In December 1945 an Egyptian peasant by the name of Muhammad Ali al-Samman found a stone jar buried on a mountainside near the town of Nag Hammadi. Inside were thirteen leather-bound papyrus books.
Over the next couple of years these books found their way, by various circuitous routes, into the collection of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities where in the decades that followed they were examined and translated by an international team of scholars. The thirteen volumes brought together Coptic translations of over 50 second century Gnostic Christian texts, some completely unknown, some known only through quotes and references in other writings.
This is one of the most important finds in the study of the origins of Christianity, opening up an avenue of understanding that had been closed for more than 1,500 years. Elaine Pagels joined the team of scholars working on these documents in the late 1960s and has become one of the leading experts in the field. She has written a number of technical works on the subject, but The Gnostic Gospels, first published in 1979, is her attempt to interpret them for a wider audience.
A warning is in order: the title is misleading. This is not, as I thought it would be, a summary and explanation of the gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi - gospels purported to be written by Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Judas and Philip. Rather, it is a description and analysis of the debate between the gnostic writers and their orthodox critics about the nature of Christianity.
This book would not have been possible before the Nag Hammadi find. Before then, most of what scholars knew about gnosticism was reconstructed from the writings of its critics. Now we have the other side of the debate, and Pagels is able to put side by side the writings of the various gnostic teachers and those of defenders of orthodoxy such as Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin and Hippolytus. For the first time, we can hear both sides of the debate.
Pagels focuses on five issues (listed here in a different order to the way Pagels presents them) - Jesus' passion and resurrection, the nature of God (particularly the question of gender), the authority of the priests and bishops, the question of the "true church" and the pathway to knowing God. On each of these crucial questions there were major differences between gnostic views (not all gnostics saw these issues the same way) and those which came to be considered orthodox.
The orthodox Christian view is that Jesus was really human as well as divine, that his passion involved real suffering and death, and that he then experienced physical resurrection. For the gnostics it was impossible for a divine being to suffer and a physical resurrection would be pointless. Hence, they saw the suffering as only applying to his "likeness" while his true self hovered above, laughing. His "resurrection appearances" were appearances of this true spiritual self, not a resurrected physical person.
This may sound rather esoteric but it has practical consequences. For the gnostics, the physical body was unimportant. This led in two directions - in one, physical conduct was irrelevant and you could do what you liked. In the other, true spirituality involved high levels of asceticism, particularly the denial of sexual activity. Orthodox believers, on the other hand, saw our physical lives as important, valued appropriate sexuality and did not insist that their followers deny themselves legitimate pleasures. A further implication, of crucial importance in the second century, was that while martyrdom was highly valued by orthodox believers it was downplayed and even seen as foolish by gnostics, who would rather compromise with authorities.
For orthodox Christians, there is only one God expressed in three persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This God is in general seen to be male although the Spirit is often seen as without gender. Gnostics, by contrast, are famous for their complex cosmologies and held a variety of views about the nature of God. In one of the most widespread, the God of Israel was co-creator with the superior female God Sophia (Wisdom) who may even have created him. His desire to be seen as the only God is seen in this scheme as an aberration which led Sophia to withdraw in order to leave him to his delusion, before sending Jesus as a messenger or expression of herself to draw people back to her and away from this jealous, delusional god. This view opens the way for a radical re-assessment of the Hebrew scriptures, seen not as "Christian" but as delusional texts inspired by a delusional deity.
One practical consequence of this is that just as Sophia was female, so women were seen by many gnostics (although certainly not all) as equal to men. This is expressed in the elevated role played by Mary Magdelene in gnostic writings, and more immediately in the fact that many gnostic groups permitted women to take on priestly roles including celebrating communion, preaching and prophesying. In contrast, by the second century the orthodox church was firmly patriarchal and many parts of it remain so even now.
Closely related to this is the question of authority in the church. This was a pressing issue as the second century progressed and not only the apostles, but those who had been taught by them, passed away. Who had the authority to lead and teach now? For orthodox believers, this authority rested partly in the apostles' writings (in the process of becoming the canon of the New Testament) but more crucially in the apostolic succession, in those bishops who could trace their line of ordination back to the apostles, with the "apostolic churches" and particularly the church of Rome pre-eminent among them.
For the gnostics, these bishops were pretenders devoid of real wisdom, and the true leaders of the church were those who had received "gnosis" or knowledge/insight direct from the Spirit of God. This meant that they did not recognise, or did not take seriously, the rigid hierarchy that was developing in the church at that time. For example, one gnostic group is reported as drawing lots among its members each Sunday for who would take various roles in worship.
Of course along with this comes the final issue - how can you know God? For the orthodox, knowing God was a straightforward matter of knowing some key propositions of the kind which were later incorporated into the Creeds. These were open to all and comprehensible by people of all classes and levels of education. A simple affirmation was all that was required to become a church member.
The gnostics, on the other hand, valued a much deeper personal knowledge which was not necessarily accessible to all. Gnosticism was a religion of initiates, much like the mystery religions of the ancient Roman world. Some of its teachings were seen as "secret", revealed only after the person had passed through the steps of initiation. At the same time, they valued self-knowledge as a path to knowing God, and direct ecstatic experience as a source of enlightenment. Their teachers invented their own myths and analogies, their own fictitious apostolic dialogues, their own ways of expressing the truth of a God who they saw as ultimately incomprehensible. They valued and rewarded this kind of creativity and imagination. For them the simplicity of orthodoxy was a sign of ignorance - God cold not be known so easily.
Pagels clearly has some admiration for the gnostics and provides a very sympathetic account of their views. She is also very clear that the conflict was not just about esoteric matters of theology, it was about who was to be master of the church. She appears to have little sympathy with the book-burners of the fourth and fifth centuries who effectively erased the traces of gnosticism from the newly Christianised Roman empire. Some have criticised her for being too sympathetic, suggesting for instance that many gnostic teachers were much more negative towards femininity than she makes out.
However, she is no gnostic apologist. She identifies at least three areas in which orthodoxy was clearly superior. It provided a strong, clear organisational structure which bound the church together and kept it united, whereas gnosticism was diverse, diffuse and highly vulnerable. The second is that the complexities of gnosticism required leisure and education and so could only really appeal to the upper classes, while orthodoxy was open to all. The third is that the simplicity of the orthodox creeds and formulations placed few hurdles in the way of adherents, while the complex and immersive nature of gnosticism restricted its number of followers. Although the power of empire finally wiped out gnosticism, it had to eventually accept and even endorse orthodoxy after three centuries of persecution failed to make a dent on it.
Pagels writes as if gnosticism is a historical curiosity, wiped from the church by the triumph of orthodoxy. However, I find myself wondering if it was that simple. Certainly their complex cosmologies are now mere curiosities. However, both asceticism and the valuing of direct experience survived in the monastic movement and the mystical or contemplative strand of Christian piety. The modern-day Pentecostal movement seems to reprise much of the gnostic valuing of direct revelation and ecstatic experience. Even their love of invention and myth-creation seems to have lived on in the art of hagiography and lives again in the likes of Lewis and Tolkein.
None of these developments can be formally attributed to the gnostic movement or to its anathemised authors. However, I get the feeling that like many other church movements down through the ages, the gnostics have contributed much more to the Christian worldview than their opponents would like to think, and that their subterranean influence continues to benefit us today. The church has always been a diverse body and we continue to learn from each other even as we fight. May it always be so!