The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is both fascinating and tedious. Who Jesus was has been argued by billions for thousands of years, so why should anyone assume we can solve an unsolvable puzzle? Before the Catholic Church became the monolithic institution that defined Christianity for centuries, there were a few centuries after Christ’s death where many different Christian beliefs flourished, and among those were the Gnostics. Gnosticism wasn’t limited to Christian thinking, but Christian Gnosticism in various forms were large enough movement that early orthodox leaders wrote books teaching against Gnostic thinking. Gnostics were heretics early orthodox Christians hated even more than the Romans. The orthodox did everything it could to wipe out the heretics and burn all their books. In 1945 we found 52 texts at Nag Hammadi, Egypt.
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels is a short overview of alternate Christian beliefs before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Now here’s the rub. You have many Christian philosophies before 325 AD, then hundreds of years of the Catholic Church, and many Christian philosophies after the Protestant Reformation in 1517. The Catholic Church spent centuries hammering out who Christ was and what his teachings meant, but there are always other people believing he taught something different. Gnostics had very radical ideas about Christ that sound just as good or better. Who is the real Jesus?
How Christianity evolved is a fascinating historical mystery. I’ve been watching Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles over Authentication, A Great Course lecture by Bart D. Ehrman. I got The Gnostic Gospels as a supplement. The Gnostics are intriguing because they claim to have secret knowledge of Jesus based on his mystical teachings, like Eastern religions. Some Gnostics thought the virgin birth and bodily resurrection were silly stories the orthodox Christians believed in and claim to know the real truth. They said Jesus taught that the Kingdom of Heaven was within and had already arrived and with the right practices and secret knowledge it would be revealed here on Earth. It wasn’t faith, but direct experience.
While studying these early Christians I got a strange idea. History is full of religious charlatans and con men. What if Jesus had been a con man gathering his flock with a promise of secret knowledge. Then he gets killed, and after that all his followers taught something different about his “secret knowledge” creating endless religions never knowing they had been conned. Most people like to assume that one view of Christ is the right one. But what if they are all wrong?
The more I study the history of Christianity the more its obvious that every Christian see a different Jesus and it’s impossible to know the real Jesus. Reading The Gnostic Gospels only made me feel more conclusively that Jesus and his teachings are unknowable – and all we can know is an endless series of imaginary Christs created by people who have their on unique beliefs.
4 thoughts on “The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels”
I seem to be replying to every post!
Remember the Atlantic Monthly article from about 30 years ago? (gads)
Mark 8: 27-29 –
“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Thanks for this on Pagels- I’ve had it on my wish list for a long time but I might pass now because there comes a point when a person knows what there is to know – kinda/sorta – enough already!
I have found that the Christian churches have removed God from the central position and installed someone called Christ there – Jesus. This irritates me to no end. To my thinking Jesus was a prophet of some sort – probably an apocalyptic one with very political (anti-Rome) leanings.
I’ve read some of the gnostics and come to the conclusion that they were even more radical and/or mystic than what is left of Jesus.
Joshua 24:15 – (old-testament – one god named God/Jehovah/ – NOT Jesus)
“… choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
I may be far more Jewish than anything Christian –
Tell me more about the Atlantic article – I’m not sure if I remember or not.
There are several versions of that story about Jesus asking the disciples who I am with different answers in the Gnostic Gospels. I got the feeling from the stories that Jesus felt they didn’t know, and those guys knew him personally.
Yeah, I’m getting burnt out on Christian history. There’s just no real evidence about who Jesus really was. It’s endless speculation, which is disappointing. If I was to guess, and my guess is no better than anyone else, Jesus was much closer to Jewish tradition, and all the Christian stuff was invented afterwards.
It may have been Saturday Review – 1976 or so – The author explored whether contemporary clergy viewed Christ as more divine or more human. Showed both sides quite well – great article – one of their classics, imo – but I can’t find it online.
Bottom line – Jesus never answered the question. Actually, I’m not sure there was an historical Jesus – I’d give it 50/50 – if there was I doubt his followers would recognize him from the Bible or from contemporary theology and/or sermons.
You might also enjoy another TC Great Course, “Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad” by Mark William Muesse. I’d make that a link except that I can’t figure out how to do it with this editor.