I was born and raised a Roman Catholic. I went to Catholic school for 11 years, from kindergarten through 10th grade. I spent a lot of time in religion classes and church and even more time in confession. In 7th grade I was smacked in the face by a nun for asking “How can a virgin have a kid?” Little did I know, I was a blossoming heretic!
I just finished reading “The Gnostic Gospels” by Elaine Pagels. First published in 1979, this is an outstanding look at the Nag Hammadi manuscripts found in the Egyptian valley of the same name in 1945. These texts, deemed heretical by leaders of the early Christian church, were buried away for more than 1500 years and have only recently become available to everyone.
Let’s step back for a minute. I read this book for a reason. I was on BlogCritics reading a story about Christianity being on trial in Italy. In the comments section of that article a discussion sprang up about the primacy of the gospels of the New Testament. Well, even with 11 years of Catholic School I was a bit confused, so, I did what any confused individual should do. I started asking questions. Not questions like the one in the first paragraph, but still some good questions. I was confused why, when speaking of the gospels in the New Testament, these folks were only talking about Matthew, Mark and Luke. So I asked, “Where’s John?” The next thing I know, they’re talking about the Gospel of Thomas! What the…
I was sent (by Shark) to the Nag Hammadi Library. This is a website that has translated the manuscripts into English. I started reading some of these newly discovered gospels and found myself getting a little more confused. At the recommendation of one of BC’s contributors (Shark again) I went out and picked up Elaine Pagels book and started reading.
Now I have to ask, “Where’s Thomas and Phillip or ‘The Truth’?” All new gospels I’ve discovered are thanks to a farmer in Egypt 60 years ago and this book not only explores the gospels I just mentioned and many more, but also tries to explain why these gospels may have been kept out of the “Good Book” and why they were deemed as heretical by these early Christian leaders and what might have happened to the church if they hadn’t.
If you’ve read the bible you know that in the Book of Genesis it says this: 001:026 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Why is it plural?
Later on God says, “003:009 And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?” I thought he’s omnipotent, omniscient and all that stuff. And he couldn’t find the only person on the planet? According to these writings there is another, over “the Creator” and her name is Wisdom.
These were the kinds of questions Gnostics asked.
Ms. Pagels also discusses the role of women in the early church. In the very beginning women were allowed to act in the capacity of priest or deacon. Many Gnostics believed that Mary Magdelene was very close to Christ. Some said really really close. And because of that women should be allowed to perform these rites and ceremonies. Early Christian leaders like Tertullian were outraged by this, writing, “These heretical women – how audacious they are! They have no modesty; they are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize!” Tertullian directed that “it is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church.”
In a line from Ms. Pagels book…The bishops drew the line against those who challenged any of the three elements of this system; doctrine, ritual, and clerical hierarchy – and the Gnostics challenged them all. …The Gnostics thought that purpose of excepting authority was to learn to outgrow it.
These were the ways of Gnostic Christians back in the day and they were declared heretics for it. Before these manuscripts were discovered it seemed there were very few places to find information about these heretics other than history books and you know what they say about history and the winners getting to write it.
If you’re at all curious about the beginnings of Christianity or even where Dan Brown got some of the ideas for ‘The DaVinci Code’ this is the place to start.
If you’ve ever asked yourself some of the questions I’ve asked here then, like me, you’re a novice heretic. Congratulations!
The funny thing is though, I picked this book up looking for answers and all I got for it is a bunch more questions.