Lesson Plan The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

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How the passion of Christ was interpreted also dictated how the persecution of Christian martyrs would be interpreted. Accusing someone of being a Christian was a known way of destroying an enemy.

Christianity’s Doppelgänger

Roman citizens convicted of being Christians were mercifully beheaded; others were tortured. The avidity of the martyrs provided strong testimony to potential converts, including Tertullian, who believed that heresy Gnostic or otherwise was the direct by-product of cowards looking to theologically justify their cowardice. Although some Gnostics valued martyrdom, others went so far as to ridicule it: they argued that if martyrdom ensured salvation, then anyone who confessed Christ would be saved, simple as that.

The Gnostics were more apt to stress the gnosis as salvation rather than confession and martyrdom. Gnostics even criticized the orthodox tendency to urge believers toward martyrdom. Martyrs or witnesses found their lives validated in the story of the human Jesus. Until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts, scholars were almost completely restricted to reading the writings of the Catholics, the winners in the struggle for the leadership of Christianity. The Gnostics thought orthodox Christians somewhat blindly followed their leaders without really trying to know Christ themselves.

The orthodox Christians, in contrast, had established objective criteria for membership, allowing even simpler souls to feel they were true Christians. In short, orthodox Christianity offered more certainty and clear answers than Gnosticism, which, despite some appealing teachings, was ill-suited to become a mass religion. In Chapter VI, Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God, Pagels explores the Gnostic beliefs in more detail, and compares them to their ultimately triumphant orthodox counterparts.

Orthodox Christian leaders, seeing themselves as the legitimate earthly heirs to Jesus, felt that Jesus could only be accessed under the auspices of the church.

Gnostics rejected this belief, some even going so far as to believe that humanity created God anyway , so there was little material separation between humans and the divine sparks within them. Gnostics also differed from Orthodox Christians in believing that ignorance, rather than sin, was the origin of suffering. Gnostics stressed the importance of attaining self-knowledge, a trait which Pagels likens to modern psychoanalysis. The Jesus of the Gnostic Gospels encourages self-exploration. The orthodox were much better at setting up structures to unite people under the banner of Christianity.

In fact, their victory still frames all debates within Christianity. Pagels sees the rigor of orthodoxy as a prime reason for its survival, but laments the complete banishment of Gnostic ideas from orthodoxy. Too often we assume that the history of ideas is a debate between differing ideas, and that the strongest most valid idea necessarily survives.

The informality and egalitarianism of the Gnostics did not support the establishment of enduring institutions. Nor did it answer clearly the fundamental questions that people want answered; instead it offered only the means to conduct an arduous search and perhaps futile within the individual soul. The Gnostic Gospels serves an important reminder that spiritual authority is forged in the crucible of worldly problems.

Religious leaders must always adapt their teachings to accommodate the problems of the moment; otherwise it holds few adherents.

Gnostic Gospels author Elaine Pagels to speak Jan | Stanford News Release

The Gnostics deprecated the flesh and the things of this world, focusing more on the discovery of the esoteric gnosis. The orthodox, while also stressing the preferability of the hereafter to worldly existence, did offer its members some spiritual sustenance for the events of this world. The Gnostic Gospels also serves a good introduction to Gnosticism.

Pastor Vern Hall- Book Review of "The Gnostic Gospels" by Elaine Pagels

More people and especially Christians should be aware of the debates that shaped the early church. Your email address will not be published. Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed. Books Religion. Chapter VI, Self-Knowledge as Knowledge of God In short, orthodox Christianity offered more certainty and clear answers than Gnosticism, which, despite some appealing teachings, was ill-suited to become a mass religion.

Importance The Gnostic Gospels serves an important reminder that spiritual authority is forged in the crucible of worldly problems. See also: Book reviews and criticism. Share Share Tweet Share Pin it. Write a comment Professor Pagels often sets these Gospels, Secret Books, Epistles, Revelations following her I shall refer to them collectively as Gospels in parallel with the canonical Gospels — rightly, in a sense, since this is what the Gnostics themselves did.

But the unwary reader may be misled into thinking though the attentive will find pointers in the right direction that because they share the same title they are the same kind of book, whereas they are radically different in status, character and purpose. Most if not all of the Gnostic writers quoted here knew of, or alluded to, the three synoptic Gospels, or at any rate to one of them, if only sometimes to depreciate them; all four canonical Gospels were known to the pupils of the Gnostic Valentinus in the later second century.

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It is highly unlikely that any of the Gnostic Gospels were composed before the second third of the century and some are later: Mark, if not written before AD 70, as many scholars think, was written very little later. Again, these new Gospels often boast of being secret, revelations for the few illuminati , a claim that contrasts with the open character of the canonical four.

It is not difficult to see how these Gnostic Gospels could be grafted onto the original stock: the reverse process is very hard to envisage. More important is the difference in objective. Some of them draw on and develop passages in the canonical Gospels or the Pauline Epistles that lend themselves to Gnostic interpretation; others boast that the gnosis revealed in their books is the product of their own creative imagination.

That they are often ascribed to apostles or disciples with whose names they make free in the text is for the most part no more than a literary convention, but it goes some way to explaining the anger of the orthodox. There are frequent allusions to the secret tradition, handed down orally to the select few; this could be correct — passages in support of the existence of such a tradition can be found in the canonical Gospels — and oral tradition, if not secret teaching, played a large part in the early Church, but the claim would be more persuasive did not the teaching vary so greatly.

The Gospel of Thomas, probably composed about the middle of the century, consists of short sayings and parables of Jesus, some of them derived from, or at any rate parallel to, those known from the New Testament, others hitherto unknown and including a few which may well be ancient: while unmistakably Gnostic, it thus has closer links than any of the other new texts with the canonical Gospels, but even here there is practically no narrative, no interest in what happened or what was done.

Another of the new discoveries is the Gospel of Truth, which may be identical with a work under this title ascribed to the most celebrated of the Gnostic teachers, Valentinus: this is different again, in that it is a meditation or sermon on salvation through gnosis and the mission of Christ, with occasional references to the Gospels, but no narrative, and no claim to transmitting esoteric wisdom. From this an important corollary follows. The texts, or many of them, are deeply interesting in their own right and cast a sharp light on the crisis of the second-century Church, both aspects well brought out by Professor Pagels.

But, contrary to the claims of both author and editor, they have little if anything to tell us about the origins of Christianity, if by that we mean what happened in the first century. It would, after all, be surprising if sects that depreciated the world of space and time were to display an interest in history.

The Gnostic Gospels

To say with Professor Pagels that these Gospels make us recognise that early Christianity was more diverse than we thought is hardly correct: apart from the evidence of the early Fathers, modern scholarship has been in no doubt on this point. Some years ago, C. Moule wrote that a traveller going from Jerusalem to Ephesus about AD 60 would meet such a wide range of doctrine and practice among communities claiming some attachment to Jesus of Nazareth that the problem would be to decide what was the minimum requirement for a community to be a Christian one at all.

In her treatment of a number of selected topics, Professor Pagels brings to light the differences in belief between Catholics and Gnostics, and the consequent differences in practice and organisation; the link between doctrine and life is one of the principal themes of her book. Thus the orthodox account of the Resurrection depended on those who witnessed it: hence their authority, and hence the authority devolved by them to their successors. If with some Gnostics you thought of the Resurrection as a purely spiritual event reenacted in the believer at the moment of his enlightenment, then the sole source of authority was either the individual vision or the teaching, itself based either on a vision or on a secret tradition, that gave rise to it.

I find less convincing the connection that she sees between the strict monotheism of the orthodox and the monarchical bishop whose power at this period she tends to exaggerate. But the contrast with some at least of the Gnostics is clear enough: for them, the Supreme Being was distinct from the inferior if not malevolent creator god or Demiurge, the God of the Old Testament, and true gnosis freed you equally from the power of the bishop and that of the Demiurge.


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Not all Gnostics took this view: Valentinus was not a dualist in this sense, and only left the Church or was made to leave it accounts differ late in his career, and his beliefs would have passed muster in not a few Protestant circles. Her third topic has a surprisingly contemporary air about it. Some, perhaps most, Gnostics reacted strongly against what they saw as an unduly masculine conception of deity in both Judaism and Christianity, either by stressing the femininity of the Spirit the Hebrew word, unlike the Greek, being feminine or by addressing their prayers to an androgynous Wisdom or to God the Father and God the Mother.

At a practical level, women were on an equal footing with men in these circles, and there being little or no distinction between laity and clergy, could exercise priestly functions.

The parallel with later Nonconformist bodies is striking.