Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Gnostic Gospels

I've been reading a rather well-known book called The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, who is a professor of religion at Princeton University. The book is based on a large batch of so-called "gnostic gospels" that were discovered in the Egyptian desert in 1945. The writings include texts from groups that were considered heretical by the orthodox Christian Church during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. In her book, Pagels explores the theological differences between the orthodox and "gnostic" groups and the apparent reasons for them.

The book has been interesting so far. I do disagree, however, with some of Pagels's argumentation. For example, she believes that ulterior political motives were behind the development of much of orthodox Christian doctrine. Though she does not seem to base this conclusion on anything more than speculation and coincidence, she asserts it as plain fact.

Though this assumption of bad faith is irritating, The Gnostic Gospels is valuable for -- if nothing else (which is not the case) -- the window it occasionally provides into the breathtaking world of early Christianity. An excerpt from "The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp" brought tears to my eyes. Polycarp, a 2nd-century bishop, was faced with certain execution unless he renounced Christianity and honored the Roman gods:

"The governor persisted and said, 'Swear and I will let you go. Curse Christ!' But Polycarp answered, 'For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong . . . If you delude yourself into think that I will swear by the emperor's genius, as you say, and if you pretend not to know who I am, listen and I will tell you plainly: I am a Christian.'"

"Polycarp was burned alive in the public arena," Pagels adds.

What a badass. What a faith.

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