Commentary Magazine

The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels


The Gnostic Gospels.
by Elaine Pagels.
Random House. 182 pp. $10.00.

Gnosticism, an esoteric movement in ancient religion, has achieved surprising topicality. It may even be regarded as the form of religion most congenial to the modern world. Certain popular sects (such as Scientology) are really modern versions of gnosticism, with their description of earth as a lost, evil planet, containing trapped seeds of divinity, to be redeemed only by intervention of saviors from outer space. Anyone who regards himself as religious but “opposed to organized religion” is liable to gravitate toward the gnostic position.

The drawback of gnosticism is that its adherents turn away from the practical problems of the world. They regard themselves as living on this earth as aliens, having wandered here somehow by mistake. They form small isolated groups devoted to developing the secret knowledge (gnosis) of how to link up with their true home. Paupers who have learned that they are really princes, they reject the hovel in which they find themselves, assert their newly-discovered identity, and seek to return to the palace.

This is an attitude that arises in periods when the outward world affords little satisfaction or happiness, and particularly when political expression is stifled by great impersonal forces. Such a time was that of the Greco-Roman world, and such a time is our own. The gnostic movement thus has much to say to troubled, alienated souls of our generation.

Until quite recently, our knowledge of ancient gnosticism was sparse, being confined to quotations and descriptions embedded in the writings of its Christian opponents, such as Irenaeus and Tertullian, who regarded gnosticism as a Christian heresy. Modern scholars, however, have suggested that gnosticism existed before Christianity, and only took a Christian form at a later stage. In the 19th century, some very interesting Christian gnostic documents were brought to light, including the Gospel of Mary and the Apocryphon of John. Finally, in 1945, a library of gnostic documents (some non-Christian) was discovered at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. They had been hidden in jars, probably by some gnostic-minded monk, at a time when the official Christian church was busily engaged in suppressing all the gnostic writings it could find. These manuscripts were in the Coptic (late Egyptian) language and were written in the 4th century, but were evidently translations of Greek originals dating from the 2nd century and perhaps earlier. From this discovery arose a huge scholarly industry, similar in dimensions to that based on the Dead Sea Scrolls. It will be many years before the full impact of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts can be gauged.



The most interesting questions to which definitive answers are being sought relate to the connections between gnosticism and Christianity. Even though official Christianity persecuted gnosticism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, its own origins may be very much bound up with this “heresy.” Many passages in the New Testament, especially in the Epistles of Paul and the Gospel of John, have a strongly gnostic flavor. The central myth of Pauline Christianity—the rescue of initiates from a fallen world by a descending and ascending Savior—is essentially gnostic in nature. So the question again presents itself: which came first, gnosticism or Christianity? And why did gnosticism and official Christianity eventually come into conflict? What about Jesus himself? Was he a gnostic teacher, or did gnostic ideas enter Christianity only with Paul? Or was Jesus an essentially Jewish teacher whose career was transformed into a gnostic myth after his death?

There are also some very interesting questions about the relation between gnosticism and Jewish mysticism. There can be no doubt that the vocabulary of Jewish mysticism, from its earliest literary manifestations, is permeated with expressions derived from gnosticism, though these expressions are given a Jewish meaning at variance with the dualism and world-weariness of gnosticism itself. But can it be, as Moritz Friedlander has argued, that the historical origin of gnosticism is actually to be found in heterodox Judaism? Or was gnosticism (as Gershom Scholem has remarked) “conceived in the struggle against Judaism as the conqueror of mythology”? Among the Nag Hammadi manuscripts are some that make no reference to Christianity but are full of Jewish references. Are these the work of heretical Jews, or of non-Jews both fascinated and repelled by Judaism who constructed a mythology from Jewish materials by standing Judaism on its head?

Perhaps we should look for the origins of gnosticism independently of both Christianity and Judaism, in the religiosity of the Hellenistic world. A few of the Nag Hammadi texts are entirely pagan. There are strong similarities between gnosticism and pagan forms of mysticism: Hermetism, which was associated with the worship of the Egyptian god Thoth, and the mystery-religions associated with fertility deities (in their Hellenistic elaborations). Special claims can be made also for a background of Zoroastrianism, or even of Buddhism (which was known in the Hellenistic world). Arguments for a Hellenistic origin of gnosticism were once thought to have been refuted, but the pagan gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi have reopened the debate. And this again revives the question of whether Paul created Christianity by injecting, into a not unusual Jewish messianic group, ideas derived from the pagan mystical sects of his native Tarsus.



The gnostic texts of Nag Hammadi have never received the publicity given to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Elaine Pagels has now written a book for the general reader in order to remedy the regrettable public ignorance of this important subject. Professor Pagels’s professional work has been concerned with the Nag Hammadi documents, and she has previously written scholarly works on the connections between these documents and the New Testament.

As the only existing guide on the subject for the general reader, Professor Pagels’s book has to be recommended, but it is disappointing. The author does not treat the subject of gnosticism with the breadth it deserves. Her chief topic is the conflict between Christian gnosticism and orthodox Christianity in the 2nd century, and she almost ignores aspects of the Nag Hammadi texts not relevant to this issue. She does, however, provide an introduction of wider scope, describing in readable fashion the history of the Nag Hammadi discovery, including the political and scholarly infighting that took place before the manuscripts were released to the world, and also giving a brief summary of the work that has been done on the manuscripts so far.

In her treatment of the conflict between orthodoxy and gnosticism, Professor Pagels seeks first of all to revise the (allegedly) widely held view of early Christianity as consisting of a central church with a lunatic fringe, and to give us instead a picture of a mass of rival sects of which the so-called orthodox church was only one and not even the most promising. As for the gnostics, she shows that, in contrast to orthodox Christians, they were unconcerned with institutional forms, and their communities were characterized by equality, even extending to the choice of priests and prophets by lot. They narrowed the gap between the human and the divine to such an extent that the initiate was regarded as sharing deity with the Savior, Jesus. She gives an attractive picture of the gnostics, emphasizing the spontaneity and inwardness of their religious approach, and arguing that they were pro-feminist. At the same time, she freely admits that such a religion, by reason of its anti-institutionalism and its tendency to split into innumerable groups, was ill-adapted for survival over a long period.

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. Still, a valuable description is given of the Valentinians, the one gnostic group that made a serious effort to combine mystical insight with the claims of ordinary communal life.



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.” She applies this approach, for example, to the orthodox insistence on strict monotheism, as opposed to the gnostic belief that the creator of the world was a minor deity (suffering from megalomania), and that the true, ineffable God was far above him. Professor Pagels argues that this difference of doctrine reflected a difference of political, or organizational, attitude: the orthodox hierarchy, with the Bishop of Rome at its apex, was projected into the heavens in the shape of God and His angels. She does not consider the possibility, exemplified by Judaism, that a religion can insist on strict monotheism while its religious institutions remain unhierarchical and decentralized (there was never any Jewish equivalent to the Pope). Professor Pagels here puts the cart before the horse. For the Church, monotheism was a philosophy of life that included among its consequences the need to take seriously the organization of the community of the faithful. If this world was created by the One God, and not by a limited or flawed underling, then it must be basically good, demanding and repaying efforts to set it in order.

Professor Pagels has very little to say about the personality of the historical Jesus, but her general approach suggests that she thinks he was more like the gnostics than the orthodox, and that his alleged conflict with the Pharisees foreshadowed the gnostic struggle with officialdom. At one point, in a rare direct reference to the historical Jesus, she suggests that the gnostics’ free attitude toward women reflected that of Jesus, who “violated Jewish convention by talking openly with women, and . . . included them among his companions.” But Jesus did not in fact “violate Jewish convention,” since in his easy relationship with women he was following the well-understood pattern of the Jewish prophet (compare Elijah with the widow of Zarephath and Elisha with the woman of Shunem). On the other hand, the feminism of the gnostics can easily be exaggerated; often it only amounted to a contempt for sex and a desire to reduce all mankind to neuter beings.

In general, the role of Judaism in this book is to act as a kind of prototype for the patriarchal, hierarchical structure eventually assumed by the Catholic Church. Opposed to both Judaism and Catholic Christianity is the free individualism of the gnostic sects. This is too simple, not only because it exaggerates the “freedom” of gnosticism but also because the Catholic Church was much more rigid, both doctrinally and institutionally, than Judaism had ever been.

The position of women under Pharisaic Judaism was relatively good: they were allowed to own property even after marriage, to be divorced if ill treated, to refuse an uncongenial marriage. These rights were all lost under Catholic Christianity. The recognition of a female element in the Divine—which Professor Pagels claims as an original achievement of the gnostics—was far from unknown in Judaism, where, for example, one of the divine names, Shaddai, means “breast,” and another Rahaman (“merciful”) is derived from a root meaning “womb.” The idea of divine femininity is prominent, of course, in Jewish medieval mysticism. The doctrine that Adam was originally hermaphroditic (based on Genesis 1:27, “male and female created He them”) is a commonplace of the aggadic tradition. The gnostics probably took this idea from the aggada. It is most unlikely that a talmudic rabbi derived it from Plato, as Professor Pagels asserts, especially as the idea can be traced back to Babylonian literature.

Professor Pagels’s simple opposition of gnostics to orthodox Christians will not do. The real problem is the extreme polarization which Christianity underwent. Why did it divide into lawless gnostics on the one hand and rigidly organized “male-chauvinist” Catholics on the other? Why did the Church produce a hierarchy very similar to the pattern falsely attributed to the Pharisees in the (hostile) descriptions of the Gospels? Why was there no middle ground between a complete rejection of human institutions and the formation of a bureaucracy with a penchant for repression? The answer to this, I suggest, lies in the antinomianism of Pauline Christianity—its extremist antagonism to the concept of law. This is what divided Christendom into those trying to capture an impossible spontaneity and those struggling, by an inevitably exaggerated and overstructured reaction, to infuse a commonsense practicality into the business of communal living. Official Christianity has always had to struggle desperately with people who take the original tenets of Pauline Christianity seriously, and so threaten to destroy all continuity and viability in society. The pendulum thus swings between anarchy and repression.



The study of the gnostic texts will continue to throw light both on the origins of Pauline Christianity and on its subsequent struggles. I doubt if it will throw much light on Jesus himself, since he was rooted in Pharisaic Judaism. Professor Pagels’s book, on the whole, is a useful but flawed interim report, a guide to the many fascinating possibilities that have been opened up, but a guide that should be consulted with caution.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest