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The Gnostic Gospels

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A provocative, insightful look at the early Christian church

Noted historian of the early church Elaine Pagels has produced a clear, cogent, and very effective introduction to the subject of Gnosticism, a different form of Christianity that was declared heretical and virtually stamped out by the orthodox church by the start of the second century after Christ. Most of what we knew of the Gnostic belief system came from the religious authors who worked so hard to destroy the movement, but that changed drastically with the still relatively recent discovery of a number of lost Gnostic writings near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, this momentous discovery of ancient papyri has received little attention, and I must admit I went into this book knowing virtually nothing about Gnosticism. As an historian by training and a Christian, the information in these "heretical" texts intrigue me, and I believe that Christians should challenge their faith by examining material that does not fall in line with accepted beliefs. I should note that Pagels does not attempt to summarize or examine in detail the Gnostic Gospels in and of themselves; her particular focus here is the way in which Gnosticism affected the rise of the orthodox church that declared the Gnostics heretics. Still, she presents a great deal of information on many of the newly discovered texts and inarguably shows that the Christian church was founded in a society espousing a number of contradictory viewpoints.Pagels does a good job of presenting the context in which the early Christians lived and eventually argued against one another. The debate was seemingly one over spiritual authority, and social and political issues played a part alongside purely religious disagreements between different factions. I think she tends to overemphasize the sociopolitical implications of Gnosticism, yet her arguments are certainly sensible and enlightening. One of the problems with Gnosticism as a movement was the disagreement among many so-called Gnostics on a number of issues. In terms of Gnosticism as a whole, however, one can point to a number of thoughts and ideas that ably represent the whole. Gnostics basically saw their faith as an internal thing, a practice based on the secret knowledge Jesus supposedly shared with a select number of individuals, one of whom was Mary Magdalene. Gnostics attracted women in particular because most Gnostics viewed everyone as equal and allowed for the participation of women in any sacred act. The orthodox, arguing that the disciples were men and thus the church held no leadership positions for women, opposed the teachings on these grounds. Gnostics basically believed that one found Christ in oneself; inner visions were the trademarks of true Gnostics. To the orthodox church founded on the basis of Peter's succession as the head of the church, Gnostics thus placed themselves not only on the same footing as the apostles but above even the Twelve. They tried to answer their own questions as to how Ch

Remains a popular introduction to the Gnostic Gospels.

For almost two thousand years these so-called Gnostics have been silent allowing the polemics of their detractors to define our understanding of Gnosis (insight). These gnostic testaments give us an entirely different worldview to experience and a different teacher in Christ. It would be difficult to inflate their importance to students of early Christianity and Pagels does a terrific job of setting the stage for this important drama to unfold. In the end, I felt Pagels consistently struck the right balance with the aim being to elucidate and not to convert. My highest recommendation.

Outstanding and thought-provoking

Christianity has shaped Western civilization much more than we care to believe in these agnostic times. Some of our most basic ways of thinking can be traced back to those chaotic years in the first few centuries of our era when people were trying to form a systematic theology from the teachings of Jesus. The Biblical canon had not yet been formed, and what we now call orthodoxy was just one of many systems. Among the different interpretations in this ferment were those called Gnostic, and I have long tried to understand exactly what Gnosis was. I found Dr. Pagels' short book to be a masterwork of clear and concise scholarly thinking. Gnosis was not so much a doctrine but a way of doing religion that emphasized a very individualistic approach to God, propagated by close mentor-student training. Gnostics tended to exclusive and restricted to intellectuals and ascetics. This was in opposition to the more 'mainstream' church, which wanted to be universal and inclusive, with a well-defined hierachy of priests and bishops. Thus, the struggle was sociological and political as much as it was religious. I have read through Dr. Pagels' work several times, and it is among the best books I have come across on any subject
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