The Gnostic Gospels

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagelsby Elaine Pagels
Published by Vintage; 1st Vintage Books Edition, Sept. 1989 edition (September 19, 1989) Click to Buy this book!


In December 1945 an Arab peasant was digging around a massive boulder in Nag Hammadi, Upper Egypt looking for sabakh, a soil for fertilizing crops, when he found an large earthen jar almost a meter high. He hesitated to break it for fear an evil spirit might be inside, but the thought that it could contain gold overcame his fear and he smashed it. Inside were 13 papyrus books bound in leather. Disappointed, he brought them home and dumped them on the floor. His mother subsequently used much of t he material for fuel.

How the books came to be recognized is an interesting story in itself, how a local history teacher suspected their value and sent them on to a friend, how they were sold on the black market through antique dealers in Cairo, then confiscated by the Egyptian government, except for one codice, which was smuggled to the United States. Finally, thirty years after their discovery, they were deciphered and eventually published.

Mohammed Alí could not have imagined the enormous implications of his accidental find. If they had been found 1,000 years earlier, the Gnostic texts within would surely have been burned for their heresy. Bishop Irenæus of Lyon c. 180, wrote five volumes entitled, The Destruction and Overthrow of Falsely So-called Knowledge. By the time of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century, possession of books denounced as heretical became a criminal offense. Copies of Gnostic books were confiscated and burned. But someone in Upper Egypt, possibly a monk from the nearby monastery of St. Pachomius, took the banned books and hid them from destruction in the jar where they remained buried for almost 1,600 years. Today we read them differently — as a powerful alternative to orthodox, organized Christianity.

Until then, our knowledge of the early Christian Gnostics had been limited to what their adversaries wrote about them, which has been exclusively negative. In fact, by 300 AD both the Gnostics and their writings had been effectively eliminated. Now we have a good idea of what these early Christians thought and why the church found them heretical and dangerous. Elaine Pagels, one of the world’s foremost experts in historical Christianity, has written a non-technical book about these Gospels which is accessible to everyone — a real eye-opener.

The volumes found at Nag Hammadi are in the Coptic language and were written 350–400 AD. They are, however, translations of earlier Greek documents, which cannot be later that 180 AD. Gnosis is usually translated as knowledge. But the Greek language differentiates between scientific and reflective knowledge. As the Gnostics used the term, it could be translated as insight, for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself. According to the Gnostic teacher Theodotus (c.140–160), the Gnostic is one who understands:

who we were, where we were … whither we are hastening; from what we are being released, and what is rebirth.

The living Jesus of the Gnostic gospels says things which are similar to those related in the four “official” gospels, but with other dimensions of meaning, often reminiscent of Zen koans. From the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Bound in the same volume with the above is the Gospel of Philip, which attributes to Jesus sayings quite different from those in the New Testament:

…the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended … they said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you as I love her?”

Other sayings in this volume describe common Christian beliefs, such as the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection as naive misunderstandings. Also bound together with these volumes is the Apocryphon (secret book) of John, which offers to reveal “the mysteries and the things hidden in silence” which Jesus taught to his disciple John.

The living Jesus of these texts speaks of illusion and enlightenment instead of sin and repentance as does the Jesus of the New Testament. Instead of coming to save us from sin, he comes as a guide who provides access to spiritual understanding. The similarity to certain Buddhist teachings is obvious and it is not impossible that these exerted influence on Gnostic thinking, as Buddhist missionaries had been proselytizing in Alexandria for generations when gnosticism flourished.

The Resurrection

One of the main points of diversion between orthodox catholic and Gnostic thinking involved Jesus’ resurrection. Tertullian, a brilliant writer (c. AD 190) violently opposed to gnosticism, wrote:

What is raised is “this flesh, suffused with blood, built up with bones, interwoven with nerves, entwined with veins, a flesh which … was born, and … dies, undoubtedly human.” He declares that anyone who denies the resurrection of the flesh is a heretic.

Gnostic Christians interpreted the resurrection differently. Some said that the person who experiences the risen Christ does not meet him physically raised back to life; rather, he encounters him on a spiritual level. This seems to be verified even in the New Testament gospels. When the resurrected Jesus appears to the apostles they don’t even recognize him at first. And Mary Magdalene, when the risen Christ appears to her near his tomb, thinks he is the gardener, and when she does recognize him he tells her not to touch him. Even Paul, in his illumination on the road to Damascus, sees a “light from heaven” and only hears Jesus’ voice. Paul describes the resurrection as a “mystery,” the transformation from physical to spiritual existence. Yet the church condemned all such interpretations.

Gnostics were more interested in the possibility of meeting the risen Christ in the present than the past events attributed to the historical Jesus. A passage in the Gospel of Mary illustrates this:

Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene … She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

Peter especially doubts.

Mary wept and said to Peter: “… Do you think I am lying about the savior?” Levi said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered…if the savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her?”

Peter, apparently representing the orthodox position, looks to past events, suspicious of those who ‘see the Lord’ in visions, Mary, representing the Gnostic, claims to experience his continuing presence.

This had political connotations, for the church based its authority on the succession from “the twelve” (after Judas was replaced), whereas Mary Magdalene, though not one of the twelve, is shown by the Gnostics to be at least equal to them. Furthermore , while the church relied on Jesus’ public teaching, the Gnostics claimed to be in possession of Jesus’ secret teaching about the “mysteries.” Valentinus, one of the leading Gnostics, argued that only one’s own experience offers the ultimate truth, taking precedence over second-hand testimony and tradition. Therefore, the structure of authority can never be fixed in an institution; it must remain spontaneous, charismatic, and open. Gnostic teaching was obviously subversive of a hierarchic order. It claimed to offer every initiate direct access to God, an access of which the priests and bishops themselves might be ignorant.

Within 170 years after Jesus’ death, the church had developed into a three-tiered organization of bishops, priests and deacons with authority over the laity. This authority was based on two sayings in the New Testament: the giving of the “keys of the kingdom” to Peter as founder of the church, and the claim that Peter was the first to witness the risen Christ; this despite the fact that both Mark and John state that Mary Magdalene was the first to see him. They claimed that Christ, who had authority over heaven and earth, gave temporal authority to “the eleven” disciples, especially Peter, as their spokesman. The Gnostics denied the church’s authority and its interpretation of events, so it was felt necessary to silence them.


The “secret” teachings referred to above include an astonishing concept concerning God, completely antithetical to orthodox dogma. Valentinus states in the Gospel of Truth that the one whom most Christians worship as creator, God and Father is, in reality, only the image of the true God. What they mistakenly ascribe to God really only applies to the creator, suggesting that he is a lesser divine being who serves as an instrument of the higher powers. It is not God, but the demiurge (from the Greek demiurgos = creator) who gives the law and judges those who violate it. In short, he is the “God of Israel.” When this being says: “I am God and there is no other,” it constitutes a false claim to power, for he is not the true, highest Godhead.

God the Father/God the Mother

In sharp contrast to other religious traditions, whether in Egypt, Greece, Rome, Africa, India or the Americas, the absence of feminine symbolism marks Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Catholics revere Mary as the Mother of God, but she is not “God the Mother” on an equal footing with God the father. Growing up in Jewish or Christian tradition it is impossible to escape the impression that God is masculine. Of the three persons in the Christian trinity, two — the Father and the Son — are masculine, while the third, the Holy Spirit, reflects the sexlessness of the Greek neuter term for Spirit: pneuma.

The Gnostics, however, insisted that the divine be understood as a dynamic, harmonious relation of opposites — male and female — akin to the Eastern concept of yin and yang. Another Gnostic characterization of the Mother refers to her as the Holy Spirit. The Apocryphon of John relates how John, just after the crucifixion, had a vision of the trinity in three forms. To John’s question the vision answers:

“… John, John, why do you doubt, and why are you afraid? … I am the one who is with you always. I am the Father; I am the Mother; I am the Son.”

The Greek word pneuma virtually requires that the third person be asexual. (Interestingly, the Spanish espíritu and the German Geist are both masculine.) But the author of the Secret Book has the Hebrew word for spirit in mind — ruah, a feminine noun. He goes on to describe the divine Mother:

“… (she is) … the image of the invisible, virginal, perfect spirit … She became the mother of everything, for she existed before them all, the mother-father [matropater] …”

In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus speaks of his divine Father — the Father of Truth — and his divine Mother — the Holy Spirit.

Certain Gnostics suggest a third characterization of the divine Mother: as Wisdom. On of the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi opens as a divine power speaks:

“I am the Thought that dwells in the Light … she who exists before the All … I move in every creature … I am the invisible one within the All … I am perception and knowledge, uttering a voice by means of Thought. I am the real voice. I cry out in everyone, and they know that a seed dwells within …” And much more in the same vein.

Tertullian, representing the orthodox point of view, states:

“It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer the eucharist, nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function — not to mention any priestly office.”

Have things changed much? In any case, it is an astonishing development, considering that Jesus himself violated Jewish convention by openly talking with women and including them among his disciples. Furthermore, in the very early Christian communities women acted as prophets, teachers and evangelists. Paul endorses this in Romans 16:7 where he praises the work of women he recognizes as deacons and fellow workers; he even greets one as an outstanding apostle, senior to himself in the movement.

The Pseudo-Pauline letters

Despite the previous public activity of Christian women, by the second century the majority of churches opposed equality for women. They accepted as canonical the pseudo-Pauline letter of Timothy which exaggerates the anti-feminist element in Paul’s views. They also accepted as Pauline the letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians, which order that women “be subject in everything to their husbands.” By the end of the second century, groups in which women could attain to leadership were branded as heretical.

The church justified this attitude by citing the alleged “apostolic” letters, the most famous being the pseudo-Pauline letters. In Timothy I and II, Colossians and Ephesians, “Paul” insists that women be subordinate to men. The letter of Titus, in Paul’s name denies women the right to be bishops. It was considered correct in order to win an argument for the good of the faithful to write or corrupt letters and attribute them to Paul or present your argument in his name.

In 1977 Pope Paul VI declared that a woman cannot be a priest “because our Lord was a man.” The Nag Hammadi Gnostic gospels indicate otherwise and offer a challenge to history. The original questions which were heatedly debated at the beginning of Christianity have been reopened: How to understand the resurrection; women’s participation and the feminine divine principle; Who was Christ and how does he relate to the believer? What is the relationship between Christianity and other religions?

Elaine Pagels tackles them all in this immensely important book. She claims scientific objectivity, but it is not difficult to see where her sympathies lie. — Review by Frank Thomas Smith

Click to Buy this book!

  1. annas
    April 9th, 2012 at 18:23
    Quote | #1

    “It is an actual fact that our human soul bears in it three natures — a will nature, found in the inmost depths of the being, a feeling nature and a wisdom nature. These are the three soul Mothers; we meet them in the three figures of the Egyptian Isis” R.S. The feeling mother symbolised by the BULL, who is spiritualised by the EAGLE -wisdom and manifest the Will – Lion – in Man,who unite them all to receive the Spirit.
    From the symbology to human nature. The transformation is worked through:
    – the imagination, when by stepping aside in meditation, a person by abstract thinking analyses and resoves his feelings;

    – the inspiration, when man obliteration his old concepts and ideas and tunes himself to the psychic soul life. The physical and etheric organizations hide from him his true motives and aspirations and their conflict;
    therefore he have to develop an inspired cognition; it involves a lot of emotional pain and moral reforms and a great desire for expansion of conscientiousness of understanding.

    -Then the experience of the will-part of the soul enters into the spiritual world and intuitive vision is attained. IT happens through the Will to make changes in life and the efforts necessitating these changes lead to intuition, to changing the nature of Will from purely physical force to the binding force.
    “The will unites the astral organism and the true form of the Ego and consciously immerse both of them into the spirit world”. R. Steiner.

    So by the faculty of imagination we can penetrate the true image of the first Mother – reflection of the Father – our ability to respond to truth.
    With the faculty of Inspiration we can reveal to our minds the redeemed Mother, the understanding of renewal and restoration, as we tune our life to the healing ourselves through faith.
    The intuition gives us access to the Wisdom of the Divine mother:” uttering a voice by means of Thought. I am the real voice. I cry out in everyone, and they know that a seed dwells within …”from the gnostic texts. It gives access to telepathic interplay, visionary mind.
    They, three mothers of gnosis, of the intuitive knowledge of inner nature, – give birth to what is inside of man, to manifest as living Christ, as enlightment and salvation. Leading to the understanding that all this Life is growing towards understanding the divine Will and expressing It.

  2. April 25th, 2012 at 10:45
    Quote | #2

    The Essenes knew all, and could heal and protect themselves as they new curative eurythmy – the power of rhythm in spoken word and movements.
    They were advances fore posts of Buddha.

    But Jesus had an understanding that in their isolation, they prevented the powers of Wisdom – of Budda’s way to inner peace, ever to be reached by people.
    Because the negative forces, rejected by Essenes fled back to people, demonised them and all consolidating powers of the Law of the old Testament could not inspire people to fight back.
    So Christ did the reverse, he faced the corrupting forces, understood the elements of their temptation though the Spirit of the Divine justice and neutralised them by the Greatness of his Vision and Goodness.
    And people were purified, (who saw or heard about it) and the ability of their etheric body was greatly improved, they began to intuit the words of Christ and be inspired by them.

    So Christ took the evolution of Spirit to people, He became the BELL of the spiritual word which awake the others to the silent Voice of the Soul.

  3. dmullin
    April 25th, 2012 at 18:06
    Quote | #3

    I wonder how close these are to the Essene Gospels? Hey, ya can’t read them all- in one lifetime-or can you? FYI: right now, I am still buzzing from all of the Old Indian stuff that I have been exposed to and find a need to dig into the Rig Vedas.

  4. robin
    April 25th, 2012 at 18:07
    Quote | #4

    It is fanciful to say that the Essenes: “knew all, and could heal and protect themselves as they ‘new’ curative eurythmy”. And to imply that curative eurythmy is ‘the power of rhythm in spoken word and movements’ demonstrates, at best, a superficial interpretation of therapeutic eurythmy.
    It saddens me to comment in this way – but it saddens me more when I see Dr. Steiner’s work tainted by misinterpretation, especially when done so dogmatically.

  5. April 25th, 2012 at 18:11
    Quote | #5

    “Thus Jesus of Nazareth became an initiate not only through the ability to see, and through wisdom, but also through life itself. That became known to people who at that time had come together in a certain order, which is known the world over as the Essene Order. The Essenes were people who cultivated a kind of secret rite and teachings at certain places in Palestine. It was a strict order. Whoever wanted to enter it had to first pass through a strict probation year, mostly longer. He had to show by his conduct, his culture, by his dedication to the highest spiritual powers, by his sense of justice and human equality, by his disregard for earthly possessions and so forth, that he was worthy to be initiated. Then there were various degrees which one passed through to reach a life determined by separation from normal humanity in a strict monastic discipline and by certain purification exercises through which all that was physically and spiritually unworthy was meant to be eliminated in order to approach the spiritual world. This was expressed in various symbolic laws of the Essene Order. Deciphering the Akasha Record shows that the word Essene derives from, or is at least related to the Hebrew word “essin” or “assin”, which means “shovel” or “trowel”, because the Essenes always carried a small trowel as an insignia, something that in many of today’s orders has been retained. The Essenes’ objectives were also expressed in certain symbolic practices – that they never carried coins, that they could not pass through gates which had been painted or were even close to graven images. As the Essene Order at that time enjoyed a certain degree of recognition, unpainted gates were made in Jerusalem so they could enter the city. If an Essene came to a painted gate he would have to turn back. The Order possessed ancient manuscripts and traditions, about whose contents the members were obliged to maintain strict silence. They could teach, but only what they had learned in the Order. All who entered the Order had to give all their possessions to the Order. The number of Essenes was four to five thousand. People came from all over the known world and observed the strict rules. Even if it was far away, in Asia Minor, or even farther, all property, a house for example, had to be given to the Order. So the Order possessed small properties from many places – houses, gardens, acres of land. None was admitted to membership who did not contribute everything he owned to the Essene community. Everything belonged to all, there was no personal ownership. A very strict rule for our present day mentality – but what was understandable was that the Essene could care for the needy with the goods belonging to the Order, except those who belonged to his own family.

  6. April 25th, 2012 at 18:12
    Quote | #6

    Sorry, I did not mean that the Essen’s “knew” everything literally. In the Fifth Gospel, it is said that Jesus had a vision of Buddha, who told him about the Essenes, that they had Wisdom, but it was separated, only for them and he said that the Wisdom was His.
    The Essenes had a special ritual of praying with movements to enhance the performance of Prana by etheric body. They composed their prayers, according the time of the day and conveyed spiritual meaning to them.

  7. April 27th, 2012 at 10:04
    Quote | #7

    Not “dogmatically” – Allegorically.
    “The language we speak affects the way we think, wrote B.L. Whorf, who done a research into the Dead sea Scrolls, allegedly written by Essenes. He shows that they used the language to demonstrate the affinity with cosmic order, through the sound and conscious communication.

    “We habitually formulate our perceptions of the world in language, according to the particular biases and prejudices inherent in whatever language we know.

    Thus language limits the way we perceive reality, the way we think about it, and the way we talk about it. But it need not do so.
    If we are aware of those limitations, we can compensate for them and view the world freshly and newly,” on the level of the concrete mind the differences – are the parts of unity of the concept on the Higher mind level.

  8. May 2nd, 2012 at 09:17
    Quote | #8

    The Creation of the formative world had recommenced on the cosmic mental plane of Universal Mind, It gathered the Creative builders, the Architects, on the Astral plane – they energised the desire to manifest.
    On the physical cosmic plane the the Archetypal form of the solar system was Exhaled with the Divine breath, followed by three sounds and on the third atomic plane the Word of creation, AUM had sounded.

    From there went out 35 stanzas of creation proceeded. (On the seven subplanes of the 5 planes).
    The vibrations of five non-sacred planets, through the influence of 12 signs of the Zodiac were involved in the development of the physical, etheric astral and lower mental bodies of the body of the man.

    The other 7 sacred planets, also worked with the Zodiacal emanations but responded as well, to the streams of the 4 constellations of the Greater Zodiac, around which 7 solar systems revolves.

    These 7 sacred planets had rays streamed to them via these systems, from Great Bear, Pleiades, Dragon and Sirius and were involved in the evolution of the human soul and expression of the life of the human MONAD, the spiritual life-cell in the body of the Planetary spirit.

    These 28 emanations are reverberating in the 28 letters of alfabet – the forms of the sound. Each of them stands for the particular being embodying on the cosmic level some power.

    Some of The Essenes could ” hear” the vibrations of the first rays of the sunlight; and their most sacred chants are apparently results of this experience of creative Vibration.

    Some other mantrams were used in healing, these were based on the sounding rhythmically and in different key, the sacred Word. They could invoke the protective angels to do some constructive or distractive work.

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