Friday, September 25, 2009

The Gnostic Gospels (Elaine Pagels)

After reading The Lost Symbol last week, I thought I should take a look at a book that addressed some of the religious ideas that Dan Brown mentions in the novel. I took a look at what I had on my shelf, and noticed The Gnostic Gospels, which I remembered purchasing as book #3 off the "Buy 2, Get the 3rd Free" table at Barnes & Noble a while back. Gnosticism refers to a group of religious movements that centered around the idea that God resides within the human body, which just happened to be the kind of thing I was looking to read about this week.


Back in 1945, a collection of ancient books and papers were discovered hidden in a clay jar that had been buried in the side of an Egyptian cliff. After a brief stint on the black market, the books finally found their way into the hands of the Egyptian government, who sent them to the Coptic Museum in Cairo. The books were a collection of gnostic gospels, written between the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. by early Christians outside of the main catholic church, that had been condemned and labeled heretical and blasphemous. Elaine Pagels was one of the first scholars given access to the texts, and The Gnostic Gospels identifies some of the findings produced from her research.

Now, I guess I can't really be upset because I didn't actually pay for this book (and even if I had, it's been sitting on my shelf so long that it wouldn't matter). I was a little disappointed, though. While Pagels definitely writes about her findings in a clear and accessible way, it's not a terribly interesting book. She briefly touches upon some of the specific teachings and "mysteries" behind the gnostic religions, but for the most part this is an analytical history book, comparing the main "orthodox" branch of the early Christian church to its gnostic counterparts. There's a lot of citation and referencing, and the book reads almost like a college dissertation. Many of the passages Pagels quotes are either repeated frequently or are very similar to other passages. From a purely academic standpoint, sure, it gets the point across quite well: the early orthodox Christians were different from the early gnostic Christians. Okay, but that's not necessarily all that interesting. Pagels fails to delve into some of the more sensational aspects of early gnosticism, or to even speculate on what the findings might mean to the church today. In her conclusion, she remarks that, had these texts been discovered before the modern era, they would have most likely been burned for being heretical. Since they were found so recently, however, scientists have been able to preserve and study them without much interference from the church, without fear of their existence having damaging implications for Christianity in general. That's about as far Pagels takes it, though. If you're someone who is interested in the scholarly pursuit of religious history, then this book might be for you. Otherwise, you can probably leave this one alone if you see it on the bargain table at your local bookstore.


The Gnostic Gospels
by Elaine Pagels

No story here. Pagels chooses to use the writings of a few contemporary philosophers and early Christian figures as repeated references, but not to the point where it doesn't still feel research-based.

This is all very important stuff if you care at all about religious history and the evolution of the church. Otherwise, it's just a research paper.

Pagels is repetitive and doesn't choose to sensationalize her findings, instead using excerpts from letters written at the time to support the idea that the gnostics were Christians not supported by the church. That's about it, though. She discusses some of the practices of these gnostics, but presents them merely as facts and addresses them as they pertain to the doctrine they were competing against. Had she put forth any notion that these gnostic practices might affect faith and the church of today, it might have been a little more interesting.


Sorry this week's book was a bummer. I was excited to continue along the religious/spiritual path that I had started from reading Dan Brown last week. Unfortunately, the real world isn't quite as absurd as Brown would like us to believe. Oh well. Keep reading, Genoshans!

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