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Book Review:The Gnostic Gospels

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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.

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About Andy Marsh

  • Something I forgot to include was the link to the Nag Hammadi Library website.

  • gonzo marx

    i see…so Shark gets all the credit..and lil ole me?

    i’m just chopped liver on a pizza…bah!

    heh….just fucking with ya, hop eyer enjoying the Read, and good Article ta start with…

    next will be Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu and get thee to a Tai Chi class!!!


    when you can snatch these pebbles from my hand….


  • I think I’m gonna read Beyond Belief first…

    You were there gonzo, but Shark pointed me on the path…

    I think the coolest thing is that they had a god above all gods and called her Wisdom. I know I’m only beginning this…like I said, I have tons more questions…

  • gonzo marx

    bah…look back over what i have been alluding to with ya over the past MONTHS…

    but, yer absolutely correct…Shark handed it to ya on a silver platter, hwere i had hoped your Curiosity and desire to argue intelligently would get ya there

    that makes Shark the better Teacher, and me a bit to esoteric

    and i’m fine with that

    enjoy Andy..i truly am happy for your Discoveries


  • gonzo – I just keep discovering that I don’t know as much as I think I do.

    You guys having that discussion is what got me interested. I haven’t read through a non-fiction like this in a long time. Would you call it non-fiction? Or a history book?

    I’ll also say that if somebody told me a year ago I’d listen to anything Shark had to say I’da told ’em they were full of shit! The first reasonable discussion I’ve ever had with you Shark and look where it got me…the things I thought I knew…that were taught to me all those years, you blow out of the water in a night! Thanks!

  • Shark

    Andy, darn good review!

    And I appreciate your comments about my contributions to your quest, but I do have to point out that Gonzo gets equal credit .. or blame.

    I’ve been reading between Gonzo’s lines since he arrived, and bein’ the esoteric kinda guy I am — I knew he’d researched the same stuff and that we pretty much agreed on most of it.

    (I’d love to hang out w/Gonzo over a few Shiner beers…)


    As to your review, I think you left out a number of important, very related points Ms. Pagels makes:

    1) the missing “resurrection” scene from early manuscripts of Mark (the oldest, most ‘authentic’ of the Synoptics)

    2) The fact that — while building an early “institution” of Christianity — the eventual “winners” (priests, etc) used the Creed, ie resurrection, (hey, it’s magic!) etc. to lock the doors to Gnostics, (ie folks who thought JC was more about personal illumination) and create a virtual aristocracy of authoritarian Male Alpha Primates to rule the Church, prop up Monarchies, and keep the keys to the bank. (those greedy, misogynist pigs…)

    3) The fact that in the first few centuries, there were MANY competing views of Jesus, from secular sage to miraculous Son o’ God. Most folks assume that the Catholic Church (early Christianity) appeared fully formed in its current manifestation — but the fact that there were sooo many ‘interpretations’ of Jesus adds a bit of controversy and complexity to the evolution of the Church as we know it. (Also makes it sound a bit more realistic — ie. like something that evolved over a long period among some very disparate parties.)

    4) About the only way we knew anything about the early Gnostics was from the writings of its OPPONENTS/Oppressors/Censors — Iraneaus et al — who ranted and raved against the “heretics” who believed JC was just a man with some really cool ideas.

    (The early Church Fathrers had to nuke those ideas and the folks who spread them because, as I said in #2, it behooved them to create an exclusive club which they could govern .)

    5) The early church was so successful because the priests got in bed — so to speak — with indigenous monarchies. As all of ensuing Western History shows — they supported each other: Monarchy had Church’s blessing and vice versa. Quite a pair they made, eh — and we owe that two-headed monster a lot for what they did FOR and TO western civilization — not to mention art and costume design!

  • Shark

    Oh, and Andy, don’t *worry about going to Hell; there ain’t such a thing. The only hell we’ll ever know is right here on earth; remember how ‘happy’ yer nuns were?

    *you might get a lump of coal in yer stocking, but no eternal flames.

  • Shark

    I’d also like to point out a fantastic review/essay by a really sharp writer on Blogcritics that went unnoticed back in 04.

    Check it out.

  • One more thing I got from this book is at least one other thing that helped the church gain membership…martyrs…it seemed that some very influential people back in the day were very impressed with how some christians died…wondering what gave them this extraordinary strength and the orthodox christians believed that strength came from knowing that Christ suffered as a man…some of the gnostics believed that he transended that suffering as the Son of God. from what I read, some of the gnostics thought that martyring oneself was a waste of life…and I think some of the orthodox believed it was a necessary thing to help build the church.

  • In a less literary way, I speculated on the nature of the alien(s) we call gods in a post on Blogcritics last Summer.

    I didn’t really get anything like the kind of responses I was after in the comments but there were some interesting (if slightly off the map) ideas expressed by one “b” in #18 and #35.

    I think some of what s/he goes on about means something to at least one or two people here on Blogcritics and I’d love to see someone trying to explain it a little more coherently…

    Of course that is a slightly different idea to the original theme here but there does seem to be a connection.

  • Andy,

    I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Shark IS a true scholar and I’ve seen more proof of it from careful reading of your review and of his subsequent comments to it. He may have kicked open the doors to rooms that are worth exploring – not merely for Catholics with questions.

    There may be more here than JUST Christianity. But this is something I cannot say for sure. I am not a scholar, and I am cetainly not a scholar of the early Christian church.

    You write, “it says this: 001:026 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness:”

    I checked the Hebrew text and you are on the money. The standard rabbinical answer to this issue is that G-d was addressing His heavenly host, the angels. I don’t buy that. I’ve seen other answers that fit better. But within the constraints that the rabbis work, it is the only answer they can AFFORD to give.

    To wit: in psalm 82:6-7 it says in the Hebrew: “I have said that you are lords and the sons of the most High but you shall die like men and fall like one of the princes” The term used for “lords” is the same one use to describe G-d at the very beginning of the Torah at Gen. 1:1.
    Again the rabbis drag out the heavenly host answer – but angels do not die like men.

    But for now, I’m going to let THAT issue lie. The point that interests me is in Shark’s 6th comment: “The fact that in the first few centuries, there were MANY competing views of Jesus, from secular sage to miraculous Son o’ God”


  • Shark

    C. Rose — my eyes glaze over when I read that stuff.

    No offense, it’s just that pondering the imponderable always does that to me; It’s like discussing the nature of the Easter Bunnie’s hibernation patterns.

    I’m really not interested in “God” — again, no offense to anyone reading — I just never felt the concept was much more than ancient animism dressed up in an anthropomorphic-monothesistic-paternal Hart Schaffner & Marx suit.

    Pretty simple stuff, actually. I think I understood the basic motives of a God based belief system (BS) at the age of about… oh maybe six.

    And when folks start spinning off definitions and explanations for the Tritiny — well, while it’s somewhat funny to see all the twists and turns they have to take to show that when Jesus died, God DIDN’T REALLY commit suicide — but frankly, I’d rather watch the Marx bros than a debate on the nature of God.

    In my opinion, god/gods occurred to man back when he climbed down out of the trees and noticed Death: he screamed at the sky — and those were not only the first words (Logos) — but they were the first prayer.

    “mlflglg rptmflrg… please HELP US!”

  • Shark

    Ruvy: “The fact that in the first few centuries, there were MANY competing views of Jesus, from secular sage to miraculous Son o’ God”

    And as you probably know, there were quite a few ‘competing’ versions of the Jewish OT as well; it didn’t really tumble from the sky fully-formed any more that Christianity did.

    And pre-Jesus (a century +/-), the early Essenes were ready to kick some phariseees and sadducees butts; and there were quite a number of *Apocalyptic trends in the Jewish world, especially culminating right before Jesus appeared.

    He was one of many revolutionary Jewish ‘teachers’ around then — and Messiahs were a dime a dozen during the Roman occupation.

    *which, btw, Ruvy, shows that your view of the coming disaster in the region is not at all new. But you knew that, too, right?

  • Shark – I’m still reading through the Nag Hammadi website…reading the arguments about which gospel may have come first…any thoughts as far as Mark or Thomas? Im reading differing opinions and I’m curious what your thoughts might be on the subject.

  • gonzo marx

    ..::: just kicks back and lets Shark do all the heavy lifting :::..

    cuz i am “only an Egg”


  • bhw

    Wow, great post, Andy and a great follow-up discussion.

    Of course, you’ll get no argument from me that the god above all gods, Wisdom, is a she.

  • Ok gonzo – I’ll ask you the same quesiton I asked Shark. Is Thomas an older gospel than Mark?

    I’m now reading “Beyond Belief”.

  • I seek the Knowing of the All!

    thanks for the kind words bhw!

  • Andy–thanks for the informative review. Great last line, too.

  • gonzo marx

    oh no ya don’t Andy…ya went for the “easier” Path that Shark handed to ya…ya deal with the twists and turns ya found there

    i’m a much more esoteric and “harsher” sifu…look it the fuck up and decide fer yerself…

    heh…remember the Lessons of the Jesuits, ya gotta learn how to learn, and sharpen your critical thinking skills…you don’t do either if the Answers are handed to ya or made easy

    it also does you no favors to give “authoritarian” answers when you are seeking them for yourself


  • that’s just mean man! but I get your drift…
    As far as this primacy thing goes…I have my suspicions…but I’ve got a lot more reading to do!

  • Shark

    Andy, I’ll go with Gonzo’s answer.


    Really, he’s so right; each thread leads to another few threads; they multiply exponentially.

    Every answer creates new questions.

    What I summarized in a few posts in two recent threads took me some 30 years to piece together — and I began before one could find even a book or two on the subject.

    You can go find more on Google in 15 seconds than I could track down in a decade. Seriously.

    My advice:

    * Follow the leads.

    * Keep in mind how history really occurs. (ie. JFK and/or Elvis died within our lifetimes, and you’d be hard-pressed to fully describe their births, childhoods, exact words, manner of death, etc — so think about the difficulty of trying to do that with JC!)

    * Be Skeptical.

    * Yay on the Good; Boo on the Bad

  • Ok gonzo – I’ll ask you the same quesiton I asked Shark. Is Thomas an older gospel than Mark?

    As a Gnostic, I feel I should field this one. The answer is: we don’t really know. The reason: The early church destroyed all the Gnostic writings they found, so the scraps we have don’t give us any indication how old the originals writings might have been. And of course, Mark may not have been the first Gospel in the NT written anyhow. Marcan priority is by no means 100% agreed upon by theologians. Neither is the 2-source hypothesis solution to the synoptic problem, which depends upon Marcan Priority and the Gospel of Q.

    The interesting thing about Thomas is that it’s a saying Gospel. There are no acts of Jesus, just his words. The Gospel of Q, part of a solution to the synoptic problem, would have been a sayings gospel as well. (We’ve never found Q). It brings up the question: How many sayings gospels were there? Were they the first gospels? No way of knowing, unfortunately, unless we find something older than what we’ve found so far.

    Gnosticism does find it’s way into the bible, though. John starts out “En archë ën ho logos” – In the beginning was the Word. The association of Jesus with wisdom is very apparent here. Gnosticism pops up here and there in the NT, so it did have some minor influence on the early church, but not enough for it to be readily noticeable to anyone not looking for it.

  • What I’m reading now says that John was included in the bible specifically to discredit Thomas. That’s why he’s shown so many times as doubting the authenticity of Christ.

    He’s also not included in the story in John when all the apostles were consumed by the holy spirit. But the other two gospels say there were 11.

  • Shark – I’m enjoying reading what I’ve got so far…the more I look the more it seems I want to find. This book gives me more answers and more questions…

    history’s always been a kick anyway…

  • Shark

    Andy, re: “Beyond Belief” — Great book! Excellent follow-up to her “Gnostic Gospels”

    Couple of asides:

    * Ms. Pagels has had her share of personal tragedies; lost a child, lost her husband, who btw — was the brilliant physicist Heinz R. Pagels. Her ‘spiritual’ quest in the face of such events is quite moving. I love this woman.

    * Imagine the intellectual firepower in THAT household: one of the world’s top biblical scholars + one of the world’s great theoretical physicists!

    * John vs Thomas — Fascinating stuff, eh? That “John” — was he a vindictive asshole or what?!

    * Imagine if “Thomas” had ‘won’: Christianity might look more like [true] Buddhism today.

    * You are now moving into the ‘secret’ teachings, grasshopper. Have fun!

    * Direct all future inquiries to “Attn: Thomas *Gonzolius” — our resident Koan King.


  • gonzo marx

    awww, Shark, yer way too kind…

    after all, i’m no more than self educated “po’ white trash” who likes to read a lot, and thinks far too much for my own good

    Andy…ya could spend the rest of your life just on the website Shark pointed ya to, a ton of good Stuff there to ponder and read and listen to…

    now, about pantheistic multiperson solipsism



  • Shark – I just finished Beyond Belief. Outstanding follow up to The Gnostic Gospels. I’m not sure where I’ll go next…maybe to see what Mary had to say…or maybe it’s time to explore some other religions…

    That’s most definately what I got from these books…”John” was most definately vindictive…

    One thing I enjoyed in the book was how Ms. Pagels said that Iraneus did such a good job of shaping the way we view the gospels that she found herself asking questions of “Johns'” gospel the same way that Iraneus probably did 1800 years ago. It seems that this one person had more influence on present day Christianity than anyone else…except maybe Constantine!

  • gonzo marx

    heh…good Observation Andy…if ya check my comments on these topics you will see i toos Iraneus out there every time…more than likely that reference is what caught Shark’s eye because most scholars of this material always key on Constantine…

    try Valentinius, the Gospel of Mary then perhaps it’s time for some Lao Tzu

    your mileage may vary


  • Shark

    Gonzo, everything you’ve said over the past few years (?) on BC has caught my eye.

    I thought… “oh, he’s one of us…”


    (#27) gonzo marx: “… i’m no more than self educated “po’ white trash” who likes to read a lot, and thinks far too much for my own good…”

    “Anyone who has begun to think
    places some portion of the world
    in jeopardy.”– John Dewey

  • From what Ms. Pagels says in her books…Constantine only set up the meeting in Nicea…he let the bishops do most of the heavy lifting…only getting involved occasionally to make suggestions…more like a referee than anything else…

    from what I’ve read, Valentinus seems to be one of the guys that had everybody up in arms…and definately one that I’m curious about…

    any thoughts on an author for my Valentinus training?

  • Nancy

    This is one of the best threads … and I’m grateful for all the valuable references to reading materials. Thanks, all.

  • gonzo says – now, about pantheistic multiperson solipsism …

    Andy says – Huh???

    Yeah yeah…I know…look it up!

  • gonzo marx

    heh..i knew that one woudl get ya, but i am mildly suprised no one else chimed in with the Answer…

    it’s from Heinlein – “Time Enough for Love”

    for some Fun reading that will make more sense now that you have started on some of the stuff we are talking about…pick up his famous work…”Stranger in a Strange Land”

    i refer to it as a modern Objectivist Gnostic Myth

    it is also one great Read

    as for the phrase, have fun with Valentinius, read “Stranger” then ask again….K?


  • Bennett

    Heh, I just returned from a two day road trip (hotels suck), and yes, I might have chimed in…

  • gonzo marx

    oh Bennett, glad ya returned safely…and of course YOU knew what i was talking about…

    now, watch the Rush show on VH-1 classics this weekend, or get the DVD

    Andy…the website Shark showed ya has a good start on Valentinius

    i’ll talk about this tommorrow a bit more, but since Bennett mentioned a trip…i am going to Bristol England for a week, leaving sunday(business)…but i will have friday night and all day saturnday next week in London(hotel at Heathrow waiting for the sunday flight back)

    anyone got any suggestions/advice?


  • gonzo marx

    oh yeah..and Andy…

    yer “homework” is to both catch the Rush concert on VH-1 classics this weekend (or buy the R30 DVD, yer choice)

    and since it was/is Friday the 13th, and because it DOES tie in to the current Discussion…in a very strange, and historical way ( and i do so enjoy torturing ya and making you walk down these Paths until you find the linkage between the Points yourself)…

    ponder triskaidekaphobia

    and see if you can find the Origins of this, and why western culture doesn’t like the date i’ve mentioned


    yer welcome


  • 13 people at the last supper…Christ was crucified on a Friday….so…friday the 13th is a really bad day.

  • Oh yeah…I also own a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land. Don’t think I’m gonna get through this one like I got through those Gnostic Gospels!

  • gonzo marx

    you ain’t deep enough on the friday the 13th bit

    you think i make em that easy?, i know that’s what yer nuns told ya, but that ain’t all of it, bro

    clue incoming:what ended the Templars, historically…why?..and on what day did it happen

    that’s a Beginning


  • it appears that what ended them was most possibly a money issue more than anything…but they arrested a whole bunch of them on Friday October 13, 1307 for…hehe…heresy.

  • Shark

    Me, I have an irrational fear of Superstitious People.


    “Superstition Brings Bad Luck” — self-negating aphorism


    Nancy, glad you’re enjoying this. Let us know how your reading turns out.


    *Ad astra per aspera!

    * I thought I needed something to compete with Gonzo’s “Excelsior!”

    (Unfortunately, “Where’s The Beef?!” has been spoken for…)

  • Shark

    Gonzo: “…i am going to Bristol England for a week… anyone got any suggestions/advice?”

    Try not to LOOK or ACT like an American.

    You should be fine.

    *bon voyage, **amigo!

    ** spanish

  • gonzo marx

    Shark, my Brother in Thought…

    tho i have not been out of the Country for over 20 years(since i left the military), i did travel extensively..and the kind of dvice you offered was not what i had in mind by my Asking

    my apologies for any misUnderstanding

    i meant, does anyone know anything about Bristol..or have recommendations for a day and a half stay in London(Heathrow)?

    i’m thinking of spending that saturday at the Tower…so much History in one place…i’ve a mind to See Traitor’s Gate and touch the spike that held Cromwel’s head

    silly of me, i know