The Gnostic Gospels

by Elaine Pagels

If I could travel back in time, I would certainly travel to Alexandria in the first three centuries AD. The city was a melting pot of influences, blending Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Jewish and Greek culture and religion. The famous library of Alexandria symbolized this rich, pluralistic world. 

Back then, Christianity as we know it did not exist yet, and Jesus’ words were still interpreted in different ways, but after 300 AD things changed radically. 

Alexandrian Gnostics preferred direct spiritual knowledge to the authority of priests and religious laws, and they interpreted Jesus’ words in their own gnostic way. To them, this prophet did not speak about salvation from without, but about enlightenment from within. 

But after the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), when a group of bishops determined which Gospels were officially included in the New Testament, and which were excluded and termed ‘blasphemous’, the Gnostics had to hide their scriptures. In 1945 some of these alternative Gospels were rediscovered near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi. In The Gnostic Gospels Elaine Pagels compares the spiritual perspective of these writings with the official Christian point of view. 

A gnostic gospel that stands out, is the Gospel of Thomas, consisting of 114 sayings in which Jesus urges his disciples to ‘know themselves’, and to ‘bring forth what is inside of them’. This emphasis on personal spiritual knowledge (gnosis) comes across as remarkably modern. 

What’s more, the gnostic reading of Jesus’ teachings forms a welcome alternative to the official Christian interpretation.