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Featured Book: The Gnostic Gospels

Elaine Pagels “sees in gnosticism a ‘powerful alternative to…orthodox Christian tradition,’ an alternative she clearly finds attractive,” a Kirkus Reviews’ critic writes about her book, The Gnostic Gospels. Trouble is, “gnostic tenets were repressed by mainstream Christianity because, Pagels claims, they constituted a political threat to the [church] hierarchy.” In The Guardian, the former archbishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway concurs: “…scholars like Pagels are beginning to regret that the victory was so overwhelming and one-sided.”
It’s no wonder the church fathers were troubled: Gnostics, “In surprisingly modern fashion”—back to the Kirkus critique—”cultivated a religion that stressed personal enlightenment over corporate belonging.” Writer John Pistelli observes: the gnostic vision, “with its emphasis on individual spiritual experience, as against all hierarchies and establishments,” has “perennial appeal—if only to artists, mystics, and other anti-social types.”
A trove of early-Christian writings were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, and, once available for study, Pagels latched on to them. A professor of religion at Princeton University, she “made the translation and interpretation of these texts her life’s work,” Holloway explains. Oh, and the Modern Library chose her book as “one of the 100 best books of the 20th century.”
The Gnostic Gospels
By Elaine Pagels
Vantage Books, 1979