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by Elaine Pagels

Pub Date: Nov. 26th, 1979
ISBN: 0394502787
Publisher: Random House

A fine thematic introduction to gnosticism, concentrating on the texts discovered at Nag Hammadi (Upper Egypt) in 1945. Pagels teaches the history of religion at Barnard, and she has spent practically all of her young academic life working with the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in one way or another. She brings her considerable competence to bear on the subject without overwhelming the reader with scholarly minutiae. Pagels sees in gnosticism a "powerful alternative to. . . orthodox Christian tradition," an alternative she clearly finds attractive. Gnostics treated Christ's resurrection as a symbolic rather than a corporeal event. They rejected the authoritarian, bishop-dominated structure of the orthodox church. They looked beyond the masculine imagery of the patriarchal God to various concepts of a feminine or bisexual divinity. They avoided the excesses of the martyrdom cult and its apotheosis of the suffering Jesus. In surprisingly modern fashion, they cultivated a religion that stressed personal enlightenment over corporate belonging, insisting that "the psyche bears within itself the potential for liberation or destruction." These and other gnostic tenets were repressed by mainstream Christianity because, Pagels claims, they constituted a political threat to the hierarchy. In the calmer, freer atmosphere of contemporary Christianity, they can better be appreciated for their intrinsic richness. Pagels' advocacy of gnosticism is restrained and responsible--she admits, for example, that its elitist, intellectualist qualities made it ill-suited as a faith for the masses--but this partisanship, plus the absence of solid explanation of the movement's historical roots, may create a misleading picture of it as a sort of heroic prototype of liberal Protestantism. Otherwise a clear, reliable, richly documented guide.