In 1945, two brothers dug for natural fertilizer beneath a cliff of Jabal al-Tarif in Upper Egypt. Their tools struck an ancient ceramic jar filled with books, hand-sewn in the manner of antiquity. The brothers had recently avenged the murder of their father. For that reason, they remembered the time of what otherwise seemed a disappointing discovery; they had been hoping to find treasure in the jar. But their find unearthed a library from the fourth century of the Common Era, and represents a landmark discovery in the history of the study of Christianity.
The 13 volumes of this collection, almost entirely written in Coptic — the latest form of the Egyptian language — are called the Nag Hammadi library, after a town nearby. They contain gospels and apocalypses and discourses and letters and chants unknown in the Christian Bible; teachers in Christian antiquity such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen knew many of these works and quoted from them, often with disapproval. In this library, a range of worship and religious experience and theology comes to direct expression, unfiltered by polemics, for the first time since the fourth century.
The discoverers and their relatives did not appreciate what they had found; it seems that the thirteenth volume is fragmentary today because large parts of it were used for kindling. Middlemen from as far afield as Cairo and Geneva were more canny, but also destructive; they divided the collection up in an attempt to enhance their profit from sales. An American scholar affiliated with UNESCO, James M. Robinson, assembled the volumes in Cairo again, damaged though they had been subsequent to their discovery, and arranged for an exemplary translation. The team of researchers he brought together included Elaine Pagels, who is credited in partnership with John D. Turner for translating two of the four dozen documents in the Nag Hammadi collection.
Ms. Pagels, then teaching at Barnard College, also wrote the leading volume on the discovery, "The Gnostic Gospels" (1979), a brief but penetrating study of the works found at Nag Hammadi and their importance. No single contribution has shaped the popular impression of the significance of the find and the meaning of Gnosticism more than her book. As her title suggests, Ms. Pagels makes sense of the library by associating it with Gnosticism, a movement that flourished between the second and fourth centuries C.E., and which sought "knowledge" (the meaning of the word gnosis in Greek and Coptic) as the insight that could bring a person into true contact with eternal reality. This insight held the promise of eternity, according to Gnostic theology. Although not all of the works in the library are Christian, in referring directly to Jesus and his followers, the great majority of them are, and Ms. Pagels therefore used the collection to describe a Christianity which formed a cogent alternative to the Church that claimed the name "catholic," meaning universal.
She pursued her analysis by means of her first-hand acquaintance with Gnostic writings, and with ancient authors who mentioned the Gnostics. Those writers, the Fathers of the Church, were generally critical of, or hostile toward, Gnosticism. The tension of debate, indeed, is the driving concern of Ms. Pagels's book, as she contrasts Gnostics to Catholics on the issues of resurrection, authority, the feminine side of God, martyrdom, the identity of the true Church, and knowledge itself. These were crucial issues for Gnostics and for Catholics, so that reading this volume can to this day serve as a useful introduction to the Nag Hammadi collection and to Gnosticism as a whole, especially if the reader at the same time has recourse to a good translation of the documents themselves, such as Professor Robinson produced.
The argument that "The Gnostic Gospels" mounts alongside its helpful description, however, depends upon an anachronism. In discussing each of her topics, Ms. Pagels attempts to make the case that the motivation for the Catholic position was to give the clergy greater power, while the Gnostics nobly pursued their quest of knowledge into historical oblivion, until the Nag Hammadi collection surfaced again after 1,500 years. Ms. Pagels sees her essay as a contribution to the relationship between religion and politics, but for the most part, she leaves out the real power in the whole equation of the religious history of the period: the Roman Empire.
Because successive emperors promoted or permitted the persecution of "atheists" — people such as Christians who refused to acknowledge the gods of Rome and the divinity of the emperor — both Catholics and Gnostics were martyred, paying for their convictions with torture and even death. Although the great majority from both sides managed to find an accommodation with their Roman masters, enough of them refused to bend to the will of their persecutors that Catholics and Gnostics alike had to contend with the question of how much their adherents should put themselves in harm's way for their beliefs.
Under the circumstances of Roman rule, it is unconvincing, misleading, and inaccurate to portray Catholics as somehow exercising power over Gnostics in the period prior to the fourth century. After Constantine's conversion, of course, Rome's might did back Catholic Christianity in military and financial, as well as political, terms. But it is anachronistic to describe the two groups' relationship prior to that as a power inequality. Both of them were oppressed. They did argue with one another, and amongst themselves; that was the nature of theological debate in earliest Christianity, and in the ancient Mediterranean world as a whole. Moreover, the lines of demarcation and debate were fluid: Many Catholics claimed access to true gnosis, while Gnostics claimed their truth was universal. In fact, "Catholic" and "Gnostic," though convenient terms for grouping differing communities in retrospect, did not at the time represent mutually exclusive orientations, as Ms. Pagels herself admits.
Ms. Pagels attempts to meet the challenge of sorting out a complex series of disagreements with a picture of Gnostics as existentialists and of Catholics as organizers. That simple model permits her to argue that Jesus and Paul represented a bit of both tendencies, and that the Church in the modern world should accommodate these two approaches. That is a nicely inclusive argument, and makes for a user-friendly version of Gnosticism, but it comes at the price of historical integrity.
Dealing with each topic in her book, Ms. Pagels does not mention crucial evidence concerning Gnostics and Catholics, and distorts what she does mention. She falsely maintains that Catholics insisted upon a physical view of resurrection (as compared to the Gnostics), when a spiritual view is clearly represented from Paul in the first century until Origen in the third century. She asserts that Gnostics did not concern themselves with authority, when in fact they often branded those who disagreed with them as corrupt materialists who were constitutionally incapable of understanding the world of spirit. Attempting to say that the Gnostics were feminists, she ignores texts from Nag Hammadi, as well as Gnostic sources that had been known for centuries before the library's discovery, that portray "Wisdom" (Sophia), the feminine counterpart of the true, masculine God, as literally hysterical — jealous of divine power, but unable to create life on her own, and therefore vindictive. Martyrdom was a common threat to Gnostics and Catholics, and not at all a fate that the Fathers of the Church wanted Christians generally to seek; Gnostics could be as ferocious as Catholics in claiming unique insight, and the knowledge that transcends this world was every bit as much a Catholic as a Gnostic quest.
Appearing in a book as well written as Ms. Pagels's, her anachronisms have undermined public understanding of early Christianity. Gnosticism proved to be the most powerful philosophical and religious movement of its time because it insisted without compromise that the only truth that matters transcends this corrupt world. Gnostics often denigrated women as creatures of corruption, condemned any disagreement with their teaching as materialist fantasy, and denied that sexuality had any place in the realm of spirit. Trying to turn this orientation into existentialism, or feminism, or an embrace of the world's physicality, will only work with an extremely selective handling of the evidence, and deploys a laundered view of its subject.
Ms. Pagels is too wise to pretend that the Gnosticism of the historical sources supports the Neo-Gnostic fashions of our time that have thrived in New Age circles. Yet in "The Gnostic Gospels," she does compare the texts to what existentialists, feminists, and environmentalists have to say. Her habit might be seen as part of the historian's function, to use today's language to help explain yesterday's events and movements. But by impact if not by intent, her book has promoted the view that Gnosticism is a liberal version of Christianity, when in fact liberalism and Gnosticism are radically different phenomena.
By softening the hard edges of the texts she herself had a hand in translating, Ms. Pagels has robbed many of her readers of an appreciation of the real force of the Gnostic Gospels. The fact is that Gnosticism, even after Constantine, was not successfully repressed. Many of its books were indeed destroyed or hidden away; it seems plausible that the Nag Hammadi library was sealed in a jar and buried to protect the writings from overzealous orthodox monks during the fourth century. But even as the books went underground, the power of gnosis remained.
The Nag Hammadi collection does not represent ideas that have lain dormant until a miracle of accident and scholarship brought them to light. Rather, these 13 volumes show that beliefs prevalent in mainstream Christianity to this day derive from Gnosticism: the full divinity of Jesus, the conception that his death paid the price of blood to Satan for the sins of the world, and the conviction that true believers should be celibate, for example. None of these is a small idea; each has had a powerful influence on the history of religious thought, and not only among Christians. None can be adequately accounted for on Ms. Pagels's reading of Gnosticism, and she gives them either scant attention, or no attention at all.
The power of the collection discovered near Nag Hammadi is not that they miraculously agree with the fashions of our time after 1,500 years of silent burial. Instead, with powerful focus, they identify religious forces that shook and shaped the ancient world, and then developed belief systems that remain influential to this day. Jesus's divinity is a grounding conviction of Catholicism and Orthodoxy now; Fundamentalism is fiercely attached to the ultimately Gnostic doctrine that God paid Satan by permitting his son to die. Ambivalence toward sexuality is a pan-Christian attitude. Gnosticism is a deeper and darker force than the revisionist scenario that makes it the prop of modern liberalism. After 30 years, it is time to move beyond the anachronism of "The Gnostic Gospels."
Mr. Chilton is the author of "Abraham's Curse: The Roots of Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," published recently by Doubleday. His "Mary Magdalene. A Biography" is available in paperback.
This essay is part of a weekly series of reassessments of noteworthy books that originally appeared in the years between the end of World War II and the fall of communism.