The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

In the introduction of the book we find out that in December 1945 an Arab peasant made an astonishing archeological discovery in Upper Egypt. Rumors obscured the circumstances of this find–perhaps because the discovery was accidental, and its sale on the black market illegal.

The manuscripts soon attracted the attention of officials of the Egyptian government. They bought one and confiscated ten and a half of the thirteen leather-bound books, called codices, and deposited them in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. But a large part of the thirteenth codex, containing five extraordinary texts, was smuggled out of Egypt and offered for sale in America.

Professor Gilles Quispel, a distinguished historian of religion at Utrecht, in the Netherlands urged the Jung Foundation in Zurich to buy the codex and succeeded. When he discovered that some pages were missing, he flew to Egypt in the spring of 1955 to locate them in the Coptic Museum. He borrowed photographs of some of the texts and when he deciphered them, he realized that it contained the Gospel According to Thomas; yet, unlike the gospels of the New Testament, this text identified itself as a secret gospel. Quispel also discovered that it contained many sayings known from the New Testament; but these sayings, placed in unfamiliar contexts, suggested other dimensions of meaning. Other passages, Quispel found, differed entirely from any known Christian tradition.

The finder later admitted that some of the texts were lost–burned up or thrown away. But what remains is astonishing: some fifty-two texts from the early centuries of the Christian era–including a collection of early Christian gospels, previously unknown. Besides the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip, the find included the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel to the Egyptians Another group of texts consists of writings attributed to Jesus’ followers, such as the Secret Book of James, the Apocalypse of Paul, the Letter of Peter to Philip, and the Apocalypse of Peter.

What was discovered at Nag Hammadi were Coptic translations, made about 1,500 years ago, of still more ancient manuscripts. The originals themselves had been written in Greek, the language of the New Testament. About the dating of the manuscripts themselves there is little debate. They have been placed at ca. A.D. 350-400.

The texts had been buried and their suppression as banned documents were both part of a struggle critical for the formation of early Christianity. The Nag Hammadi texts, and others like them, which circulated at the beginning of the Christian era, were denounced as heresy by orthodox Christians in the middle of the second century.

This campaign against heresy involved an involuntary admission of its persuasive power; yet the bishops prevailed. By the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by the police, now commanded them.

But those who wrote and circulated these texts did not regard themselves as “heretics. These Christians are now called gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, usually translated as “knowledge.” Those who claim to know nothing about ultimate reality are called agnostic (literally, “not knowing”), the person who does claim to know such things is called gnostic (“knowing”). But gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (“He knows mathematics”) and knowing through observation or experience (“He knows me”), which is gnosis. As the gnostics use the term, we could translate it as “insight,” for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself.

And to know oneself, they claimed, is to know human nature and human destiny. Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level, is simultaneously to know God; this is the secret of gnosis.

The main ideas in the gnostic gospels are:

1) While Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from its creator, meaning that God is wholly other, some Gnostics believe that self-knowledge is knowledge of God and that the self and the divine are identicalCompare with Reincarnation & Karma under Metaphysics. By knowing oneself, one might understand human nature and destiny.

2)  The “living Jesus” of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment, not of sin and repentance, like the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding. But when the disciple attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal–even identical.

3) Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is Lord and Son of God in a unique way: he remains forever distinct from the rest of humanity whom he came to save. Yet the gnostic Gospel of Thomas relates that as soon as Thomas recognizes him, Jesus says to Thomas that they have both received their being from the same source:

Jesus said, “I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become drunk from the bubbling stream which I have measured out…. He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.”

4) Gnostics emphasized spiritual “resurrection” (i.e,. spiritual rebirth) and physical “resurrection” (i.e., reincarnation). Christian Gnostics held the view that if spiritual resurrection was not attained in one lifetime, then the soul would be subjected to as many reincarnationsCompare with Theosophy under Philosophy, The Bhagavad Gita under Religion and Quantum Physics under Science as it takes until spiritual rebirth is attained.

5) The importance of Logos, the part of God that acts in the world. It is the perfect unity of the human and the divine. Everyone has the Logos within them and it is for this reason that Genesis describes humanity as created “in the image and likeness of God.” The Logos is the divine Spirit in humanity.

The identity of the divine and human, the concern with illusion and enlightenment, the founder who is presented not as Lord, but as spiritual guide sounds more Eastern than Western. Some scholars have suggested that if the names were changed, the “living Buddha” appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus and wonder if Hindu or Buddhist traditions have influenced Gnosticism. It is not conclusive but it is possible that what we call Eastern and Western religions, and  regard as separate streams, were not clearly differentiated 2,000 years ago.

The book has six chapters and Pagels does not attempt to summarize or examine in detail the Gnostic Gospels. She focuses instead on how Gnosticism affected the rise of the orthodox church that declared the Gnostics heretics.

We also learn that Gnostics maintained equality amongst individuals and established no fixed orders of clergy and that they allowed all individuals to seek to know God through their own experience and to achieve personal enlightenment through rigorous spiritual discipline and self-discovery.

The Christian church on the other hand developed a religious structure to encourage social interaction amongst individuals and required only that individuals accept the simplest essentials and put emphasis on a variety of church rituals.

The two most interesting chapters for me were “God the Father/God the Mother” in which she elaborates on the fact that instead of a monistic and masculine God, many of the texts speak of God as a “dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements”; and “Gnosis: Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God”, in which we find out more about techniques of spiritual disciplines, such as getting rid of physical desires practicing meditation and praying. The author mentions that much of the gnostic teaching on spiritual discipline remained, on principle, unwritten because Gnostic teachers shared most of it only verbally. Gnostic teachers had to take responsibility and pay individualized attention to each candidate and each candidate had to devote energy and time – often years – to the process.



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