The Gnostic Gospels

Elaine Pagels

Vintage Books, 1979

  • "Orthodox Jews and Christians insist that a chasm separates humanity from its creator: God is wholly other. But some of the gnostics who wrote these gospels contradict this: self- knowledge is knowledge of God; the self and the divine are identical.

    Second, 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 disciples attains enlightenment, Jesus no longer serves as his spiritual master: the two have become equal - even identical.

    Third, 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."
    page xx

  • "Contemporary Christianity, diverse and complex as we find it, actually may show more unanimity than the Christians churches of the first and second centuries. For nearly all Christians since that time, Catholics, Protestants, or Orthodox, have shared three basic premises. First. they accept the canon of the New Testament; second, they confess the apostolic creed; and third, they affirm specific forms of church institutions. But every one of these - the canon of Scripture, the creed, and the institutional structure - emerged in its present form only toward the end of the second century. Before that time, as Irenaeus and others attest, numerous gospels circulated among various Christian groups, ranging from those of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to such writings as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth, as well as many other secret teachings, myths, and poems attributed to Jesus or his disciples. Some of these, apparently, were discovered at Nag Hammadi; many others are lost to us. Those who identified themselves as Christians - entertained many - and radically differing - religious beliefs and practices. "
    page xxii - xxiii

  • "The efforts of the majority to destroy every trace of heretical "blasphemy" proved so successful that, until the discoveries at Nag Hammadi, nearly all our information concerning alternative forms of early Christianity came from the massive orthodox attacks upon them."
    page xxiv

  • "Gnostic Christians undoubtedly expressed ideas that the orthodox abhorred. For example, some of these gnostic texts question whether all suffering, labor, and death derive from human sin, which, in the orthodox version, marred an originally perfect creation. Others speak of the feminine element in the divine, celebration God as Father and Mother. Still others suggest that Christ's resurrection is to be understood symbolically, not literally. A few radical texts even denounce catholic Christians themselves as heretics, who, although they "do not understand mystery . . .boast that the mystery of truth belongs to them alone."
    page xxxv

  • "But when we examine its practical effect on the Christian movement, we can see, paradoxically, that the doctrine of bodily resurrection also serves an essential political function: it legitimizes the authority of certain men who claim to exercise exclusive leadership over the churches as the successors of the apostle Peter. From the second century, the doctrine has served to validate the apostolic succession of bishops, the basis of papal authority to this day. Gnostic Christians who interpret resurrection in other ways have a lesser claim to authority: when they claim priority over the orthodox, they are denounced as heretics."

  • "Whatever we think of the historicity of the orthodox account, we can admire its ingenuity. For this theory - that all authority derives from certain apostle's experience of the resurrected Christ, an experience now closed forever - bears enormous implications for the political structure of the community. First, . . . it restricts the circle of leadership to a small band of persons whose members stand in a position of incontestable authority. Second, it suggest that only the apostles had the right to ordain future leaders as their successors. . . . Any potential leader of the community would have to derive, or claim to derive, authority from the same apostles. Yet, according to the orthodox view, none can ever claim to equal their authority - much less challenge it. What the apostles experienced and attested their successors cannot verify for themselves; instead, they must only believe, protect, and hand down to future generations the apostles' testimony.

    This theory gained extraordinary success: for nearly 2,000 years, orthodox Christians have accepted the view that the apostles alone held definitive religious authority, and that their only legitimate heirs are priests and bishops, who trace their ordination back to that same apostolic succession. . . .

    But the gnostic Christians rejected Luke's theory. Some gnostics called the literal view of resurrection the "faith of fools."
    pages 10 - 11

  • "The orthodox Christian believes "the one and only truth from the apostles, which is handed down by the church." And he accepts no gospels but the four in the New Testament which serve as the canon (literally, "guideline") to measure all future doctrine and practice.

    But the gnostic Christians, whom Irenaeus opposed, assumed that they had gone far beyond the apostles' original teaching. Just as many people today assume that the most recent experiments in science or psychology will surpass earlier ones, so the gnostics anticipated that the present and future would yield a continual increase in knowledge."
    page 21

  • "But what the gnostics celebrated as proof of spiritual maturity, the orthodox denounced as "deviation" from apostolic tradition. Tertullian finds it outrageous that

    "every one of them, just as it suits his own temperament, modifies the traditions he has received, just as the one who handed them down modified them, when he shaped them according to his own will."
    page 23

  • "The controversy over resurrection, then, proved critical in shaping the Christian movement into an institutional religion. All Christians agreed in principle that only Christ himself - or God - can be the ultimate source of spiritual authority. But the immediate question, of course, was the practical one: Who, in the present, administers that authority?

    Valentinus and his followers answered: "Whoever comes into direct, personal contact with the "living One." They argued that only one's own experience offers the ultimate criterion of truth, taking precedence over all secondhand testimony and all traditions - even gnostic tradition! They celebrated every form of creative invention as evidence that a person has become spiritually alive. On this theory, the structure of authority can never be fixed into an institutional framework: it must remain spontaneous, charismatic, and open.

    Those who rejected this theory argued that all future generations of Christians must trust the apostles' testimony - even more than their own experience. For, as Tertullian admitted, whoever judges in terms of ordinary historical experience would find the claim that a man physically returned from the grave to be incredible. Whatever can never be proven or verified in the present, Tertullian says, "must be believed, because it is absurd." Since the death of the apostles, believers must accept the word of the priests and bishops, who have claimed, from the second century, to be their only legitimate heirs."
    pages 25 -26

  • "When these same sources tell the story of the Garden of Eden, they characterize this God as the jealous master, whose tyranny the serpent (often, in ancient times, a symbol of divine wisdom) taught Adam and Eve to resist:

    . . . God gave [a command] to Adam, "From every [tree] you may eat, [but] from the tree which is in the midst of Paradise do not eat, form on the day you eat from it you will surely die." But the serpent was wiser than all the animals that were in Paradise, and he persuaded Eve, saying, "On the day when you eat from the tree which is in the midst of Paradise, the eyes of your mind will be opened." And Eve obeyed. . . she ate, she also gave to her husband.

    Observing that the serpent's promise came true - their eyes were opened - but that God's threat of immediate death did not, the gnostic author goes on to quote God's words from Genesis 3:22, adding editorial comment:

    . . . "Behold, Adam has become like one of us, knowing evil and good. Then he said, "Let us cast him out of Paradise, lest he take from the tree of life, and live forever." But of what sort is this God? First [he] envied Adam that he should eat from the tree of knowledge. . . . Surely, he has shown himself to be a malicious envier.

    As the American scholar Birger Pearson points out, the author uses an Aramaic pun to equate the serpent with the Instructor. . . . Other gnostic accounts add a four-way pun that includes Eve: instead of tempting Adam, she gives life to him and instructs him:

    After the day of rest, Sophia [literally, "wisdom"] sent Zoe [literally, "life"], her daughter, who is called Eve, as an instructor to raise up Adam. . . When Eve saw Adam cast down, she pitied him, and she said, "Adam, live! Rise up upon the earth!" Immediately her word became deed. For when Adam rose up, immediately he opened his eyes. When he saw her, he said, "You will be called 'the mother of the living,' because you are the one who gave me life."

    The Hypostasis of the Archons describes Eve as the spiritual principle in humanity who raises Adam from his merely material condition:

    And the spirit-endowed Woman came to [Adam] and spoke with him, saying, "Arise, Adam." And when he saw her, he said, "It is you who have given me life; you shall be called "Mother of all the living" - for it is she who is my mother. It is she who is the Physician, and the Woman, and She Who Has Given Birth." . . . Then the Female Spiritual Principle came in the Snake, the Instructor, and it taught them, saying, ". . . you shall not die; for it was out of jealousy that he said this to you. Rather, your eyes shall be open, and you shall become like gods, recognizing evil and good." . . . And the arrogant Ruler cursed the Woman . . . [and] . . . the Snake."
    pages 29 - 31
  • "Clement argues that God, the God of Israel, alone rules all things: he is the lord and master whom all must obey; he is the judge who lays down the law, punishing rebels and rewarding the obedient. But how is God's rule actually administered? Here Clement's theology becomes practical: God, he says, delegates his "authority of reign" to "rulers and leaders on earth." Who are these designated rulers" Clement answers that they are bishops, priests, and deacons. Whoever refuses to "bow the neck" and obey the church leaders is guilty of insubordination against the divine master himself. Carried away with his argument, Clement warns that whoever disobeys the divinely ordained authorities "receives the death penalty!"

    This letter marks a dramatic moment in the history of Christianity. For the first time, we find here an argument for dividing the Christian community between "the clergy" and "the laity." The church is to be organized in terms of a strict order of superiors and subordinates. Even within the clergy, Clement insists on ranking each member, whether bishop, priest, or deacon, "in his own order": each must observe "the rules and commandments" of his position at all times.