Pagels, the Gnostic Gospels

Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels (1979) hardly needs a review from me. It won the National Book Award and has been listed among the 100 most influential works of the 20th century. However, I hadn’t read it until lately, and I can recommend it with the following summary.

Pagels classifies early Christians into two large groups, each of whom based their beliefs on sayings of Jesus that we can plausibly date to the earliest Christian period.

One group called themselves catholic (universal) and orthodox (right-believing). They taught that God was omnipotent and perfectly good, which meant that creation must be good, yet distinct from the Creator. The whole story of creation was divinely planned and hinged on the Incarnation, when God and nature came together in the figure of Christ. Jesus experienced physical resurrection, which will also happen to all people, whether saved or damned. By participating in the actual, embodied, and universal church (with its emerging structure of bishops, priests, and deacons), any person could be saved. Salvation required faith in the core doctrines of the Church, which represented sufficient knowledge. Christians were obliged to profess their faith even in the face of persecution, and martyrdom was understood as a sacrifice for the church. Everyone who confessed and practiced the sacraments belonged to that one living body.

Pagels calls the other group gnostics, although few of them may have used that name. They saw nature as rife with suffering and confusion; hence no omnipotent and benign force could have created it. Instead, they told various stories that explained present reality as a mistake caused by at least one powerful force interposed between us and the true divine. Like everything physical, the body was a trap. However, the soul was a piece of the divine, and some people could discover this truth through introspection and meditation—even including the use of mantras. We were not saved by the divine but could rather discover that we had always been fully divine. This discovery or knowledge (gnosis) was liberating. Gnosis was essentially individual, not assisted by belonging to any church, which would attract misguided human beings. Courting martyrdom for an ill-advised church was certainly a waste. True knowledge might be ineffable, or it might require concealment, or it might be specific to each questing soul, but in any case, it went far beyond what one could read in an explicit statement of faith. And the process of discovering it might be more important than the result.

Pagels understands these two views as rival theologies (structures of ideas), but she emphasizes that living persons in social contexts experience ideas, and ideas can influence social institutions that then shape people. She argues that the orthodox or catholic view prevailed because it reflected people’s lived experience of embodiment—we love our own bodies—and because it organized individuals into a functioning institution, the church, that was able to sustain itself. Even today, after many schisms, denominations as different as Eastern Orthodoxy and Pentecostalism share the same anti-gnostic roots. Gnostics were too otherworldly and individualistic to prevail.

Gnostic ideas have sprung up regularly since classical times—for instance, Blake was in tune with the gnostics, whether he knew those authors or not—but gnosticism has inspired individuals rather than large movements.

Although it’s interesting to compare religious views, one should be careful. Highly abstract statements of ideas from different traditions can look similar, yet actual religions are networks of people who share experiences, practices, and concrete stories. For that reason, even if a 2nd-century gnostic sounds like William Blake—or like a Zen practitioner—their experiences were vastly different.

Buddhists and Brahminic Hindus had many actual contacts with gnostics during the Roman era. According to shared Christian tradition, Thomas ended his life in India. Pagels writes that his biography could suggest the influence of Indian ideas on gnosticism and its critics. Thomas is the biblical figure who has the most explicit relationship with Jesus’ embodiment after the resurrection. In the canonical Gospel of John, Thomas doubts that Jesus has returned in his physical body, and Jesus encourages him to touch him—as if to refute gnosticism (John 20:27). But there was also a whole gnostic Gospel of Thomas, in which Jesus teaches the disciple that they are equals as fully divine and incorporeal souls.

It doesn’t seem that a huge amount has been written about gnosticism and the Dharmic religions since Pagels. She already cites Conze (1967), which still comes up as the main source on this topic today. I think that recent scholars have been skeptical of Pagels’ categories: they think that the gnostics were too diverse and they overlapped too much with the orthodox to qualify as a separate group. I cannot assess this trend, except to note that categories are always simplifications and subject to challenge, and Pagels seems pretty persuasive. Anyway, I suspect the gnostics would have found more success if they had accepted the Buddha’s Middle Way, but that idea might have struck them as a snare.

See also: notes on religion and cultural appropriation: the case of US Buddhism; are religions comprehensive doctrines?; a mistaken view of culture; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; and Zenobia of Palmyra.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.