Elaine Pagels explains in The Gnostic Gospels (1979), clearly and concisely, why it is that the suppression of the Gnostic gospels and Gnostic thought was deemed so necessary by the early orthodox/Catholic Church. Her writing is eloquent, well thought-out and easy to understand. She asks a lot of important questions that the Nag Hammadi findings of 1945 have encouraged. What do the Gnostic texts permit? What is the significance of their interpretation of the Resurrection? Should the role of women in the church be reconsidered? Can self-knowledge bring one, not only to the knowledge of God, but even to the stature of Christ himself? How does Gnostic Christianity undermine orthodox hierarchal authority? Is the controversy merely about maintaining power over the laymen? These are questions which Pagels attempts to put on the frontlines of Christian thought. She does a superb job of showing the direct link between the Church’s need to suppress Gnosticism, and its need to maintain its power and authority over believers.
Pagels sets the stage of her book with the introduction to both the journey and attainment of the Nag Hammadi texts, followed by their possible esoteric meanings, their relationship to orthodox Christianity and, hence, their invaluable significance. She notes that there is little controversy about the dating of the manuscripts, which is most likely between 350-400 CE. However, the original versions are most likely no later than 120-150 CE, “since Irenaeus, the orthodox Bishop of Lyons” condemns them as heresy in his treaties against heresy and heretics, written in the year 180 (xvi). The name Irenaeus is crucial, given that much of what is known about the onslaught against Gnosticism is taken from his polemics. Therefore, his claims and accusations, along with Tertullian’s, against the Gnostics and their sacred writings are discussed throughout the book.
An interesting topic, which Pagels addresses, is the inversion of the value-judgements and myths by the Gnostics found in the Bible. For example, the Testimony of Truth and Thunder, Perfect Mind, take the side of the serpent in the book of Genesis. In fact, the story of the so-called “fall from paradise” is taken from his point of view. This is quite astonishing since New-Testament Christianity brands him the Devil himself. In these two gospels, however, he is presented as something possessing divine wisdom and truth, and Adam and Eve are, in fact, punished by Jehovah, who is petty and jealous, because they gained the knowledge that only he wishes to have (xvii). Meaning, it is the snake (a Satanic figure), which is good, and God, who is wicked and filled with pride, not the other way around, as the orthodox churches have presented the case to be for two-thousand years.
It is for unorthodox interpretations like this that Gnostic Christianity was deemed, and is stilled deemed, heretical by the mainstream Christian churches. An historically enlightening fact, which Pagels presents, is that when Constantine made Christianity “an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police now commanded them” (xviii). It was declared heretical, and a criminal offence to hold in possession any and all Gnostic literature, and “copies of such books were burned and destroyed.” It was this, Pagels notes, that led “someone, possibly a monk from a nearby monastery of St. Pachomius,” to hide a few of these banned manuscripts, to keep “them from destruction – in a jar where they remained buried for almost 1,600 years” (xix). Such a clandestine event as this, gives an idea as to how controversial and significant these texts are. They were deemed extremely dangerous, due to their corrosive nature to what we now know as modern Christianity. This is the reason for their suppression, and Pagels’ mission, in her book, is to explain all the reasons why they were deemed such a threat.
In Chapter 1, Pagels begins with the controversy of the resurrection of Jesus Christ; for the Church, as we know it, was founded on this theme, and presented as historical fact. It is something, Tertullian states, which “must be believed, because it is absurd” (5)! Primarily, according to Pagels, the ultimate necessity for belief in a literal resurrection of Christ lies in the fact that “it legitimizes the authority of certain men who claim to exercise exclusive leadership over churches as the successors of the apostle Peter” (6). However, the Gnostic view takes the resurrection of Jesus symbolically and spiritually, not historically, and so the orthodox condemned “all such interpretations.” Tertullian declared “that anyone who denies the resurrection of the flesh is a heretic, not a Christian” (5). The Gnostics did, indeed, understand “that their theory, like the orthodox one, bore political implications. It suggests that whoever ‘sees the Lord’ through inner vision can claim that his or her own authority equals, or surpasses, that of the Twelve [disciples] – and of their successors,” that is, the church leaders (13-14). Gnosticism, then, loosens the chains that the Church elders have over believers, as those who believe in the Gnostic version of Christianity have no reason to feel humbled and subservient to the Church’s hierarchy. They can, in fact, surpass the stature of any priest, bishop or pope. “All who had received gnosis, they say, had gone beyond the church’s teaching and had transcended the authority of its hierarchy” (25). In other words, it is all about maintaining the power which the apostle-witnessed resurrection of Christ offers, which incited the censure of Gnostic thought regarding the resurrection. The power the orthodox Christian leaders had (or have) was founded on the supposed lineage of authority derived directly from the apostles themselves, and, hence, the sole reason for the derision of Gnostic Christianity by the heresy hunters.
In Chapter II, Pagels discusses the dualistic nature of Gnosticism. The orthodox Christians insisted upon Christianity being essentially monotheistic. The Gnostics believed not only that there were two gods, but that the creator-god, that is, Jehovah himself, was evil. This does not apply, however, to Valentinian Gnosticism, which is also monotheistic (31). It is the monotheistic nature of orthodox Christianity, Pagels maintains, which grants spiritual authority to church leaders, for their power derives from Peter, who was given it by Christ personally, and, hence, Gnostic dualism takes this authority away from them. It only follows, that the main proponents of the orthodox view, “were the bishops themselves. [..] As there is only one God in heaven, Ignatius declares, so there can be only one bishop in the church” (35).
Chapter IV deals with martyrdom and the suffering that supposedly comes with being a Christian. Certain Gnostic texts deny the suffering of Christ, saying that his divine nature transcended his human nature. Being the Son of God, he is pure spirit, which overcomes the flesh completely (75). Gnostic Christians believed that Christ was killed so that they “might not be killed” (82). This naturally led to the belief that the martyrdom of the orthodox Christians was in vain, and, hence, took the glory of it away in the process. This did not please the orthodox Christan leaders in the least. They “insisted on the necessity of accepting martyrdom” as a way of imitating and taking part in the glory of Christ (82). According to Gnostic Christan thought, however, as deduced from many of its sacred texts, their sufferings and executions were not at all honourable martyrdom, but, in fact, unchristian baseness. Also, one argument by the orthodox Christians, like Tertullian, was that their suffering and deaths was in itself evidence of the truth of the Gospel, that their theological take on Christianity was the right one, and that the Gnostics were mere liars and cowards. Justin Martyr went so far as to call their lack of persecution a crime (84).
Chapter VI is of great importance, because it emphasizes the meaning and power of gnosis within Gnostic philosophy and theology. For the Gnostics, finding the one true God required finding the one true self of the individual, and, clearly, no authority-figure is necessary for this. Hence, the Gnostics rejected “religious institutions as a hindrance to their progress.” For the orthodox believers, it was sin that separates humankind from God. The “gnostics, on the contrary, insisted that ignorance, not sin, is what involves a person in suffering” (124). Ignorance could then be considered the one true sin in Gnosticism; for “whoever remains ignorant, a ‘creature of oblivion,’ cannot experience fulfillment” (125). They remain in a state of sheer darkness and foolishness, as explained in Teachings, a Gnostic text written by the teacher Silvanus, and found at Nag Hammadi. This call for independence, then, is the ultimate undermining of clerical power and authority, and the absence of the Christian, metaphysical concept of sin also removes the need for priest absolution (something stressed by Protestantism, as well). The clergy, then, become something superfluous and unneeded.
Pagels transitions smoothly from one topic to another. The dominating theme is clear throughout the entire book, and gives a vivid backdrop, which unites the issues she covers. I enjoyed the feminist matter covered in Chapter III. The matter of denying the feminine aspect of Gnostic theology to maintain patriarchal dominance in the Church is, indeed, a serious matter, which is as relevant in the 21st Century as it was in the time of early Christianity. It is the timely relevance of The Gnostic Gospels which makes it such an important document. Seeing “God as a dyad whose nature includes both masculine and feminine elements” (57) can completely change a modern-day monotheist’s view of his/her God, be he Jehovah or Allah. Except, the most astonishing aspect for me of Gnostic theology, is the ability to not only achieve knowledge of Christ through gnosis, but to become his equal. For “whoever achieves gnosis becomes ‘no longer a Christian but a Christ’” (134). This is sheer blasphemy in New-Testament Christianity.
The most beautiful aspect of Gnosticism, which Pagels rightly emphasizes, is its artistic nature. It is a matter of finding God in the self-knowledge-seeking of the divine within, which is then expressed through creativity. This is a spiritual form of religion, which cannot be overly emphasized in its ability to help a person feel fulfilled, elated and genuine. The Gnostics encouraged the expression of “their own insight – their own gnosis – by creating new myths, poems, rituals, ‘dialogues’ with Christ, revelations, and accounts of their visions” (20), and it is very telling that the orthodox teachers, such as Irenaeus, censured and ridiculed this very creativity and deep, soulful expression (21). For the Gnostics considered it proof of enlightenment that one could “create the poems, vision accounts, myths and hymns that” were created “only on the basis of immediate experience” (145). Pagels was right to identify all of this artistry and spiritual creativity as an expression of power, and, hence, an undermining of achieving spiritual awakening solely through the Church’s hierarchy.
The Gnostic Gospels is an enlightening read, and a necessity for anyone who is interested in the early rise of Christianity. Although the attainment of power by “spiritual” leaders is not only a religious problem which expresses itself in Christianity, the historical analysis of it within the context of the orthodox churches can help us understand its significance and expression in other religious myths. Elaine Pagels gives a very well thought-out analysis of early Gnosticism, and the threat its sacred texts pose to orthodox Christianity.