The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

In 1945 fifty-two papyrus texts, including gospels and other secret documents, were found by a local farmer named Mohammed al-Samman near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi. They were concealed in an earthenware jar.

These so-called ‘Gnostic’ writings were Coptic translations from the original Greek dating from the time of the New Testament and may have belonged to a nearby Pachomian monastery. They¬†may have been¬†buried after Bishop Athanasius condemned the use of non-canonical books in his Festal Letter of 367 AD. The material they embody – poems, quasi-philosophical descriptions of the origins of the universe, myths, magic and instructions for mystic practice – were later declared heretical, as they offered a powerful alternative to the Orthodox Christian tradition.

In this book which is as exciting as it is scholarly, Elaine Pagels ( examines these texts and the questions they pose in The Gnostic Gospels (1979). She shows why Gnosticism ( was eventually stamped out by the increasingly organised and institutionalised Orthodox Church.

The main point is that there were a good many traditions and theories about the significance of Jesus circulating in the early centuries. Only some of these made it into the canon of texts we now call ‘Scripture’ or the ‘Bible’. Other texts may come to light in the future, forcing us re-evaluate our understanding of early Christianity.

Follow up with Alastair Logan, The Gnostics: Identifying an Early Christian Cult (T&T Clark, 2006) (

Listen to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’¬†broadcast of May 2013 on Gnosticism available as a podcast at Excellent contributions from Martin Palmer (Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture), Caroline Humfress (Reader in History at Birkbeck College) and Alastair Logan
(Honorary University Fellow of the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter)

192 pages in Phoenix paperback edition

ISBN 978-0753821145

Elaine Pagels

Scroll to Top