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Review of "The Gnostic Gospels"

The Gnostic GospelsThe Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a general introduction to the phenomenon of gnosticism, or to the gnostic texts themselves, Prof. Pagels' famous book is quite flawed. Despite her laudable attempt to recover a sense of neutrality late in the work, her analysis as a whole is afflicted with unscholarly and often frankly political biases. These are further compounded by the simple lack of depth or profundity in her theoretical analysis.

As example of the first bias, the reader can sense the palpable and obvious attempt to juxtapose the gnostic sects versus the proto-orthodox Church as an opposition between democratic versus hierarchical organization. The implication, of course, is that gnosticism is democratic and was therefore somehow more legitimate than the actual authoritarian structure of the Roman Catholic church. This is rather questionable, given the author's own assiduous admission that the orthodox Christianity was and is, in fact, more welcoming and universal in fact, faith, and act than the gnostic sects, whose members considered themselves a spiritual breed apart and above the masses of human beings.

This lends itself to an example of a chief theoretical defect: the lack of penetration into the originating experiences which gave rise to gnosis as a symbolic form, and a lack of critical analysis of that form. The substitution of "gnosis" for faith and reason in the classical senses is no small matter, and itself indicative of a radical break with both the classical philosophic tradition of Hellas and the theophanic traditions of Israel and the Gospels. The added aspects of severe alienation from and revolt against the world and the very structure of being (defining characteristics of gnosticism) also remain unanalyzed throughout Pagels' work. This inspite of the fact that these are quite obviously shown in the gnostic repudiation of the Creator and the Old Testament, and the sometimes implied, often overt, anti-Jewish sentiments expressed in the gnostic texts. Pagels mentions the anti-Jewish sentiments only in passing.

On the whole, the book is not very well executed, and is better understood as a well-intentioned but ham-fisted political manifesto than a serious historical, theological, or philosopic study.

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