (50) and discusses the different gnostic views on the divine mother (the original couple, the Holy Spirit, Wisdom) (51-55).  In the second section, she explains why the feminine for god drops out of orthodox Christianity (57-68).  She believes that a theological (or mystical) explanation is insufficient to explain this phenomena (57-59).  Once again, she finds a stronger explanation in the socio-political realm.  Because gnostics gave women equal privileges as men and thus extended authority to all participants, the orthodox reacted against any view that would elevate women to an authoritative position.  Pagels argues that the orthodox retaliated with harsh criticism for any feminine attachment to the Creator and with the creation of pseudo-Pauline literature (Col; Eph; Pastorals) that would subjugate women (64-65).  She does acknowledge, though, that views about women were not monolithic among all gnostic or orthodox adherents (66-68).


      E. Chapter Four: The Passion of Christ and the Persecution of Christians


            *Pagels begins this chapter by noting the difference between the gnostics and the orthodox church over the physical suffering of Jesus.  Then she asks why orthodox Christianity held to its literal view about the suffering of Jesus so vehemently (75) in opposition to the gnostics, who do not see Christ as suffering physically.  Her response is that there is a political/sociological reason.  Pagels argues for a connection between the physical suffering of Jesus and the obsession with physical martyrdom within the leadership of the orthodox church.  Conversely, the gnostics, although persecuted to a lesser degree, did not focus upon the importance of a verbal confession but upon the life one lives (90-96).  She ends the chapter by arguing that the orthodox position on martyrdom and Christ's death prevailed in Christendom because such a stance promoted homogeneity and support for the leadership structure of the orthodox church.


      F. Chapter Five: Whose Church is the 'True Church'?


            *Pagels begins this chapter by noting that both sides denounced and attacked the other side in their writings (in addition, some gnostics also attacked other gnostics) (102-104).  She suggests that one could label various groups on a continuum, in which radical gnostics were on one side and orthodox adherents were on the other side.  While these two groups attacked each other, they also had little involvement with each other.  In the middle, she places Valentinian gnostics.  While some Valentinians isolated themselves from the orthodox (East), other Valentinians endorsed a strategy of infiltration within the orthodox church for the purpose of attracting adherents (115-117).  Again, Pagels sees a power game between these Valentinians and the orthodox church (118).  She describes the criteria for a true believer as distinct for each group.  While the orthodox church focused upon doctrinal confession, ritual acts, and submission to an institutional structure, the gnostic believers emphasized experiential knowledge, community, and an ascetic lifestyle (106-110).  Again, she argues that the orthodox position was more accessible to a larger audience.


      G. Chapter Six: Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God


            *In this chapter, Pagels differentiates some of the beliefs of orthodoxy and gnosticism.  While orthodoxy sees humanity's problem as sin, gnosticism sees it as ignorance (124, 126).  While orthodoxy underscores submission to an outside authority (Scripture, institutional structure), gnosticism underscores self-discovery through meditation and silence (126-128, 131-132, 134).  While orthodoxy is spatially and temporally focused, gnosticism is internally focused (e.g. kingdom as earthly or internal, events as salvation-historical or internal) (129-130).  While Jesus is superior according to  orthodoxy, he is equal with one who is enlightened according to gnosticism (130-131).  Orthodoxy sees religious language as more literal but gnosticism sees it as non-literal (133).

                  Pagels sees some interesting similarities along with some differences between gnosticism and psychotherapy (126-127, 130, 133-134).  She also notes that gnosticism has limited teaching on spiritual disciplines for initiates (135-140).

                  She ends her chapter by stating that orthodoxy grew as a movement because it appealed  to the masses in a way that gnosticism never could (140-141).


      H. Conclusion:   


            *Pagels summarizes her book in the conclusion.  She argues that the controversy between orthodoxy and gnosticism was not primarily a 'history of ideas' debate (after all Jesus sayings can be understood in a variety of ways- 148), but rather the ideas were "expressions or symbols of religious experience." (143-149) Thus, some people, who preferred solitary, personal self-disclosure and who defined evil as internal distress over physicality, would gravitate toward gnosticism.  Others, who preferred institutional structures, saw evil in terms of ethical treatment of others, and affirmed natural order (e.g. marriage), would gravitate toward orthodoxy.   She believes that orthodoxy won out and was then able to write history from the winner's perspective because its approach and structure was much more universally appealing than gnosticism.



II. An analysis of The Gnostic Gospels


      A. Strengths in the book:


            1. Her grasp of gnostic material is impressive.  She moves freely between anti-gnostic writers and gnostic writers.  Her endnotes are filled with primary sources rather than with secondary sources.  


            2. Her writing style is clear.  It was easy to follow her arguments.  She was able to take complicated concepts (e.g. uses of divine mother) and organize them clearly and concisely.


            3. She drew some thought-provoking parallels between gnosticism and psychotherapy as well as Buddhism (133-134, 146).


            4. She raised the sociological dimension as a shaping factor in the development of Early Christianity.


      B. Weaknesses in the book:


            1. The sociological dimension seemed to take a place of prominence in her argumentation, even though she offered qualifiers throughout the book (e.g. 46-47).


                  a. She downplayed a "history of ideas" approach to the tension between orthodoxy and gnosticism by portraying the NT material (Jesus sayings, Pauline material, Johannine material) as ambiguous and confusing (6, 14-15, 61-62, 148).  She argues that the NT could be understood either way.  I found her argumentation unconvincing.


                  b. Her connections between the sociological/political issues which underlie the theological rhetoric are not well-developed in chapters two (33-34, 36-37), three, or four.  I felt that she turned correlatives into causalities.


                  c. When she argued for religious experience as being more determinative than theological ideas and concepts, I felt like I was reading William James.  Such controversial positions need much more validation.


            2. She assumed that the Nag Hammadi material substantiated that gnosticism was very early and that diversity was not attacked until 200 C.E. (xxii-xxiii).  She needed some more support for this tentative theory.  For a similar critique, see Hidden Gospels, ch. 2 by Jenkins (Oxford, 2001).  Harnack and Bauer  argued along similar lines before the Nag Hammadi material was discovered.  I am not sure, though, how the finds prove such a theory.  Scholars continue to debate both the origin of gnosticism as well as the extent of diversity within Early Christianity in the first century.