By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Lorna Raver
Elaine Pagels is a Professor of Religion at Princeton University. She has a Ph.D. in religion from Harvard University. Modern Library calls Pagels’ book, “The Gnostic Gospels” one of the 100 most important books of the twentieth century.
For all religious organizations and particularly the Christian church, “The Gnostic Gospels” shakes the foundations of institutional religion. Like the beginning of a story of adventure and mystery, Pagels recounts the discovery of a fifty-two text collection of papyrus sheets recounting the beginnings of the Christian church.
The Gnostic Gospels were accidentally discovered by two Egyptian farmers in 1945; historians confirm the gospels to have been written in the second or third century AD. Through a tortured route, a portion of the Coptic text of these gospels is published in 1955 (some say 1956). Wide dissemination did not occur until the 1970s, and website access, after the 1980s.
The Gnostic gospel text comes as close to the time of Jesus’ life as any written historical document to reveal the origin and growth of the Christian church. Seeds of conflict in religion are figuratively planted in these 2nd and 3rd century documents; i.e., from Jesus’s Christianity to Martin Luther’s Roman Catholic 95 thesis, to Muhammad’s Muslim religion, to Joseph Smith’s Mormonism, the Gnostic gospels set the stage for post Christ religious conflict.
The idea of personal revelation as the path to the Kingdom of God is concretely revealed; the conflicting ideas of rights of admittance, the role of the Church and an understanding of the Kingdom of God is outlined; questions of male and female roles in religion are exposed.
Frustration remains at the conclusion of “The Gnostic Gospels”, even after reading Pagels’ insightful interpretation, because gnostic documentation is, like every written document of the time, removed from “witnesses to the truth”, i.e. people who lived in Jesus’ time.
However, the Coptic text shows that in the near-beginnings of the Christian religion there were questions about who Jesus was and what he was about; i.e. was he simply a prophet or the Son of God, was he preaching for the creation of a religion or were historical facts manipulated to create a religious hierarchical institution, was Mary Magdalene a conjugal companion or disciple?
Pagels’ interpretation in “The Gnostic Gospels” suggests that Jesus was a prophet; that his life story was manipulated to create a religious hierarchical institution, and that Mary Magdalene was a disciple.
The more fundamental issue in “The Gnostic Gospels” is the idea of the “Kingdom of God” being present within every human being, then and now, and that self-knowledge is the source of admittance to grace. If one believes this teaching, it does not necessarily require abandonment of organized religion but it suggests that church institutions’ only role is to aid personal revelation; not to ritualize admittance to the “Kingdom of God” by christening mankind or bludgeoning all who do not accept a church’s vision of religion.
If one accepts that interpretation, the true church is within each of us, the Gnosis wrought by experience of life and self-reflection. This idea opens the door for every religious leader that experiences personal revelation to start a new religion. The caveat, if one is to agree with Gnosticism, is that religious expansion of a founder’s religion should only be by invitation, not by coercion.
Joining or not joining a church is theoretically a personal revelatory decision; i.e. there are no heretics; there are only those who understand themselves and those who do not. The idea of religion using invitation rather than coercion is obscenely idealistic in light of the number of “heretics” that have been butchered in the past, present, and probable future.
Pagels infers self-knowledge is the path to the Kingdom of God, an interestingly Socratic belief. At best, organized religion seems merely a guide to enlightenment; at worst, it is a false prophet and pernicious tyrant.