Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels – The Nag Hammadi Texts (The Gnostic Gospels) Call for More Context When Understanding and Following the Bible
A friend recommended Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels to me. It’s an interesting examination of relatively-recently discovered (December 1945) gospels excluded from the Bible. Although this book makes me want to read these writings—known collectively as the Nag Hammadi texts—I was disappointed that none of the work touch on homosexuality. Given how much attention is afforded to the Bible’s supposed prohibition of homosexuality, I assumed that writings created around that time would also handle this subject, and therefore add weight to the argument that homosexuality is supposedly “wrong.” This would demonstrating that the few (6) sections of the Bible that mention homosexuality are not a fluke. I wondered what these writings from that era would add to the homosexual “debate” in our culture, when it comes to the Bible.
Turns out, none.
This well-researched and developed book covers almost everything but. And in her work, the author doesn’t mention even one line pertaining to homosexuality. There is, however, interesting gender-related content. The fact that these ancient writings apparently had nothing to say about an issue that receives so much attention in our society is important and interesting: perhaps these ancient authors discussed matters of real importance rather than something as trivial as two men (or women) being in love and/or sleeping together. The omission sends a strong message: it wasn’t worth mentioning.
If Pagels’ book is any indication, these “gnostic gospels” should be added to the Biblical canon.
According to Pagels, gnostic means “knowledge.” She clarifies that this is knowledge gained through observation or experience, what we would refer to as insight (xix). From a religious standpoint, she adds that the secret of gnosis is to know oneself at the deepest level, and this is simultaneous to knowing God (xix). Pagels makes no mention of gnostics believing that one becomes a better Christian through constant studying of the Bible nor following every word of the Bible; it seems that they strive to dig deep and get to know themselves first and foremost, and in so doing, they develop a sense of right and wrong, based on the world in which they live.
To investigate this idea, the author discusses what she found reading the Nag Hammadi texts. These ancient works often depict (among other things) a living Jesus who, instead of coming to save us from sin, arrives as a guide who opens access to spiritual understanding (xx). He’s a helper towards enlightenment that’s relevant to you, not one who condemns (nor, as some suggest, one who would judge homosexuals).
This suggests that what is “right” or “wrong” changes with the times (a point that Jesus even echoes in the New Testament, when he challenges criticism about his working on the Sabbath). It also suggests that Christianity is far more flexible than strict Bible adherents would have non-believers understand.
But of course, those who did not toe the ancient, strict line on faith were (and perhaps still are) labeled heretics, a person who deviates from “true faith.” Pagels, however, examines this idea closely, for it is important: what defines true faith? By whose definition? And why would such a strict boundary be drawn (xxii)? As you can imagine, the answer is for political power, and she emphasizes for those who might not know otherwise, today’s Christianity—based on our Bible—only represents a small selection of specifically selected sources from the many available at the time. The writings that did not help support the strict depiction of Christianity being constructed at the time were cast off, deemed heretical (i.e. illegal to read, possess) and often destroyed. This is what makes the findings at Nag Hammadi so revelatory: now we know what was part of the conversation that centuries ago was deemed unworthy. We should rejoice, for now we have a more complete picture.
It’s important to remember that a select few men in power decided how best to shape Christianity. Their choices—collected in our Bible—represent their impressions of what was true, worth following, not the whole picture. Basically, man decided, not God. And if you read Pagels’ book—or the actual writings in the Nag Hammadi texts (both of which are interesting)—you see that these writings are part of a much larger, more interesting story (for example Gnostic Gospels contain a wider variety of gender understanding—check out her chapter 3). This larger story offers more depth and complexity to ancient ideas than previously accounted for, and one that should be respected. This does not mean that The Bible is “wrong”; it does mean that its content should be understood in a broader context. This would open its meaning, not condemn it.
Hopefully, the added material will deflate so much of the negativity surrounding the ideas used by a healthy portion of religiously-inclined individuals in today’s society who use the Bible as a “moral” guide, especially when it comes to sexuality. As the Apocrypha already demonstrates, these works show how little earlier eras cared about homosexuality. If they didn’t, why should we?