Gnosticism (was Re: A Very Deep Secret)

Bodil Gram listedwj at
Tue Sep 11 08:06:07 EDT 2001

Nat wrote:

>If you are interested in historical gnosticism, I recommend THE
>GNOSTIC GOSPELS by Elaine Pagels (heck, I recommend pretty much
>anything by her; she has a fascinating perspective on early

Oh darn, that is the problem with being a born lurker: everybody else gets
to say all the intelligent things long before you finally work up enogh
energy to contribute to the discussion.  ;-)

Which is, of course, a clumsy way of saying that I second Nat's
recommendation: THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS is a fascinating book, very well
written and easy to get absorbed in.

We are used to thinking of Christianity as a relatively uniform movement
that only fell apart into numerous sects around the time of the
Renaissance. Pagels does a very good job of describing the complicated
environment that very early Christianity grew out of - and the many roads
that were gradually closed off and not taken. Most of them would have been
SCARY, but a few might have been quite nice. Here in Denmark the book was
translated under a title meaning "The Gospels of the Losers".

Today the word gnostic is mostly used as an insult: you are a fanatic
so-and-so who sees everything in black & white and hates everything to do
with the body plus everything else that is nice about the real world. But
like Christianity, Gnostiscism was not a uniform movement either. Its roots
lie in a combination of Hellenistic Greek philosophy and a vague Indian
influence that valued spiritual matters and loathed everything to do with
the physical world we live in. You know crude ecchoes from old hippie
movements: the world is a fraud (maya) and you have to disengage yourself
from it to escape and enter Nirvana.

Some gnostic sects combined the Indian material with Persian dualism: the
world is dominated by the struggle between a good god and an evil one
(Ahura Mazda and Ariman, never mind the spelling in English). Since the
gnostics saw the material world as evil, it meant that it could not have
been made by the good god. Many gnostic sects used Jewish and Christian
components in their theology, and in some cases they believed that the
judeo-christian Creator must be the baddie who had captured human souls in
yucky bodies and forced them to live in this awful world. They often named
this evil creator god something like "the construction worker", in Greek
the "demiurge" (and I don't care how you anglophones transscribe that,
can't be bothered to look it up).

In short, Pagels' THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS gives an interesting and
well-researched picture of very early Christianity. I have not read any of
her later books because of some reviews that claimed she had become a bit
too fascinated with gender studies and twisted the already quite
misogynistic and disgusting material further to suit her own arguments. But
I do not know if that is true.

In any case you can see for yourself a lot of the material Pagels has been
working with if you get hold of a book by M[ontague] R[hodes] James (yes,
he of the ghost stories, he had a day job too!). It is called THE
APOCRYPHAL NEW TESTAMENT (Oxford Uni Press) and contains a lot of the early
Christian writings that for one reason or another did not get included in
the New Testament. Did you know that the Revelation of John almost did not
make the cut either? Many felt it was too much like the even more colourful
putative revelations of famous people like Peter, Paul, Thomas, Stephen and
the Holy Virgin....

These are genuine texts from the very infancy of Christianity, written
within a century or two after the sane words of Mark, Luke and Mathew. They
are seriously weird!!!  Just leaf through James' book for a few minutes and
your mind boggles (but there is some sweet stuff about Jesus as a child

Slightly later Christianity from the last centuries of the Roman empire was
of course full of strife too, and some of the Christian heresies you can
find described in any book about the Church Fathers were partly inspired by
Gnostic predecessors. What you may not find in most books about the history
of Christianity is a description of how gnostic material was kept alive by
sects in the Byzantine empire and exported to medieval Western Europe as,
among others, the Albigensian Heresy that Paul mentioned on the list a
couple of days ago.

TO HUS by Malcolm Lambert. Not as easily read as Pagels, but still very
interesting and able to make you feel incredibly sorry for the people of
Provence. It is also a very good book to have read before you tackle
Umberto Eco's famous book, THE NAME OF THE ROSE. Here is an appetizer:
imagine that: nice, animal-loving st Francis of Assisi was _this_ close to
getting himself toasted as a nasty heretic. Lambert explains just why.

Friendly greetings,

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