Review of The Gnostic Gospels (1979)


Elaine Pagels (writer).

Read in 2019.

Read in Swedish.

Competing theologies and organizational patterns in early Christianity, concluding around 200 CE, when a mainstream version of the biblical canon is compiled, thus creating “The Bible”. Pagels bases her analysis on the Nag Hammadi library and ultimately takes a position favouring the archist Catholic orthodoxy that defeated the comparatively anarchist gnostic congregations.

Semi-academic. Pagels’s description of the early Christian martyrs is well written but inadequately critical of the source material. She also uses Josephus uncritically, which is surprising for a scholarly text, albeit for a lay audience. She emphasizes that these Christians were killed mainly for refusing to worship the Roman Emperor: The crime of atheism, in the weak sense of not following some specific god. In this, the Christians were treated just like the various magicians and mystics of the time, persecuted from the time of Augustus onward for not respecting the imperial cult.

The small psychoanalytical aspect of the hermeneutics has not aged well but the analysis competently contextualizes a number of tendencies that are left as stubs in the New Testament, including Jesus’s professed secrecy and the references to internal enemies in some of the epistles.

The hypothesized Eastern-mysticist features of some gnostic Christian strains of thought are interesting, and it’s easy to see how the Demiurge usurper theology could inspire the excellent TRPG Kult (1991): As theodicies go it’s quite evocative, arguably more so than the Zoroastrian moral dualism of Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu.

References here: Valis (1981).

text non-fiction